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Mighty Minutiae

Ubuntu 10.10: Maverick Meerkat Benchmarked And Reviewed
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Now on to the subtle, often overlooked changes. When added together this detail work gives Ambiance/Radiance 2.0 a level of polish that is just not seen in other stock themes.

No More Neutrality

The desktop switcher in the far-right corner of the bottom panel now shows the currently selected desktop in an orange tone instead of the neutral gray employed by Lucid.

Orange is again put to good use in highlighted menu items and key buttons in pop-up windows.

The rest of the bottom panel also benefits from heavy tweaking. In Lucid, the panels are graphite, open windows are a darker shade of graphite with defined borders, and the currently-active window is a clay color. Instead of using three separate colors for the panel, open windows, and the active window, Maverick Meerkat keeps open windows the color and shade of the underlying panel. The currently-active window is a dark black which gives the illusion that the selection is depressed into the panel.

Clay was also the base color for much of the background elements in Lucid. Meerkat dropped this neutral tone in favor of a lighter, brighter gray. This change can be seen nearly everywhere in Maverick's interface, from window backgrounds to the font. Being so pervasive, this change brightens the entire GUI.

Shadows = Distance

The enhanced Ambiance/Radiance themes in Meerkat also make masterful use of drop shadows to convey depth. One of the first things we noticed upon booting into Ubuntu 10.10 for the first time was the pronounced drop shadow attached to the upper panel. It really succeeds in drawing attention to the slim panel as an entity separate from the desktop wallpaper. The use of drop shadows doesn't end there. Windows and even menus now cast an extra swath of black as well. While the top corners of windows remain rounded, the bottom corners have become right angles. By making the bottom of windows flat, the new enhanced shadows are further accentuated, lending to the overall faux-3D look of Meerkat's theme. Menus benefit from these enhancements as well, making them appear as another layer on top of their underlying windows, just as the panel and windows 'pop' from the desktop.

Menus

Menu bars (like Applications/Places/System in the top panel or in an application's file menu) were also not overlooked by the Ubuntu designers. In previous versions of Ubuntu and most other operating systems, the selected item in a menu bar becomes highlighted, usually with a 'hover' or 'selected' color. Another menu then drops down to show further options.

In Maverick Meerkat, the selected item in a menu bar doesn't highlight; it becomes a raised tab. When combined with the menu that drops down, this tab makes the selected menu take on a cohesive look that separates it from the other file menu items and application beneath. It's difficult to discern this effect with the black on black of Ambiance, but it becomes clearer with the lighter Radiance variant enabled. Combine this with the shrewd use of drop shadows on menus and you have yet another fine example of how to achieve a layered look of depth.

Dialog Boxes

Even the error screens in Maverick Meerkat have a friendlier and certainly more informative aspect. Below is a screenshot of the merge/replace window that pops up whenever the user attempts to copy or move a file into a folder that already contains a file of the same name.

The big eye-opener in Ubuntu 10.10 is that everything is larger. The window borders are larger, the window buttons are larger, the panels seem larger, and even the font, which affects everything, is larger. People with poor vision should appreciate the changes in Maverick Meerkat.

As someone who has spent a good amount of time coding a GTK2 theme, I can tell you that it's not easy to make many of these subtle changes without totally breaking other elements. In GTK, the devil is in the details. Large, sweeping changes are relatively simple; it's the finesse that's hard. We are very impressed with what the Ubuntu designers were able to do with the aging GNOME 2 desktop. A slew of these minute but effective design choices give Ubuntu 10.10 a much smoother overall appearance than its predecessor. Simply put, Maverick's theme is what Lucid's should have been. I just hope that a lot this great work doesn't have to be scrapped for the impending switch to Unity.

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