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Unity

Ubuntu 10.10: Maverick Meerkat Benchmarked And Reviewed
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Canonical has changed the user interface of Ubuntu Netbook Edition several times since its introduction as an add-on package for Ubuntu 8.04 LTS Hardy Heron. In Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope, Ubuntu Netbook Remix, as it was then known, dropped most facets of the standard GNOME UI and became a stand-alone variant of Ubuntu. When the name changed from Remix to Edition in 9.10 Karmic Koala, the UI ditched some unnecessary clutter and became more streamlined. However, it remained essentially the same basic concept as earlier versions. Lucid simply refined the changes made to Karmic, and brought UNE in line with the new color scheme.

No other release has received the massive overall that went into UNE 10.10. Maverick Meerkat debuts the brand new, Canonical-developed Unity interface. Let's run down how this new user interface operates.

The Launcher

Unity removes the GNOME bottom panel and replaces it with a left-side dock, referred to as the launcher. Certain applications and tools are pinned to the launcher. UNE 10.10 comes with Mozilla Firefox 3.6.10, Empathy chat client, Evolution PIM, Cheese webcam, Rhythmbox music manager, and the Ubuntu Software Center pinned by default. Much like the Windows 7 superbar and the OS X dock, there are no word boxes to identify each application, only icons appear in the launcher. The background color of the app icons match the overall color of the icon itself, like in the Windows 7 superbar. Open unpinned applications receive an icon below pinned apps. Below applications, there is a workspace switcher, file browser, application list, and the trash can. With the exception of Workspaces, these tools appear as black and white icons. Connected devices, such as USB drives, also recieve a black and white icon in the tools area of the launcher.

A small white arrow on the left of an application's icon indicates the app is currently open. The forefront application gets a small white arrow on its right side, between the launcher and workspace. Notice in the screenshot above that the two open apps, Firefox and the file browser, have left side arrows. As the forefront app, Firefox also gets the right-side arrow.

Unity's launcher, although nothing like the dock in OS X, does have a few animations. When the launcher has too many icons to display fully, a fold animation tiles some of the icons. Applications are folded up and tiled at the top of the launcher to free up space. Likewise, tools are folded down and tiled at the bottom. Both apps and tools fold out of the way when the launcher gets really full. Unity even greets you with a 'popping' icon when opening an application from the launcher.

Pinned icons can be removed from the launcher by right-clicking them and selecting Remove from launcher from the menu that appears. Open unpinned applications can be pinned to the launcher by right-clicking on their icon and selecting Keep in launcher. Icons of pinned applications can be rearranged by dragging them off the launcher. A white line will appear showing the new position. Releasing the mouse re-pins the icon in its new position.

Top Panel

The top panel remains mostly unchanged from Ubuntu Desktop Edition. The user/logout applet, which controls current user status and logout/shutdown functions, still resides on the far-right end of the panel. Going from right to left, the clock/calendar applet is next, though the default view has been shortened to only show the time. The indicator applet for things like mail/message notification, network status, Bluetooth, and volume are last on the right side.

The majority of the center portion of the panel is reserved for the current application, explained in the next section. In the far-left end of the panel, an Ubuntu button, which activates the home screen, takes the place of the Applications/Places/System menu; more on this later.

Window Behavior

Applications are meant to be maximized in Unity. The top panel absorbs the window buttons and file menu of maximized apps, although it is still possible to restore many maximized apps to their windowed form, and occasionally an application will open this way. When windowed, the window buttons return to the top-left of an applications title bar. However, the file menu remains in the upper panel, just like in Macintosh operating systems.

Home Screen

Unity employs a home screen like previous versions of UNE and many other netbook-optimized user interfaces. Unlike previous versions of UNE, the home screen doesn't always cover the wallpaper in lieu of a desktop. Clicking the Ubuntu logo in the top-left corner of the UI brings up the home screen. This screen contains a search tool at the top and extra-large links to apps for Web, Music, Photos & Videos, Games, Email & Chat, Office, Files & Folders, and Get New Apps. For Windows users: think of the Ubuntu button as the Start button. And think of the home screen as a start menu, which takes up the entire screen.

Workspaces

Unity does not have a traditional desktop like Ubuntu Desktop Edition, Windows 7, or OS X. When the home screen is not activated and no apps are in the forefront, a wallpaper exists, but there is no actual usable desktop. No icons, shortcuts, or files can appear on this desktop. That's because Unity employs the workspace model instead. Workspaces simply function as space for windows to fill, but nothing else that a regular desktop does.

Though Unity eschews the desktop model, it does allow for multiple desktops--or in this case workspaces. This is essentially the same as virtual desktops in Ubuntu Desktop Edition without the interactive desktop, and an emphasis on maximized applications. The user can organize open applications by arranging them in different workspaces. Unity has four workspaces to divide applications into. Moving apps from one workspace to another is just a matter of drag and drop. Simply open the Workspaces tool in the launcher to bring up the Workspaces screen.

Reach Out And Touch

One of Unity's new features is a multitouch language, presumably called “uTouch.” This is the first time Canonical has added multitouch support in a release, and Unity was designed with this input paradigm in mind. We don't have a multitouch monitor or tablet on hand to test the uTouch functionality of UNE 10.10. But we look forward to getting hands-on with Unity whenever a suitable piece of hardware is available. Below is a video of Gerry Carr, head of platform marketing at Canonical, demoing Unity on a multitouch device.

Gerry Carr Unity uTouch Demo


One of the many foci for Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal) is going to be uTouch improvements. With slates being the next big thing in mobile computing, we'll be keeping a close eye on how Canonical intends to make Ubuntu alive and competitive on this new form factor.

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