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Essential Unity Tweaks

Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal), Reviewed In Depth

While Unity has its fair share of limitations, the two most heinous can be remedied with some simple tweaking.

Disable Launcher Auto-Hide

Considering that most users do not have the Apple Magic Trackpad or a suitably responsive and compatible touchscreen device, the default auto-hide behavior of the Launcher is perhaps the most irritating change in Ubuntu 11.04 for a majority of folks. As stated earlier, it tends to show itself when attempting to use an application's left-most toolbar controls. And it just doesn't make any sense for desktops and 12+-inch notebooks. Luckily there is a solution, though it's not available out of the proverbial box, as it should be.

First, open the Ubuntu Software Center and search for “ccsm”. CCSM stands for CompizConfig Settings Manager, and it acts as a control panel for all things Compiz, including desktop effects, window snap, keyboard shortcuts, and even Unity itself. There will be two search results: Advanced Desktop Effects Settings (ccsm) and Simple CompizConfig Setting Manager. Since the Simple CompizConfig Settings Manager will not install in Ubuntu 11.04 due to unsatisfiable dependencies, choose Advanced Desktop Effects Settings (ccsm) and install it.

When installation is complete, launch CCSM. It can be found in the new Control Center under the Personal category. Remember that the Control Center is found by selecting System Settings at the bottom of the login/logout indicator menu.

When CCSM opens, you'll need to scroll down to the Desktop section and click Ubuntu Unity Plug-in (the actual button, not the check box).

Open the drop-down menu next to Hide Launcher and select the option for Never. The Launcher is now locked in place. Maximized windows no longer force it off-screen. You can now easily switch between tasks and know what is running on your system at a glance (just like Windows 95; imagine that!).

Unity 2D

The second big problem with Ubuntu 11.04 is that not all users get to experience Unity. Unless your computer has a suitable OpenGL-compliant 3D compositing graphics processor, you're stuck using Ubuntu Classic. However, there is a 2D version of Unity that didn't make the release deadline for Natty Narwhal, and it is available from the Ubuntu Software Center.

If you cannot run Unity, your installation defaults you to Ubuntu Classic. So, obviously, this tweak assumes that you're in Ubuntu Classic. Open the Ubuntu Software Center from the Applications menu in the upper panel and search for “unity”. The second listing should be for Unity 2D; install it.

When the installation is complete, log out of your system. At the login screen, select your user name and then open the third drop-down menu in the lower panel. Select Unity 2D, enter your password, and log back in.

Unity 2D is pretty much identical to the 3D version, just without some of the snazzier graphical effects and associated capabilities. For instance, Launcher items do not fold down, but simply slide down off-screen, and there appears to be no way of reordering Launcher entries. Without Compiz, the Workspace Switcher is simply hideous. There is also no window snapping at all, since this feature is also provided by Compiz. Window Manipulation Mode in uTouch does not work, though surprisingly all of the other gestures do work in Unity 2D.

Dash appears to suffer the greatest number of differences between the 2D and 3D modes. In Unity 2D, the Installed section of Dash defaults to show all items instead of making the user select See X more results.

Narrowing down applications by category is also slightly different in Unity 2D. In the standard 3D version, a drop-down menu appears within the search box after selecting one of the four shortcuts from the Dash home screen. In Unity 2D, the drop-down menu is replaced by a right-hand pane of check boxes.

It may be our imagination, but the 2D version of Dash seems to be noticeably more responsive than its 3D counterpart. Selecting different categories populates Dash with the new category almost instantaneously. Using the Apple Magic Trackpad with Unity 2D is also significantly different. The smoothness and momentum of scrolling in Dash is just as responsive as in Mac OS X.

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