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Duelling Desktops

Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal), Reviewed In Depth
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While there is no question that the focus of this release is on Unity, the old GUI, now referred to as Ubuntu 'Classic', does feature a number of enhancements. Window snap and the new scrollbars are two examples.

Window Snap

Like Windows 7 and KDE 4, Ubuntu now has a window snap feature baked right in. In fact, the snapping action in Ubuntu 11.04 is identical to that of Windows 7. Dragging a window by the titlebar to the top of the screen maximizes it. Dragging the window to the left or right vertically snaps it to the corresponding half of the screen.

Scrollbars

In Natty Narwhal, the scroll bar is no more, aside from a slim orange strip just three pixels wide. Hovering the mouse cursor over that strip brings up condensed scrolling arrows. The up/down arrows are contained in a small oblong pill and its position follows the mouse cursor. This is similar to the way Google implements scroll bars in Picasa and some of its other products (like Wave).

Ubuntu Classic

If you don't care for or cannot run Unity, the GNOME 2 shell from previous versions of Ubuntu, now referred to as Ubuntu Classic, is still an option.

In order to use Ubuntu Classic, it must be chosen when you log in. After selecting a user, a series of drop-down menus appear at the bottom of the login screen. Simply choose Ubuntu Classic and log in as normal.

Changes specific to Ubuntu Classic include a new Applications/Places/System menu icon, and the desktop switcher is now aligned as a cube, instead of a strip.

Unity

Unity is Ubuntu's new default graphical user interface. It was developed in-house by Canonical, and originally positioned as the GUI for the now-abandoned Ubuntu Netbook Edition (UNE) and the still active, but OEM-only, Ubuntu Light instant-on companion OS. For Natty Narwhal, Canonical scrapped UNE as a separate project and made Unity the default GUI. Unity is comprised of three main elements: the Panel, Dash, and Launcher.

We'll go over each of the three elements individually in the following three pages, but first let's take a look at Unity in action.

The first thing most people notice about Unity is that it's pretty. Whether or not you like the new GUI, clearly this release brings the world's most popular desktop Linux distribution up to speed, graphically, with Windows 7 and Mac OS X.

Unity utilizes the Compiz compositing window manager as its visual effects backbone. Compiz is a long-time favorite add-on, and has already been integrated in many other Linux distributions. But unlike other distros, Unity is Compiz. Unity relies on its Compiz plug-in to function, and therefore disabling Compiz simply isn't an option if you want to use Unity.

The rotating desktop cube, 'wobbly windows', and 'magic lamp' min/maximization are just a few examples of popular visual effects that Compiz introduced to Linux over the years. The next three videos show the purely cosmetic visual effects found in Unity. There are many more effects, and the ones associated with functional actions appear later, on the pages pertaining to those actions.

This video demonstrates the pulsing animation that occurs when opening an application from the Unity Launcher:

Pulsing Launcher Entry in Ubuntu 11.04

This video depicts the animation used in Ubuntu 11.04 when a Unity Launcher entry needs attention:

Launcher Entry Needs Attention in Ubuntu 11.04

This video showcases the minimize and restore animations used in Ubuntu 11.04:

Minimize/Restore windows in Ubuntu 11.04

Now that you've seen some of the purely cosmetic polish that went into Unity, let's take an in-depth look at what this new GUI is and how it works by breaking it down into the three main elements: the Panel, Dash, and the Launcher.

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  • 4 Hide
    jryan388 , June 10, 2011 4:25 AM
    One problem I faced with the standard unity desktop is the horrible performance even on my Athlon II @ 3.6 and Radeon 5750. I upgraded on launch day, so maybe canonical fixed it by now, but the performance was absolutely abysmal. The easiest fix is the unity-2d package. Great performance, doesn't look any worse.
  • 5 Hide
    ksa-_-jed , June 10, 2011 4:30 AM
    U should add more distros to the benchmarks like Debian, Fedora, and open SUSE.
  • 0 Hide
    shiftmx112 , June 10, 2011 4:32 AM
    Meh is exactly how I described 10.10 Still gonna try Unity.
  • 3 Hide
    Yuka , June 10, 2011 4:34 AM
    11.04 sucks; plain and simple.

    Power users can do little to nothing to fix things between gnome3 and the buggy Unity.

    I wouldn't even bother with 11.04 when 10.04 is rock solid.

    Cheers!
  • 1 Hide
    davewolfgang , June 10, 2011 4:45 AM
    I tried the upgrade, but unity is blech. I am still using the upgrade, but doing the classic.

    But I may go back to 10.10 for my EeePC.
  • 0 Hide
    adamovera , June 10, 2011 4:53 AM
    jryan388One problem I faced with the standard unity desktop is the horrible performance even on my Athlon II @ 3.6 and Radeon 5750. I upgraded on launch day, so maybe canonical fixed it by now, but the performance was absolutely abysmal. The easiest fix is the unity-2d package. Great performance, doesn't look any worse.

    Wow, that isn't right, the old X2 test system which has a considerably older Nvidia card runs it great. What's the full specs?
  • 0 Hide
    adamovera , June 10, 2011 4:56 AM
    ksa-_-jedU should add more distros to the benchmarks like Debian, Fedora, and open SUSE.

    Fedora 15/GNOME 3 coming up next. I have never had any luck whatsoever with openSUSE, will keep trying new versions as they come out though.
  • 2 Hide
    bellman80 , June 10, 2011 4:58 AM
    I tried 11.04. Unity was more annoying than useful. I installed the new Linux Mint instead, I'm a happy camper now.
  • 1 Hide
    Tamz_msc , June 10, 2011 5:14 AM
    I'm going to stick with 10.04, because it has been running rock-solid without a glitch for almost a year. It was able to find drivers for my on-board audio which even Windows 7 could not find.

    Unity is not my cup of tea., though I'm looking forward to GNOME 3.0.

    Till then Lucid Lynx FTW!
  • 1 Hide
    RogueKitsune , June 10, 2011 5:20 AM
    Unity is a nice idea, but not my cup of tea. Overall I am happy with the changes in 11.04. Right now i have my laptop(AMD Turion x2, radeon x1200)running it with no problems(everything worked out of the box)
  • 0 Hide
    Filiprino , June 10, 2011 5:31 AM
    Well, Unity is a plug-in of Compiz so if you install Compiz-config GUI you can configure more options and a bunch of effects, window management utilites and shortcuts.
  • 0 Hide
    3ul , June 10, 2011 6:21 AM
    I think the performance issue in unity 3d is due to the vsync(not sure the name right or wrong) is on by default in compiz setting. Turning this off should fix the performance problem. This issue mostly affected by AMD card.

    BTW unity imo have bright future. This is 1st public release so expect some bugs. By the time unity matured, its going to be a great shell for gnome..
  • 0 Hide
    antemon , June 10, 2011 6:25 AM
    I'm still waiting for better games for linux

    hope the big names in the industry follow suit with indie devs on this...
  • 1 Hide
    haplo602 , June 10, 2011 6:36 AM
    running the xubuntu variant so not bothered by unity. however ubuntu in general is a bloated mess. the only thing I like is automounter works out of the box.

    However I switched graphics cards and getting it to run again was not automatic. I expected a bit more :) 
  • 1 Hide
    razor512 , June 10, 2011 8:56 AM
    the os is good but the UI sucks.

    The unity crap bar makes it hard to launch multiple windows of a program, requiring you to basically use options built into the program to open another window

    the side bar is annoying, when ever you go to click on something on the left side of the window, you can easily accidentally bring out that annoying menu

    the search bar is annoying and will at most drive new users away from ubuntu. Since it requires you to search for things, for a novice user if you don't know what specific option you are looking for but want to discover the options, this makes it hard to do.

    while hardware support has been getting better, the Os has also been getting slower overall. They need to shift their focus from bloat to speed.

    they need to take a lesson from professional software makers. Most new professional apps, eg check out the latest adobe audition or photoshop or maya 3d or the mental ray render engine
    Performance is always improved on the same hardware

    An upgrade is not really a upgrade if you are losing performance.

    Would you "upgrade" from a GTX480 to a GTX460?
  • -1 Hide
    killerclick , June 10, 2011 9:03 AM
    Linux shouldn't try to be a desktop OS for grandma.

    It's strong in the server segment, it's nearly ubiquitous in the supercomputer segment and Android is now a force in the mobile market. It should build on that and leave the desktop market to Windows and OSX.
  • 5 Hide
    DSpider , June 10, 2011 9:34 AM
    killerclickLinux shouldn't try to be a desktop OS for grandma.It's strong in the server segment, it's nearly ubiquitous in the supercomputer segment and Android is now a force in the mobile market. It should build on that and leave the desktop market to Windows and OSX.

    Why ? Linux can look like both of them and can do much more. OS for grandma ? Hahahaha. Don't compare Ubuntu to Linux in general. You think grandma can install Arch Linux or Gentoo ?
  • 7 Hide
    Spanky Deluxe , June 10, 2011 9:48 AM
    I made the mistake of trying Ubuntu 11.04 a few weeks ago when I needed a Linux distro for my CUDA development machine. Can't believe the joke of a GUI that they're using now, Unity is one of the worst user experiences I've ever had. Took me ages to just find where to change the screen resolution - the search terms I put into the search box didn't bring it up. After a few hours I uninstalled it. I gave Fedora a try too but Gnome 3 wasn't much better in terms of usability. In the end I went back to good old Scientific Linux with it's 'traditional' Linux GUI.

    I don't know what these Linux folk are thinking. It seems they're trying to force GUIs that are only useful on Netbooks on everyone. Trust me, a Netbook GUI is a pile of poo on a 2560x1600 display - let alone a 3 monitor setup.

    I don't really understand the point in the whole oversimplification thing either. There is no way in hell that I would ever recommend Linux to any non 'pro' user. Not because of how complicated it may be, which they're trying to do away with here, but because a non 'pro' user would struggle to get support and would struggle to get the software they want. Windows is hardly a big premium on computer costs these days and besides which, if it were for a grandma who'd never used a computer before then I'd get her an iPad instead.

    It really looks like the movers and shakers behind these big Linux distros are disillusioned as to who their customers or potential customers are and they're messing up the GUI for the people that know and love Linux in a vain attempt to encourage a tiny tiny minority of new users. Linux as a whole just went seriously down in my regard.
  • 1 Hide
    winco , June 10, 2011 10:00 AM
    Still no "shutdown when idle" power management? A big big drawback for me adopting Linux.
  • 2 Hide
    burnley14 , June 10, 2011 10:42 AM
    This should be the desktop background on a loop:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykwqXuMPsoc
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