Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal), Reviewed In Depth

The Launcher

While we realize that a majority of our readers (and the world at large) use Windows, it's obvious that Canonical is getting its inspiration from Apple's Mac OS X and not Microsoft's ubiquitous OS. Therefore, we cannot help but compare Unity, and the Launcher especially, to the Mac OS X dock.

The one thing Unity's Launcher has in common with the Windows 7 Superbar is that the background of Launcher entries take on the prominent color of the application's icon.

In Unity, the left side of the screen contains the Launcher. Like the global menu, the Launcher takes heavy cues from OS X. For the most part, the Launcher is the OS X dock, only on the left side of the screen instead of the bottom. The Launcher is made up of five main elements (from top to bottom): pinned launchers (quick launch), running applications (task bar), Workspace Switcher (virtual desktops), Lenses, and Trash. Let's go over each element one-by-one.

Pinned Launchers

The first pinned entry in the Unity Launcher is the Home folder. This opens your /home/username directory in Nautilus (the GNOME file manager). Similarly, the first entry in the OS X dock is the Finder (the OS X file manager), which also opens your home directory.

Directly below the Home folder is where quick launchers for other applications go. By default, Ubuntu 11.04 has launchers for Firefox, LibreOffice Writer, Calc, Impress, the Ubuntu Software Center, and Ubuntu One. These application launchers serve as both quick launch shortcuts to start applications and taskbar entries if the app is currently running.

Running Applications

In order to differentiate launchers from running tasks, a small white triangle appears on the Launcher to the left of any application that is currently running. This is similar to the small white dot that appears below open applications in the OS X dock.

If an application is currently selected (in the foreground), its Launcher icon receives a small white triangle to the right.

In Unity, multiple white triangles appear if an application is using more than one window. If an application does have more than one window open, clicking on the Launcher entry will activate window spread. Spread is a Compiz effect that locks the Launcher and zooms out to show all of the application's windows on-screen together. Simply click on a window to bring it to the foreground.

The video below shows window spread in action.

Window Spread in Ubuntu 11.04

Open applications not pinned to the Launcher get an icon below the pinned applications. In the screenshot below, Firefox (pinned) is the foreground app, and therefore has the right-side triangle. The left-side triangles indicate that LibreOffice Calc, Banshee, and the Disk Utility are also open. Since Calc is using three windows, its Launcher entry gets three left-side triangles, and because Banshee and Disk Utility are not pinned to the launcher, their icons are placed between pinned applications and the Workspace Switcher.

Workspace Switcher

Ubuntu previously handled virtual desktops (additional desktops or workspaces, whatever you want to call them) via the desktop switcher applet in the far-right end of the lower panel. By default, the desktop switcher applet was represented by a rectangular strip separated into four squares. Each square represented one of four virtual desktops, and clicking on one of the four squares switched to the corresponding desktop.

In Unity, the Workspace Switcher is the first grey Launcher item, appearing immediately after unpinned applications. Selecting the Workspace Switcher from the Launcher causes the Launcher to lock and the desktop to zoom out, revealing four desktops. The slick animations are provided by the Desktop Wall and Expose plug-ins for Compiz.

The video below demonstrates the new Workspace Switcher in action.

Workspace Switcher in Ubuntu 11.04


Lenses are a new way to quickly access anything on the computer, from applications to files to people. By default, the Unity Launcher comes with the Applications and Files & Folders Lenses. They are located right below the Launcher entry for the Workspace Switcher. Clicking a Lens brings up a Dash screen specifically tailored to the selected Lens.

Lenses also provide right-click menus for quickly narrowing down specific results within the Lens, before Dash is activated. For example, right-clicking the Applications Lens brings up a categorized menu of applications similar to traditional Start menus. Categories contained in the Applications Lens include: All Applications, Accessories, Universal Access, Developer Tools, Education, Science & Engineering, Games, Graphics, Internet, Multimedia, Office, Themes & Tweaks, System, and the somewhat-redundant Applications.

Clicking the the Files & Folders Lens brings up the same Dash screen as the Find Files shortcut from the Dash home screen with sections for Recent, Downloads, and Favorite Folders. Right-clicking the Files & Folders Lens brings up a menu to narrow down different types of files and folders. By default these options include: All Files, Documents, Folders, Images, Audio, Video, Presentation, Other, and Files & Folders. As with the Applications Lens, the All Files and Files & Folders options both take you to the same Dash screen: the Find Files shortcut from the Dash home screen.

It should be noted that Lenses have their own API, and therefore anyone with the know-how can make a custom Lens and share it with the world. We expect there will be many custom Lenses available in the next release, Ubuntu 11.10 Oneric Ocelot.


The trash is still the trash, just with a prettier icon. Left-clicking the Trash opens it in the Nautilus file manager, while a right-click brings up the option to Empty Trash.

Launcher Behavior

When an application is maximized in Unity, the Launcher slides out of the way to emphasize full-screen applications. In order to bring the Launcher back, one must move the cursor to the top-left corner of the screen, or rest the cursor anywhere on the left side of the screen for a few seconds. The video below demonstrates the auto-hide behavior of the Unity Launcher.

Auto-hiding Launcher in Ubuntu 11.04

Unfortunately, as of right now, there is now way to disable the auto-hide feature without installing additional packages and doing some tweaking.

If there are too many Launcher entries for all of them to appear on-screen at the same time, the lower Launcher entries collapse like tiles or cards. Using the mouse scroll wheel over the Launcher, or simply dragging Launcher entries up or down, scrolls through the Launcher. The video below demonstrates this:

Scrolling through a collapsed Launcher in Ubuntu 11.04

Organizing the Launcher

There are two methods for adding applications to the Unity Launcher. The first involves opening the desired application and right-clicking its unpinned Launcher entry. The right-click menu has the option to Keep in Launcher. When selected, the Launcher entry moves to the bottom of the pinned application section, above unpinned applications. Right-click on a pinned Launcher entry and select Keep in Launcher again to remove it.

The second method to add items to the Launcher is through Dash. You can drag applications from Dash to the Launcher. This method allows you to decide exactly where the Launcher entry will go in the sequence of pinned entries. You can also reorganize where Launcher entries appear in the Launcher. To do this, drag the desired Launcher entry to the right, off of the Launcher, and then back onto the Launcher in the desired area. The video below shows how to add Launcher entries from Dash, as well as how to re-organize existing Launcher entries.

Pinning and reorganizing Launcher entries in Ubuntu 11.04

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  • jryan388
    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.
  • ksa-_-jed
    U should add more distros to the benchmarks like Debian, Fedora, and open SUSE.
  • shiftmx112
    Meh is exactly how I described 10.10 Still gonna try Unity.
  • Yuka
    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.

  • davewolfgang
    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.
  • adamovera
    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?
  • adamovera
    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.
  • bellman80
    I tried 11.04. Unity was more annoying than useful. I installed the new Linux Mint instead, I'm a happy camper now.
  • Tamz_msc
    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!
  • RogueKitsune
    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)
  • Filiprino
    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.
  • 3ul
    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..
  • antemon
    I'm still waiting for better games for linux

    hope the big names in the industry follow suit with indie devs on this...
  • haplo602
    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 :)
  • razor512
    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?
  • killerclick
    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.
  • DSpider
    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 ?
  • Spanky Deluxe
    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.
  • winco
    Still no "shutdown when idle" power management? A big big drawback for me adopting Linux.
  • burnley14
    This should be the desktop background on a loop: