Jumping on a bandwagon

>> Sunday, May 08, 2011

There were a number of things I thought about posting here today. But we'll go with this one: I'm using Ubuntu Netbook Edition (UNE) 10.10 on the new netbook, and I hate it.

I'm not the only one. Reactions to the new interface might charitably be described as "mixed." I'll go with "mixed," though the truth is it at least seems like I've seen a handful of negative reviews and complaints for every positive take, and that includes positive takes along the lines of, "Well, if you don't like it, maybe you should use my favorite Linux distribution, _____," which isn't actually a positive review, actually. People just aren't all that happy and I'm understanding why.

The big deal is that Canonical has packaged the latest versions of Ubuntu desktop with a new interface called Unity, and even people who don't dislike it don't seem to be a hundred percent clear on what Canonical is doing here. Or, rather, why they're doing it, because what they're doing is really pretty straightforward: they've basically ripped of the Mac OS interface, moved the Apple dock to the left side of the screen and replaced GNOME's applications menu with a sort of full-screen display that can be a little difficult to navigate, the whole result being something that's a bit less functional and harder to use than previous versions of the UNE interface or the standard GNOME gui.1

The Apple-style unitary top bar, in which the foreground application's menus appear at the top of the screen and not the top of the application's menu, is a tolerable irritation in UNE, possibly in part because applications default to maximized in a UNE netbook setup.2 I don't like this behavior and I don't think I'd put up with it in a full-scale operating environment for very long, but on a netbook, enh. I can live with it. You might be multitasking on a netbook in the sense that you have your music player going while you switch between the word processor and browser, say, but you're not as likely (I don't think) to have parallel windows open while you work back and forth, if only because on a netbook screen those windows would be really tiny.

But the dock is a bit of a tragedy.

Okay, so how it works, or how it's supposed to work, is that open applications show up in the dock so that you can toggle between them and then you can (supposedly) pin frequently-used apps to the dock. Little arrows next to the icons in the dock tell you what's open and what's active.

This might not sound terrible, but what ends up happening if you have more than a few favorite apps and several open ones that aren't favorites or can't be pinned to the dock, you end up with this mess on the left side of your screen. You might avoid this by pinning fewer apps there, but that forces you to use the horrible replacement for menus that they've come up with, scrolling through a series of webbrowser-like screens until you find what you're looking for (if you're not sure what it's called) or searching for it by typing the name into a search bar if you do (italicized for suckitude). And then it turns out that some apps, for whatever reason, can't be pinned.3

You can sort of organize the dock a little bit by left clicking an icon, holding it, pulling it out of the dock, moving it up the dock, and dropping it in its new location. This is exactly as much fun to perform with a 1" by 2" netbook trackpad as it sounds, but it also provides a probable clue as to what Canonical is doing; see, that's exactly the kind of interface behavior one might find on a tablet's touchscreen, and one suspects that this is what Canonical is eying down the road--that the new Unity interface is ultimately intended for touchscreens, which it might even be suited for.

The problem, of course, is that netbooks, laptops and fullscale computers aren't tablets and vice-versa. They're completely different tools to be used in completely different ways, and trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all ui that spans all these various kinds of machines is actually a pretty dumb idea.

The upshot for now, anyways, is that I imagine I'll keep struggling with Unity on the netbook because I don't feel like trying to reinstall the OS and my portable habits have evolved since I got the Galaxy Tab so that the netbook isn't something I carry around quite as much as I used to. But I don't see myself upgrading to Ubuntu 11.x on the laptop while Canonical is pushing the Unity interface.4 And if anybody's wondering, no, I wouldn't upgrade to the latest versions of Ubuntu if I were you, but (as always) your mileage may vary.

I'd love to say UNE was the next bestest thing in the world, but it isn't even the best thing I've installed on this netbook. Sorry to sound like just about everybody else who's chimed in, but there it is.

1By which I mean the GNOME 2.x interface; GNOME's brand-spanking-new 3.0 version is a bit different, too, and we'll just have to see whether it's all that useful or not.

2In the midst of that paragraph, I decided to launch Rhythmbox and then decided to move it to another workspace. This proved to be a bit of a bother because of the unitary menu; thing is, I don't know that having multiple workspaces on a netbook makes all that much sense in the first place. (UNE now enables them by default and I'm used to using them on the full-scale notebook, so I figure, why not use them now and then?) So I wasn't going to mention this as a problem. But then I realized that this behavior is evidently the default window/menu behavior for Ubuntu 11.04, the full-scale desktop/notebook edition, and if that's the case--well then that's actually really freaking annoying, and so worth a mention if anyone comes by and reads this looking for information about Ubuntu and Unity.

3Maybe. I tried to pin Writer's Café to the menu last week and couldn't, and now, just now, this week while writing this post--I pinned it. I don't know why. I don't know how. I'm telling you this didn't work last week and I may turn on the netbook again later in the week and Writer's Café, one of my essential must-use apps might not be there anymore. What the hell?

4Word is that while Ubuntu 11.04 allows you to revert to a "classic" mode using the standard GNOME 2.x interface, it doesn't disable some of the Unity window behaviors when you do so, resulting in something of a mess that requires a bit of digging under the hood to even try to fix. No thanks.


Phiala Monday, May 9, 2011 at 6:43:00 AM EDT  

The interface sucks.

But you can use the regular Ubuntu interface without reinstalling anything. At the login screen, there's a series of options for session type. I obviously can't log out while writing you a comment, but if you pick the one that says something like "Gnome session" unity will be magically gone when you log in.

Voila! (Which I can spell and pronounce, unlike 72% of the Internet.)

No need for reinstalling, and you can keep the bits that really are optimized for netbooks.

Eric Monday, May 9, 2011 at 11:17:00 AM EDT  

I may end up doing that with the netbook. It'll really boil down to whether the frustration of dealing with Unity outweighs the irritation of customizing a GNOME interface that may be a little cramped on the netbook (though you're right that I could go back and forth and see which one works best for workflow).

Which brings up something else I should point out for other readers who may be dipping their toes in Linux: one of the beauties of the OS is that you can install multiple interfaces and choose the one you like best from the menu screen--that is, installing Ubuntu doesn't keep you from reverting to GNOME (which is packaged in Ubuntu along with Unity) OR installing KDE or Xfce or another interface.

Simple instructions for installing additional interfaces can be found here. You used to have to install a package called Menu and jump through some other hoops, but now it's as simple as checking boxes in the package manager (though you may have to clean up some unwanted software--e.g. games, gratuitous productivity software like additional calendar/scheduling programs, etc.).

Phiala Monday, May 9, 2011 at 11:46:00 AM EDT  

I haven't had any issues using the regular Gnome interface on my netbook. And choosing which one really is just a matter of selecting that option at login. No installation or configuration needed, though being Linux you can configure things all day if you wish.

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