Ubuntu 18.04 + Unity - the desktop you always needed

Updated: June 1, 2018

Several weeks ago, Ubuntu 18.04 was released, and to me it felt like I was watching an episode of an old TV show, and all the grainy VHS quality didn't quite look as exciting as a bunch of decades ago. But whatever year you want to choose as your reference point for the larger regression, 2011, 2007, whatever, Ubuntu Bionic does not feel like a modern, slick, sleek operating system. The reason: it comes with Gnome 3.

Last year, Canonical decided to switch from Unity to Gnome. Their decision was economic, the impact on the user catastrophic. After having a fast, elegant and PROFESSIONAL desktop, we're now given something that best fits the description of a pseudo-touch experiment. But that's not why we're here. We're here to talk about Unity again! You can make Ubuntu glorious once more! Let's do it.

Teaser

In the repos, under the tree, lived Unity

The Unity desktop is officially dead - but that's not quite as ominous as it sounds. What it means, it will not be developed any more beyond the existing feature set (by Canonical), which roughly means whatever you have in Ubuntu 16.04 more or less. Again, that may sound bad, but it's not. The previous LTS will be supported till 2021, a good full three years from now. That's a lot of time in the software world. Besides, Windows 7 also stopped receiving new features sometime around 2015, it's still fully and perfectly functional and will remain so at least until 2020. The same logic applies here.

So that answers your first question - you want to use Unity, but you're worried. Well, no reason to be. Unity is going to be supported, and it will receive security updates until Ubuntu 16.04 bites the dust. At the very least. Moreover, Unity is an open-source project, so it may yet be revived, updated, modernized. Who knows. The point where things might become troubling is roughly three years down the road.

Let me explain in a little more detail. In general, having "old" software could potentially cause problems if you require new functionality that existing applications do not support. In the case of Unity, this means underlying hardware and graphical layer, application interfaces, and display.

First, hardware - you will be getting kernel support and new drivers for as long as Ubuntu 18.04 is supported, so that one should be fine. Moreover, Unity is fairly efficient and works well with multi-core architectures, including the recent crop of processors (it needs to, because 16.04 is still supported). Technically, there should be no issues with new hardware till at least 2021. Then, Ubuntu 18.04 uses Xorg and not Wayland, because this unholy thing still isn't ready for mass usage. Xorg is old and proven technology, so you're covered till at least 2023 (the support end date for Bionic). On the application interface side, systemd should handle most of the backend, so you ought to be good there, too. Lastly, displays. Unity already works quite well with multi-monitor setups, touch - tested on my Ultrabook, 4K resolution - tested on my Y50-70 laptop, HD DPI and similar. This is the one area where one day things might get tricky, but only if you try something post-HDMI, VR or alike, where Unity might not have the absolute best support. After 2021, that is. So you should be just fine.

Your second question is: any good?

Install Unity

The setup is dead simple. As I've shown you in my review (linked above), 'tis but a single liner:

sudo apt-get install ubuntu-unity-desktop

This will pull down roughly 250 MB of packages. During the setup, you will be asked to choose your desktop manager. Ubuntu Bionic uses the Gnome Desktop Manager (gdm) but Unity uses the Light Desktop Manager, or LightDM as it's often known and written. This is the one you want. When the prompt comes up, select it, and let the installation complete. Log out. In the login screen, type your name, then select Unity from the dropdown menu next to your name for the session. Log in and be amazed.

Unity Clearwater Revival

Big distros keep on turning. Proud Unity keep on burning. Well, well, how I have missed thee. Unity is a monumental improvement over Gnome 3 is every possible regard: 1) it is faster, snappier, more responsive, less laggy, especially under moderate and heavy desktop loads 2) it looks better, cleaner, nicer, sharper, more pro 3) it has a superior ergonomic and workflow layout, and you don't need any special extensions to make the basics work, like say the show desktop button 4) it has better search and HUD and global menu 5) you can customize it more easily.

First

Desktop, with external volumes in the Launcher

I started with the visual side of things. Removed the external volumes from the Launcher, changed its size, added the show desktop button - something that's a given in every desktop environment out there. Smooth, clean. Fun.

WIP 1

Settings

Appearance

WIP 2

Nice menu, good menu. Modern. The menu that made the "community" hate Ubuntu.

Menu

The file manager is nude and silly - but that's because it's a Gnome thing.

File manager

And we represent!

Final

Apps

About

Resources and battery usage

On paper, Unity uses more or less the same amount as the Gnome version - but it is significantly faster to respond, react and draw on the screen. Kind of like Firefox and Chrome. The Canonical team sure knew how to make their system snappy even if the numbers are on the high side. Among the 18.04 family, Unity is not the leader when it comes to CPU and memory usage - in that regard, the crown belongs to Plasma for being both fast and light, not something normally associated with KDE, hence the surprise effect. But Unity feels just as elegant as the rest. Gnome 3 is sluggish.

Resources

Battery life is about 2.5 hours on 50% brightness and the cell capacity at 80%. This would translate into about three hours and some with the new battery. Not the best. We've seen better in the likes of Kubuntu, which almost matches the king of juice, MX-17. This is not a new thing, though. I'm not here to falsely praise Unity, just because I don't like Gnome. Plasma is a more frugal system with better, more advanced power management. Unity wins through consistency, ease of use and perceived UI speed.

So, Dedo, what is your next production distro going to be?

At the moment, I'm using Ubuntu 14.04 on my Asus laptop, and it's the ONLY production distro currently, excluding my little Asus eeePC netbook, which is sort of a travel thing, armed with Xubuntu. As for my production laptop, I will need to replace the OS in the coming year. I really want to deploy Kubuntu in my setup, but Bionic Beaver has given me a lot of unnecessary grief, and I feel burned and sad. But I also know that the distro will improve over the coming months, the silly regressions and bugs, introduced into the LTS because of non-existent QA and arbitrary release dates, will be fixed, and by that point Kubuntu Bionic with Plasma will be an awesome, possibly pro or almost-pro desktop worthy of serious use. That's my BIG hope.

P.S. You also need to remember that back in 2014, when I chose Ubuntu, Kubuntu was only okay. It wasn't that good, with mediocre fonts, smartphone and media support. It's only in the past couple of years that Plasma really started becoming a serious desktop. Zesty really made the difference.

However, now that Unity is back in the game so to speak - and what you get in the Bionic repo behaves better than my initial findings in 16.04 Xerus (well, Canonical had two years to fix the bugs), this is another strong contestant. I find the workflow almost as good as Trusty, with some minor nuisances. So my answer is, I do not know yet. I will sample both Plasma and Unity in a couple of months, and continue doing occasional checks until Trusty runs out of luck. And then decide. Worst case, Windows, which isn't a bad choice at all.

Conclusion

Is Unity perfect? Well, pretty much. It remains the most complete desktop package on the Linux market. It's also infinitely better than Gnome 3 in pretty much every regard. I can't think of a single thing that Gnome 3 does better somehow. Which is why Ubuntu 18.04 is a huge huge setback. Luckily, you can choose Unity and forget all about Gnome, and focus on having a shiny, modern and supported desktop.

This is a great thing. It gives the user so much more freedom, and allows them peace and calm and time to choose and adjust while the void created by Canonical's deprioritization of the desktop fills up. I am very happy that Unity works fine in the LTS, and at the same time, it would be nice to see this desktop development continued even as I watch Plasma and wait for it to finally hatch into a beautiful and complete product that it deserves to be. We know it's possible. Zesty did it, and had it had five years of support ahead of it, 'twould have been a no-brainer. So all it takes is for the regression gala to end, and we will have peace. Till then, in the dark hours, when the hold on sanity slips, remember, we will always have Unity. Happy adventures!

Cheers.

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