Updated: November 14, 2016
The one thing that made me not try to blowtorch my laptop in anger after I was done reviewing the terrible Yakkety Yak was the inclusion of the Unity 8 desktop environment in the distro, allowing for some fresh testing. The word desktop is probably not the best vocabulary choice here, as this hybrid-like environment already blithely powers touch devices like the Ubuntu Phone and the M10 tablet. But we're on a laptop, so.
Anyhow, I wanted to explore Unity 8 some more, but I did not want to do it as part of the distro review. This is why we have this article here, to explore the merits and failings of Unity 8, and see whether we should be really afraid this may become the default and only choice for our desktops one day. Which it might. So read carefully.
The Canonical team could have done so much more in offering an exciting and fully ready desktop session. Instead, they have written a blog post on all the things you need to set up a functional Unity 8 environment. Why? Why not provide all of it in the first place? For instance codecs. If a user specifies the inclusion of restricted plugins during the installation, they should not have to do that again. Alas, they must.
In the default setup, you only get a browser, plus three extra apps. The terminal is probably useful, as are the System Settings. But the Checkbox? Why would you give me an app that can test the desktop compatibility here? What for? Why not give me the touch version of the Software app so I can actually install things?
This was my big struggle, as there is no quick, easy, obvious way to install new applications. Not even the scopes are configured in the default configuration. In fact, you will need to use two distinct methods to beef up the interface with goodies. One is the apt-get utility. The other is snap, which we discussed briefly in the past.
If you try to use graphical components from the standard, classic desktop environment, you may encounter difficulties. The reason is, the two use different displays, and they might not be compatible. We go back to the Mir, Wayland argument that created the big rift in the Linux world. If you think things are bad now, wait another year or two until everything breaks. I would not bet on any reasonable 3D support by 2020.
But let's put my doomsday predictions aside. Anyhow, no display, so you will need to do a lot of command line stuff first before you can begin utilizing the Unity 8 interface. This is annoying but unfortunately necessary.
Making Unity 8 usable
This wasn't an easy task. Convoluted. First, I started by installing a few things using apt-get, as instructed in the blog post. After that, I used snap. Then, I also had to use Libertine to setup legacy applications. Alas, creating the container never quite worked, and I was stuck waiting for it to finish. Then, some of the Scopes and new apps did not really work either. Black window, with nothing at all happening.
While copying files through the normal desktop interface, Ubuntu complained about an internal error - unity8-dash had stopped working. This coincided with me copying files to a Windows share over Samba, at which point several screenshots simply disappeared. They were gone from the Files interface, they were gone from the system. Vanished. I have never seen an issue like this, and it is worrying.
Libertine at work
This little Casanova never delivered. Even with empty fields or random container names, it never completed its setup. I tried four times, and each one just stalled forever. This is still quite buggy. And annoying. Such empty promises of greatness.
The Scopes behaved okay, most of the time, but there were some issues, very similar to what we saw on the M10 tablet. The prices were in the wrong currency, and the Scopes would sometimes stall while trying to load new content. Weird. I would expect it to search for my language settings or keyboard settings or timezone or something. There must be a little bug somewhere.
Apps would often get stuck or crash. The desktop was sluggish, and sometimes the hidden Launcher would take more than one or two mouse nudges to show up. All in all, everything feels very beta, very early. Battery life wasn't enviable in this mode. Far less than in the classic desktop.
At the end of the day, Unity 8 was doing moderately well, but I was still missing a lot of stuff, I did not have any legacy software, applications were crashing or freezing or not doing much. I also wasn't pleased by the inconsistency in the Scopes, like for example the Videos versus My videos. This is no news, and I've shown you this problem in the tablet review. What is worrying is that it's been six months since.
Unity 8 does not look too frightening. If we take into account the fact this interface should power anything from phones to UHD desktops, then it's a very smart effort. But it's still not good enough for mass consumption. Slow, laggy, buggy, with a very painful text contrast, and insufficient size and sharpness of elements. Installing apps is a pain, and Libertine didn't do much. Alpha, maybe beta quality on a sunny day, which is not what you'd expect. Plus none of it comes properly pre-configured and tested.
All in all, as dubious and crazy at it sounds, Unity 8 actually might be the one redeeming feature of the sad autumn release called Ubuntu 16.10. There's truly nothing exciting in Yakkety Yak, so at least this hybrid concept brings in some color into a dreary, rainy, foggy, smoggy reality. But it needs a lot more work. A lot more. As always, the success of this endeavor will depend on stability and ease of use, as well as availability of powerful apps. Provided the legacy stuff works. I am intrigued. So I will keep on testing. I advise you do the same, as this might very well be YOUR future. Okay for now, but not for the fainthearted or any serious productivity. To be continued.