The Unity desktop in 2022 - A trick of nostalgia or the real deal?

Updated: October 22, 2022

Human memory is tricky, be it collective or individual. The reason is, we tend to forget the fine details of past experiences, which sort of grants us an average "picture" of these recollections. This means we normalize all but the most extraordinary events in our memories. However, because instinctively we also pay more attention to negative things surrounding us right now (as they could be dangerous), ergo bad stuff, and the future is uncertain, ergo possibly more bad stuff, we automatically associate positive values to things that have already happened, i.e., not so bad stuff. Hence, we all have our share of "good ole days".

This also applies to software. One could say, by and large, the new stuff is better. Well, spoiler, it isn't really, especially not in the realm of code, but let's pretend the world is better than it is so you can actually enjoy this article in the fullest. Indeed, in some cases, justifiably, old software ideas and concepts, programs and desktops included, might have been better in various ways than what we have today. Thus, a simple question: Is the Unity desktop any good, for real, still? To answer that, I took Ubuntu Unity for a spin. Follow me.

Teaser

Sixty seconds of philosophy, and then we do the actual review

Unity last saw official development in 2017. It lingered around since, partly because Xenial is supported until 2026, partly because it simply refuses to die. Various efforts have come along in trying to preserve and revive the Unity desktop, the hottest among them being Ubuntu Unity. I downloaded the beta version of the 22.10 release of the distro - by the time you see this article, it may already be a proper, official release - and played around with Unity in a live session on my IdeaPad 3 machine (with Ryzen processor and Vega graphics), to get a feel of what this desktop environment can still do. And more importantly, to see whether my mind is playing tricks on me. I remember Unity as a very cool, slick and fast thing, so ... let us see.

The visuals, the ergonomics

Pretty. The combination of Unity design plus Yaru icons works quite well. And while it looks similar to what you can get with Gnome or other GTK-based desktops, Unity is, to put it simply, nicer. And also more efficient. You need fewer mouse clicks to get things done, be it network connection or session logout.

Live desktop

I did have to add the Firefox icon into the launcher, but that might be a small glitch of the beta release. The launcher is nice, you can also add the Show desktop icon (duh!), drag stuff around, the whole lot. The only criticism is that you need to launch a program before you can pin it, which can be a waste of time.

Theming

For some reason, the folks behind Unity decided on a dark theme as the default for their system. Meh. As always, dark themes are oppressive and ugly and only make sense if you work in total darkness. But if you work in a nicely lit room, as you should, any dark theme leads to watery eyes and headache within minutes. Plus it's not what Unity is all about. Unity has always had a light theme, with just different window border themes.

Dark theme

And no nonsense alpha shadows in screenshots.

In this regard, I wasn't happy with the new themes - you can't have a light them with dark window borders. You only get light-light or dark-dark combo. Not good. Makes it hard to distinguish fg and bg application windows. Luckily, the old Ambiance and Radiance themes are available, and these do the job. You get the proper mid-2010 ergonomics, when things were designed for efficiency and clarity and not smartphones.

Light theme, contrast

The difference between fg and bg windows is tiny. Modern stuff, right.

HD display scaling

Weird results. I am not sure if the scaling works. Perchance the menu and the title bars are bigger, but the top panel sure isn't, and the fonts aren't either. But at least the scaling slider allows you to use 1/100 increments, unlike some other other desktops. As it stands, still, Plasma does scaling so much better than any other desktop in 2022 by three parsecs and change.

Scaling

I also learned that I had to use the Unity Tweak tool to get some extra settings. This is a bit annoying, very much like Gnome Tweak, and it takes away from the default desktop customization. All in all, not the best of results. However, I clearly remember using Ubuntu 14.04 on my IdeaPad Y50-70 machine some eight years ago or so, and there were usability issues with its 4K monitor back then, but I was able to scale things without any problems, and whatnot. Could be tricky memory. Or it could be beta release niggles, and the scaling functionality was better back then. In the end, I did have to invest a bit of time on tweaks, but not much.

Tweak tool

Ambiance

Show desktop button

As it happens, the Show Desktop icon isn't that easy to find, and stylistically, it doesn't fit the theme.

Using the system

I didn't spend too much time fiddling about. But the experience was good. Fast. The responsiveness is excellent, and better than most other desktops. In this regard, Unity and Plasma seem to be evenly matched, and offer superior latency compared to what you may find elsewhere. The menu is smart, the usage efficient. In the file manager, you can create new files or relaunch the program with root privileges. Tiny, clever touches everywhere. Music integration, all there.

Menu, apps

The Unity menu is slick and modern, even now.

Desktop, nice

Nice desktop, file manager

Conclusion

Unity seems to hold pretty well in 2022. In fact, the results are better than what I had on the old Vivobook. When I actually upgraded the Trusty instance on that old laptop, Unity sort of broke. But now, things seem to be far more precise. The whole experience is better, in fact. My test was short, but pretty good. Yes there were problems and niggles and issues. It would be easy to say that most of these are just beta quality stuff that will go away, but that would be fanboyish exaggeration.

This desktop environment does have some real problems. Customization and theming aren't the best, and display scaling can be improved. Other than that, though, everything else is groovy. I am also impressed by the speed, and the fact I don't need to waste my mouse clicks on unnecessary actions. Compared to stuff released nowadays, Unity is an ergonomic breeze. It's a testament to how well designed the desktop environment was back in its day, how badly designed some of the stuff is nowadays, and that my memory isn't playing silly nostalgia tricks on me. Well there you go. We got our answer. This is a solid, solid desktop, and you may seriously want to consider it for your Linux desktop.

Cheers.