Unity - What is it good for? An in-depth review.

Updated: November 29, 2010

First, I'm not going to say one bad word about Mark Shuttleworth. A guy who's made half a billion dollars in a startup venture in mid 90s probably knows more about business than me and you. Second, if you remember the speculations about transparency and glassy Aero-like looks a year ago, then you realize that all reactions to Unity are premature and immature, my own included.

Nevertheless, every self-respecting Web writer has the right to complain about things they don't like, especially when it conflicts with their personal taste and the sense of conservative belonging. Today, I'll talk about Unity, what it does and doesn't. So here we go. After reading this article, you will really know whether to fear Natty Narwhal release come the spring 2011.



If you recall, I tried Ubuntu Netbook Remix 10.10 Maverick on my cute eeePC just a few weeks ago. The experience was not pleasant. It was frustrating, buggy and not quite productive. My conclusion was, stay away from Unity. My roadtrip is not unique. Quite a few fervent Ubuntu fans found the latest netbook edition to be unusable. And so rumors about Fedora rose, how it would sweep away discontented Ubuntoids into its fold. Only, Laughlin turned out to be a bit of a flop, too, which sours things quite a bit.

Between the hammer and the hard case, you're left with nothing. Or are you? While my initial reaction to Unity was vomit, it would be irresponsible to dis the technology just like that. So I gave it another shot - or several, really. I tried Unity again on my Maverick desktops, including a T60 notebook with an olden ATI card and my LG RD510 with a powerful Nvidia 9600GS card.

Curtain up, please.

T60 experience - failure

The biggest drawback of Unity is that it requires proper 3D acceleration to work. Not a problem, you may say, but it is. First, old hardware will be left out of the game, which is unfair. Not everyone can afford new computers every two years. Second, driver support for Intel and ATI is not stellar, especially older models. Throw in the open-source alternatives to any of these, plus Nouveau, and you get very basic 2D acceleration, but no real 3D bling bling.

Not surprisingly, Unity refused to run on T60. I had the basic look, but the buttons were big blobs of colors, the menu was smeared and suchlike. Bad. Unity automatically disqualifies anyone with older hardware.

RD510 experience

Here, there were no issues. Unity loaded well, because I have the proper Nvidia card and I'm using the proprietary drivers that provide all kinds of shaders and thingies.

Unity looks something like this:


But I've already show you the basic in my UNR Maverick review. Now, as you recall, it did not quite work as it should. Beyond the simple left-click right-click dilemma, the sidebar menu did not behave, you could not really add or remove items and then it crashed.

On my RD510, things were much better. It ran smoothly and let me do some basic customization. You can click on the icons in the sidebar and use their context menu. This is similar to what you have on Windows 7 and Mac. Plus, there's the little color triangle, which tells you if your apps are open or not. Again, Mac-like behavior.


Right click

When you open the applications menu, you'll have all your programs displayed as cute little icons, so this is not much different from the Gnome Control Center, which you have seen in openSUSE and Linux Mint. There's also the inline search to let you find your programs more easily.


Right-clicking will do nothing. Only once the programs open will you be able to try to manipulate them. For example, if you want to pin a new icon to your sidebar, right-click and choose Keep in Launcher. Some icons will have extra context.

Keep in Launcher


However, this does not work yet for non-GTK programs. For example, you can't pin Chromium. This should be sorted out, but it also depends on the communication between applications and the underlying shell. Personally, I don't like this at all, since it reminds me of Windows 7 icon pinning, which I always disable and use classic Quicklaunch.

If you're not in the mood to browse applications like above, you can click the Ubuntu icon in the top left corner and have a simplified category menu pop up.

Main menu

Open programs will have their menu displayed inline in the top panel, which is very much Mac behavior. Not all, again. For example, Firefox still has its own separate File menu. Now, in general, this is a very useful feature.

Context menu




Chromium, with very basic integration in the top panel and a hideous theme:



Samba sharing does not work in Unity. My network-located Screenshots folder will not open. Clicking on it will just close the application. Likewise, no right-click or multi-click on items. This seriously negates the basic functionality of the file explorer thingie. I hope this will be sorted out, otherwise Unity is useless.

No Samba


Reminds me of Gnome Shell, btw:


Workspaces, more


Menus are transparent and will show the background. Not bad, but could be a little distracting, just like using a transparent Nautilus or console.


Sidebar scroll

Finally, the sidebar is jumpy and active and will scroll up and down, but it will also neatly stack invisible items Rolodex style. This makes for a very pretty visual effect, although the icons can be a little evasive sometimes. I have not yet fully figured out the physics, when the whole thing yo-yos on a spring up and down and when it folds.


A few more screenshots, if you please:

Software Center


Unity - Pros and cons

Okay, let's sum it up.

What's good about Unity?

Looks very nice and posh and elegant, fresh experience, could draw in the crowds.

What's bad?

No right-click pretty much anywhere - or equivalent functionality, no Samba sharing, no ability to multi-select icons, mandatory 3D acceleration, stability, toy-like copycat features seen in Windows 7 and Mac.

So far, the bad outweighs the good. There's approx. half a year before we see if it works out or not. As usual, Ubuntu will tone down their aggressive approach while improving the product. Most importantly, Gnome will remain, so you will be able to use your machine normally, if you don't like this.

What about Gnome Shell, which is better?

Frankly, I don't like either that much. Both are pretty toys for people who perceive computers as their portals into virtual happiness, with prime objectives of using social crap. Well, that sounds bitter and conservative. But the truth is, in the long run, Ubuntu could be fighting Mac over the WOW effect. We'll have to wait and see.


Unity could work, if it meets several important requirements: beauty and functionality. It has a lot of former, but very little of the latter. You can't beat Mac by being pretty. Mac still offers its users menus and classic functionality you expect from a computer. When it comes to Windows, it's far more toned down compared to Mac, which suits most people.

There's also the element of change. Ubuntu users are expected to transition from something they may like and appreciate to a complete new design every six months. Every six bloody months. There was Upstart, then GRUB 2, then buttons going left, a complete new theme, now Unity, and there's even talk of Wayland, which sounds like a chapter in a fantasy trilogy. Slow down, fellas. How many people can keep up with this pace? Only the geeks and enthusiasts. Can you imagine some grandpa using Unity after running Gnome for a year or two? Would it be fair?

Canonical has every right to do as they please, it's their system after all. And I'm okay with that. I see no reason why you shouldn't be using Unity if it meets your needs. But it would not be wise to abandon the loyal userbase, confuse elderly and less skilled, dismiss anyone poor or with ancient hardware, or destroy the fundamental concepts of computer use in one fell stroke. Yes, Gnome is there, too. I just wonder how simple it would be for simple people to switch. A desktop button that says: Back to old? Or perhaps, they will need to log out, change the desktop session, log in? Or worse? Maybe even have to install the entire Gnome from scratch? It's definitely controversial and risky, no doubt.

I would love to see Ubuntu increase its share, because it will lead to more games for Linux, reduced prices for competitors' products and more goodies for the user. The big question is, can you take Web 2.0 and shove it up someone's arse and say, there you go, enjoy the brave new world of computing?

To wrap it up, I think Unity might work on netbooks, mobile and ultra-mobile, but it's not ready for the mainstream desktop governed by the vast majority of clueless, conservative users. And as always, the Linux user will be the guinea pig for this wild experiment. The price of freedom, babe.

Unity, November 2010, current grade: 2.5/10. Curtain down.