Archive for November, 2011

Why I Don’t Like Unity

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Recent versions of Ubuntu use the Unity desktop by default.  The overwhelming consensus on the Internet is that, due to lack of configurability, it is a step back from the Gnome desktop previously used.  I, however, have a very different set of reasons for disliking it, as I will explain here.

I first seriously installed Ubuntu on a netbook as a replacement for Asus’ variant of Xandros.  Then, the Maximus desktop together with a quite usable launcher was the default for the Netbook Remix, and it worked extremely well due to it’s efficient use of screen space – particularly vertically.  However, Ubuntu has moved away from this type of interface since then, and the changes are not for the better.  Indeed there is no longer a Netbook Remix as such, with Unity being forced upon desktop users as well.

Peeve 1: the icons and buttons in Unity are far too big, and there is no obvious setting to make them smaller.  They seem to be made for especially fat-fingered touchscreen users.  I don’t know about you, but my desktop machines and my netbook have ordinary keyboards and mice (or trackpads or trackpoints), so fat-fingering is not an issue – desktop users have been successfully double-clicking on 32×32 icons for over 15 years.  I would much rather see more, smaller icons on my screen so that I don’t have to scroll.  This is a trend which began even before Unity, and considerably impedes navigation on a small-screen netbook.

Peeve 2: the scroll bars are so thin as to be almost impossible to grab, fat fingers or no.  Compare and contrast with the above, and scratch your head.

Peeve 3: the application launcher is clunky and hard to navigate.  I actually have difficulty finding what I want, even though I know what it’s called and where it was in previous versions of Ubuntu.  There is a stark choice between a vapid “favourites” list with a link to the Store, and a massive conglomeration of every single installed application – which isn’t even in alphabetical order.  This is exacerbated by the need to expand the list and scroll down to see all the items in any given category.  I wonder if Unity’s designers have ever heard of “discoverability”?

Peeve 4: there is no screensaver support.  Yes, I know screens technically don’t “burn in” any more, but I want to see something pretty when the screen is locked or blanked.  The settings for screensavers have simply disappeared.

Peeve 5: Unity is bloated.  This surprised me greatly, considering how simple it appears on the surface.  Yet when I installed Ubuntu on a salvaged Thinkpad A20p, I found that it would swap itself to death at the slightest provocation.  With a 700MHz P3 and 256MB RAM, the specs are not much below a netbook or an ARM-based tablet – and perfectly representative of an old machine that might be scrounged up for a child, an elderly relative or a disadvantaged family, for which Linux is supposed to be ideal.

A quick look in ‘top’ showed the culprit.  Such stalwarts as xchat and gnome-terminal were content in a few megabytes of resident memory, and even X11 seemed to be surviving on 20MB.  Firefox, predictably, was consuming rather more, apparently competing on even terms with unity-2d-panel and some Python script which was updating the package database cache.  Even though the Unity dock was hidden, the unity-2d-panel was keeping tens of megabytes alive enough to remain in RSS, and this quantity only increased after I convinced Firefox to quit.

Now, a script which walks over a database to create a cache can legitimately consume a lot of memory, so long as it does it’s job and then gets out of the way.  But I am completely at a loss to explain why managing a simple dock (which was hidden at the time due to the full-screen terminal) and a menu bar with a few widgets in it – which are less functional than the Gnome equivalents – can keep a 40MB working set active (not even including X11).  This does not bode at all well for Ubuntu’s aspirations to use Unity on tablets, a task for which it was obviously otherwise intended.

As for the Thinkpad, I think I will try switching it to xubuntu and see if that successfully removes Unity from the equation.  Wish me luck.