Why I don’t like Unity

In an earlier post, I hinted that I might have something to say about Unity, the default ubuntu desktop environment.  I’ll also say something about how I use the desktop.

Of course, what one likes or dislikes about a desktop is mostly a matter of personal taste.  Some people really like Unity, and some people really like Gnome 3.

What I like in a desktop

I’ll start with my likes.  When Windows 95 came out, the desktop seemed far too cluttered for my liking, with icons all over.  So later Windows versions, with a better nested menu system and with few icons on the desktop, were more to my liking.

My first use of linux was in 1995, with slackware.  The default desktop was “fvwm”, which gave me 9 workspaces.  I liked that.  I could spread out.  I could use workspace 1 for my ssh sessions to connect to the servers that I was managing, workspace 2 for running a browser (netscape navigator in those days), and another workspace for editing latex documents.

As best I recall, “fvwm” defaulted to using “Click to focus” for setting which window received keyboard data.  But it was easy to switch to “Focus follows mouse”.  So I made that switch as an experiment, and I really liked the change.  It seemed to be a more natural way of doing things.

So what I find particularly important is:

  1. multiple workspaces;
  2. click to focus;
  3. a structured menu system.

Of the desktops that I have since used, KDE, Gnome 2, CDE (in Solaris), XFCE and LXDE alll work reasonably well.


That brings me to Unity

The first thing I noticed, was clutter.  It was not the desktop clutter of Win 95.  It was that panel on the left of the screen.  It was full of icons that I would probably never use.

Then I noticed that there was only one workspace.  I tried the settings menu, but it did not tell me how to add more workspaces.  I later did a google search, from which I learned that it is possible.  But I dislike a desktop environment that makes it hard to do what should be easy and natural.

And then I looked on setting “focus follows mouse”.  Again, there was no obvious setting, though a google search suggests that it is possible.

Finally, I tried to find the menus to access the major desktop programs.  It took me a while to find that.  And when I found it, I ended up with a window full of largish icons that is hard to scan through to find anything.

So I found Unity lacking on three of my major preferences.  I’ll add that Gnome 3 does badly for the same reason.


And then I tried firefox.  It seemed crippled.  There was no easy access to the usual firefox menus.  I could turn on the bookmarks toolbar, which I don’t like.  But I did not seem to be able to access bookmarks any other way.

Right clicking somewhere near the top of the screen allowed me to go into “customize mode”.  With that, it looked as if I could move some items to the navigation bar.  But bookmarks were a problem.  On the customize page, there was already a bookmarks item on the navigation bar, so it looked as if moving it there was pointless.  But as soon as the customize window closed, that bookmarks icon disappeared too.

It’s possible that this crippling is a ubuntu thing.  However, firefox in kubuntu (ubuntu with KDE) was fine.  It was only the version under Unity that seemed crippled.

Since that time, firefox has updated to version 29.0.  And that seems to have restored its normal behavior.

Why I don’t like Unity

I’ve already indicated what I don’t like.  But the more serious problem is that this leads me to distrust the developers of Unity.  With the help of google searches, I could probably configure Unity to be reasonably usable.  But what comes across is that the developers have a particular view on how the desktop should be used, and they want to impose that on me.  And that is what I don’t like.

I’ll stick to a desktop that I find more congenial.


About Neil Rickert

Retired mathematician and computer scientist who dabbles in cognitive science.

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