Sunday, March 6, 2011

Unity Holds Promise, but Needs Work

Unity ApplicationsImage by Andrew Currie via FlickrFor those of you who have had every Ubuntu news site blocked at the /etc/hosts level for the last ten months and have no idea what Unity is, I'll tell you that the Ubuntu train has jumped the GNOME tracks and gone even further out on its own (just as I called it) by creating its own desktop, called Unity, due to be released with 11.04.

In order to give a proper review, I began using Unity on Natty for daily work almost two months ago, pre-Alpha, and have watched the furious pace of development. Unity's design is brilliant; the implementation isn't. There's still time to fix most of the bugs, but I don't expect to see Unity hit its stride until 11.10 or so, (and 12.04LTS should be solid).

Ayatana didn't follow my suggestion of keeping the UI intact and change the backend. Instead, the team went for a completely different look in order to differentiate Ubuntu from all other OSes. The design is unique and beautiful.

 Despite completely changing the UI, Unity is remarkably discoverable (not intuitive), especially for power Windows users. These users are probably very used to using the super key to get things done, and unity handles that very well. Press super, and the launcher appears; hold the button down, and the shortcuts for the launcher are overlain on the dock buttons themselves; double-press the key, and Unity's search interface comes up. Within fifteen minutes of this overlay feature appearing on my computer, I was using the keyboard shortcuts and saving myself a bunch of time over mouse-keyboard context switching.

Like I said -- "good design; needs work." Stability is a huge problem for my AMD / Radeon laptop. I can't alt-tab without crashing Unity. NVidia has a similar known bug. Even avoiding switching apps this way, which is quite annoying, Unity still crashes once or twice a day on me, leaving me with nothing until I ctrl-alt-F1, login, and enter DISPLAY=":0" unity, then switch back. I don't understand why there's not a process monitor to restart Unity after a crash.

Unity's search system is also painfully slow and inconsistent. Sometimes it returns nothing for an exact application match (e.g. "software" might not give you the Software Center), but pressing backspace to delete a character or two might match the same word (e.g. "softwa" does match). The screen overlay may or may not appear or disappear depending on what you type. Your cursor might be focused in the search box, or you might continue to type and click in the application you just left -- there's no way to know, and that lottery isn't one I want to play with my important documents.

The recent implementation of Places and an API for it mean that not only do we have easy access to apps, files, and people, we could get extras like web search or Google docs integration. As long as it doesn't get overloaded with features, and those stay as optional extensions, all should be good.

Overall, Unity shows great promise, but it's definitely not ready for the average user's desktop ... yet. Give it six months.  

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