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Bill Malchisky


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  • Upgrading to Ubuntu 11.04 -- Part V: Contrasting Unity with Gnome 3

    Bill Malchisky  June 30 2011 11:55:00 PM
    O.k. after a busy month I am glad to be back and posting the final segment of the Upgrading to Ubuntu 11.04 series...the time also gave me the opportunity to really learn Ubuntu and scribe a better review for this post.

    For those that have not upgraded to Ubuntu 11.04 or are curious, one major improvement is to the window manager--now called Unity. There are many enhancements, some of which I covered in previous posts in this series. But it is not based upon Gnome 3 which is also beautiful in its own right. Although, one of the strengths of Linux and UNIX is that you change window managers, customize them, write your own, and still get to your data. Although this is still true with Ubuntu's latest offering, it introduces a slippery slope.

    For all the strengths that Ubuntu introduces and continues to provide, the fact that trying Gnome 3 creates a permanent change state, breaking Unity, which goes against the flexibility that is the hallmark of the AT&T socket based operating systems. Learning of this facet is a bit disheartening, as I am a big proponent of consistency and standards. Of course things change, but don't break one of the key competitive advantages of your product for eye candy.

    Having stated that, I do feel that in the next release there will be a way to switch between Unity and Gnome 3. I will post the results of that either way.

    How to Try Gnome 3
    My suggestion is to do the upgrade to 11.04, as there is a lot of great enhancements there. Then, if you are using VMware, have the option for a dual-boot system (You can dual-boot Linux to Linux, doesn't have to be Windows on the PC), or a test box, setup the another configuration with Gnome 3 and try it for a while. If you prefer it to Unity, then switch on your primary machine/host OS and you will not be stuck with an undesirable configuration forcing a reinstall. If you don't like Gnome 3, then wipe or leave it for testing on the alternate machine -- no harm done.

    One other option is the old reliable standby: live discs. Yes, you can try Gnome 3 without encroaching on your existing machine's OS. The downside here is the inability to store environment changes between sessions and if you want to switch between your original OS and the virtual OS, you will need to shutdown the system. I usually prefer live discs for administration and emergency recovery, but here is a decent use case for a short-term window. Also works with USB memory sticks.

    Overall, it should not be this difficult to try different window managers, but knowing this tidbit up-front can save you a lot of frustration.

    What Window Managers and Operating Environments Are Available
    As you are unable to temporarily change to Gnome 3, Canonical --- the development firm creating Ubuntu --- did not leave you out in the code. You can actually switch to Gnome 2 and back to Unity quite easily; but this is like comparing the Windows 7 GUI to XP. Additionally, you can try Xfce, Ubuntu Classic (which is the menu name for Gnome 2), KDE, Unity 2D (for older hardware or low RAM quantity).

    To install these desktop alternatives, type the following in a command window:
    KDE --  $sudo apt-get install kubuntu-desktop
    Xfce -- $sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop
    Unity 2D -- $sudo apt-get update; sudo install unity-2d
    Note: the "$" symbol indicates the prompt symbol for your user ID

    Advantages and Opportunities with Unity
    Beyond the tips provided, Unity does have its strengths and has received a lot of great press. Here's one example from a gentlemen who is trying Ubuntu Linux as his primary operating system for 30 days. What I like about the environment is that it is easy for novice and intermediate users to find files, applications, and run them. The GUI is clean, predictable in most cases and easy to navigate. Overall, the job they did was quite nice.

    On the flip-side, the issues of Unity will really only be seen by power users or long-time loyalists of the product. For example, one of the great features introduced in the 9.x code stream was the desktop ability to remember your application layout and open windows when you shutdown. Thus, when you turned-on the system, Ubuntu would place you right back where you were--very effective and significantly faster than attempting a hibernation operation, especially when your train stop appears most unexpectedly. Reboots are fast and so effective, Gedit for example will open every document you had open previously, in the same order, and same place on the page for each. That's a serious capability and one I really enjoyed: huge time-saver. Ubuntu 11.04 not only did away with this feature, but it removed any capability to enable it as a feature. At this time, I have no idea why. For me, as a power user, this is a major loss of productivity when I am mobile and will shutdown and start my laptop several times a day.

    Another aspect I dislike is that the installed applications are not tagged in a manner that I would consider intuitive. Thus, with the previous menu system, all of the tools you wanted to use were in-fact under the Tools menu. Nice and simple. So, in Ubuntu 11.04 you would think that if you type "tools" in the search dialog box off the upper-left corner, that all programs with the "tools" tag would appear. Not the case. In fact, the only way I could access programs that I new were there was to use their name. Now, many of software applications use names that are unfamiliar or used infrequently, but are important. If you do not know the name, you will have a challenging time finding the program. Of course the Ubuntu application catalog will show you all the installed programs on your system, but should you really need to go there every time you need to seek an application that you use infrequently but need? I can see this being a barrier to power users, but not necessarily to novice and intermediate users who only utilize a few applications.

    Additionally, in certain file management windows, the user is unable to right click and select, "Create Folder" or "New Folder". In these scenarios, it is frustrating to be able to manage one's file system effectively. Finally, the menu bar for many applications appears at the top of the screen, akin to the Mac OS. This is handy and can allow for a more consistent end-user experience within the GUI. The issue is that if you enable window focus based upon hovering the mouse in a window, rather than clicking --- like in Windows --- you are unable to go from an application window to the menu bar without causing the menu system to change for the application windows or desktop passed along the way. The only work-arounds if you wan to keep window focus by hovering are to maximize your application window or learn the appropriate keyboard shortcuts, thereby bypassing the mouse.

    Final Option
    And if all else fails and you are still uncertain or dislike both...there is always Linux Mint. This Linux distro essentially creates a wrapper around Ubuntu, providing more applications, software channels, and makes Ubuntu easier. Yes, you did read that correctly. Try a live DVD and give it a go on your PC without damaging your host OS.

    1Brian O’Donovan  7/7/2011 8:45:36 AM  Upgrading to Ubuntu 11.04 -- Part V: Contrasting Unity with Gnome 3

    A good article Bill. I have been using Ubuntu 11.04 on my main laptop for the last 6 weeks, although I have managed to get it working OK (by learning several keyboard shortcuts) I can't say I have really grown to love it (yet).

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