I find it very ironic that one of the most divisive things that ever hit the Linux scene is a Desktop Environment called Unity. For those of you who are late to the party, Unity was introduced by Canonical in 2010 and became the default desktop experience on Ubuntu with the release of Ubuntu 11.04. Unity is both loved and hated, depending on who you’re talking to at the moment, and all you gotta do to start a lively discussion is bring it up in mixed (Linux minded) company. Opinions about Unity range from absolute disdain to unabashed “fanboyism.”
I’ve been torn over the whole thing for years. I neither love nor hate Unity, but there are some things about I really like and others I do not. I like its ease of use but detest the fact that’s it’s not easily customizable. You can’t make the top panel do anything at all, including go away, the Launcher can get annoying and the Dash is nice when it works but if it’s misbehaving it can be a real pain. You can get a bit more control by installing the Unity Tweak Tool that is available in the Ubuntu repositories. From an administrator’s point of view, Unity is probably the most easily setup DE out there, though. Spinning up numerous user accounts is just not that big a deal since there are so few settings to contend with in the first place. That also makes it hard to break. The novice user has fewer options to choose from in the settings menu and, therefore, you’re less likely to hear them say, “Oops! I clicked something and now I broke it. Help!”
Another thing I like about Unity is how it integrates with the LightDM Desktop Manager. Unlike many other many other Linux desktop experiences, the Unity/LightDM combination is almost seamless. Login screens are not that critical to those who only have one account on their personal computer but if you start adding more accounts they become rather important. One of the things I like about LightDM is that it will put a laptop to sleep even when no one is logged in if the lid is closed. I have not had good experiences with other DM’s in this area. Most notably, the Mint Desktop Manager (MDM) does absolutely nothing if the lid is closed and no one is logged in. The computer continues to run. I have sought answers to this troubling issue with little success. Other Mint users have complained of the same thing as well but I have never found anyone with a solution. It doesn’t seem to be a big priority for the Mint developers. LightDM performs this task flawlessly.
Why is this behavior worth worrying about? Well, If you were to close the lid and put the laptop in a bag, thinking all the while that it was sleeping peacefully but it wasn’t, the machine would quickly overheat and that just might cause irreparable harm to the computer. Actually, I had this very same problem with Manjaro while I was giving it a test run. My daughter logged out, shut the lid and left the computer on the couch. When I picked it up a few moments later, It was hotter than a firecracker. More on that later.
My first encounter with Unity was when I decided to take the plunge and load Ubuntu on an Acer laptop right after Ubuntu 12.04 was released. This little machine had been running Windows 7. With Windows, it was only semi-useful because it ran slower than molasses in January and crashed quite frequently. Ubuntu brought new life to the dumpy little thing. This was the very first time I put Ubuntu on a machine by itself and just let it run. I’ve been hooked ever since.
At that time, I was feeling my way around Unity and grumbling just a bit about how I wanted Gnome 2 back when this magical thing happened: I let my then five-year-old son take a look and he figured out how to run the computer in all of 30 seconds. He had a browser up and he was watching a Thomas the Tank Engine video. I grabbed my video camera and captured the moment. I was amazed. After that experience, I started looking at Unity in a different light. Maybe Canonical was on to something after all.
That was nearly four years ago now but this past Sunday I was reloading the kids’ HP laptop with Ubuntu 14.04 and setting up Unity for them. I had tried Manjaro Cinnamon on that machine and it was not well received. My kids love Unity; they would rather use it than any other desktop. They wanted Ubuntu back and so I obliged. The install was smooth compared to a couple of nightmare EzeeLinux client installs I had done earlier in the week and I found myself feeling very much at home with Unity this weekend. It hasn’t changed much since 2010 and I’m beginning to appreciate more and more why that’s a good thing.
I have commented in the past on how the needs of the average computer user are sometimes at odds with the wants of the power Linux user. Linux nerds revel in the myriad choices while new users are dazzled and confused. Canonical came up with an environment specifically catered to the novice. It doesn’t change, it doesn’t overwhelm them with choices and it doesn’t get in the way. Sit one of these folks down in front of KDE, Cinnamon, MATE or even the simplistic Gnome 3 and they are just lost. I’ve seen it time and time again. When I put someone in front of Unity, they start clicking icons in the launcher and they say, “OK, this is how I find programs… There’s my browser… Here are the files… Oh, that’s settings… Cool.” They’re good to go and don’t care one bit about the lack of customization or the relative speed of the desktop. They can get to their stuff and that’s all that matters to them. Period.
After all these years, I can finally say that I like Unity, even if it’s out of familiarity alone. It’s definitely a good place to start and with all the new enterprise users moving to Ubuntu, millions of people will be getting to know it in the coming years. No, this does not mean that I’m going to go around and reload all my computers. I love Linux mint with Xfce and Cinnamon on my desktops… But, I will most likely stop trying new DE’s and distros on the family laptop. They like Unity and I’m cool with that.
Now that we have that cleared up, I can finally move on to figuring out the meaning of life. I’ll keep you posted.