Linux

Ubuntu Unity: A beginner's walk-through

Jack Wallen has been proclaiming Ubuntu Unity the single most efficient desktop on the market. This time he decides to illustrate a simple task and how Ubuntu Unity's approach is easy and efficient.

You may have noticed that over the last year, I've spoken quite a lot about Ubuntu Unity. More specifically, I've become quite the champion for Unity being one of the most efficient desktops on the market. I thought it might be helpful to take you on a walk through of the default Ubuntu desktop to help you see just how it could be that a completely different desktop could possibly be so user-friendly and efficient.

In order to do this, I'll walk through the steps to tackle a simple task -- open, write, and save a document. Why such a simple task? Well, using an office suite is one of the most common tasks in business, so it only makes sense to show just how this works on the new and improved Ubuntu desktop. So... are you ready? Let's do this.

Step 1: Open the application.

Figure A

Unlike the old-guard desktop, there is no Start menu to click through. You have two choices for starting up an application. You can either click a Launcher icon (the Launcher is the vertical bar on the left side of the screen), or you can open up the Dash and find the application from there. Let's take the long, hard road and open the app from the Dash. Here's how it's done:

1. Click the "Super" key (otherwise known as the "Windows" key).

2. Type "libre" (no quotes) in the search bar.

3. Click on the LibreOffice Writer icon (Figure A).

That's it.

Step 2: Type your document

Figure B

I am fairly certain most know how this is done. However, with Unity you might have noticed something -- there is no menu bar! Where did it go? Simple -- Unity now has what is called the HUD (Head Up Display). This new display is an incredibly powerful evolution to the menu bar. How this works is by integrating what used to be the system of menus into the Unity Dash. What makes this so powerful is that you can now search through your application menus to quickly find what you need. No more guessing through a litany of drop-down menus and sub-menus to find the item you need. Let me demonstrate.

Say you want to add page numbers at the bottom of every page. First you would have to insert a footer to every page. To do this, follow these steps:

  1. Click the Alt key.
  2. Type "footer" into the HUD (Figure B).
  3. Select the Insert > Footer > All entry by moving the selector down with your cursor keys.
  4. Click the Enter key.

Now, click into the newly added footer and then do the same thing as you did above (only this time search for "page number") and select Insert > Fields > Page Number.

Finally, you can save the document in the usual way (Ctrl-S) or by opening the HUD, typing "save", and selecting Save.

Many of you might, at this point, be asking how is that more efficient? The best evolution Unity has done is make all application menus searchable. This is especially true of applications with complex menu structures. Instead of having to hunt around for menu entries, one only needs to search for them and select what you want.

Opening a previously saved document

Figure C

Now, let's say you've saved that document and want to re-open it. The Dash makes this incredibly easy -- even if that document wasn't recently opened. Here's what you do:

1. Click on the "Super" key to open the dash.

2. Enter a search string for your document (it doesn't have to be the full document name, just a portion).

3. Click on the entry from the results that matches your search (Figure C).

Your document will open and you're ready to go.

I know -- there are still doubters out there. But I can promise you this -- since I have been proclaiming how efficient Ubuntu Unity is, I have have plenty of doubters contacting me to say they finally drank the Kool-Aid and get what I'm saying.

If you're still doubting, you really need to have a taste of Ubuntu's special sauce. Give it a week and you'll be a convert. It really is that good.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

86 comments
nwe
nwe

Ubuntu drops my WiFi connection too readily on my Sony Viao. In frustration, I went to Fedora (now 16) and Gnome 3. Problem solved. As a touch typist, I don't mind typing into search bars, but my cat likes to use my left arm as a prop when in my lap (most of the time). So I agree with abakaldis.

tiggsy
tiggsy

Just 2 questioms. How is it more efficient to a) have to type footer after going to the hud than to just hit Insert->footer b) .................... save ............................................................... the save button

brian.trautman
brian.trautman

LinuxMint, based on Ubuntu, rejected the Unity desktop and instead adopted/developed Cinnamon... and I'm loving it.

bigmac9900
bigmac9900

can I get a link to that wallpaper? =)

jeffbroderick
jeffbroderick

I too am a new convert to Ubuntu 12.04 and Unity (lifelong Windows cult member)...but I don't have the HUD behavior you describe for Libre Writer? I have traditional menus and drop downs, ala MS Word. Is HUD a feature you can toggle on/off? Perhaps I chose traditional mode during install or something...?

lalomaeshiro
lalomaeshiro

As you commented, all we have to do is test it. No one can say it's good or bad without using it.

fallout330
fallout330

I have to say, it is in an "interesting" change. I will take some time get used to.

Loaded4th
Loaded4th

None of these new desktops will ever get my vote (except maybe a smartphone). I'll continue to use XFCE or KDE simply because this is the way I've worked since the Xerox Alto days. I work a lot with digital type, graphics, audio, video, word-processing, etc, and have a penchant for customizing my environment so I guess I'll remain a loyal mouse/keyboard user. At the end of the day, it all comes down to individual needs and comfortable inertia.

jnpena2001
jnpena2001

...since the day after its release, and finally changed for Kubuntu 12.04 in mid-July. About 3 months trying, not just one week. Count me in the non-believers.

lehnerus2000
lehnerus2000

I loathe Unity, Gnome 3 and Metro (W8). Like some of the people above, I'm still using Ubuntu 10.04 as my Linux OS (I mostly use W7 though). It appears that OS software creators have given up on fixing user annoyances/issues. I guess they have run out of ideas. "What will we do for our next release?" "I don't know ... how about changing the GUI layout and throwing in some new graphics?" "Sounds good to me."

bg3075
bg3075

I agree with most, and specifically, Janitorman. The best thing anyone can do with an OS is not change it so much... focus more on application development!

Jaqui
Jaqui

1) launcher bar = asinine idea 2) menus belong IN app window, nowhere else 3) cannonical f*ked security with their sudo config 4) cannonical f*ked install, automatically adding and mounting partitions it was EXPLICITLY told to leave the f*k alone.

sampsont
sampsont

A good OS lets everybody work the way they want. Unity is one very nice approach but it seems we are now forced to use this 'one' way to do everything. Now, everything has to start with typing at a prompt. What if I don't have a clue what to type? For example, what if I don't know that I should type "libre" if I want to open the word processor? The beauty of a gui is that it can help you find your way through complex tasks using what you could call 'fuzzy logic'. For example, if you want to write a letter and on the desktop you see an icon that looks like a dvd and has the name 'music' under it, and then you see an icon that looks like a letter and has 'Word Processor' or anything close to that under it, you will probably think, hmm, I think I'll try the letter icon. Once the word processor's open, it might be nice to browse through the menus. If you have a specific task in mind, you can usually look through the menus and find what you need. If you're only faced with a blank line and you must type something, it's frustrating if you don't have a clue what to type. If, for example, you're trying to adjust the space between some characters, you might not know what to type. If on the other hand, you look through the 'format' menu and you see 'kern', you might think, hmm I think I'll try that. Unity's great if and when you want to use it but I don't think an OS should force everyone to go down that path all the time.

Adam S
Adam S

I left Ubuntu desktop because of Unity. It wouldn't support dual monitors. At all.

Zenith545
Zenith545

For those who like an uncluttered desktop or do not know how to organize programs and folders on their desktop, this may be a benefit. Personally, I think creating or copying a shortcut to the desktop may be easier. Click on the icon (or double-click) and the program is executed. One step compared to three going through Dash. I do like the idea of the Launcher, though. Would help to keep an uncluttered desktop. Windows 7 can search for applications, the downside in all this is you have to know the name of the application in order to search for it. :)

qwertyomen
qwertyomen

I use terminal a lot for server work and prefer using just a keyboard. I would prefer just turning off the touchpad on my netbook if I can and just type things I need to do. Only problem I see with typing every command is "Crap what's that called again?" or "is it exit or quit in this program?" that's where a menu is helpful.

alzie
alzie

I do like Unity except for how it slugs out my machine, a 2.2G dual core. I now use Xubuntu, much faster and ive configured it to look / work much like unity only without the HUD :^{ I use Synapse for the search stuff, love it :^} Of course, the awesomeness that is linux is that we can have multi desktops on one machine. I can easily switch back to Unity at any time.

taxes28
taxes28

After using Ubuntu for almost 5 years and 98% of my computing done in Ubuntu, I finally gave up and went back to using Win 7. I have several friends who were Ubuntu users and have given up and have gone back to Windows 7. If I could find all the updates to 9.10, I would go back to Ubuntu. For my use, Unity absolutely SUCKS! Let me make the choose at login which format I want, Unity or Gnome 2 and I would go back in a heart beat, since that is not going to happen, I am a former user of Ubuntu.

willda
willda

I have no idea why you think that it's a good idea to have to type something to start a program or find a document. I suppose that it's okay if you have a small number of programs installed. I like having the menu to go through as I have so many programs installed I can't remember the names of them all. Every server (domain controllers, vpn, wiki, web, WSUS, Deep Freeze, all have programs installed on my pc and I do not have icons for everyone on the desktop. I'll keep my menu thank you very much. Between Ubuntu Unity & Windows 8, I'm not sure which is worse. Change for the sake of change, stupid in MHO.....and we see where that got us 4 years ago!

lvavila
lvavila

I'm glad they are making advancements on it. It took me years to go from KDE to gnome 2 for the same reasons. I've given up on the Unix desktop, moved to MAC but Lunix server will always be my solution of choice. Windows 8.. holy crap.

unixDon
unixDon

I've tried for the past year to get Unity to work for me but I can't. I'm not talking about bugs but just the method of use. I have a desktop that is still running 10.04 which I like (I'm an old Unix guy after all!) and I installed 12.04 on my laptop. I keep trying to make my laptop useful and I can't. The problem is my preferred way of working. What I do is set up multiple workspaces. I tend to work on 4-5 things at the same time at any given time so I put each of those tasks into a different workspace. Switching between them is easy and works fine on both 10.04 and Unity but I run into a wall when I want to put something like a browser window into a workspace. I can certainly do that but as soon as I leave the workspace, the browser window is iconified into the task bar and when I switch back to the workspace, I have to go find it and open it again... Very annoying! As a practical example, I was working through a tutorial on the web for a new program I am learning and working the examples in windows alongside the web page with the tutorial in it. Every time I switch away from that workspace and then back to it, the tutorial is gone and I have to get open it in the task bar again. This lack of saving my workspace context drives me crazy and I'm going to leave my desktop at 10.04 until I find a way go get past this. Anyone have any ideas?

ehk
ehk

Unity is Gawd awful. And the desktop transparency makes it even worse. I was playing with Unity earlier today. I stopped after a few minutes because the transparency was literally making me feel ill. Can you imagine trying to get anything done in the real world where you see a fuzzy view of whatever is behind any piece of paper you are looking at? Completely and utterly moronic. If you want eye candy, Mint Linux is much better. If you simply want to get from point A to point B with the least amount of distraction, Ubuntu 10.04 is the way to go.

mla_ca520
mla_ca520

I see all of your points, but I couldn't get used to unity. I ended up switching to Kubuntu, because it is familiar. Maybe I'm an old dog and unity is a bunch of new tricks!?

dbl
dbl

Cinnamon (Linux Mint) much easier to deal with for someone like me trying to wihdraw from Gnome 2.

cjc5447
cjc5447

The problem with Unity is that to use the HUD, it forces you to use the Apple style menu at the top of the screen. That "feature" obviously apes the Mac interface, which may have been OK in the 80's with the small screen of the Mac Plus, but nowadays it's an anachronism, adb one of the reasons I will not get a Macintosh. Who wants to move the mouse cursor away from the applicaiton window all the way to the top of the screen? It's even worse if you have multiple monitors, you may have to move the mouse to the another monitor entirely. A lot of people at my company have three monitor setups, in this case Unity/HUD would be unworkable. Also HUD requires modifiaction of the appications, so if you enable HUD and an application doesn't support it, you will have the menu for that app inside the app window, while the other HUD aware apps have their menu at the top of the screen. This violates one of the principles of good UI design - consistency. So no, I will not "drink the Kool Aid", and use Unity/HUD.

rcfoulk
rcfoulk

I never understood why the concept of an inverted tree, hierarchical menu structure was viewed as so daunting. I have many programs and utilities installed and never have to click more than a few times to get where I needed to be and in significantly less time than clicking, typing and then clicking yet again (presuming I remember well the name of the program or utility). Clearly this is an effort to distinguish themselves from other distributions but the concept is just as flawed as the Windows 8 interface.

mitchloftus
mitchloftus

What if you can't remember (or don't know) the name of the program you want? Can you still drop menu levels until you recognize it? Us old folk sometimes have a brain fart. In general though, I'm kind of amused that the paradigm SEEMS to be regressing back away from constant use of the accursed mouse. Which I suppose many on this forum recognize is really NOT necessarily a better (or faster) way of doing things.

stymar
stymar

The description of the "simple task" requires you to go back and forth from keyboard to mouse more than with a traditional menu system.

pgit
pgit

I use KDE on this laptop, and I use gnome 3, e17 and IceWM on other machines. KDE is the easiest to work on. I have 6 little icons on the task bar to open the apps I use most often. One click, no looking around. Windows finally got with the program with "pinning" apps to the task bar. (or the menu for lesser-used apps) Gnome 3 is going to be sweet on a touch device... when they finally get around to enabling multi touch. e17 is for confusing the heck out of people. I get a kick out of using it when working with someone, eg security audits, and they see you can 'throw' an app off the desktop onto the (unseen) one next to it. Fun, but not the most useful.

rpr.nospam
rpr.nospam

To insert footer in Writer using the HUD Jack suggests the following steps: 1. Click the Alt key. 2. Type “footer” into the HUD 3. Select the Insert > Footer > All entry by moving the selector down with your cursor keys. 4. Click the Enter key. Total: 11 clicks To insert footer in Writer using keyboard you can do the following: 1. Press Alt+I (insert menu opens) 2. Press R (invoke FooteR command) 3. Press Enter (confirm the default footer) Total: 4 clicks In my experience, HUD is useful if you use an application occasionally but if you use it regularly then keyboard shortcuts are much more efficient (by repeated usage you'll learn them by heart). Regarding the overall satisfaction with Unity I have to mention a nasty bug with launcher and switcher on Ubuntu 12.04 which has been affecting many users of LibreOffice: https://bugs.launchpad.net/unity/+bug/1026426 The page says that the fix has been scheduled for Unity 7.0 which might be available in Ubuntu 13.04.

JCAlford
JCAlford

First, a disclaimer. I have 12.04 on my home LT and I love it. That being said, I don't think it is "one of the most efficient desktops on the market." Why? Because of the exact reason you listed: you are required to search for most things! The problem with any search feature is that you have to know what the person who designed the search wants to call whatever it is your looking for. Being a Cross-Platform User I understand how confusing that can be. A perfect example is the one you used, Libre. Many times I have had to open the "All Installed" feature of Unity and scroll through the list of all the programs in order to find the one with an icon that looks like a document because I can't remember that the Ubuntu word processor is called Libre. My point is that it is hard to remember the names of seldom used programs and features in order to search for them. Commonly used programs will be put on the launch bar and not need to be searched for. For you to say that remembering a title and typing it in is easier than a few clicks is simply saying that you prefer command line to GUI. For you, it may be easier. For most folks, it won't be. Joe Averageuser doesn't want to move his/her hands from the mouse to the keyboard every time they want to accomplish something. Ubuntu is making huge strides to integrate Linux into the mainstream. One of the main ways they are doing this is realizing that the majority of people prefer to have visual clues about what they are doing. Apple realized this 25+ years ago, MS 15+ years ago. Most Linux distros have GUIs that are on the level of Windows 3.1. It's about time a distro realized that most people care more about ease of use than effectiveness. Keep up the good work Ubuntu!

pgit
pgit

There is some sort of 'fall back' during install depending on whether or how the video was detected and set up. Something to do with native 3D effects. (which are a waste of resources for most people)

pgit
pgit

You are correct that more options are better, more likely you'll find the most efficient/enjoyable work flow for you. But we here are a bit jaded, we know what we're doing and can use experience to fill in any blanks. The wider debate is what to do in the enterprise or small business, where you don't care about choice. Getting work done is the only task. That's where an article like this comes in. Jack makes an argument for using unity, and some of us reply with differing opinions. Myself included; I set up KDE for all end users who aren't going to be tinkering with the environment, that "typical end user" most of we here are not. As for me, I use a number of DEs besides KDE. I love gnome 3, and frequently fire up e17 and even IceWM. Ice is about the only DE that won't get in the way on my old (P-III) laptop I use for some rather lengthy monitoring. (I don't care if it gets stolen : | ) If any user comes to me with knowledge of other DEs, I'll set them up with some alternatives and let them decide which they prefer. Notice that begins with the user, I assume if they've come across knowledge of, say gnome 3, they were looking for it, or at least were enlightened enough to look into when they came across it.

pgit
pgit

The nature of the underlying video system, X(.org) makes handling more than one monitor a PITA. The hardware, keyboard, mouse and monitor, are technically the X server, the client is the software. Getting two drivers (for separate video outputs) to break down the input they get from the client side and keep it straight (which content goes to which display) on the output side is a daunting task. There's a ton of overhead needed to get it right. Keep in mind you're only running one instance of X. Windows makes multiple monitors easy because the entire video system is little more than an executable running in the same environment as your windowing system and apps. (gdi.exe) All ends of the operation are using the same, much simpler API. I'm not sure if the Wayland model will make this easier, I would imagine it's developers have the idea in mind.

tech
tech

but they appear to be attempting to make entry into the tablet market, so I wouldn't count on that changing.

bobc4012
bobc4012

Zorin OS offers 3 choices of Desktop - Gnome 2, Windows XP or Windows 7. (it is still Linux under the covers for the Windows desktops, it just gives the look and feel of them). BTW, I still run Ubuntu 10.04 on an old Toshiba laptop and Ubuntu 10.10 in an XP directory (WUBI install) on another old laptop (which I take when I travel). I had to replace my desktop and it came with Windows 7 (another piece of crap IMO). I installed VirtualBox and have Mint 12 installed as one VM with a number of different desktops (e.g., MATE, Cinnamon, XFCE, etc.). I also have Zorin and Solus as VMs plus some others, such as Ubuntu 12.04 (could not get any of the 3 preview versions of Windows 8 to install, in spite of sufficient RAM and HD space).

mrdt
mrdt

Why did you go back to Windows? I've found KDE to be much better than Win7.

bobc4012
bobc4012

Either stay with 10.04 (or 10.10) - you still get updates on other components or move to Zorin OS, Solus OS or Mint 12 using either MATE or Cinnamon.

bobc4012
bobc4012

And also Zorin OS and Solus OS.

hometoy
hometoy

I am not sure if you are talking about HUD or the global menu. HUD can be brought up with the Alt key, type in the command you are looking for, hit the down arrow to the selection you want and hit Enter. The Global Menu, though, puts the menu for the active window in the top panel and I can see how it would be a pain with multiple monitors. I'm setting up a multiple-monitor system and immediately discounted Unity or Gnome shell for KDE (with Xfce as my fallback).

bobc4012
bobc4012

I agree. Just think if all the databases in the world used that same concept rather than some kind of Index hierarchy to locate items? The menu system is nothing more than an "indexed database", to assist for faster access of stored items. Granted, a "random access" database will get you there faster IF you know the location. Of course, with HUD, if you have to type in a "long name", by the time you are done typing (without TYPOS), I have already had it running by clicking on the menu, even if I had to go down a couple of levels.

hometoy
hometoy

If you don't remember what the program is called, there is an Application view which shows all of the applications (unless you use the categorical filter on the side, like for Games or Internet) in an icon sheet similar to the iPad and Android's default look: square icons all over the screen. What I wish is that if I could set up the Dash to open to this view automatically, instead of having to click the Applications choice on the bottom of the screen. Maybe some future version will allow this.

bobc4012
bobc4012

Sorry, that was my brain trying to recall the DOS program I had installed under WINE! Next time, I 'll take my brain to Midas and have it Midasized. I agree 110% and have been making that same point. Especially, when you run into some of those "old, cryptic Unix style" commands.

edwardtisdale
edwardtisdale

Pinning to the taskbar isn't much different that adding a program to the Gnome panel, and in fact takes up way more space on the desktop. Sure there are more things to a pinned program like seeing a preview of what's there, but this should be mentioned, because simply the word pinning to the taskbar doesn't describe this, Aero Peek does.

hometoy
hometoy

I'm not sure how you listed 4 steps and came out with 11 clicks, but the second method requires you to know Alt+I for inserting and "R" for FooteR. I know it shows that in the menus but that's more to look for and think about (and remember) than "Alt" "footer" "Enter". Plus it is the same method for any of the other choices and in other programs rather then learning new keyboard tricks per program (*IF* they have any).

bobc4012
bobc4012

What if I have a some "scattered" image (or article) that I want to scan and OCR into a "one page" textfile (for reading the next time I am in the "home library" - and also in case of emergency). How fast am I going to be able to do that with shortcuts and/or HUD? Or does Mr. Whipple have to squeeze the "Charmin"?

bobc4012
bobc4012

However, there are too many Linux distros and the community will probably never standardize on one - but should agree on a "standard set" rather than having a p!$$!ng contest on "mine is bigger than yours". There are a number of things that it should consider for Joe Averageuser. One common way to install, one common "Gnome 2" desktop, One common set of base applications, A complete and usable "Help" facility, use of the "live CD/DVD" and maybe a couple of other things. Let the different distros differentiate themselves by extra offerings or allowing the more experienced user to make choices at install time (or from an install list) via an "Advanced" button. Even Windows will not get away with one flavor of Windows 8 from what I have read. I recently read one article, where Linux could have made headway back when Vista first came out. A standardized XP-like Linux could have had a real chance to pull in Windows users. IMO, Windows 8 is another opportunity that will be p!$$ed away. And "Secure Boot" may make things quite interesting for the Linux world.

edwardtisdale
edwardtisdale

I we really wanted to 'search' for a program, we should be able to search by many different keywords, not just the name of the program. Really if we already know how to spell the first part of the name of the program we are probably going to be able to spell the rest of it, and since we will, why wouldn't we just open terminal and type the name there?

bobc4012
bobc4012

I am aware that you can do that - as are most other posters here. However, under Gnome 2, you could click on the menu, see the categories and click on the one you wanted. I also have no problem setting up folders on my desktop and labeling them with whatever category name I choose. For more frequently used applications, I can "pin" them to the panels - top panel for one categorical set of frequently used and the other for another set plus I can also set up a drawer to store less frequently used.

JCAlford
JCAlford

You're right that Linux has dropped the ball. They dropped it by competing with themselves instead of with MS. This is, financially, like fishing from the pond instead of the ocean. There is an attitude amongst Linux users that everyone who uses anything other than Linux is an idiot (just look at the posts here to see that in action) and so should be ignored and insulted by the "real" computer users. The truth is that people use what they are used to and aren't really looking for huge changes (small changes to keep things interesting, yes, but not big ones). Some people will blast MS for producing such a different OS interface in Win8, then in the same breath say that people need to come to the totally different interface of Linux. How stupid is that?? Joe Averageuser doesn't care that Linux is more secure and stable than Windows or OSX. All they care about is that they can use their computers to do what they want in as easy a way possible. Having to do anything from a command line confuses most folks. Yes, KB shortcuts are faster, but most people won't even bother to learn them (even though they are printed right beside the link in the drop-down menu) because it's easier not to have to think about it. (Yes, people really are that lazy!) Linux distributors need to learn to design interfaces and configurations for Joe Averageuser not Joe Superuser. (MSI packages anyone??) There can still be all the cool Linux-y stuff in the background that Joe Superuser can get to and play with, but the only way to get Joe Averageuser's money is to make it as easy for HIM to use as possible.

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