Open Source

Ubuntu Unity: Making the desktop seriously efficient again

Contrary to the popular opinion, Jack Wallen has found Ubuntu Unity to be one of the most efficient desktop designs on the market.

I've noticed something lately. Since Ubuntu 12.04 was released, and I migrated over from Linux Mint, I'm working much more efficiently. This isn't really so much a surprise to me, but to many of the detractors who assume Unity a very unproductive desktop... well, I can officially say they are wrong.

But, let me get a bit more specific.

The general public are used to a desktop metaphor that dates back to Windows 95. They open up programs only to minimize them so that they can open up more programs. This continues until (and I've seen this countless times) a nearly unmanageable amount of windows are open, and the user is bouncing back and forth between pieces of work.

For some, that model seems to get them through the day. But at what cost? A while ago a survey was done (and I cannot remember who sponsored it or ran it) that indicated multi-tasking at that level is good for the brain. I have found, over the years, that working in such a fragmented way did one thing — made me do fragmented work. I could work with numerous windows open — do a bit of work here and a bit of work there, only to find my work slowly but surely losing focus, specificity, and a necessary level of tightness.

Ubuntu Unity has, for the most part, solved that problem. Oh sure, you can have as many windows open as you want. But unlike many window managers, you can't click as easily to minimize and maximize the windows. With many desktops you can click on the opened window's icon and either restore or minimize the window. With Unity, you can only restore. In order to minimize the window you must click the minimize button.

Now, using the Alt-Tab combination you can cycle through your opened windows (and even select the Desktop entry to minimize all windows). But what you don't have is what Linux-land calls a Winlist — a small applet, in a panel, that houses all minimized windows. Instead, you have your launcher icons that show (with a nod to OS X) a highlight or indicator to inform you there is an open window for that application.

What I find myself doing is not keeping nearly as many windows open. I am working with much more focus and actually getting more done quickly.

Now, this isn't really much when taken alone. But you couple that with the HUD (Head Up Display) and all of a sudden, you're working more efficiency — and with more focus. Back with standard menu systems, you can (at least initially) spend a good amount of time searching for the correct menu entry you need to pull off a task. With the HUD, you simply enter a search string to be returned options to select from. What this has done for me is make me far more familiar with menu systems than I was before. So now, instead of having to search for a specific menu entry, I just have to know something about the menu entry. For example:

Using LibreOffice, if I open the HUD and type "align" (no quotes), the HUD reveals to me:

  • View > Toolbars > Align
  • Format > Alignment > Center
  • Format > Alignment > Right
  • Format > Alignment > Bottom

All I have to do is either click on the entry I want or use the cursor keys to select and then hit Enter to apply. So I am interacting with my applications more efficiently.

Finally, there is the Dash with the included Lenses. This tool basically takes the Start menu and gives it the ability to work for you, instead of against you. You open the Dash up, search for something, and everything related to that "something" will appear. No more digging around in Start Menus for whatever it is you need. And with the inclusion of Apps, recent documents, and multimedia, the Dash has become an incredibly efficient means of interacting with your OS.

I realize that many people out there have spurned Unity (I was one of them for a long time), but the more I use it, the more I realize that Canonical really did their homework on how to help end users more efficiently interact with their computers.

Change is hard — period. For many, the idea of change is such a painful notion they wind up missing out on some incredible advancements. Unity is one such advancement. If you are looking for a way to help you focus on the task at hand, and make more use out of your day, you owe it to yourself to give Ubuntu Unity a try. When I first used it, my connection was mostly on a "novelty" level. It was cool, it was different. But now, after giving it plenty of time to really sink in, I fully understand the "why" behind the design and execution.

It'll be interesting to see how people react to Windows 8 when it arrives, as it attempts to pull off the same task as does Unity. Let's see which desktop does the better job of helping people work, instead of keeping people from working.


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

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