Image: Ubuntu Unity

I have a confession to make. Back when Canonical created its own desktop called Unity, I felt it was, hands down, the best desktop environment on the market. Not only was it beautifully designed, but it was also one of the most efficient and productive UIs available. With the Head-Up Display, powerful search, and highly configurable dashboard, I was able to work with a level of efficiency I had yet to experience.

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But then Canonical did the unthinkable and jettisoned that desktop (and all the work the developers put into it) and returned to GNOME. Ever since, I’ve felt Canonical made a big mistake by scrapping Unity. Fortunately, since this is open-source, a fork of the Unity Desktop was given birth in the form of a complete distribution (called Ubuntu Unity) and is still in active development. Although it’s not quite the same Unity as was found back in its Canonical heyday (no HUD connected to application menus), it’s still a fantastic desktop.

Let’s take a look at what Ubuntu Unity 22.04 has in store for you.

First, you can download the ISO for Ubuntu Unity from the official download page. I highly recommend deploying this as a virtual machine at first. If the distribution serves your needs, you can then install it on bare metal and enjoy the Unity desktop as your daily driver.

My first impressions of Ubuntu Unity 22.04

Upon installing and logging into Ubuntu Unity for the first time, my immediate impression is that of nostalgia. Other than the color scheme and the wallpaper, this looks exactly like the Ubuntu Desktop of old that I loved so much (Figure A).

Figure A

The default Ubuntu Unity desktop immediately hearkens back to the good ol' days of Ubuntu.
The default Ubuntu Unity desktop immediately hearkens back to the good ol’ days of Ubuntu.

This impression really hits home the second you click the menu button at the top left corner. Once the Dash is open (Figure B), you’ll see what looks almost exactly like Unity when it was enjoying its heyday.

Figure B

The Unity Dash is open and ready to make your life a bit more productive.
The Unity Dash is open and ready to make your life a bit more productive.

One thing I appreciated about the Unity Dash is that it allowed me to get very granular with my searching. You could enable/disable different categories and sources for your searches. If you only want to search for applications, make sure Applications is the only option selected under Categories. If you want to search for only Files & Folders … ditto.

That’s not to say everything works perfectly. Just like back with the original Unity, sometimes the search simply won’t find files on your system. If I recall (back in the day) the problem with this issue had to do with Zeitgeist and whether you’d actually opened a file. Here’s an illustration:

  1. Open a terminal window and issue the command touch ~/Documents/TechRepublic.
  2. Close the terminal window.
  3. Open the Dash and search for the TechRepublic file.

The search results will come up with nothing. However, do the following:

  1. Open LibreOffice.
  2. Open the TechRepublic file.
  3. Add some text to the file.
  4. Save the file in the ODT format.
  5. Close the file.

Now, when you search for the TechRepublic file in the Dash, it’ll appear in the results (Figure C).

Figure C

Our file is there to quickly open from the Dash.
Our file is there to quickly open from the Dash.

This was just one aspect of why Unity was such an efficient desktop. Of course, it’s not like other desktops don’t include such features, but Unity just always did it better (and looked better doing it). Fortunately, Ubuntu Unity nailed this feature.

The missing piece

The one feature of Ubuntu Unity that I loved was the HUD (Head-Up Display). Effectively, what this did was integrate application menus into the Dash such that you could (while an app was open) hit the Super key (aka the “Windows” key) and then search the app menus. For example, you have LibreOffice open, and you want to center a line of text. Instead of selecting the text, and then clicking Format | Align | Center, you could select the text, hit the Super key, type Center, and hit Enter and the text would be centered. This makes it quite efficient, especially when an application had a large menu system that made it challenging to find what you needed.

Unfortunately, not every application took advantage of this feature, and it looks like Ubuntu Unity has not integrated the HUD with application menus. That’s a shame because it was the absolute best feature in the original Unity.

Even so, Ubuntu Unity has included the global menu feature, which means application menus are found in the top bar and not in the actual app window (in a similar fashion to how macOS handles global menus).

App switch

One of the things the developers have done is switch out a few of the default GNOME apps for those that better fit the Unity UI. That list includes the following:

  • Document Viewer–switched with Atril
  • Text Editor–switched with Pluma
  • Video Player–switched with VLC
  • Image Viewer–switched with EOM
  • System Monitor–switched with MATE System Monitor

Other than that, the OS includes (out of the box) the likes of:

  • LibreOffice
  • Firefox 99.0.1
  • Eye of Mate
  • Document Scanner
  • Disk Usage Analyzer
  • Remmina Remote Desktop Client
  • Thunderbird
  • Unity Tweak Tool

And, of course, you can always install from thousands of applications using the included GNOME Software.

Who Ubuntu Unity is for?

Anyone who enjoyed what Canonical was doing with the Ubuntu desktop, before it jumped ship back to GNOME, will vastly appreciate what the developers behind this distribution are doing. If you like a desktop that very much creates an efficient and elegant workflow, this might become your go-to Linux distribution.

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I believe Ubuntu Unity is one of the most beautiful Linux desktops on the market. If the developers could only bring back the full HUD, I could see myself replacing Pop!_OS as my distribution of choice.

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