Five tips for a smooth migration to Ubuntu's Unity desktop

When Ubuntu 11.04 is released next year, it will have a new default interface in tow: Unity. Jack Wallen explains what you can expect and how to prepare for the transition.

In the next iteration of Ubuntu (11.04), Canonical will be making the switch from the standard GNOME (or GNOME Shell) to its own interface, dubbed Unity. The Unity interface was actually created for netbooks to be an easy-to-use environment for the small desktop real estate associated with the hardware. Although this interface was designed for smaller screens, the design translates to the desktop as well as the new GNOME Shell interface.

But for those of you accustomed to the standard desktop metaphor, what is this transition going to entail? Will it be a challenge for the average user? Here are five tips to help you (and your users) make the transition a breeze.

1: Forget the Start button

Gone are the days of the old "Click Start and then...." What has replaced the start menu is a pseudo-sidebar that includes categories like Favorites, Files & Folders, Accessories, Education, Games, and Graphics. When you click on a category, a new "window" opens on the desktop with the application launchers for each application included in that category. This is the most apparent change to the desktop and will cause the most frustration for users. The best way to deal with it is to add the applications you use most to the Favorites category. Just right-click the launcher for the application and select Add To Favorites.

2: Don't forget the Control Center

Remember, Unity is just a shell that sits on top of GNOME, so the underlying tools are still there. If you click on the System category in the Menu Sidebar, you will see all the subcategories of the Control Center. Or you can click Alt-F2 and open the Control Center as you always knew it in the standard version of GNOME. From here, you can configure various aspects of GNOME. This will also assume that Unity will continue to use the GNOME Control Center as its single point of entry for user desktop preferences.

3: Make use of the Show Desktop button

For most users, regardless of operating system or desktop, the Show Desktop button is either ignored or removed. For Unity, you will want to use it and use it often. Why? When you have an application open and you want to open another application in the same category, you'll have to minimize your working applications, open the new application, un-minimize your working applications, and get back to work. By taking advantage of the Show Desktop button, getting to those launchers is just a single click away. Of course you can also click anywhere on the desktop to get this same effect, but since your minimized ions will already be in the upper-left corner (where the show desktop button lives), you'll reduce the movements of your mouse. Since Unity is all about efficiency, it only makes sense to make use of the intended design.

4: Say goodbye to the Linux Pager

This might be one of the feature drops that have me skipping Unity and installing GNOME Shell (or Enlightenment). I have been a big fan and user of the Linux pager since I started using Linux more than 12 years ago. With Unity, there will be no pager. This is a strange turn, seeing as how GNOME Shell will retain the pager. With no pager, how will the user of Ubuntu >= 11.04 deal with multiple desktops? Well ,as of this writing, you can use multiple workspaces on Unity, but you have to set it up through the gconf-editor tool. And switching between workspaces requires the Ctrl-Alt-(L/R) Arrow key combination. But if GNOME Shell is any indication, the Linux Pager functionality, as we have known and loved it, will soon be a thing of the past.

5: Get some practice

Probably the best thing you can do to prepare yourself for the Unity experience is to install the beta version of the software and give it a go. You can do this from within the Ubuntu Software Center. Depending upon the release you are using, you will install either Unity or the Ubuntu Netbook release. Once it's installed, you will be using something close to what will be the full release when 11.04 hits the Net. If you do decide to try this, your PC graphics chip MUST support 3D. If not, you won't be able to run Unity. NOTE: You can find the minimum requirements for Unity on the DesktopExperienceTeam Web site.

Take special note of the GPU Driver Requirements section, where you will see minimums for Intell, Nvidia, and AMD (Radeon) graphics chips. If your machine meets those requirements, install Unity and give it a go. How exactly does practicing on a desktop help you to migrate to the desktop? By adding Unity on top of the desktop you currently use, you can practice with Unity for a while and then go back to your default. This will give you plenty of time to grow accustomed to what very well could become the new standard metaphor for the desktop (especially as multi-touch becomes more and more the norm).

You decide...

Ubuntu Unity is not for everyone, but it looks as if it is a foregone conclusion. Of course, as with anything in Linux land, there are options. If you simply hate the new default Ubuntu interface, you can happily install the interface of your choice. Use GNOME Shell, KDE, Enlightenment, or any other Linux desktop interface. But before you write Unity off, give it some time. You may find you like it far more than you expect.

By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....