Six must-have Ubuntu Unity tweaks

Out of the box, Ubuntu Unity is very efficient. However, you can use the Unity Tweak Tool to make it even better. Here's how.


Ubuntu Unity tweaks

There's a lot of reasons to love Ubuntu Unity. Out of the box, it's an incredibly efficient and user-friendly desktop environment. Is it standard fare? Not at all. Is it hard to learn? Not even remotely. Are there necessary tweaks you have to make? Certainly. Depending upon your desire to tinker, you could find yourself tweaking the interface the entire time you use it. Thankfully, there's a single tool -- called the Unity Tweak Tool -- that enables you to fine-tune the Unity interface so that it works exactly how you want it to work.

Let's dig in and see exactly what you need to get that interface just right. The Unity Tweak Tool can be found in the Ubuntu Software Center, but I'll show you an even easy method of installation.

Installing Unity Tweak Tool

This method of installation will demonstrate just how user-friendly Unity actually is. Here's how you can install Unity Tweak Tool without even opening the Software Center or touching your mouse. Follow these steps:

  1. Hit the “Super” key (aka “Windows Key”)
  2. Using the cursor keys, navigate to the Application tab (at the bottom of the Dash)
  3. Hit Enter
  4. Type “unity tweak” (no quotes)
  5. Navigate to the Unity Tweak Tool and hit Enter
  6. When the preview opens (Figure A), hit Enter
  7. Type your sudo password and hit Enter
  8. Allow the installation to complete

Figure A

Figure A
Installing the Unity Tweak Tool from the Unity Dash.

You'll know the tool is installed because the application button will appear on the Launcher.

Working with the Unity Tweak Tool

Now, it's time to get to those tweaks. When you first open up the Unity Tweak Tool, it should look somewhat familiar (Figure B). The layout resembles the Unity System Settings tool (which offers a nod to OS X).

Figure B


Figure B

The Unity Tweak Tool in action.

1. Background blur

One of the first tweaks you might need to take care of will depend upon whether or not your hardware can handle the Unity Background blur. I've experienced older machines that can't handle the compositing necessary to draw the blur. When opening the Dash, if you find that Unity starts to crawl and the desktop becomes distorted (or goes black in the Dash window), you'll need to turn the Background blur off. To do this, follow these steps:

  1. Open the Unity Tweak Tool
  2. Click on the Launcher section
  3. Click on the Search tab
  4. Click the On/Off slider for Background blur to the Off position

Now, when you open the Unity Dash, chaos should not ensue.

2. Web Apps

The next tweak is one that I always take care of. Web apps integration is a nice idea -- it creates a Launcher icon for certain apps that have web integration (such as Amazon, Google+, YouTube, etc) -- but it's more of a nuisance than anything. The problem, in my opinion, is that it's quite unnecessary, because all of these web apps are actually web pages. So, when you have your browser open, with multiple tabs, and you open up one of the web apps, a new launcher for that tab will appear. These web app launchers add no extra functionality or efficiency (unless you'd like a quick access icon for, say, Google+ on your Launcher).

To disable this feature, do the following:

  1. Open the Unity Tweak Tool
  2. Click on the Launcher section
  3. Click on the Web Apps tab
  4. Click the On/Off slider to the Off position

That's it. You'll no longer be prompted to install web apps.

3. Workspace switcher

By default, the Workspace switcher (aka Pager) is set to off in Unity. To turn the Workspace switcher back on, follow these steps:

  1. Open the Unity Tweak Tool
  2. Click on the Workspace Settings section
  3. Click the Workspace switcher On/Off slider to the On position

From this same screen (Figure C), you can also configure the number of workspaces, the color of the current workspace, and even the key combination to start the workspace switcher.

Figure C


Figure C

Bring back the Workspace switcher.

4. Hotcorners

Hotcorners is another configuration you can add to the mix. You need to be careful not to configure a Hotcorner that interferes with Window Snapping. Personally, I like to configure a Hotcorner (generally the lower or upper right corner) to set off the Window Spread behavior (all open windows are thumbnailed on the screen, so the user can select which window they want to work with). To enable this Hotcorner, do the following:

  1. Open the Unity Tweak Tool
  2. Click the Hotcorners section
  3. Click the On/Off slider so it is in the On position (if necessary)
  4. Select Window Spread from either the bottom or top right drop-down (Figure D)

Now, when you hover your mouse at the newly-configured Hotcorner, all open windows will appear on the screen as a thumbnail image.

Figure D


Figure D

Setting up Hotcorners.

5. Window Controls

Window Control placement is a big one for many users. For years, people have gown accustomed to the minimize, close, maximize buttons being in the upper right corner of the window. Unity places those buttons in the upper left corner of the window. If you can't seem to get used to that placement, change it back to the standard like so:

  1. Open the Unity Tweak Tool
  2. Click on Window Controls
  3. Select Right for the Alignment section (under Layout)

From this same section, you can also add a menu button to the window task bar. This menu button offers a number of handy options to the Window Controls, such as:

  • Minimize
  • Maximize
  • Move
  • Resize
  • Always on top
  • Always on visible workspaces
  • Only on this workspace
  • Move to workspace right
  • Move to workspace down
  • Move to another workspace

For those who use the Workspace switcher, the menu button might be a must-have, to help you easily move windows to different workspaces.

6. Auto-raise and focus

Finally, there is the Auto-raise and focus behavior. One of my favorite old-school behaviors is having both auto-focus and “focus follows mouse” set. With this, it's very easy to give focus to a window simply by moving your mouse to a window (no mouse click is necessary to focus the window). To set these, follow these steps:

  1. Open the Unity Tweak Tool
  2. Click Additional
  3. Click the On/Off slider for Auto-raise until it is in the On position (Figure E)
  4. Select Mouse from the Focus mode drop-down
  5. Select Auto-raise delay to suit your needs

Figure E


Figure E

Getting the old school "focus follows mouse" back.

There are plenty of other tweak you can perform with the Unity Tweak Tool. How much mileage you get from them will vary on your needs. The tweaks listed here are some of the most popular and helpful. Unity is already pretty efficient, but with just a few tiny tweaks, you can make it even better.

What tweaks have you made to Ubuntu Unity? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.