The Unity Linux GUI Controversy and Linux Mint's Decision to Stick With Gnome 2

Subject: Editorial, General Tech | May 9, 2011 - 09:06 PM |
Tagged: OS, linux, GUI

With the release of Ubuntu 11.04, a new desktop environment called Unity was released. Unity promised to revamp the Linux operating system’s desktop GUI to be more user friendly and intuitive. There are a multitude of noticeable changes that Unity brings to Ubuntu’s GUI compared to the classic Gnome environment. A new Windows 7 like task bar stretches along the left side of the screen where small icons of running and pinned applications reside. This new application dock is used instead of the traditional Gnome task bar that ran along the bottom of the screen. Also present is a new Ubuntu button that acts as an application launcher where installed programs can be sorted and searched for. Further, there are improvements to the workspace switcher and changes in window management with new hover-to-reveal scroll bars and each application’s (context sensitive) file menus being relocated to the top of the screen. These and other minor changes in the latest Ubuntu release have caused a flood of controversy among both reviewers and users alike.

Pictured:  Unity GUI (Insert:  Ubuntu Classic GUI)

On the positive side of the issue, there are a number of new and long time users of Ubuntu that have embraced the new GUI for it’s new features and design. Many people migrating from Windows 7 or Mac OS will become accustomed to the interface quickly as it works in much the same manner. Further, users of convertible tablet PCs have an easier time of navigating to applications and windows thanks to the larger icons. Touch and digitizer controls on the Dell Latitude XT worked well out of the box without a need to much with drivers, for example.

In contrast, as a newly developed desktop environment, it is less customizable from a user standpoint than the traditional Gnome GUI. Because of this (at the time of writing) restriction on customizability, many self-proclaimed power users have called Unity a step backwards in the aspects that make Linux a desirable OS--the ability to customize. Mainly, they dislike the constraints that Unity places on their ability to customize the operating system to their liking.

Read on for more...

Linux reviewers, for example, have commented that the interface is very reminiscent of netbook (Linux) operating systems and is better suited for tablets than a full fledged desktop distribution. Jim Lynch of Desktop Linux Reviews in particular has stated that Unity is something that he has tried to like but in the end was “suffocating and unnecessary.”

Another change between Gnome and Unity lies in the hardware requirements. Namely, the minimum graphics card specifications needed in order to run the desktop.  Gnone 2 based desktop environments (called "Ubuntu Classic" in Ubuntu 11.04) do not require 3d hardware acceleration.  According to the Gnone 2 release notes, the desktop environment has been known to work with as little as "P166 with 64M RAM," although a "P400 or equivalent with 128M RAM for using the desktop" is recommended.  In contrast to this, Unity requires more recent hardware.  Inalogic details the graphics card requirements to run Unity by stating that the desktop will require a graphics card that is newer than four to five years old.  Both frame buffer object and ARB (OpenGL) vertex and fragment support are requisite features of the graphics hardware needed to run Unity.  The frame buffer object support allows Unity to update only the portion of the desktop that has changed since the last render. while the ARB_vertex and ARB_fragment allows the developers more control and detail in rendering out the various desktop objects.  While experienced users can download and install a 2D (not hardware accelerated) version of Unity that will run on older hardware, new users to Linux may not be aware that there is an option for 2D and instead will opt to not use Unity at all when presented with an error stating their hardware is not supported.

As it stands now, users are able to revert to the classic desktop GUI if they wish to do so via the log-in menu. However, the Ubuntu development team has stated that Unity will be the GUI of choice for future Ubuntu releases and the classic GUI will not be provided as part of the distribution. This restriction is where the all the controversy stems from, as many users are adamant that Unity is not the right path for Ubuntu to take.  While Unity's requirement for recent hardware is not quite as steep, the situation is reminiscent of Microsoft's decision to implement their hardware accelerated Aero 3D desktop (which started with Vista) into new versions of their operating system.  For many power users, Ubuntu has become a “love it or leave it distribution” according to Mr. Lynch.

All it not lost; however, as one aspect of Linux in general that all parties can agree on is the freedom users have to choose distributions within Linux. As Ubuntu plans to restrict users’ choices of included desktop environments in future releases, users retain their ability to migrate to a new distribution.

In that respect, a ray of hope exists for the Gnome faithful in the form of Linux Mint 11. As an Ubuntu spin-off, it maintains the former operating system’s beginner friendly-ness and works in a similar manner to Ubuntu in core OS management. According to the Linux Mint Blog, the upcoming operating system (slated to release a the end of May) will not feature any new GUIs such as Unity but instead “will feature the best Gnome ‘2’ desktop you’ve ever got to see.” The developers are so confident in the classic Gnome 2.3 desktop environment that they plan to continue development on the GUI themselves.

While some may question the merits of sticking with Gnome 2 whilst other popular distributions are moving on, this move will no doubt win the favor of the power users who prefer the classic interface.

What are your thoughts on Unity and Linux Mint’s choice to continue implementing Gnome 2?

May 10, 2011 | 12:21 AM - Posted by BrandNewJesus

I have been back and forth with Ubuntu, Fedora, and Windows for many years. I don't consider myself a real PowerUser by any means, more of a Linux script kiddie. Most of these PowerUsers started with linux when it was command only, and some wish for it to stay that way.

If they want, they can still get that too.

As for me, I like the new GUI. It was a little bit to get used to. I just got conky running and feel accomplished.

I am running it on sandy bridge 2000 graphics, and everything looks good.
Can't beat FREE

May 10, 2011 | 01:40 AM - Posted by Tim Verry

Hi, thanks for your input. I'm kind of torn on Unity, personally. I'm not sure whether I like it or not, I'm just not sure it's to my personal style. I do like using it on a tablet PC as the icons are easier to hit with touch. I'm testing it out on my personal blog and have kept Unity running; however, I'm not sure I'll keep it once my article series is over. I may uninstall Ubuntu and use the new Mint 11 release as I'm really digging the silver Mint 11 interface ;) Plus, the RC is super fast, even in a VM! :D

May 11, 2011 | 12:09 PM - Posted by Sigis (not verified)

I'm new to Ubuntu Linux,but new Unity desktop is for me to complicated and not good looking,so i'l stay with old good Gnome :)

June 14, 2011 | 09:37 AM - Posted by Alexis (not verified)

Hmmm, I've also tried to like Unity, but struggling.

It first appeared on Netbook with Maverick. Kindof dont have a choice about that, not wild about that, obviously a work in progress, but I get by.

The Laptop was originally Lucid, did a Maverick upgrade which went well, so clicked the button when Natty came along. WHAT a mistake. Had to burn an iso to reinstall, all kind of drivers wouldnt install, but after rerunning it two or three times it settled down. Occasionally get a Debian Screen on boot (didnt know THAT was there), it feels slow(er) tbh, but I'm getting by.

But this Unity thing. I've tried to like it. I really have. But I cant - I just cant. I want my panels top and bottom screen, I want my menus (where I can find things) top left, and I want my separate machines bottom right. I DONT like the fact that I'm being locked out of things.

Yes I've swiched back to classic gnome - but hearing Unity is going to be defualt is a worry. Allied with the problems I had installing Natty, I think you are right - its time to move on . . . .

Oh, and the other thing, Banshee. Who the heck thought that was a good idea. All I want to do is see my music or albums. Rythmbox does both, but I have to do manual drops to the nano, but Banshee wont list whole albums. Geez.

Its not the first time I've heard about Mint. Think its time to check out the forums a bit more and burn an iso . .

Lets see how we do . . .

June 17, 2011 | 11:35 AM - Posted by HotUP (not verified)

I do not like the new interface. On the tablet it can be convenient, but not on the desktop.
I think it is no secret that Linux and Mac came from one source. And the Macintosh interface is perfect, so why GNOME is removed from the Linux?? Well, you do another version and call it Unubuntu. And put it in the interface Unity. Why spoil Ubuntu? Better break Kubuntu or Lubuntu! And leave intact Ubuntu with Gnome.
Well, if the normal Ubuntu will no longer I definitely will move to Linux Mint. And so do many users, I'm sure of it!

July 25, 2011 | 03:33 AM - Posted by Brian (not verified)

Looks great to me!

December 8, 2011 | 11:10 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

With wide-screen, you need the vertical real estate, and it's good to put the menu on the left or right. I don't know if you can do that with Gnome as well though. Higher system resources? That's probably a bad choice. What is the motivation for increasing system resource requirements?

June 3, 2012 | 01:18 PM - Posted by TearHere (not verified)

Overall, I think Unity could be a good idea. But there's some things that break it for me.

I didn't like to have to do a search to find aps that weren't open. Not as convenient as clicking thru known menu paths. So, I started addin icons to the launcher. Now it's so full over half of it is folded up and it's a pain to get the mouse in the right place to unfold and open what I'm after. This by itself is a break it for me.

Had a harder time switching between open aps. So, I started using the different desktops more. But the switcher shortcuts don't seem to want to work with the focus inside certain aps. The launcher button for it is so far down the launcher bar that its a pain to use when I have to -- which is far too often. I can't move it to the top of the launcher bar where it would be much more convenient. This is becoming a break it point for me.

Customization is paramount, developers! What gives you the right to tell me how I have to use my computer when there are obviously ways to allow me to use it my way and you just won't allow it? Why do you think I left Windows? (Ummm, catchin' a hint here, Canonical?)

I am not what you would call a power user. I do not and have not used tablets etc. so I'm not on that page and am not used to that style. I have no problem with the bar being on the side, but let me keep it neat enough to be usable -- which would mean allowing menus back there again, I suppose.

I'm trying hard to make Unity work for me but am just about at the end of my patience with it.

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