"Fixing" The Ubuntu 10.10 Unity Interface

"Fixing" The Ubuntu 10.10 Unity Interface

For the record, Unity is not "broken," it works just fine. Actually, I quite like it for the most part - but only after some tinkering. Naturally, any new interface takes a bit of getting used to, however, there are a few glaring omissions which need addressing. Some of these are rectified by a few clicks and tweaks (which I will explain), and some by simply getting used to the interface. But some are just default behaviors of the window manager, requiring developer intervention. Unity uses a window manager from GNOME 3 called Mutter. According to the Ubuntu manuals, mutter "is a minimal X window manager aimed at nontechnical users and is designed to integrate well with the GNOME desktop." This means that some of the omissions are intentional, to make a minimal and simple interface.

One of the first things you'll notice is the left hand application launcher. The app launcher is reminiscent of the Apple dock. You can launch apps with a single click, and you can add to it by right clicking the icon of an open app and selecting "Keep In Launcher".

Missing are the familiar top menu items; Applications, Places, and System. There is an "Applications" icon in the launcher. It's intuitive to click there to launch apps, but it's also where user preferences, utilities and system settings are located. That's less intuitive, but easily figured out. Just think of all of those settings windows as applications.


There is a "Files & Folders" icon in the launcher, but it's a far cry from a file browser. It shows recent documents, downloads, and favorite folders. Non-recent files are absent, and the favorite folders aren't folders you open a lot, they are the standard user folders like "Documents", "Pictures", etc... If you need a file outside of that, you won't find it there.

Luckily, the standard Nautilus file browser is available, but hidden. You can open Terminal and type 'nautilus' or get there visually this way: Click the "Files & Folders" icon, then select any folder. You'll see a white folder icon in the upper right corner. Click there and voila! The Nautilus file browser you're used to opens. While it's open, right click it's icon in the dock and keep it in the launcher so you don't have to jump through these hoops again. The icon is labeled "File Manager" and selecting About from the Help menu shows that this is indeed Nautilus (2.32.0 in my case). Interestingly, neither "File Manager" or "Nautilus" are listed in the Applications window. There is a "File ManageMENT" app in the applications window with the same icon as Nautilus, but it only opens a file management preferences window. This is NOT friendly to nontechnical users. I found it infuriating.

There is another window accessible via the Ubuntu icon in the upper left of the screen. This window has 8 icons of various application categories (Music, Web, Office, etc...). It's not that necessary as the standard Applications window has filter links and is pretty quick to browse. All three of these mutter windows (Applications, Files & Folders, and the Ubuntu menu) seem to take over the interface. You need to close them (by hitting ESC or clicking the Ubuntu icon) before you can use hot keys to change applications.

Another issue is that Mutter apparently does not support right clicking. If you DO use the standard Files & Folders window to browse files, you cannot right click for options. No move to trash, no open with, no rename, no nothin'. I would say stick with Nautilus and remove the Files & Folders icon completely, but if you right click it, removing it is not an option.

So what if you're not a "nontechnical user"? And what about machines whose hardware is robust enough to handle an interface that is not "minimal"? Well the short answer is that you needn't worry. Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal) is going to do away with Mutter, and use Compiz as a window manager instead. It has been ported, and the reports are that it has increased performance. That's great, because for a minimal window manager, Mutter is pretty sluggish.
Will Natty fix the problems I have with Unity? I think so, as they all seem directly related to Mutter.

Ubuntu 11.04 is scheduled for release on 4/28/2011.

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