I’ve been using Ubuntu as my main OS for several years now, so I was a bit excited about the new version that was released last week. Having used it for a few days now I must say I’m quite disappointed with it. It features what must be one of the biggest single changes they’ve ever made, the introduction of the Unity shell instead of the old Gnome UI. It’s implementation so far has left me rather frustrated, and I can’t quite believe they thought it was ready to ship. On the extreme left-hand side of the screen there is now a pop-out application dock/launcher thing (it probably has a proper name which I don’t know) which takes up the dual role of the old application launch menus (which were the equivalent of the Windows XP Start menu) and of the task-bar where minimized programs go. The bar at the top of the screen still houses things like the clock and other system tray things, but it now also doubles as the home for the menus of the active window e.g. file, edit, view etc. If you have the window maximised it’s also the title bar, which switches back to the menu items when you hover over it, and the close, minimize and maximize buttons are also moved there. While this is great if you only work with one or two maximized windows at a time, as it maximizes the space used on-screen for the program itself, it is less useful if you are using several smaller windows, because to access the menus you have to move your mouse to the top of the screen instead of the top of the window. I think I would prefer it if the menu items were only moved if the window is maximized for this reason.
One thing that’s annoying at the moment is that customisation options for Unity are very limited, as far as I can tell, by default you can only add or remove programs from the launcher, and installing the Compiz settings program lets you change a few small things to do with the launcher’s animation and which button on the keyboard makes it pop out. Seeing as how customisation is perhaps the unique selling point of desktop GNU/Linux operating systems, it seems odd for this to launch with so few. I definitely feel that usability has also taken a step back with this release. As well as the problem with the menus I mentioned above, I also find it difficult to find the programs I want to use because of the abandoning of the conventional “start menu” style structure. Instead, if you don’t have the program you want pinned to your launcher, you have to click the applications button on it and then either search by name or click through a quite confusing menu, or a combination of the two. The applications window has a search box in one corner and a drop-down menu from which you can select a program category in the other, then has half it’s space taken up by a row of installed programs which fit the bill and, rather bizarrely I feel, has the other half filled with a row of programs you can download in that category. Why mix installed and non-installed programs like this? Most people are already going to know if they have a program that does what they want installed, and if they don’t they can easily start the Ubuntu Software Centre separately and find one. You can expand the rows to get the complete list of programs, so, for example, if the drop-down box is on its default setting of “All Applications”, I can click the text that states “See 159 more results” to do just that, which isn’t very useful really.
I really think the whole thing is badly designed from a productivity point of view. For example, let’s say I want to use Google Chrome, it’s not in my main dock thing because I use Firefox as my main browser, so I have to wade into the menus. Option 1, I use the search function, so I have to move my cursor to the edge of the screen, wait for the bar to pop up (which I’d like to make quicker, but can’t yet), then click “Applications”. I type “Ch”, it pops up in the list and I click it. Option 2, I click through the menu. I open the applications window like before but this time I open the drop-down box, click “Internet” then see Chrome on the list (just about, it’s the last in the row for me, if another program were before it alphabetically I’d have to click the show more results text) and click it. Written down like this it doesn’t sound like much, but both options seem intolerably long compared to the old-fashioned method of opening the menu, hovering over “Internet” and then clicking on Chrome. That takes two clicks and perhaps a second or two of mouse moving, both the new ways take much longer and they tend to use more clicks too. Indeed, waiting for the side-bar to open takes almost as long as the old method in its entirety! And, even if that were quicker to appear, the new methods still involve a lot more faffing about with menus. I think this is a great example of “It’s it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
The same can be said of the universal menu at the top of the screen. If I’m working with several small windows at once it really is annoying having to move my mouse all the way to the top of the screen every so often, as I then have to move it back down to the window to carry on with what I was doing. I’m no usability expert, but that seems like a step backwards to me, as it increases wasted time moving the mouse back and forth. Another problem is the way a program is minimized to the launcher if you have more than one window open for it. At the moment to open the window again you have to click the program’s icon, which will then show small versions of each window on-screen and you click the one you want. This again has the problem of increasing the number of clicks and the amount of mouse movement needed to do something that was previously simpler. I find it most annoying when using one big maximized window and several smaller ones from the same program, for example with Firefox I often browse with one window and have a smaller one for Google Chat. If I minimize the smaller window clicking the button to bring it back temporarily makes the bigger window smaller, as you get something like a gallery of a program’s windows to choose from, which is a little bit disorienting. As a little bonus, there is also a problem with opening more than one window in the first place, as the default action for clicking an icon for a program which is already open is to restore it if minimized, or to do nothing otherwise (you would think minimizing the window would be a better choice). Right-clicking the icons is program dependent, some, like Firefox, allow you to open another window like this, others, for example the Gnome terminal, do not (however, you can open one via the file menu).
I’m not quite sure what to make of these UI changes. I’m sure that in a few months things will be much better than they are now, at the least I’ll expect there to be a few more customisation options by then, but I’m not sure what will and won’t eventually be customisable or which little issues are usability bugs that will be fixed or which are actually by design and will stay that way. It all looks pretty, and I like how things have been designed to make the most use of the space on-screen, but at the moment a lot of it seems to be form over function, the way some things are done feels very awkward to me. I find myself using Alt+Tab instead of using the fancy launcher to switch between programs and windows, as it just works and the launcher does not. I don’t want to have to pick a window out of a line up when I restore one, I just want to click it and have it appear. Almost universally I find that the changes Unity brings end up using more of my time than before, even now that I’ve been using it for the best part of a week. A new UI should increase productivity and make things easier to use, and I’m not sure Unity does either. Perhaps it is easier to use on a netbook, or for people who only use their computer to go on the internet and check Facebook, but on a full laptop or desktop I think the difference is negligible. Luckily, at the moment there is the option to use the old Gnome UI, but that will eventually be removed in a later Ubuntu release. By that point I hope all my concerns have been addressed, or I may seriously be looking for a different distro.