Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
Linux - Part 19
by Alan German
Version 10.04 LTS (Lucid Lynx) has been ticking over
normally for the past few months on my production
machine. During this period of trouble-free operation I
took the opportunity to look at a number of subsequent
releases of the software, specifically Version 11.04
(Natty Narwhal) and the current release, Version 11.10
While this was largely due to my curiosity with all
things new in Ubuntu, it was also precipitated by my
acquisition of a netbook computer. The Acer Aspire One
522 has a 10.1-inch screen, with a native resolution of
1280x720. Even with the relatively high screen resolution
for such a small unit, I thought that the display might
benefit from the supposedly netbook-friendly Unity
desktop that is a feature of recent versions of Ubuntu.
In general, Unity has not received stellar reviews.
Critics have labelled it as buggy and inconsistent, and
many users have indicated that they immediately reverted
to the classic Gnome interface. However, Oneiric (and
likely all future versions of Ubuntu Linux), has dropped
the option to switch from Unity to Gnome as part of the
base system (but, more on this later). So, it's probably
a good time for me to take a look at Unity in order to
decide if it's a viable interface for the future, or if I
need to seek out other options to maintain a workable
Unity, which was first introduced in the Ubuntu Netbook
Edition of Version 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat), has been
modified with different releases of the operating system
so, for the purposes of this article, the interface used
in Oneiric (see figure) will be described.
The most obvious new feature is
the set of icons down the left side of the display. These
are program launchers. Simply clicking the mouse on an
icon launches the associated program. For example, the
third icon down should be recognizable as the launcher
for the Firefox web browser.
Now, while the initial use of these program launchers is
intuitive, one can't say the same for the location of the
program menu once an application has been launched. The
normal File, Edit, Save... menu is generally not to be
found along the top of the program window. Eventually, I
discovered that, if I ran the mouse over what used to be
the top panel, the program's menu magically appeared
across the top-left of the screen. They tell me it's to
save screen real estate (for things like my shiny new
netbook), but this change is going to take a bit of
getting used to - if at all!
A number of inconsistencies in the user interface are
shown in the way in which the LibreOffice suite of
programs is handled. For example, a notable exception to
the general rule for the File, Edit, Save menu is that
this menu is retained as part of the LibreOffice program
windows rather than being displayed in the top panel. In
addition, launching LibreOffice Writer, runs the word
processor and places small white triangles on each side
of the launcher, which is the "standard" means
to indicate that the application is running. However,
launching Impress, runs the presentation manager, but the
launcher may appear in various configurations. Sometimes,
Unity opens a new, rather nondescript, black and white
icon in the launcher, complete with two white triangles.
On other occasions, the two white triangles are
associated with the main (coloured) icon for Impress (as
they should be). Yet another method of
"display" for the open application is not to
show any white triangles with any icon! Needless to say,
this is all very confusing to the (this) end user.
Another issue with Unity proved to be yet another case of
a "missing" menu. This time, it was the old
series of drop-down menus from the top panel, namely the
Applications, Places and System menus which were used to
launch various programs, navigate through the file
system, and change system settings. Now, with the
availability of the on-screen program launchers, one
might imagine that the Applications menu might be
redundant. However, a moment's thought indicates that it
isn't possible to launch all of the required software
from such a restricted set of icons. Clearly, there has
to be another way.
Further exploration of Unity's interface located an
equivalent to the old menu system in one of the program
launchers. It's actually the black-and-white icon in the
top-left corner of the screen. Hovering the mouse over
this icon identifies it as "Dash Home". Once
Dash Home is open, one is confronted with a series of
ghostly icons for "Media Apps", "Internet
Apps", "More Apps", and "Find
Files". There are familiar icons for Firefox and
Thunderbird, although the latter are labelled
"Browse the Web" and "Check Email"
respectively. And, there are icons for "View
Photos" (the Shotwell image manager) and
"Listen to Music" (Banshee Media Player). The
other feature of Dash Home is a "Search" box -
just like the Windows start menu!
So, with all these choices, the question was - Where is
Terminal? Trial and error identified a couple of ways to
locate this utility. Clicking on "More Apps"
pulled up a sub-menu of programs that had been
recently-used, were already installed, or were available
for download. The offerings were listed alphabetically
but only a handful of programs appeared in each category.
"Installed" had an option to "See 93 more
results" and scrolling down through this latter list
eventually located Terminal's icon. Of course, given the
new search paradigm that is in place, I could also have
started typing T-e-r... (or even just T) and Terminal
would have been quickly displayed in the row of search
Hopefully, I thought, Terminal will show up in the
most-frequently-used group (the first row of
applications) at some point. Or, better still, I found I
could delete the tab for Ubuntu One (which I don't use)
and pin Terminal's icon to the left side of the screen.
Right-clicking on the icon then allowed me to check
"Keep in launcher" so that Terminal would
always be available for use. I could even drag it up the
column, and drop it immediately below the icon for
Firefox, so that the black-and-white icon stands out from
its more colourful associates and is thus more easily
The thing I really didn't like about early versions of
Unity was that any application set to run in a
"window" that occupied more than 75% of the
display was automatically maximized when launched. I
really don't see the point. If I wanted it to run the
program in full-screen mode, I wouldn't have established
an 80% window! But, this wasn't even configurable. Some
screen designer decided that this was clearly the best
setting for me. Fortunately, many user complaints about
this behaviour have resulted in a recent change to allow
configuration of the auto-maximize setting, with a 100%
value effectively disabling this feature.
However, the really bad part of auto-maximize is that the
window controls (minimize, maximize and close), which I
had carefully configured to be in the top-right corner of
the window (this being natural and just), suddenly jumped
to the top-left of the screen, next to the File, Edit,
Save menu, because that same screen designer decided that
they should live in the top panel area - and he also
knows that I really want them to be on the left! As far
as I know there is no fix for this behaviour.
While all of the above noted items are basically
annoyances, one behaviour of Ubuntu Linux with Unity when
running on the netbook really brought the show to a
grinding halt. Each time the computer would attempt to
connect to my Wi-Fi network, the entire system would
crash. No mouse movement, no keyboard control, nothing.
In fact, the only means to bring the netbook back to life
was to hold the power key down and force a cold reboot.
A Google search identified that the problem was related
to the specific hardware in the Aspire 522, namely a
Broadcom wireless adaptor, and an Atheros Ethernet
controller providing wired connectivity.
Even more interesting was one of the potential solutions
offered. One user indicated that: "You can... boot
Win7 before and do a reboot to Linux..." While this
solution (amazingly) does work, it clearly isn't a
desirable method of solving a Linux problem!
A second solution was to blacklist the "atl1c"
driver for the Ethernet controller (for details, see:
This had the desired effect in that the wireless
connection could then be established. However, another
consequence was that the wired Internet connection was
now unavailable. Fortunately, the wireless connection is
my method of choice in normal usage for the netbook, and
the wired connection isn't needed (although this can be
restored by reversing the blacklisting process.)
The final annoyance with Unity that I have identified to
date is the answer to the question - Where is Restart? It
turns out that "Restart" is on the dialogue box
that is returned when you press "Shut Down".
While this works, it means multiple clicks to restart the
So, given the above litany of problems and partial
solutions, can I live with Unity? Time will tell. But, if
not, there are a number of options to use a different
These include installing the Gnome Shell. Yes, that's
right, although Gnome isn't available directly at login,
I could install gnome-panel from Ubuntu's Software
Centre, after which the Gnome classic desktop could be
selected by clicking on the cog wheel icon on the login
screen. Or, if I wish to avoid Unity entirely, one
enterprising user has developed the Ubuntu Gnome Shell
Remix, a distro that has Ubuntu Linux as its base, but
uses Gnome by default. I could also run a different
flavour of Ubuntu, such as Kubuntu (with the KDE
interface) or Xubuntu (which uses XFCE), or perhaps just
find a new distro entirely.
Alternatively, I could (and probably will) wait to see
what Version 12.04 (Precise Pangolin) has to offer
Version 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot)
Canonical Group Limited http://www.ubuntu.com
Click here to view the
full OPCUG website with frames.
Copyright and Usage
Ottawa Personal Computer Users' Group (OPCUG), Inc.
3 Thatcher Street, Ottawa, ON K2G 1S6
opinions expressed in these reviews do not necessarily
represent the views of the OPCUG or its members.
comments or suggestions to the .