Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 


Exploring Linux - Part 19
by Alan German

Ubuntu 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 (Oneiric Ocelot).

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 Linux system.

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 results.

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 located.

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: http://linuxnorth.wordpress.com/2011/10/23/wireless-less/). 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 system.

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 user interface.

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…


Bottom Line:

Ubuntu Linux Version 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot) (Open-source)
Canonical Group Limited
http://www.ubuntu.com


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