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Sunday, May 01, 2011

Nutty Narwhal

On Friday morning I upgraded Ubuntu to the new release, 11.04, a.k.a. Natty Narwhal. The main feature of the new version is the overhauled interface, Unity, developed by Canonical in an apparent attempt to turn Ubuntu into an unusable mess and drive everyone to Debian or Fedora or something, or perhaps just give up on Linux altogether and install a pirated copy of Windows 7.

I'm probably coming across as being afraid of change. But I really tried to approach the new interface with an open mind. I was ready to embrace and enjoy the new interface. But Canonical just wouldn't let me.

There are a number of problems with the Unity interface, and they mostly seem to be inspired by what I consider to be the less sensible features of Mac OSX. For example, global window menus. Most application windows have a row of menus at the top (File, Edit, View, Help, etc.), which are specific to that particular window. Since these menus belong to the window, it seems logical that they should be contained within that window. In Unity, when a window has input focus, its menus appear at the top of the screen. So to access a window's menus, first you have to select the window, wherever it happens to be on the screen, and then move the cursor to a completely unrelated location at the top of the screen to select the menu you want. This is second nature to Mac users, but I challenge any Mac user to look me in the eye and tell me that it really, truly makes sense.

But my main beef with Unity is that they replaced GNOME's dead-simple, fast, easy, intuitive Applications menu with a complicated, awkward, messy pile of bullshit. The GNOME menu has always been a shining example of what an app menu should be: A list of apps, sorted into categories, that lets you launch any program within a couple of seconds of deciding that that's what you want to do. You can edit the menu to add custom launchers, move or edit existing items and make subfolders to keep long app lists organised.

In short, you can set it up how you want it, and the rest of the time is stays the hell out of the way and lets you get stuff done. It is perfect. For example, if I suddenly get the urge to play Osmos, here's what I do:

The GNOME menu is really, really good.

That's it.

If I want to do the same thing in Unity, there are several options of varying degrees of awfulness. The first is to open the applications menu and start typing "Osmos" into the search bar. (That's right, Unity's app menu is so unnecessarily complicated and labyrinthine it needs its own dedicated search bar.) What used to take about two seconds with the mouse now involves typing.

The next option is to open the app menu, select the categories menu and click games. (That's three clicks already!) Then we are presented with a few of the games that are installed, plus a selection of games that Unity for some reason thinks we might want to install right at this moment. Because of course, if I want to install a new game I'll just open my games menu and hope that Unity will read my mind and present it to me. The game we want probably isn't here, so we then select "See 52 more results" and are subjected to a barrage of icons, which we have to scroll down through to find what we want - partly because the icons are so inappropriately large, and partly because the menu has ignored the subfolder for logic puzzles and simply thrown all the games together in one long list.

To illustrate this process:

The Unity menu is really, really bad.
Stage 1.

I mean really, what were they thinking?
Stage 2.

"Usability testing? What's that?"
Stage 3.

Excuse me while I go have a shave - I grew a beard in the time it took me to do that. Note also that I had to shrink the screenshots down since the menu is so needlessly big.

The final option is to simply put the game onto the sidebar. Then I can open it at any time with a single click! Of course, the sidebar can only hold so many items, so while this is fine for things you use all the time like a browser, music player and Twitter client, you can't have much else there, especially since it is pulling double duty as a taskbar for some reason*. And this is on a farly large (22") monitor - woe betide anyone running Unity on a netbook**. Of course, many users only really use a couple of programs - but for those of us who actually use our computers for more than looking at email forwards and pictures of cats, it's totally unsuitable. Despite what appears to be Canonical's core belief, one size does not fit all.

In short, the old GNOME menu is geared towards letting you get shit done with no fuss. The Unity menu is designed to draw attention to itself and yell "hey look at me, look how shiny I am!!!1!1!!". It's not designed to be useful, it's designed to impress people who don't know any better.

Sensing that Unity's menu system was not configured for my needs, I looked through the Preferences menu until I found an entry called "Launcher & Menus". Ah, of course, I thought. I can go in there and change it to my liking! I eagerly clicked the entry, and was greeted with...

Canonical hates customisation.

...this.

It was pretty much at this moment that I gave up and reverted to the old interface.

* OSX does this too. Call me thick, but how does it make sense to lump programs I might want to open and windows that are currently open into one big jumble?

** Which is ironic, considering Unity was originally developed for Ubuntu Netbook Edition.

EDIT (8/5/11): In fact, even with the old GNOME interface, I found Natty to be so pathetically laggy that I've now switched back to the previous version, Maverick Meerkat. I'm not sure if it was just some weird quirk of my system or if Natty really is that terrible, but everything is super fast and working perfectly now on Maverick.

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