Continuing with our series of Linux Desktop Environment reviews, we’re going back to a classic. The Unity is just as much a blast from the past as MATE. This review covers the Unity Desktop: first impressions, the user experience, some notable features, and some recommendations on who should use it.
When I first boot into Unity, I’m struck by how much it looks like GNOME and Budgie. This makes sense, as Unity is a graphical shell that sits on top of the GNOME Desktop Environment (rather than GNOME Shell), and it does offer some separate features that are different than GNOME Shell.
The user experience is similar to GNOME in Ubuntu, since Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) purposely makes the (Gnome) user interface the same as Unity. You have the Launcher on the left, which is always visible, and there’s a system tray in the top right with access to networking, sound, date/time, and session settings. It’s eerily similar, but there are some key differences, despite the fact that Unity is designed to put together a collection of existing software.
The Unity Dash
The Unity Dash is quite different from the GNOME Dash. The GNOME Dash is what Unity calls the Launcher, but the Unity Dash is a more powerful desktop search function. It will search through your applications on your local machine and in the Software store, files, music, photos, and videos.
The files can be filtered by size and the music by genre. It’s incredibly useful for looking through your system at a glance through any of the “lenses,” which are those different categories. I especially like the ability to filter through files by size – it could limit your search for “Ubuntu” to files larger than a certain size so that you can find an ISO file easier.
Additionally, you can controversially turn on online sources for the search. That will give you access to searches through various online sources, like Amazon, YouTube, and several others. There are also many other lenses available, many of them through PPAs. You can search DuckDuckGo, for example. Online searches are turned off by default, so you’d have to go to “Security and Privacy” in Settings to turn it on.
The Top Menu Bar
There are a couple of interesting features of the very top menu bar in Unity. It will always tell you where you are. For example, it says “Ubuntu Desktop” when you’re on the desktop or “System Settings” when you’re in the settings menu. It’s helpful to not have multiple words cluttering the top left corner – it contributes to the user friendliness.
Also, the top bar houses the application menu options, like “File,” “Edit,” and “Help.” This is the only Linux desktop environment that takes those things off of the window title bar and puts them on a global menu like that. It reminds me a lot of macOS, except that it’s cleaner, keeping the menu options hidden unless you hover your mouse over the top bar.
I really like this setup, as it contributes to the clean look of Unity without sacrificing usability. The top bar also will take on the window control buttons when a window is full screen, helping to maximize the vertical space on your monitor. This is particularly helpful if you have a small monitor.
This is an area where Unity suffers. On first boot of my Ubuntu Unity 20.04 virtual machine, I saw 1.15 GB RAM and 2% CPU used. This is much heavier than other desktop environments. One of the main reasons is that the window manager runs Compiz, which is a very powerful 3D window manager. The real problem with Compiz is that it’s quite heavy and underused. Compiz is the thing that uses the most resources at idle on Unity. I wonder if they had used a lighter window manager how the performance would be.
The desktop itself also feels sluggish. Opening the dash search takes a while, and the search is not well indexed, so it doesn’t return results instantly like I’d expect. Applications open a little slowly, and it seems like you need a beefed-up PC to be able to run it smoothly. Most Linux desktop environments work fine in a virtual machine, but Unity is a particularly poor performer in this regard.
The Cons of Unity
The main thing that sticks out as a con to me is the wallflower factor. Nothing about Unity really sticks out. Aside from the search function, the appearance, look and feel of Unity doesn’t have anything special enough to keep me coming back.
Where to Experience Unity
There are a couple of great places to experience Unity. On the Desktop, Ubuntu Unity is a great-looking implementation of Unity with modern icon themes and sane default applications. Of all the versions of Unity I’ve interacted with, the one on Ubuntu Unity 20.04 is easily the nicest looking. UMix is another distro you can check out.
However, if you’re looking at one of the new Linux mobile devices like the PinePhone, you’ll also want to look at a Unity desktop. UBPorts provides Ubuntu Touch OS, which is based on Unity. This is a great way to use Unity, especially because the Dash search has so much potential if it’s optimized well for the hardware.
Who Should Use Unity
Users who used Ubuntu with Unity before they switched to GNOME Shell would really like the look, feel, and function of Ubuntu Unity. It’s the same base, but you get the classic Unity desktop you’re looking for. Additionally, users looking at a PinePhone or PineTab should absolutely look into Ubuntu Touch. They’re reportedly an excellent experience.