Unity Desktop Review: Good for the Nostalgic Ubuntu Users

Unity Feature

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.

First Impressions

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.

Unity Login Screen
Unity Desktop
Unity Lock Screen

User Experience

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 ā€“ it could limit your search for “Ubuntu” to files larger than a certain size so that you can find an ISO file easier.

Unity Dash File By Size
Unity Dash App Search 1

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.

Unity Search Security

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 ā€“ it contributes to the user friendliness.

Unity Top Bar 1

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.

Unity Top Bar

Performance

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.

Unity Htop

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.

Unity Desktop
Unity Gnome Comparison

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.

Unity Neofetch

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.

If you enjoyed this desktop environment review, make sure you check out some of our other Desktop Environment reviews, including KDE, XFCE, Cinnamon, Pantheon, LXDE, LXQt, and Deepin.

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John Perkins John Perkins

John is a young technical professional with a passion for educating users on the best ways to use their technology. He holds technical certifications covering topics ranging from computer hardware to cybersecurity to Linux system administration.

3 comments

  1. Installed 18.04 a couple years ago with gnome, first thing went to settings and did not work/open. Seen quite a few questions on sites with same problem. Installed Unity(used before) and everything work first time, did not need google to find fixes. Probably would have installed Unity anyway since I like it and am comfortable with it.

  2. Nostalgic? I am not sure Unity existed long enough to be called “Nostalgic”. While I did not like Unity or use it, I am glad Linux and Ubuntu give those that want Unity that choice.

  3. “When I first boot into Unity, Iā€™m struck by how much it looks like GNOME and Budgie.”, LOL, the actual layout is what Gnome and Budgie borrowed from Unity (not the other wary around) …moving the dock from the bottom to the side, to make more efficient usage of a widescreen display. Your article is very interesting reflection on the effects of history, but I am a long term Unity user and do find it far more usable than Gnome, which is only just starting to catch up with features lost when Canonical jumped ship. Performance in a virtual machine with Compiz is going to be rubbish…on bare metal the difference is hardly noticeable as hardware acceleration allows the graphics card to do all the leg work. Like you I will probably leave Unity, but only when Gnome has enough features that make it worthwhile to do so.

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