So I’ve been trying Ubuntu’s Unity for a month or so for the 11.04 release and recently tried GNOME3. This post is my brief review of the two desktop environments since I believe Ubuntu is planning to ship with GNOME3 for the 11.10 release. Keep in mind that this is just personal preference and so this is not an objective review — it’s not like I timed myself or observed users for this.
I’ll be frank and just say it: I don’t like Unity. I find it very inefficient for me whereas GNOME3, with a few gotchas, is very in-tune with how I use my desktop environment. Thus, I find GNOME3 a very efficient environment to work in.
So on to the little things…
In Unity, there is a dock/launcher on the left side of the screen. It is always visible unless and window overlaps it either by movement or when it is maximised. Bringing up the dock after it hides seems unresponsive for me and at times, the dock will stick on top and I can’t figure out how to hide it again.
I do like the ability to assign quick-launch keys to items in this dock. That is, you can hold the Super key and press 1–0 and I believe a–z afterward to quickly launch an application that is pinned to your dock. I like that it indicates multiple windows with the dots, similar to Mac OS X and docky.
One thing I loathe is that the launcher items doesn’t show any indication of me launching something. That is, if I click or activate a launcher, it does nothing. I expect the launcher to animate, blink, or something to tell me that I launched something.
Overall, it’s okay and it simplifies the presentation of what’s going on in your environment to the user. However, its slow responsiveness is what kills it for me.
With GNOME3, the dock is on the left, like how it is in Unity. However, the dock is hidden until you activate your Activities mode, which is done either by moving your mouse to the top-left corner or hitting the Super key. There is no auto-hiding because it’s not needed and as a result, the dock in GNOME3 is more snappy and very responsive in comparison to Unity’s. While the launchers don’t animate when you activate one, like in Unity, you are quickly taken back to your normal mode so you know you did *something*. If you miss the dock and hit the dark area of your faded desktop, nothing happens, which is good because if you click near the dock launcher but miss, then you know you didn’t do anything.
Overall, I prefer GNOME3′s dock over Unity’s simply because it’s more responsive. Personally, I don’t really use a dock to gauge the state of my environment as I explain below.
I prefer a window picker to evaluate the state of my desktop. I like to have all the windows presented to me so I can get a quick overview of what I’m working on.
Unity lacks this feature or I can’t figure out how to access this feature. The state of your desktop is evaluated either by looking at your dock and/or using the expose feature, which presents your workspaces and their contents in a zoomed-out view. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reveal covered windows so I feel that this method doesn’t allow you to quickly check out what’s going on on your desktop.
In GNOME3, when you enter Activities mode, it scales all the windows on your current workspace in a window-picker fashion. Actually, this feature functions as a window picker as you can click on a scaled window to activate and focus on it as you’re returned to normal mode. You can even close windows while in Activities mode. What’s nice about GNOME3′s implementation is that it also presents the state of your workspaces at the same time and switching to another workspace while in Activities mode updates the view of scaled windows! Thus, if you really wanted to, you can switch to Activities mode and cycle through your workspaces to see all your windows!
Overall, I feel that GNOME3 offers me a more efficient method of evaluating the state of my desktop.
Heh, a feature that Microsoft Windows fails to grasp for some reason…
Both GNOME3 and Unity offer workspaces. However, in Unity, the number of workspaces are fixed, just like in GNOME2, but in GNOME3, the number of workspaces is dynamic.
So in Unity, as with GNOME2, I would imagine my workspaces as a 2×2 wall and I switch my current view to a different workspace as I see fit. There’s not much to say here because Unity implements this feature fine.
In GNOME3, you start with two workspaces with your first one active from the start. If you move to the second workspace and open a window there, another workspace is created in the background so you’ll have three. Thus, I can no longer imagine a 2×2 wall as that paradigm is no longer valid here. Instead, it’s like a long banner where I add and remove segments as I see fit.
Interestingly, with dual monitors, the workspaces works only on one screen. I don’t know if this is an intended behaviour but my second monitor doesn’t have multiple workspaces so whatever window I place on my second monitor stays there no matter which workspace I enter.
Personally, how workspaces are implemented doesn’t really matter to me as long as that feature is there (looking at you, Windows…). I tend to use three or four at most so the fixed 2×2 that Unity had suffices for me and I wouldn’t mind adding more if I needed to. GNOME3′s dynamic workspaces is nice but not a killer feature to me.
Both environments got rid of the idea of notification icons (kind of with GNOME3), which I’m okay with.
Unity’s notifications are like GNOME2′s where it is on the top-right corner of the environment. Applications that want to have a status icon are consolidated in one indicator icon that changes colour when something wants your attention. From here, you can also interact with the application, for example, changing songs, setting your IM status, etc.
In GNOME3, these status icons are placed at the bottom of the environment and are hidden from view until you move your mouse there. They are also visible when you enter Activities mode. They act like normal status icons where you can right-click and interact with applications that way. The bottom area in GNOME3 acts like a queue also. Notifications are queued up and you click on them to dismiss them. Otherwise, they remain there. I find them less intrusive than Unity’s bright-blue envelope but at the same time, I feel that it’s too subtle at times.
Overall, either implementation works for me.
A list of general gripes from both environments:
- Unity’s global menubar. I use focus-follows-mouse and so this global menu is pretty useless as if I try to move my mouse to the menubar, it will activate another window before I get a chance to get there.
- Lack of customisation on both environments. However, with GNOME3, I can use tweaking tools to set options like what should happen when I close my laptop lid. Why the developers thought they could dictate how the system should behave beyond the user’s preference is beyond me.
In conclusion, I feel that GNOME3′s Activities mode itself kills Unity. I get a better sense of what’s going on and what I can launch than with Unity’s launcher. GNOME3 definitely feels a lot more responsive than Unity. Therefore, on my Ubuntu system, I installed GNOME3 early and hopefully in time it will integrate better with Ubuntu. I just can’t use Unity as my personal desktop environment…