Efficient desktop environment

I consider myself as a power user. Every day (and sometimes also nights ;-) ) I make intensive use of computers to get things done. Of course I am not a farmer - I am working in IT business. - However, intensive use of computers is by far not limited to IT people.

Of course, for people spending a major part of their time in front of a computer lousy software has a bigger impact on efficiency. While many people can live with the fact to reinstall their Windows PC every 6 months, I get angry when some of my most often used features take two clicks to much as it could be.

There are two major kinds of computer users: Those who are using one or two applications most of the time and those who use a larger set of applications. To the first group people belong who will respond to the question "Which operating system are you using?" with something like "Word - Microsoft Word". ;-) - While for the first group the underlying OS is of minor relevance, for the latter group of people using a bunch of applications, the underlying operating system can be a critical factor.

I am an Ubuntu user and in the Ubuntu world the last months were full of discussions about the new desktop environment developed by Canonical, namely Unity. Many argued about bad user experience. I myself did play around with a lot of additional components to bump up my desktop. I tested several dock components like Cairo-Dock, AWN and others. Although I finally did not use any of those due to other reasons (stability, performance or simply no time to tweak it to fit my needs perfectly), I had a quite nice configuration with Gnome 2 and AWN on my Ubuntu 10.04 machine. Surprisingly that configuration looked quite similar to Unity.

Many of my peers switched to Linux Mint which is Ubuntu-based but is going for a different strategy regarding desktop look and feel. If you like Ubuntu, but don't like Unity, you can either use "classic" Gnome3 or install Cairo-Dock which then offers an option to go with Classic Gnome + Cairo Dock right on login (at least starting with 12.04 beta 1) and I even managed to create an AWN session with the help of TuxGarage. (The example there is outdated - you need to look at your current ubuntu.session file and take this as a sample or look below in the comments on that post).

However I found - after testing a while - that Unity fits best for me - at least with the least effort to put into getting it efficient. Important from my point of view is that with mouse OR keyboard everything can be reached quickly, that includes: Virtual desktops, Launchers, Open Application Windows, Menus, File system.

Out-of-the-box Unity offers a lot of cool hotkeys, besides ALT+TAB for switching between open applications you can use ALT+^ to switch between open windows/instances of the same application or after ALT+TAB you can collapse and expand application windows with the UP/DOWN keys. Pressing and releasing ALT offers the HUD menu (F10 still brings you to the normal menu). STRG+ALT+LEFT/RIGHT switches between virtual desktops. The only thing I immediately missed was a quick way to switch desktops with the mouse. My former way of configuring this was installing compizconfig-settings-manager and configuring desktop wall accordingly to switch to next and previous desktop doing a right-click on the left or right edge on the screen. That does not work any more when Unity is active on the left. I did not change that to now use left and right mouse button on the bottom edge and that works. In addition to that I reduced the icon size to 32 (can be done using compizconfig Unity plugin, installing MyUnity or also via commandline).

People who don't like Unity have different reasons but one might be the dock-style (which even Windows adopted later). The dock with launcher and window list in combination has one big advantage: The icons are always on the same position - no matter in what order you launch them. This is essential if you open a lot of applications during the day and end up in continously searching your app windows. Although I used to hate window grouping, Unity behaves differently whether you click on a different application launcher or not - which I found reduces necessary clicks.

These and a few other things I missed in all the other desktop environments - like e.g. configuring different times - not just one (I like to see New York or other time zones when clicking on the clock). Although other dock components have a lot more customizing options and features, I find Unity simpler and I found minor bugs in Cairo-Dock and AWN which resulted in my decision that I do not want to bother with finding my own fully customized X-Session and then probably experiencing more troubles. Would have tried longer if I would have found Unity unacceptable. But: After all my tests I still find Unity the best.

I definitely find that the time of a classic task bar (as known from Windows XP, KDE, XFCE or LXDE) is over - mostly because of the unsure icon position in a classical taskbar and the fact that the first thought always needed to be: "Did I already start this or not?" - depending on the answer a different icon had to be clicked. And even on larger screens it is annoying to waste screen space with additional panels (quickstart and windows). My attempts to get a combination of XFCE or LXDE with Cairo-Dock or AWN working well together failed because I either had some crashes, or too many panels remaining. BTW: XFCE comes with a bottom launcher which only is set to autohide by default.

There are still a few things I would like to see in Unity - like easier configuration of the unity launchers or including a classic Gnome menu launcher by default, but I think that Unity is on a good way - I got familiar with it quite fast and so new users will, I think. Of course many people find many things to tweak after a first installation of Ubuntu. I probably will come up with my one set of tweaks after the final Ubuntu 12.04 LTS came out...

Related posts: Popular Ubuntu desktop myths, Why companies do not use Linux on the desktop, Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Precise Pangolin optimized.


Carl Draper said...

For me I find Unity restrictive as there is no way to move the dock, it is stuck on the left hand side. I also hate the Global Menus and everything full screening all the time. I've even tried Unity on my Latitude XT tablet/laptop and it was annoying on that, I kept accidentally opening apps when all I wanted to do was scroll the dock down or up! (See my blog for my more details on my experiences both on desktop and tablet)

On my main desktop I use Cairo Dock on dual monitors, on the right hand side of my right monitor. On my laptop I use Gnome Classic without any docks. I added my mainly used apps to the top panel.

Martin Wildam said...

Yes, there are restrictions in configuration of Unity, but I read a statement somewhere (don't find it now) that unity was meant to be configurable but a lot is still to be done and will come step by step. With the launcher on the left I don't have a problem because that is exactly my preferred location. Bottom might be what I was used to from taskbar but for the mostly wide-screens left is better use of the space IMHO. On the right side I already had troubles with Gnome2 when resolution changed on-the-fly when at customers and plugging into beamers or external monitor (you will find about my fix-script searching for "docking station").

Regarding the full screen / maximizing: That bug should be fixed. Automaximizing only remains for small screen resolutions where that makes sense - see bug #797808. For me there is no automaximizing any more (as it was in former versions).

I also hated the global menu from first experience and still do not like it. But: a) I am pretty sure that with future versions this will be configurable, just didn't make into this one - see Global Menu 'Off Switch' Won't Land in 12.04;
b) it is easy to get rid of the global menu: sudo apt-get remove indicator-appmenu
And c) examining my use cases indeed I mostly use the functionality of toolbars (e.g. in Firefox or LibreOffice have my own customized toolbar for intensive use features in addition to defining hotkeys) and so don't dig into the menus continously - hence gain space in browser window etc. So I probably will not disable the global menu anyway (not yet finally decided yet).

I cannot talk at all about touch experience because I don't use tablets at all (prefer a netbook as I need/want a real keyboard) and on my phones I use Android.

Martin Wildam said...

Oh, BTW: I subscribed to your blog as I found some interesting stuff.