It's been a while since we last took a look at Unity, the new version of Ubuntu customized for netbooks.  A lot has changed since then, however, so it's time for some updates on how the desktop environment is evolving.

We first blogged about Unity when Canonical introduced it back in May.  We made some unfair conclusions at that time, failing to appreciate the extent to which the interface was still in development.

Fortunately, most of the problems we found with Unity when it first debuted--whether they were design flaws or merely the result of yet-to-be-implemented features--have now been overcome.  In general, the new interface is looking pretty sharp--and at least a bit prettier than Ubuntu Netbook Remix, the traditional netbook environment for Ubuntu which has been around for several releases.

These improvements are important, since Unity will serve as the default interface for users of Ubuntu 10.10 Netbook Edition.  It can also be installed from within other editions of Ubuntu using the 'unity' package (for cutting-edge builds, use the UNE PPA).

Previewing Unity

So what exactly has changed since Unity's primordial days last springs?  For one, it now sports a Mac OS X-esque main toolbar, with the drop-down menus and window buttons for the active window displayed where the Gnome panel would be on regular Ubuntu.  This does seem a little copycat-ish to me, but it also helps to save space on tiny screens:

Gnome terminal open in Unity.

Another major update is the application menu, which is now categorized according to application type and offers a search box that works well.  Perhaps more noticeably, it's also very aesthetically appealing:

Applications menu in Unity.

Different kinds of effects have also been implemented, such as simple fadeout decorations when minimizing windows.  I'd argue that Unity--or, more precisely, Mutter, which handles its windowing--still has a ways to go if it wants to match the grace of Compiz-based desktop effects.  But what it has now is a start, at least.

Still Evolving

There are some aspects of Unity which I'm not crazy about.  For one, it can feel pretty laggy when performing certain tasks, a problem that might be mitigated by providing better pronounced feedback to the user when clicking buttons.

I also really wish there were a way to auto-hide the panel on the left of the screen, or even remove it altogether.  Granted, the most valuable pixels on my netbook's tiny 1024x600 display are the vertical ones, but horizontal real estate is not in unlimited supply either, and the space eaten up by the launchers can be problematic--especially since many websites these days are designed for a minimum width of 1024 pixels.

In general, Unity has shaped up nicely, and offers netbook users an interface that's both pretty and functional--especially on touchscreen devices.  But like most worldly things, it has flaws, which we hope will be addressed for future Ubuntu releases.