Ubuntu logoI was unhappy -- appalled, even -- when I read in Fall 2010 that Ubuntu 11.04 would be ditching GNOME in favor of the Unity desktop environment. But after testing the development version of the next Ubuntu release, I have to admit I'm growing less skeptical of Unity's prospects. Why? Read on ...

The last time I took a close look at Unity, on the eve of the Ubuntu 10.10 release, I found some features lacking, but thought in general it was a decent desktop environment for netbooks and other devices. As long as normal GNOME 2.x was still an option, there didn't seem any harm in pushing Unity for certain use cases.

But after Canonical announced in October 2010 that Unity would become the default interface of not just Ubuntu Netbook Edition but of normal Ubuntu as well, I was not very optimistic about Unity's ability to perform satisfactorily on large screens. It seemed like a poor replacement for GNOME, the tried-and-true desktop environment that was always heavy on intuition and light on nonsense.

Unity, Improved

Fast-forward to the present, however, and Unity appears surprisingly usable, even on my normal desktop computer with a 1440x900 LCD screen. I wouldn't yet say I like it better than GNOME, but I could see myself living with it. Take a look:

Unity default desktop

The interface itself doesn't look very different than it did five months ago. Its behavior, however, has changed for the better in several notable ways. For one, the taskbar on the left side of the screen now seamlessly hides itself when an application is maximized:

Unity with maximized application

Another useful improvement is clear feedback from icons on the taskbar, which now flash immediately after being clicked. The lack of event feedback, and the feeling of lagness that it spawned, was one of my major gripes with Unity back in the fall. It's encouraging to see it corrected now.

The tool for managing multiple desktops has also shaped up nicely. It looks sheepishly similar to GNOME Shell, but at least it works well, and provides a decent replacement for Compiz's Exposé feature:

Unity desktop manager

Last but not least, the announcement by Canonical employee Bill Filler a couple of weeks ago that a "2D" version of Unity will be available for users whose graphics cards can't handle the visual effects of the normal interface was great news in Unity's favor. The change corrected a glaring inadequacy by ensuring that people with older hardware won't be locked out of Ubuntu come April 2011.

If Unity is now much better than it was last fall, however, it's still far from perfect. Beyond a number of features that haven't yet been implemented but which should be by the time Ubuntu 11.04 comes out in stable form, Unity suffers from a profound lack of customizability. At the very least, I'd expect to be able to move the "dock" to a location other than the left side of the screen, and it would also be nice if the top panel could be shifted around. Neither of these tasks is currently possible.

It's no secret that Linux users like to be able to customize stuff, even if for no other reason than the reassurance of knowing they can, and Canonical will have a lot to answer for if Unity remains so lackluster in this regard.

The ultimate test for Unity, of course, is to be not just pretty good, but actually better than GNOME-based Ubuntu as we currently know it. And we won't be able to come to a conclusion on that issue until April. But in contrast to five months ago, when I thought the Unity plan was a near-certain disaster, I now believe there just might be hope for it.

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