Day 14: I'm an Ubuntu Unity convert

By Tony Bradley, PCWorld

After poking around the Unity interface a bit, I had switched back to the Ubuntu Classic desktop at the urging of some reader comments. But, today I decided to take a close look at Unity, and what unique features and functions it brings to the mix.

Ubuntu Linux

The 30 days series

Day 1: Getting Started

Day 2: That was really easy

Day 13: Playing tunes in Banshee

As it turns out, there is a lot I love about Unity. Why? Well, I know that some Linux loyalists are tiring of me comparing Ubuntu to Windows (although that is essentially the premise of the 30 Days With Ubuntu Linux series), but the reason I love Unity is that it offers many of the same features and functions I love about Windows 7.

I have already discovered that Ubuntu offers window snapping functionality similar to Windows 7 Aero Snap. Today, I learned that it also has features similar to Aero Peek, Jump Lists, and the Pinned Sites feature of Internet Explorer 9.

Unity has a quick launch bar of sorts on the left side of the screen which contains icons for various programs. By default, it has Firefox, the programs of LibreOffice, and Ubuntu One. It also has icons for attached removable storage, and a few tools unique to Unity—the Workspace Switched, Applications lens, and the Files & Folders lens.

The bar auto-hides when it doesn't have the focus, and reappears if you hover the mouse over that left side of the screen. I can drag any app I want onto the bar. I added Tweetdeck to mine. I can also right-click on an icon on the bar and uncheck the “Keep in Launcher” option to remove it from the bar. If the icons on the bar exceed the available screen real estate, you can just scroll up and down to view them all.

Apps that are active have a little white arrow indicator on the left. If you open multiple instances of an app, it will have multiple little white arrows, so you can easily identify how many active instances are running. While not quite the same as viewing thumbnails by hovering over the app icon a' la Windows Aero Peek, if you click on the icon for the app it will display miniaturized views of each of the running instances, and you can click the one you want to switch to it.

For apps that are developed to take advantage of the feature, right-clicking the icon in the launcher bar provides similar functionality to the Windows 7 Jump Lists. For example, with the Evolution app I can right-click and get direct access to the Contacts or Calendar functions, as well as jumping straight to composing a new message.

Now, lets talk a little about these other Unity features. First, the Workspace Switcher. This is especially handy if you are working on a netbook -- or something else with a small display -- but you need to spread out and have a bunch of windows open. Ubuntu offers four virtualized desktops, and you can navigate between them all using the Workspace Switcher. So, you can have LibreOffice Writer opened in one quadrant of the Workspace Switcher, while you have Firefox open in another quadrant.

Then, we have the Applications, and File & Folders lenses. These provide quick access to other apps and data that aren't already included on the launcher bar. The Applications lens shows apps divided into three categories: Most Frequently Used, Installed, and Apps Available for Download. Files & Folders shows Recent, Downloads, and Favorite Folders. Both make it easier to get around Ubuntu and find what you're looking for.

There you have it. I think I'll use the Unity desktop after all. Before everyone chimes in to talk about how Microsoft "stole" all of these ideas from Ubuntu, or from Linux in general, I can't say if they did or didn't. I will say that “inspired” is probably a more accurate term than "stole". Ultimately, I don't really care. I just know that I like these features and functions in Windows 7, and I like them in the Ubuntu Unity interface.

Of course, if you don't agree with me, and the Unity interface just isn't your thing, there are some alternative desktop experiences you can check out instead.

You can follow Tony on his Facebook page, or contact him by email at He also tweets as @TheTonyBradley.

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2011 PC World Communications. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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