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Ubuntu Oneiric: Initial Musings

Update: Because of hardware problems the information about Oneiric’s speed are off, please ignore these mentions. Correction: Also, Unity is a collaboration of Gnome 3.0 and the Ubuntu Launcher with the Launcher generally replacing Gnome 3’s Activities Start Menu.

Aaaaaaaa….

First thing I noticed as Oneiric booted up was how pretty it was: from the unassuming theme to the colorful launcher, the Oneiric looks are sweet. The second thing I noticed, however, was how slow it was. Upon logging in: the desktop took about 60 seconds before becoming usable; the application menu took 10 seconds to open, and the file browser another seven. My first impression: a bit scared (no worries, read on).

Note: A quick background to explain my experience: I have an eight year old laptop that I’d like to be able to hold onto. I know a good number of other Linux users with older computers because basically, I think, we feel that for what we need to do that these computers are good enough. Up to this point, I’ve used the original Gnome (Gnome classic < 3.0) fine on this computer (many Firefox tabs, Gimp, Inkscape concurrently) and it ran adequately enough. We are at a time though where it is certain that Gnome is changing (Gnome re-engineered the desktop with Gnome 3.0 (a more "modern", though more resource-intensive desktop)). Shuttleworth (Ubuntu's high commander) was like many though and couldn't understand it's ergonomics and announced a split from Gnome 3 with the Ubuntu-designed Unity desktop (basically a Gnome 2.x desktop with some tweaks and a new application bar). Unity too though is more resource-intensive than Gnome Classic and judging by other posts I've seen I am not the only one questioning if I need new hardware.

Aesthetics

Ubuntu certainly is putting good thinking into creating an efficient desktop. The colorful icons on the launcher distinguish differing programs very well. When they are clicked they provide nice feedback so you know the program is loading. I think that going the route of icons only was a nice touch (as I generally know what I have open in a program). The theme too is a design that is well thought out and works well for applications that run full screen. Unity saves screen real estate by combining the title bar, gnome panel and program options (File Edit …) into one. Since I don’t usually need the program options visible this works well for me.

The scrollbar is re-engineered too and is just hinted (a small four pixel-wide color bar) and pops-up on roll over. I’ve found this useful since it is something that I don’t always use. Other new niceties are an improved system font that has great readability and tabs have been made much smaller from the typically roomy Gnome originals.

Launcher

The launcher appearing too basic originally worried me, but I began to like it because it was so. It is nice that the colorful icons stand out but I wonder if a bit later on they won’t stand out too much. If they matched Oneiric’s notification icons (monotone icons) they might be less distracting (the bright colors attract my eyes easily). I like how the launcher simply explains how many windows belong to an application by arrows to the left of the icon, and which application is focused by an arrow on the right:

The launcher though does have an Achilles heal in it’s auto-hide functionality. This feature probably has it’s reasoning based in Unity’s netbook origins where screen real-estate was the first-most thought. On a normal desktop though, auto-hide functionality takes away the direct route I am typically used to. For one, applications a lot of times open up under the launcher causing the launcher to auto-hide. This meant that I would have to go from a visual representation to a mnemonic one for my open applications. I discovered that I had to put my pointer to the left edge and wait for the launcher to re-appear a good many times. Later on I just moved applications away from the launcher but since most applications launched there this got tedious too. This behavior added a lot of work for me and there is no direct option to fix it.

The application menu on the launcher is very thorough. It’s most useful feature in my opinion being the search box where you can search applications and documents (the cursor even starts there). It is slow to load on this old computer (10s cold start, 3s warm), but I find it so useful I can take the wait.

Red Zone Issues

A few things happened that caused me a good amount of concern. First, after loading up the desktop I installed Gparted to format a USB flash drive (the new Ubuntu Software Center is very nice, though very slow)

only to have Gparted crash on me mid-format. I’ve never seen Gparted crash ever before and this really threw me (Note: running the last several days though no other application has crashed on me except Firefox once [though I haven’t tried Gparted again]). Others bugs were: resuming from suspend failing two times (out of about twenty), and having the mouse freeze up once. The big adjustment I’ve had to make is due a bug (I think) on how I normally perform my tasks: I’ve had to learn to look for a blinking cursor. There is something about Oneiric where I’ve clicked text boxes a good number of times and typed only to have the first keypress missed. I believe this behavior is due to the first keypress actually selecting the text box. I’m not sure why this behavior occurs (never seen or heard of it before) but I hope it gets fixed soon.

Ups and Downs

Up: Desktop now volume-less, leaving it available just for my work files.
Down: Flash installed by default… groan.
Down: Firefox not pgo yet.
Down: Mail Notification requires Thunderbird to be open.
Down: File manager started from launcher opens behind Firefox.

Ameliorations

I did manage to get most my problems fixed over the last few days. The speed can be improved a good deal making it about on par with Natty, the dock can become just about as usable as the Gnome panel Application Switcher, and the missing key presses… well.

Tomorrow I’m going to write Ubuntu Oneiric: Tuning the Desktop on a adjustments that I made that improved my desktop experience.

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About Todd Partridge (Gently)

Good times, good people, good fun.

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