Ubuntu is the most well-known version of Linux around. It’s how millions of people have discovered Linux for the first time, and continues to draw new users into the world of open source operating systems. So the interface Ubuntu uses is one many people are going to see.
In this area, Ubuntu is unique. Even as a new user, rarely will you confuse the default Ubuntu desktop for something else. That’s because Ubuntu has its own interface that you can — but probably won’t — find anywhere else. It’s called Unity.
Unity Is a Desktop Environment
A desktop environment is what you see on your screen. It’s the panel that displays information, enables you to launch apps, and lets you switch from one window to another.
Unity is one of many desktop environments available for free and open source desktops like Linux. This can seem strange if you’re moving over from Windows or macOS, which each only have one.
Since Windows comes from one company, we refer to the entire project as a single thing. No single company or organization manages Linux. Instead, the operating system is put together using components from many contributors. There are many ways to go about displaying information on your screen, and Unity is Ubuntu’s default way for doing so.
A History of Unity
The Ubuntu desktop comes to us from Canonical, a U.K.-based company that has been around since 2004. Early versions of Ubuntu used the GNOME desktop environment, but by 2010, Canonical was ready to create one of its own. Unity began as an interface for the netbook edition of Ubuntu 10.10. Six months later, it became the default environment on the main version of Ubuntu 11.04 as well.
Many users, complaining of instability and the lack of options, considered Unity to have launched before it was fully ready. By Ubuntu 12.04, Canonical had ironed out many of the kinks. Thing is, Unity hasn’t changed all that much since then, and it’s been over four years. Now we’re at Ubuntu 16.10, and it’s unclear when the situation is going to change.
How Unity Works
Unity is a little different to the standard desktop environment. It has a dock along the left side of the screen and a panel across the top. You can open or switch to an app by clicking on its icon. Other software is available through the Dash, which you open with the Ubuntu logo in the dock. Drag apps from the Dash to the dock to pin them as favorites. Drag them off to remove them.
The Dash contains scopes and lenses, which provide quick ways to search your computer or the web for files or data. You can play an album without opening a music app first, ask Wikipedia for the capital of Peru, load up your most recent photos — that sort of thing.
Unity is meant to be simple, so there isn’t much complexity compared to desktop environments like KDE. But you do have a few options such as hiding the dock, changing the theme, and moving the menu around.
One of Unity’s strengths is how much you can do via keyboard shortcuts. Open any app on the dock by pressing Ctrl + number. Navigate the app’s menubar by pressing Super (Windows key) and typing instead. You can launch apps and enter commands the same way.
A window displaying shortcuts appears the first time you start your Unity desktop, which is a nice touch.
Downsides to Unity
Unity isn’t for everyone. Many dislike Unity’s relative lack of customization. Moving the dock requires you to enter a line of code, and tweaking more than that requires installing additional software. Even with an app like Unity Tweak Tool, there are many aspects of the interface that you simply can’t tweak.
Nor is Unity the most stable desktop environment. Some would say Canonical’s project has always been a buggy mess. Others would say it was stable for a time, but more bugs have snuck in as the company’s priorities have shifted to Ubuntu Touch and mobile devices.
Canonical didn’t make apps for Unity. To create visual consistency between software, Canonical wrote patches for existing software instead. But this isn’t always an option, so the default Unity desktop provides inconsistent scrollbars and menubars across a few programs.
For what it’s worth, Unity 8 (when it does eventually arrive) will come with some of its own apps.
If you like Unity, you don’t have to use Ubuntu, but that is where you will have the best experience. Canonical invites others to port Unity to whichever distro they want, but the company doesn’t help them do so. As a result, installing Unity in openSUSE or Arch Linux isn’t as easy as other desktop environments, and you’re likely to encounter bugs.
Who Should Use Unity?
Unity’s strength comes from its number of users. Despite a growing population, desktop Linux is relatively obscure compared to Windows and macOS. But Ubuntu is well-supported enough that it’s easy to find software and help online when stuff goes wrong. For newcomers to Linux, this broader community is a big plus.
Ubuntu isn’t necessarily the most polished distro, but it does have a commercial feel. Unity is a product — albeit a free one — that is recognizable and consistent. This has real-world value, even if some users find this limiting. At this point, it’s a big part of the Ubuntu brand.
Have you used Unity? What did you like? What didn’t you like? Do you swap it out for another desktop environment, and if so, which one? Share your opinion with us in a comment!