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What’s a Unity lover to do? Fortunately, the interface isn’t gone forever just because its creator has decided to move on. Unity may live on, and if not, there are other ways to create a similar look and feel.
What Is Unity?
Unity is the user interface that Canonical created for the Ubuntu Linux operating system in 2010. Since 2011, it has been a distinct part of the Ubuntu experience.
Unity’s most prominent features include a dock along the left side of the screen, a global menu in a panel across the top, and a Dash that lets you launch applications and perform searches from a single location. Other details include pop-up notification bubbles, progress bars that appear over app icons, and plenty of keyboard shortcuts.
Unity is not a full desktop environment like GNOME or KDE. Canonical intended for the interface to let users access the apps they already love, though this started to change as work progressed on Unity 8 and Mir. Unity 7 was ultimately the final version to see release.
Despite being an open source project, few other distributions showed interest in Unity. While it’s possible to use Unity on Arch Linux or openSUSE, relatively few people do. The majority of people concerned about what happens to Unity now are Ubuntu users who have grown accustomed to the interface over the better part of a decade. That’s understandable. And since this is Linux, it may not be time to say goodbye just yet.
Will Someone Else Keep Unity Alive?
Unit Linux is one emerging Linux distribution born following Canonical’s announcement. The project will utilize Unity 7 to create a new user experience with similar elements. The desktop will be based on GNOME and use the Wayland display server instead of Mir, but it will have a Unit dashboard and Unit notifications similar to those of Unity’s.
Yunit is a community-driven project to continue Unity 8 development. Contributors still want to see the interface make it to desktops in a stable form. This will be no easy task. While it was possible to try out Unity 8 in recent versions of Ubuntu, the experience was far from ready for prime time. Yunit won’t just need to maintain the code, the team will need to drastically improve it.
UBports, known for porting Ubuntu Touch to non-supported devices, is also continuing Unity 8 development. This group will continue to focus on phones and tablets, not desktops. Its job is arguably easier than Yunit’s, since Ubuntu Touch has been usable on phones for quite some time, even if the experience has been far from perfect.
Making Other Desktop Environments Look Like Unity
Within the next year, Ubuntu will go back to using GNOME as its default desktop environment. A nice thing about GNOME is that it’s very easy to theme. Former Canonical employee and long-time Ubuntu user Stuart Langridge has shared the steps he’s taken to make GNOME feel like Unity. You can complete the experience by using the United GNOME theme, which provides an updated take on the Unity look and feel.
Unlike GNOME, you don’t have to install anything extra to make the KDE Plasma desktop feel like Unity. All you need to do is move a few panels and change a few alternate settings.
Soon you may not have to tweak KDE Plasma yourself. The Enjade project is working to replicate the Unity environment using KDE Plasma, so you can get the ideal experience without managing widgets yourself.
Xfce, meanwhile, isn’t as visually complex as GNOME or KDE, but you can still get a barebones Unity-like experience by moving a panel to the left and adding app icons. It’s possible to tweak most free and open source desktop environments in this way, though most will only offer a passing resemblance to Unity at best.
Replicating Unity Features
There’s more to Unity than having a dock on the left side of the screen. Two big features were the Dash and the HUD.
The Dash is a search-based application launcher that can also issue commands. You can find similar functionality in GNOME’s Activities overview. Out of the box, Ubuntu will continue to let you search for apps, documents, music, photos, and videos by pressing the Super (Windows) key and typing. You can also enter terminal commands and solve basic math problems.
KDE Plasma comes with an alternative launcher that is also search-based. You can make the switch by right-clicking the launcher widget in your panel.
Alternatively, you can use KRunner. Press Alt + F2 to reveal the search bar, and then start typing to enter commands, launch apps, and so much more. With the right plugins, you can replicate all of the functionality from Unity’s HUD.
Or You Could Just Use Unity
Unity won’t be the default desktop environment a year from now, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to use it. Unity 7 will continue to be available via your preferred Linux app store. There’s plenty of abandoned open source software that continues to be usable, and the same may be true of Unity — at least for the next few years.
Some people have never liked Unity. Others have depended on it for years. They know the interface inside and out, and it’s painful to have to move to something new. If you count yourself among the latter group, what are your plans?
Do you hope someone will keep Unity alive? Are you preparing to make another desktop environment look and feel like Unity instead? Are you just going to continue using Unity? Whatever you choose, you’re not alone.