Unity Explained: A Look at Ubuntu’s Default Desktop Environment

Bertel King 20-02-2017

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 The 12 Best Linux Desktop Environments Choosing a Linux desktop environment can be difficult. Here are the best Linux desktop environments to consider. Read More 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 Ubuntu 11.04 Unity - A Big Leap Forward For Linux It's here. The newest version of Ubuntu sports an entirely new user interface: Unity. It also includes a much-improved Software Center, alongside the usual updates for the thousands of free programs Ubuntu offers. Canonical decided... Read More 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 5 Reasons Why Ubuntu 16.10 Yakkety Yak Is Worth a Look A year on from Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, a new version has been released. But is the interim release, Ubuntu 16.10 Yakkety Yak, even worth installing? Or should you stick with your current Ubuntu version? Read More , 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 10 Ways to Make Ubuntu 16.04 Feel Like Home Ubuntu 16.04 is an LTS release, so you get five years of updates, and not have to worry about installing a new version for a while. But what do you do once you've installed Ubuntu... Read More . 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 Explained: A Look at Ubuntu's Default Desktop Environment UnityExplained Scope Filters


Unity is meant to be simple, so there isn’t much complexity compared to desktop environments like KDE KDE Explained: A Look at Linux's Most Configurable Desktop Interface What does Linux look like? Sometimes, Unity; other times, GNOME. Oftentimes, though, Linux runs KDE. If you're not using the erstwhile K Desktop Environment on your Linux PC, now is the time to change! Read More . 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.

Unity Explained: A Look at Ubuntu's Default Desktop Environment UnityExplained Unity Shortcuts List


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 6 Big Reasons to Upgrade to Ubuntu 16.04 A new LTS release of Ubuntu means security and stability. Whether you're upgrading or switching from Windows, let's take a look at what's new in Ubuntu 16.04 Xenial Xerus. Read More , and tweaking more than that requires installing additional software. Even with an app like Unity Tweak Tool 10 Ways to Make Ubuntu 16.04 Feel Like Home Ubuntu 16.04 is an LTS release, so you get five years of updates, and not have to worry about installing a new version for a while. But what do you do once you've installed Ubuntu... Read More , 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 Should You Get an Ubuntu Touch Phone or Tablet? But is the Ubuntu Touch platform a truly successful mobile iteration of Linux's most well-known distribution? Can it compete with Android and iOS? We're going to take a look. Read More .

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 How to Install Unity 8 and Mir on Linux Ubuntu Right Now In time, Unity 8 is expected to unify the Ubuntu experience across phones, tablets, and desktops, using the Mir display server. You can try both of them out today with Ubuntu 16.10 Yakkety Yak. Read More .


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 Is Linux Finally Good Enough to Replace Windows? Recent figures show that Linux desktop usage has reached 2%, it's highest yet. Does this mean Linux has reached a point where it can replace Windows and Mac OS X for the average user? Read More , 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!

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  1. Paul
    February 28, 2017 at 7:42 pm

    Unity is primarily designed for keyboard users.I have no apps pinned to the launcher.I launch all apps via super+ key sequence.If you complain that the launcher isn't big enough for a lot of apps ,you don't get it.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      March 3, 2017 at 3:17 pm

      Unity is great for keyboard lovers, but that's not its only target audience. To each their own.

  2. Dan Hepler
    February 21, 2017 at 12:49 am

    Unity is OK if one doesn't use a long list of programs. If the side bar is loaded with full library it is plain awkward to move along the bar. It was bad enough that I switched to Mint with Mate. From Ubuntu 16.04 Unity to Mint 18.1 Mate. That said there is Mate version of Ubuntu.
    Bluetooth fails to function on both OSes.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      March 3, 2017 at 3:20 pm

      A valid point. In Mate, do you put your library in the app launcher or pin them to the panel?

  3. Paul Perkins
    February 20, 2017 at 3:23 pm

    The name Unity is pure irony. The last few releases of Ubuntu with the Gnome 2 desktop were really solid and well polished. Then disaster struck, in the combination of 2 big mistakes: Unity and Gnome 3. Now the desktop universe is shattered into Unity, MATE, XFCE, Gnome 3.x, Cinnamon, and others. XFCE and MATE have decent Ubuntu editions currently and are my choices, but neither is as well put together as what we had when Ubuntu was concentrating on Gnome 2. And don't talk to me about KDE - they long ago abandoned performance and reliability for an explosion of abstraction layers.