Unity: Underwhelming

I have been looking at alternative graphical desk tops for Linux, given that Gnome Fallback Mode is going away soon.  In an effort to be fair, I try to use each one form more than 24 hours.

The machine I’m using is a Dell with an Nvidia graphcs card, with the Nvidea proprietary driver enabled.

Unity 3D

Without any customisation, or any apps running, Unity doing nothing eats 25% of both CPUs, and the GPU runs at 89C.  The laptop fan was maxed-out and constant — and loud.  With a bit of googling, I discovered that turning off CCSM->OpenGL->Sync-to-Vblank dropped the CPU usage markedly.  (WTF are they using a busy wait?!?)  The GPU was still running hot, though.

I find the unity Dash to be a very unpleasant interface.  I can’t browse to find what I want, I have to remember its name, instead, and then I have to type it.  Ugh.  The Dock down the left hand side looks like a Fischer Price toy computer.  There is no way to choose where you would like the dock (or you can use some random guy’s PPA to install a rotated-to-the-bottom dock).

The Alt-Tab application switcher is too fiddly to actually use.  One slip of the finger of the Alt key and it does some bullshit random thing you didn’t want.  And what ever you do, don’t Alt-Tab and then let both keys go (the thing I expected to do to have to app switcher persist until I had made my selection).  I find the app switcher inferior to the bottom panel in Gnome Fallback Mode.

Unity 2D

After 24 hours of constant fan noise, I switched to Unity 2D, foolishly assuming that the only difference would be the graphics rendering.  I’ve been using Unity 2D for several days.  I had assumed they used the same code for both, just with different graphical back ends.  Alas, no.

The window close/ min/ max buttons are on the right in Unity 3D, and on the left in Unity 2D.  The Alt-Tab application switcher is missing a couple of things that Unity 3D has, including “minimise all windows”, something I use often.  Neither 2D nor 3D have an “un-hide the windows just hidden” option.  This is probably the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unexpected inconsistencies between two desktop environments that, going by their names, create an expectation that they will be identical, except for some visual bling.

When using Unity 2D, the fan noise if far less than 3D, because it is running at its lowest speed.  The GPU is at 70C, which may explain why the fan never actually turns off.  For some alternative desktop environments, there is no fan noise, because the fan is off because nothing is happening.  My laptop used to be silent except when compiling (or a javascript in firefox went rogue).

Global Menu Bar

I dislike the global menu bar. I hated it on the Macintosh 20 years ago, and it turns out I still do. It may make sense for a mobile device with a touch screen and limited screen real estate, but it is absurd for a mouse desktop.  It is really tedious to have to mouse 3/4 of the screen in order to get to the app’s menus; this is not a good use of my time.  Why is it that in order to turn off the global menu bar, I have to actually uninstall the software package that implements it?  Why is this not a simple on/off preference?

The skinny scroll bar is also unpleasant.  It is too thin, too fiddly, and PITA when the scroll bar is on the right hand edge of the screen. Why is it that to turn off the stupid skinny scroll bar I have to actually uninstall the software package that implements it?  Why is this not a simple on/off preference?

Window Placement

The unity new-window placement algorithm leaves much to be desired.  It frequently puts new windows in the top-left corner, even when there is more than enough clear space for the new window elsewhere.  (Or is it an admission that anywhere else on the screen makes the global menu a pita?)

I hadn’t noticed just how much I use and like Metacity’s slightly sticky window edges, so than when moving a window, it briefly sticks to window and screen margins, allowing easy alignment without sub-pixel accurate mouse movements.  The absence of this feature in Unity, I discovered, is quite frustrating.

Why can’t I drag-n-drop windows in the workspace switcher?

Another thing that trips me up constantly is the “maximum gesture”.  If you click-and-hold on a window title bar, and then move right rapidly, this maximises the window.  As you can imagine, when you want your new window anywhere other than the top-left corner, you are going to do this.  Grumpiness ensues.

Gnome Panel

One of the things I missed in Unity are the top and bottom panels I have been using in Metacity.  I tried running gnome-panel anyway, and it mostly works.  The bottom bar is back as usual, and the top bar is alternating between Unity and Gnome Panel, but switching the two is a matter of mouse gestures, no clicking, no typing.


I could not recommend Unity 2D or Unity 3D to anyone.  I will continue my search for a new desktop environment for Linux, but in the present winner is Gnome Fallback Mode combined with Metacity.