First Look: Ubuntu's Unity Makes Bold Statement, But Needs Work

But an initial look at an Alpha version of the forthcoming Linux distro shows a dispiriting number of technical issues with its vaunted new "Unity" interface that need to be smoothed over before it will be the reliable, smooth technology we've come to expect from the Ubuntu community.

Unity, a shell interface, is designed really act as an application launcher that sits on the desktop as an attractive, easy-to-use sidebar. While recent updates to Ubuntu have shifted strongly toward looking more like a Mac OS X desktop than Windows, Unity is a different approach altogether: It's unique to the Ubuntu desktop and, once installed and activated, is elegant and beautiful. The problem is that, in this stage of the process, it might not work.

We tried installing the 32-bit version Alpha 1 version of Ubuntu 11.04 on two, separate PCs. One PC was built with an Intel Core 2 Duo E7400 at 2.80 GHz with 2 GB of RAM. The second was a notebook built with an Intel Core i5 at 2.40 GHz and 4 GB of RAM. In each case, we ran into problems with the installation.

In the case of the Intel Core 2 Duo system, a message popped up after the installation that we needed to take the step of activating the NVIDIA graphics drivers to access Unity. (The other option was to install without Unity enabled, so we chose to install the drivers.) Once those drivers were installed, we were instructed to reboot. We tried, but on the next startup the system just hung with a blank screen. Later, we tried to install the 64-bit version. That version of the OS was unable to install the drivers at all, meaning we still couldn't get a good look at Unity.

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Given that this PC was more than two years old, and discussion threads on Canonical's Web site indicate some PCs couldn't support Unity at this point, we tried to install it on the notebook.

Here, we examined Ubuntu 11.04 -- with Unity -- using the installation CD and the trial mode without actually installing the OS. In this mode we saw real potential of Unity on a desktop. The icons in the sidebar launcher were slick, easy to find and access, and the presentation was very easy on the eyes. We didn't like that, in this mode, we couldn't right away find other installed applications that weren't included in the launcher. That includes the great Ubuntu Software Center that became available with earlier versions. (They were there, we just had to fish around for them.) Additionally, there have been complaints by some -- which we confirmed -- that Ubuntu with Unity does not support as much personalization that we've been used to with Ubuntu.

Then we tried to perform the actual installation onto this notebook and, again, the system hung when it tried to reboot.

Granted: this is a look at Alpha software. And Canonical and the developer community are taking a bold step to make Ubuntu more useful and valuable. But our look suggests that it may have been a better choice to leave Unity as Ubuntu's default desktop in version 11.10 or version 12.04, down the road, than working to include it in the next official release now scheduled for April.

Ubuntu has impressed us many times before with improvements between the Alpha and final release versions. But in the case of Unity, it may be just a little too much to smooth over by then.