I tried the Unity Desktop several years ago in its early days, it didn’t do anything for me as I didn’t care for the layout. When Ubuntu announced they were going to cancel the Unity project I thought it unfortunate mostly because it meant an end to their mobile phone efforts. Regardless of what your opinion is on the Unity project, it is an easily recognized desktop at just a glance. Unity is a desktop environment that is still liked by many and due to that appreciation for this desktop flavor, an Ubuntu spin based on the Unity desktop is now available. It can be downloaded from here. The mini ISO is available for free and the larger ISO is available for $11.
This is my review of Umix, the Unity Remix spin of Ubuntu. This is an objectively biased review of this Linux distribution as a very happy user of openSUSE Tumbleweed with KDE Plasma. I have grown to prefer a specific work flow. I don’t necessarily think my work flow is the best but it is the best for me. I also think it is a healthy practice to travel and experience other desktop cultures.
I am immediately glad to see that there is a option to “Install Umix” from initial boot. This is most certainly a welcomed feature. I do think that the wording needs some updates on this screen, “…directly from this CD” should probably be changed to “…directly from this media” or something similar.
An immediate bit of subtle eye candy that I really enjoyed were the shadows under buttons when you hover over them. It was a smooth and fantastic looking effect that deserves a mention.
Umix uses Ubuntu’s Ubiquity installer so it is a quick and painless setup for a simple installation. You start out with the Keyboard layout and if you are connected to the internet, an option to download and install updates and third-party software for additional drivers and media formats.
When selecting to install the third-party software, I became acquainted with another bit of eye-candy, animated, rotating Check boxes. It was another small, subtle and super pleasant effect that just screams, “finely polished.”
For installation type, you can keep this simple and say to “Erase disk and install Umix”, which is what I did when installing it on a VM. As a word of caution, the default partition scheme for Umix is to have a single Ext4 partition for root, home and a swapfile. I think that this particular drive layout is unwise and especially problematic especially if you decide to switch or try out other Linux distributions. Should you bork your system and be forced to reinstall Umix, you could be in a world of hurt unless you backed up your data or know how to remove the drive and hook it up to a working system. I do not recommend this method at all.
For the actual hardware that I installed it, I chose “Something Else” where I used more sensible defaults. I separated root, home and swap partitions on a designated distro-hopping machine. It started out running openSUSE Leap 15.0 wtih KDE Plasma as my baseline for comparison. Since I am distro-hopping with this machine. I want a separate home partition so that I can keep the data I accumulate in my testing.
The tool for using existing partitions was a little rough. There wasn’t a click through option to just use the partition. The partitioner knew my home folder was an XFS partition, but I had to explicitly tell it that it was and specify the mount point (which I am fine with). It really should have already had that file type selected. This is just a papercut issue. I was just a bit slow in figuring out what the interface wanted from me.
You are given a final warning before writing the changes to disk. Although I do believe it is a good thing to have this warning, it really should have a, “hey, don’t use one partition unless you don’t love the data in your home folder” warning…
Next you will have to identify where you are in this spinning dirt clod out in space.
The final step before package installation is the user information. Another straight forward test and come to think of it, I like it that they have you specify the computer name here as such. As I noodle it around in my head a bit, it is probably more intuitive for a New-to-Linux-User to put the name here rather than in the “hostname” section of the network configuration section… just a thought.
As Umix installs, you are given a series of quotes by presumably famous people. Some of them were interesting, others not so much. It was a nice change from the almost obligatory commercials most distributions spew out.
Upon completion, reboot and begin your Unity Remix journey.
The first thing I wanted to play with was the menu. I don’t like being negative about things, critical yes, but negative, not so much. With that laid out, I have to say, the menu in here was by far the worst menu I have every used in a long time.
It is strange that it can’t find anything on my desktop under the menu until I clicked on one of the monochromatic buttons at the bottom of the menu. I don’t really understand the logic behind that, maybe just recent or favorites, regardless, I don’t care for it. There is a second, more traditional menu toward the right of the top panel which seems redundant but it is by far a better menu.
When I hopped into the terminal, I could not SSH into my other machines. Local DNS resolution didn’t work. I checked /etc/resolve.conf and it was pointing to 127.0.0.53 which was odd. This made using ssh in the terminal with host names not possible which I found very irritating.
The way Unity handles multiple monitors is pretty decent. It is almost as nice as how KDE Plasma handles it. The interface for configuring the screen placement is pretty close to what you see on KDE Plasma and very intuitive. By default, the side panel menu was repeated on both screens. It is easy enough to remove.
The Fn+”Monitor Switch” hotkey is not nearly as nice as what you get on KDE Plasma.
Unity toggles between Laptop Screen only, external screen only or both displays. KDE Plasma has a great dialog box that pops up that lets you choose what configuration you want with the mouse or arrow over on the keyboard.
The file manager in Unity is frustratingly limited. It is incapable of basic file manager functions like, typing in a file path or remote location address. You are forced to have to click through to “Other Locations” and then select whatever machine it can see on the network.
The Unity Tweak tool is a fine application. Specifically the window hot corners configuration. This is much like what KDE Plasma has but with fewer options (comparison pictured below).
Pictured above is another irritating feature of the global menu. Rather than having the menu in the window you are working, it is at the top of the screen. This is okay in full screen mode but having multiple non-fullscreen windows can make navigation clumsy.
The update tool, like so many Linux distributions required authentication to proceed. The update process was rock solid and although I don’t like requiring authentication for updates, better to over authenticate than under authenticate.
I didn’t have time to play with all the default applications but the only change I would have made would be to not have Chrome by default. Firefox would have been preferred. Mostly because Chrome is way too bloated and not as capable. Chromium would also have been preferred.
What I Like
The theme and overall look of Umix is fantastic. The little bits of eye candy in Unity is great, specifically the smooth shadowing effect under buttons and the spinning check mark upon select. I also like the usage of the wobbly windows. I had largely forgotten about visual effect. Overall the interaction with Unity has a very modern feeling and looks very pleasant.
The option to install Umix is also a welcome option. Trying than installing is very… trying. The installer is typical Ubuntu Ubiquity installer you find on most Ubuntu based distributions. I think it is still quite satisfactory and has held up well over the years.
Monitor handling is quite satisfactory. Not as good as KDE Plasma but on par. There are some refinements needed to get it to Plasma level of usability but overall, this is pretty great.
What I Don’t Like
Sigh… I don’t like being negative but there are lots of irritating features of Unity. For starters, the default resolv.conf has made accessing other computers on my home network through terminal an exercise in frustration.
The default file manager in Unity is just not acceptable. I would describe it as frustratingly limited. Adding one feature would move it from unacceptable to acceptable, the ability to type in a file path. Just that one feature would make it good enough. This file manager is is absolutely no comparison to Dolphin or Konqueror on KDE Plasma. It is a big stinker.
The firewall is turned off by default which I think is unwise unless you never plan on leaving the confines of your home network. The bundled firewall application is Gufw which is a very user friendly configuration experience.
The top panel, I think called the global menu is unnecessary use of screen real estate and having it repeat per screen is incredibly undesirable, especially with multiple monitors. I was unsuccessful in finding a way to turn it off, at least for the additional monitor but I was unsuccessful. Admittedly, I didn’t look very hard but it wasn’t obvious to me through the tweak options I scanned through.
I feel like I have been far too negative with Unity, I really didn’t want to be annoyed by it. It looks good and has some nice features to it but the lack of flexibility just makes it unusable for me. Since Unity is a “full featured” desktop environment, I am going to be more critical of its features as compared to MX Linux or BunsenLabs Linux.
Would I get along happily with Ubuntu + Unity? No, I really wouldn’t. There are so many other and better options out there for a better desktop experience than what Unity provides. I don’t think it is a bad desktop but it is just not good for me. I would still encourage anyone to try it out and see if it works for them but it just doesn’t work for me. When I compare it to openSUSE Tumbleweed with KDE Plasma it just has more features for a lower memory foot print than Ubuntu + Unity. Both at a vanilla install, post updates, KDE Plasma 380 MiB of RAM, Ubuntu + Unity uses 712 MiB.
I think that it is great that there is an effort to preserve Unity, for all those that enjoy using it, I hope they continue to enjoy it and that Unity continues to get developer love. It’s a fine desktop environment for many and I hope they continue to have the option to use it for years to come.