With the release of Ubuntu 11.04, a new desktop environment called Unity was released. Unity promised to revamp the Linux operating system’s desktop GUI to be more user friendly and intuitive. There are a multitude of noticeable changes that Unity brings to Ubuntu’s GUI compared to the classic Gnome environment. A new Windows 7 like task bar stretches along the left side of the screen where small icons of running and pinned applications reside. This new application dock is used instead of the traditional Gnome task bar that ran along the bottom of the screen. Also present is a new Ubuntu button that acts as an application launcher where installed programs can be sorted and searched for. Further, there are improvements to the workspace switcher and changes in window management with new hover-to-reveal scroll bars and each application’s (context sensitive) file menus being relocated to the top of the screen. These and other minor changes in the latest Ubuntu release have caused a flood of controversy among both reviewers and users alike.

The Unity Linux GUI Controversy and Linux Mint's Decision to Stick With Gnome 2 - Editorial  1

Pictured:  Unity GUI (Insert:  Ubuntu Classic GUI)

On the positive side of the issue, there are a number of new and long time users of Ubuntu that have embraced the new GUI for it’s new features and design. Many people migrating from Windows 7 or Mac OS will become accustomed to the interface quickly as it works in much the same manner. Further, users of convertible tablet PCs have an easier time of navigating to applications and windows thanks to the larger icons. Touch and digitizer controls on the Dell Latitude XT worked well out of the box without a need to much with drivers, for example.

In contrast, as a newly developed desktop environment, it is less customizable from a user standpoint than the traditional Gnome GUI. Because of this (at the time of writing) restriction on customizability, many self-proclaimed power users have called Unity a step backwards in the aspects that make Linux a desirable OS–the ability to customize. Mainly, they dislike the constraints that Unity places on their ability to customize the operating system to their liking.

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Linux reviewers, for example, have commented that the interface is very reminiscent of netbook (Linux) operating systems and is better suited for tablets than a full fledged desktop distribution. Jim Lynch of Desktop Linux Reviews in particular has stated that Unity is something that he has tried to like but in the end was “suffocating and unnecessary.”

Another change between Gnome and Unity lies in the hardware requirements. Namely, the minimum graphics card specifications needed in order to run the desktop.  Gnone 2 based desktop environments (called "Ubuntu Classic" in Ubuntu 11.04) do not require 3d hardware acceleration.  According to the Gnone 2 release notes, the desktop environment has been known to work with as little as "P166 with 64M RAM," although a "P400 or equivalent with 128M RAM for using the desktop" is recommended.  In contrast to this, Unity requires more recent hardware.  Inalogic details the graphics card requirements to run Unity by stating that the desktop will require a graphics card that is newer than four to five years old.  Both frame buffer object and ARB (OpenGL) vertex and fragment support are requisite features of the graphics hardware needed to run Unity.  The frame buffer object support allows Unity to update only the portion of the desktop that has changed since the last render. while the ARB_vertex and ARB_fragment allows the developers more control and detail in rendering out the various desktop objects.  While experienced users can download and install a 2D (not hardware accelerated) version of Unity that will run on older hardware, new users to Linux may not be aware that there is an option for 2D and instead will opt to not use Unity at all when presented with an error stating their hardware is not supported.

As it stands now, users are able to revert to the classic desktop GUI if they wish to do so via the log-in menu. However, the Ubuntu development team has stated that Unity will be the GUI of choice for future Ubuntu releases and the classic GUI will not be provided as part of the distribution. This restriction is where the all the controversy stems from, as many users are adamant that Unity is not the right path for Ubuntu to take.  While Unity’s requirement for recent hardware is not quite as steep, the situation is reminiscent of Microsoft’s decision to implement their hardware accelerated Aero 3D desktop (which started with Vista) into new versions of their operating system.  For many power users, Ubuntu has become a “love it or leave it distribution” according to Mr. Lynch.

All it not lost; however, as one aspect of Linux in general that all parties can agree on is the freedom users have to choose distributions within Linux. As Ubuntu plans to restrict users’ choices of included desktop environments in future releases, users retain their ability to migrate to a new distribution.

In that respect, a ray of hope exists for the Gnome faithful in the form of Linux Mint 11. As an Ubuntu spin-off, it maintains the former operating system’s beginner friendly-ness and works in a similar manner to Ubuntu in core OS management. According to the Linux Mint Blog, the upcoming operating system (slated to release a the end of May) will not feature any new GUIs such as Unity but instead “will feature the best Gnome ‘2’ desktop you’ve ever got to see.” The developers are so confident in the classic Gnome 2.3 desktop environment that they plan to continue development on the GUI themselves.

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While some may question the merits of sticking with Gnome 2 whilst other popular distributions are moving on, this move will no doubt win the favor of the power users who prefer the classic interface.

What are your thoughts on Unity and Linux Mint’s choice to continue implementing Gnome 2?