Why I’ll be skipping Ubuntu 11.10

My normal desktop machine runs Ubuntu 10.10. I decided to skip 11.04 because the UI changes introduced were, quite simply, downright broken with my particular dual monitor setup. A few days ago version 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot) was released, so I decided to give it a spin to see if it was worth upgrading to.

By “give it a spin”, I mean that I have run it in a virtual machine, and live from CD. I’m using the latter to write this post. I haven’t done a full install to my machine so it’s possible that some of the problems I’ve seen are a side-effect of running it “live”. But most of the problems I’ve faced are fundamental UI issues which would certainly affect a real installation as well.

I started out writing a wordy description of each of the issues I found, and how it affected me, but I realised I was going to be typing for a very long time. So I’ve decided to just list the obvious issues I’ve stumbled across so far as little more than bullet points (albeit wordy bullet points). I might expand on some of these in future posts.

 

General Issues and Annoyances

  • No Focus Follows Mouse option
  • No option to “shade” the window when double clicking on the title bar
  • No “Show Desktop” button for getting to files and folders on the desktop when you’ve got windows open and covering them
  • The Nautilus toolbar has been neutered to the point of just being a location bar with a search button. Any other options require a keyboard shortcut or a trek up to the menu at the top of the screen.
  • The four default workspaces are arranged as a 2×2 grid. I prefer a 1×4 linear arrangement so that I only have to bind keys for moving left and right, and don’t need to maintain a mental map of the workspaces locations. I couldn’t find a way to change this.

 

The Application Launcher

  • On my dual screen setup the launcher is always over to the far left of the leftmost monitor – which is a long way to go if I’m working at the right of the rightmost one. At least with 10.10 I was able to add extra launchers or even a whole application menu to the Gnome panel wherever it suited me (I’ve got two application menus, one on each monitor).
  • The conflation of launcher and task manager means that clicking on the launcher icon for an already running app brings that app to the front – it doesn’t launch a new instance. If you want to launch a second Nautilus window or another terminal – both perfectly reasonable requests – you have to middle-click on the launcher icon. But that’s not exactly discoverable; where is the context menu option to launch another instance?
  • I’ve got plenty of screen space; I don’t want the launcher to auto-hide, but it seems that I have no choice.
  • When testing 11.10 in Virtualbox with Ubuntu in a window, the auto-hiding of the launcher can make it very difficult to regain access to it when the mouse moves to the left of the window. It’s better than it was in 11.04, but could still more easily be solved by letting me turn off the auto-hide option. I suspect the same issue would cause problems with remote desktop use.

 

Problems with the Dash

  • The Dash application launcher appears to have four launcher icons with limited customisation options. Only one of those would I use regularly – why can’t I change the other three to launch whatever I want (e.g. replace “View Photos” with a launcher for Inkscape or Chromium – rather than just a different photo viewer)
  • The keyboard shortcut for opening the Dash isn’t obvious. If you press ALT on the Unity launcher bar, the other launchers get a number associated with them as a keyboard shortcut, but not the Dash. It turns out that it’s bound to the Windows key, but nothing tells you that, you just have to guess. I haven’t found a way to change this, which is a problem given the lack of a Windows key on my keyboard (1984 vintage, with buckling spring keys – far better than the squishy membranes that pass for a modern keyboard)
  • “More Apps” in the Dash gives an uncategorised list that’s essentially useless. You can apply a filter to limit by categories, but that entails an additional click for browsing through each category. At least with the old “Applications” menu, browsing through all the installed applications – by category – was simply a case of moving the mouse.
  • The Dash uses its own UI widgets including “window” buttons which don’t match your chosen theme, and a scrollbar which is only a couple of pixels wide, and sometimes doesn’t respond at all.
  • If you do apply a filter, then close the Filter panel, there’s no indication that the filter’s even applied, which can leave you wondering where all your apps have gone.
  • Do I really need to see “Apps available for download” all the time? With icons the same size as my installed apps? This just distracts me from the visual target I’m actually looking for. If you must include something like this, use much smaller icons aligned to the bottom of the window. Non-installed apps are not as important as my installed ones, don’t give them the same visual priority.
  • The Dash has room for at least three rows of icons. Why do I get one row of installed apps, one row of downloadable apps, and some blank space? Why not show me some more of my installed apps instead?

 

The Menu Bar

  • My screen is wide enough to easily accommodate both the title of an application and its menu bar – so why does the menu have to be positioned so far to the left that the app name has to fade out beneath it?
  • For that matter, why not show the menu all the time – faded a bit until you mouse over it, if necessary – so that I can see the destination for my mouse moves before I start moving.
  • Of course all this would be a non-issue if I were allowed to turn off the unified single menu and return to the days of in-window menus. Believe me, I’ve got enough screen space for that. But Canonical would prefer to save me a few vertical pixels in each window instead, whether I want it or not (FWIW I have the same issue with the single menu bar on a large-screen Mac; it works well on the smaller screens of old, but is far less efficient when your mouse has to perform a rodent marathon across a large desktop.

 

There are other issues, but already this is sounding like a whiney list of gripes, so I’ll stop there. The fact is that a lot of these issues don’t need to exist, if it wasn’t for the arrogance of Canonical’s design team and their vision for how a desktop should operate. I don’t want a return to the days of a thousand and one configuration options, but the choices they’ve made increasingly seem aimed at small screens, netbooks, phones and tablets. Are desktop users with large screens really so much of a dying breed that decades of user interface choices can be thrown out so easily?

And I’m aware that some of these issues can be “solved” via hidden configuration options or by downloading additional software. But if you focus on that, you’re missing the point entirely. It’s not that I want every possible configuration option exposed (that’s what drove me away from KDE in the past), it’s that I want at least enough flexibility to be able to set up my launchers and documents where I want them on my computer without having to resort to searching the web for solutions.

I’ve been using Ubuntu since the first release, but increasingly I think 10.10 will be my last. I’m prepared to hang on until 12.04 – the next long term release – to see if things improve, but in the meantime I might just go and grab some other live CDs to give Gnome 3.2, KDE, XFCE and some other options a try…

4 Comments

  1. Erics says:

    Well, you pretty much summed up my experience. I just installed 11.10 yesterday and visually it’s a nice step up from 10.04, but there are so many usability gotchas I’m scrambling to think whether I’m going to ditch it or not.

    The only compelling explanation I can think of is that small-screen devices are becoming so prevalent that the needs of dual-screen guys like you and I are really not that important in the bigger picture. If that is true, then the design team’s decisions are probably a result of clear thinking rather than arrogance. Doesn’t help me though!

  2. Mark says:

    I’m still erring on the side of arrogance rather than clear thinking. It’s arrogant to assume that I want to use my computer the way Canonical think I should, rather than the way I want to. With GNOME 2 they were able to provide a sensible default configuration, while still allowing enough flexibility for me to alter it to suit my preferences. The arrogance is in taking away just about all the configurability from the stock system.

    Small screen devices are becoming prevalent, but the idea that a UI designed for a small screen poked with fingers will work as well on a large screen driven by a mouse is as foolish as trying to force a large screen UI onto a small screen (WinCE anyone?). Their design decisions would perhaps have been clear thinking for a phone or a netbook, but not for a desktop operating system used across a wide variety of systems. That’s not to say that they can’t accommodate both, but not with a rigid set-in-stone UI policy that ignores the differences between the two extremes.

    If Ubuntu was launching today as a new Linux distribution, it probably wouldn’t be an issue. As a user with multiple monitors I would have quickly worked out that it’s not the distribution for me. But they’ve got thousands of legacy users whose requirements and concerns seems to have been overlooked entirely – not a great way to treat the very people who have supported them over the years.

  3. Sam says:

    A piece of good news ? It seems that it’s still possible to run Ubuntu 11.10 with classic Gnome UI. You just have to install a package named gnome-panel and to choose that UI when in the connection screen.

    Here’s a link : http://tombuntu.com/index.php/2011/09/11/install-the-classic-desktop-in-ubuntu-11-10/ I bet this will still be possible with 12.04.

  4. Mark says:

    Thanks for that info. Unfortunately this gives you Gnome 3 styled to look more like Gnome 2, so many things (e.g. panel applets) aren’t compatible with it. Because it’s not the primary UI choice for either Canonical or Gnome, I suspect that bugs and issues with this UI will be a low priority for fixing, and some of the more useful new features won’t get ported to the classic UI.

    It’s a useful option in the short term to avoid some of the Unity pain, but I don’t think it’s a long term solution to the problem.

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