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Unity much improved in Ubuntu 11.10

By: 16 October 2011 37 Comments

It’s October and that means it’s time for the latest distribution of Ubuntu Linux.

This one — 11.10, dubbed Oneiric Ocelot — is a regular, incremental update of 11.04 (Natty Narwhal, which came out in April). The changes are minor for the most part, but the Unity desktop is much improved.While Unity has been around for some time, Canonical made it quite clear with 11.04 that it was going to be phased in while the older, tried and true Gnome 2 shell that had anchored Ubuntu for years was going to be put out to pasture.

Such a bold decision, of course, brought on some negative reactions (yes, I was one of the complainers and wrote a nice, long rant about how much I hated Unity here). Here’s the thing — the Gnome 2 desktop is very familiar with its Windows XP-like layout and behavior. Does it look dated? Sure it does, but people don’t want to replace “familiar and effective” with something new and shiny that doesn’t work that well.

Unity, under 11.04, was slow, buggy and annoying (at least on my netbook — can’t say how it looks on our desktop or laptop because those are both running Windows 7). Unity was so awful that I couldn’t wait to get rid of it, much less keep it up and running in case it was improved.

The most significant change in 11.10, in my mind, is that Unity is now good enough that I’m keeping it. Is moving to it from Gnome 2 more than a bit jarring? Yes, but the upside of Unity and its stability make it well worth learning and using. In fact, that’s more or less the attitude that Canonical appears to be making a gamble that we’ll take — Unity is supported whereas nothing else is, so it’s obvious that we’ve been told to like it or lump it.

Unity, of course, tosses out the notion of keeping programs tucked away in menus and allowing the user to access running applications through tabs on the bottom of the screen. Instead, the more common applications are “pinned” in the launcher on the left of the screen and one can add applications to that screen very easily (simply select “keep in launcher” when a program is running and it will remain there after the application is closed). Active applications are selected from the launcher, too, and the layout conveniently lets users know which programs are running and provides the means to switch between them.

The launcher auto hides when it’s not in use on my netbook, thus saving space. It activates when the mouse hovers over the left side of the screen and vanishes when the mouse is moved. A problem with Unity under 11.04 was that the launcher would either come out of hiding too willingly (thus robbing me of the ability to do anything with the left side of the screen) or it couldn’t be coaxed out at all. Those problems have been resolved, making interacting with the launcher pleasant rather than irritating.

Unity under 11.04 was also aggravatingly slow. That, too, has changed. The launcher is now quick and allows one to scroll through applications pinned to it with ease. For those who want things to move along even faster, there is the Unity 2D option that can be chosen at the Ubuntu login screen. You don’t get the animations and faux three-dimensional look of the “regular” Unity when that is selected. Unity 2D, by the way, is the default on weaker hardware. The launcher looks pretty good even at the lower settings and is quite easy to use.

Another major change in Unity has to do with the “search” feature in the dashboard. How does one find a program that’s not pinned to the launcher? You type in a search. Under 11.04, it was about as straightforward as that. In 11.10, there are “lenses” which filter through results, thus making them easier to find. Furthermore, just clicking search from the “dash home” sorts programs so that the ones most frequently used are displayed and there’s an option to look at the icons for everything else. That that search works on everything, by the way — programs, documents, music and anything else you can imagine. The unified search may be a bit daunting at first for those of use who are used to simply picking programs from a list and then clicking on them, but it becomes second nature in a hurry.

Canonical is to be applauded for its work on Unity. In just six months, Unity went from being an annoying gimmick to a very useful tool.

Of course, since we’re talking about a Linux distribution, users are free to simply replace Unity with something else if they hate they new launcher. However, some who’ve hated Unity in the past may well find that it’s worth learning and using. Give it a try — you just might like it. Canonical is betting people will, as evidenced by the fact the ability to fall back to Gnome 2 is missing in 11.10. Will that omission be a mistake? Only time will tell there — it’s not hard to imagine that those who hate Unity enough will look at other distributions as Ubuntu isn’t the only game in town.

Of course, there are more changes in store than just Unity. One of them isn’t obvious — improved Adobe Flash support. Under 11.04, Mozilla Firefox handled Flash poorly — it was slow, cumbersome and might just crash the browser. That problem isn’t as prevalent in Firefox under 11.10 and I can’t honestly say whether the new version of Ubuntu, some changes made by Firefox or better support for my netbook’s modest hardwrae are responsible for the better Flash performance. Regardless, Flash works better with Firefox now, but still not as well as under Google Chrome. That’s ironic in that Firefox is the default Internet browser sent along in Ubuntu distributions.

Another change is that backups can be configured and done automatically through Deja Dup, which is installed by default. It would be great if one could set up those backups to be done through Ubuntu One, but that’s not the case unless you want to buy more storage space. No complaints there — five gigabytes of free storage through Canonical’s cloud solution is generous, so it’s hard to begrudge the company’s attempts to make a few bucks for people who want more storage so they can backup their systems or whatever else. Of course, Deja Dup allows for local backups, so plug in that external hard drive and go nuts. Deja Dup is easy to use and pairing it with Ubuntu One for backups makes a lot of sense — I’d not be surprised of plenty of Ubuntu users decided to shell out a few bucks and do their backups that way.

Another change worth mentioning is that the Evolution mail client has been replaced with Mozilla Thunderbird.

While some might not get overly excited about incremental updates from Ubuntu, 11.10 is quite solid and well worth downloading and installing. That process, by the way, took a couple of hours — a 900 megabyte download (or thereabouts) and then the usual amount of time needed to install everything, update packages and clean up the new distribution. The upgrade went off without a hitch and — if nothing else — is worth installing for the improved Unity launcher.

If you want to make the jump and either upgrade Ubuntu or switch to it, just click here.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email =


  • Dennis W said:

    Well I am one of those that was having problems with version 11.04 where it did not know what kind of monitor I was using.But this new version seems to know what it is and now I can chance mt Res. It did say something about there might be a graphic problem but so far so good.

  • dave said:

    I can’t find applications if I don’t remember what they’re called.

    If I don’t know what they’re called what good is a search feature?

    I like my menu with its submenus. I can find all my installed applications where I expect them to bo and I don’t have to remember their names.

    I’ll even stick with my buggy Flash support over the inability to go back to Gnome.

    I will not be “up” grading.

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    Dennis — 11.04 gave me fits, but that was mostly due to the new desktop. So far, so good on 11.10.

    dave — That is still a bit of a problem, but it’s a lot better now in that Unity displays your most used programs when you hit search and then offers the chance to list others in other categories.

    I still don’t like it as much as Gnome 2, but I’m getting used to it…

  • Dan White said:


    Thanks for the heads up! You’re right it is much much better on my 32-bit laptop than the horrible, sluggish and often fustrating 11.04. I have one quick question though

    I have a windows 7 laptop with which I wrote off installing the 64-bit 11.04 (Cheers Ubuntu, £700 I’ll never see again). Is the 11.10 stable on a 64-bit machine? I am terrified of wasting another decent Acer.


  • Derek said:

    Dave and Ethan- If you go to the dash home and press the second tab at the bottom, it will show you all programs, then just expand the installed programs, and there you go! You have all of your programs ready for use. If you still want it to be more like the Applications tab in 11.04, hit the filter results and click a subject such as Internet, and it will come up with all internet related apps you have, just like 11.04. I feel like it is much more useful, but if you want to stay with the slightly slower 11.04, go ahead.

  • nigel dodd said:

    I agree with Dave in that you need to know the name of the program you are searching for. Like the names Canonical uses to describe the releases (11.10 has much more character, don’t you think) there is a class of people, including me, for whom linguistics come secondary to, well, pretty much anything.

    Actually I have a top bar thing called Classic Menu Indicator
    which gives me back my old menus and has survived the upgrade from 11.04 to 11.10.

  • P. Essex said:

    I was running 11.04 on a netbook and it run perfect, I updated to 11.10 and thought it was a virus as it wrecked my netbook with a rubbish os, so now i’m running Linux Mint and all is restored.

  • Mustafa said:

    Hello Ethan: I was one of your critics back when you wrote your commentary on 11.04. As it turned out, however, I quit trying to make Unity work for me, and ended up in Linux Mint. When 11.10 was released, I decided to give Ubuntu another chance and found it to be cleansed of many of its bugs (not all, mind you) and very responsive compared to how it was in 11.04.

    As for Linux Mint, I wonder which direction they will be heading towards. The do not have a lot of developers (they have only one full-time developer AFAIK) and I think they have to choose between Gnome Shell and Unity. I won’t be surprised to see them adopting Unity, which works more stable now.

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    Dan — I have no idea. It’s dismaying to hear that Ubuntu actually wrecked a system somehow. Ouch! I’ve kept this on my little netbook as my wife would howl at me if I put it on our 64 bit system and the kids are making out just fine with their 32-bit desktops.

    Derek — Thanks for the tip.I saw it popped up easily enough when hitting search, but that particular tab makes getting around a little easier.

    Nigel — You can dig out the program with some clicking around, but I do believe the system still needs some work. Finding things is easier than it was in 11.04, but Unity is clearly still under development.

    P. Essex — I seem to be hearing a lot about Mint these days. Might have to check it out.

    Mustafa — I got a lot of criticism for that. Fine with me as most of it was constructive and people defended Ubuntu to such a degree that I didn’t hesitate about trying out 11.10 (and I’m glad I did). Again, I do keep hearing about Mint.

    I do believe Unity is much, much improved. There are still some bugs (Pulse, for example, works terribly with Audacity on my system now) and the icons do tend to get jumbled on my desktop after a reboot. Still, the OS appears to be on the right track…

  • tokinwhiteman said:

    @Dan White, I have a 64-bit Toshiba Satellite and I’ve been using Unity exclusively since 11.04 (64-bit) and I have no issues with it. I have a 2.2 duo core AMD with 4 gb ram and it doesn’t have any issues. 11.10 (64-bit) is very stable on my machine.

  • eUNIX said:

    I understand why with the proliferation of tablets and netbooks but UNITY is really designed for the tablet market. I upgraded to 11.10 on my main workstation and I am not all that impressed. With 11.04 I reverted to the classical desktop with cairo-dock. The look and feel is more intuitive to me.

    My biggest complaint is that the GUI is sluggish and not as snappy as 11.04. The cairo-dock (glx-dock) integration is a lot better but I have to figure out where my top menu bar went to.

    I will have to play with it to figure out why it is soooooo slow, but I think the move to UNITY is the wrong direction. It should be forked as a tablet version only. :)


  • Trevor said:

    Disabling the Unity desktop is easy, just click on Classic Ubuntu Desktop on the login screen on the bottom bar right before you log in. I can’t help but to scream in my head when ever you say “I HATE UBUNTU because of the UNITY desktop THEY MAKE YOU USE”

  • Trevor said:

    Also, back in the day, I felt like you put Ubuntu on an old machine as a rebirth, now it just kills it with its sluggish UI. I’d like to see a Server Distro with a basic UI like Windows Server 2k3

  • greg said:

    Been on the Ubuntu drug for awhile now and have learned to go along for the ride… I like 11.10, although, I cannot figure out how to display (like your picture above shows) the WIRELESS icon on the top bar… it was up there in 11.04, but no can find that option. if you can fire me off an email while posting an answer here. I am always on the move and will likely re-visit the site, but not sure when. Work. School. Wife!

    Peace! Keep up the great job Ubuntu! Us less than savvy appreciate the challenge of learning new things and learning we do not REQUIRE nor do we need Windows. (but, in the interest of truth, I have the apples, windows, etc…)

    r/ Greg

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    eUnix — You are right about the tablet market, and that still confuses me. Seems there are two very well defined markets here — mobile and PC. Trying to develop a desktop for both may be a bit too ambitious, but we’ll have to wait and see. That said, I do like Unity, but still prefer Gnome 2. Is my preference for Gnome 2 due to familiarity? With 11.04, I didn’t want to wait around to answer that question, but I do believe that Unity is good enough for me to at least learn the system and give it a shot. That’s a major improvement, in my mind.

    Trevor — But they do kind of make you use it. On my login screen (at least), I’ve got an option for Unity and one for the more lightweight Unity 2D. I see no support for “Ubuntu classic” as was the case with 11.04. Of course, I could be overlooking something…

    At any rate, no one is stuck with Unity. People are still free to load in other desktops and whatnot, and that’s kind of the charm of Linux. Frankly, I like the Ubuntu distro because it is quite refined and evolves nicely on a regular basis.

    Greg — Sadly, I have no idea how that wireless icon got up there. It just appeared as it did with 11.04.The only time I didn’t have that icon was when my wireless wasn’t turned on because I hadn’t yet downloaded and installed the driver I needed.

  • haydoni said:

    @Dan White You can’t have written off a £700 laptop simply by installing Ubuntu (64-bit or otherwise) on it.
    I mean, darn, that’s unlucky, I’ll give you £50 and take it off your hands.

  • said:

    new os works great but a little slow

  • said:

    hurry with the op guide

  • Paul said:

    I hate it. I hate it with a passion. Nothing is where I can find it and I can’t find anything. All would be fine if there was a simple way of reverting back to Gnome2, but of course, the developers in their infinite wisdom decided that there would be only one way of doing things. Hmm, wasn’t that the knock against that other operating system.

    So, I switched from Fedora to Ubuntu when they switched to this piece of crap. Now, I’ll have to find another distribution.

  • greg said:

    @exectec, yes an OPGUIDE would be quite useful. I am still searching around for stuff to try and figure out (see earlier post) how to put up the wireless icon on the top so I know when it is on/not on, etc… but not having any joy with that.

    @Paul – I can feel your pain / frustration, but I enjoy this version and find it quite appealing, well, I have a MAC too and PC… but mostly use the laptop Ubuntu.

  • raymond said:

    Sorry for all the work, but it’s a huge mistake to terminate the classic Ubuntu. As a front-end designer I have to tell that Unity is rather ‘clumsy’ it’s not faster to scroll trough all those large icons. Have you guys forgotten the rules of thumb???

    Clicking on the ubuntu logo in the Unity Dock:

    1: The section dividers on the underside (home, settings, documents & music) are supposed to be on top (remember that this is an extra movement of the mouse, if you decide to choose another section)
    2: Your eye has to read from left to right trough all these huge icons and when the app is not there, you have to scroll downwards. So know we are looking up and down too.
    3: People do not like it when something is forced upon them and have to learn all over again. Look at the arrogance of Microsoft Office with all their newly implemented icons a few years back, people still don’t like it.

    All these extra movements are not an improvement at all. Give people a choice to install ‘ubuntu classic’ like in Ubuntu 11.04 at login, but even that has been removed.

    Ok, when it is going to be Unity:
    implement a menu structure without the icons, make that an extra option in the compiz desktop manager.
    implement an option to scale down those large Unity icons (smaller than 32, because this is still very big)
    When you click on an icon, those menu’s with icons should size editable, because they are GIGANTIC.

    I hope someone reads this, I’m looking at new other distro’s right know.

    Raymond van der Aa

  • Saul Rosenberg said:

    I recently experienced something shocking and relevant to this blog post. Gnome2 is going to be phased out and Unity is the new desktop that we are being told to like.. yayaya. I read somewhere else that someone was complaining that Unity messed up his desktop, and nothing runs right, and he’s losing productivity… dammit! As I have been picking up the intricacies of the Unity Desktop, I too have joined his sentiment. I was having trouble navigating.. and that should never happen on a modern day Desktop.. right? The GUI is only supposed to get easier as we progress into the future… or else why do it?

    I found that the thing that I was missing the most in Unity was that Gnome Panel at the bottom of the screen with the application tabs. Everything else I could find, though it has migrated to other parts of the desktop. To do this I did the following:

    1. Type “gnome-panel &” in the terminal and the upper panel and lower panels will appear. The top panel cover over the Unity panel. As I was performing the instructions, I thought, oh crap.. a conflict. Then I thought of the things I keep in the top panel. Launcher icons! Those are covered by Unity in a slicker launcher. I then thought of the Menu. Unity’s is different, but neat.. and organized. The top panel had to go!

    2. Press Alt and the Right Mouse Button on the top panel to get the menu. Click “Delete this Panel”.

    3. If you did an upgrade like me, you will find that all the panel tools that you had before the upgrade are there waiting for you in the panel. Or you can click the “Add to Panel” menu item using the procedure outlined in #2.

    It is amazing what difference the Tabs make in Unity. I hope that the “Lords of Unity” (those responsible for making it) consider the things in Gnome2 that worked, and migrate it to Unity.

  • rick said:

    ubuntu oo has reconfig’d my internet connetion and am unable to find the ip or auto-connect to the net.

    it should be seamless and this ug is not.

    i goo am now looking for a safe and user-f distro.

  • guyguy said:

    I agree with dave – the search feature is bad. I can’t find things if I don’t know what they are. You say that “my most used applications are displayed”, but my most used applications aren’t the problem, are they? It’s the application I need only once, but don’t know what it’s called that’s the problem. Like configuration programs – sometimes I don’t even know what to look for! I should I guess there’s a “startup applications” thing?

    And you know what? Sometimes I forget the name of… (see? I forgot it now too!) of “chrome”. I’m more of a visual person and trying to remember the name of applications – even those I use frequently – takes me a while.

    More beef with Unity:
    You can’t customize it. Canonical decides what’s good for you and you can’t argue. You can’t even change the login sound, or disable it without hacking conf files! Changing the action of the power button requires finding a buried entry in dconf-editor. Both these things should be simple! And that’s true for every feature of Unity. If you don’t like it the way it is – you have to work very hard to change it.

    The side bar… It is supposed to be a convenient way to launch programs. Has this cool keyboard shortcut (winkey+number). Great! I set konsole to winkey-8. But if I launch another application, now it changed to winkey-9. 2 applications, and it isn’t mapped to keyboard anymore! I want consistency – I want having the same action performed each time I use a keyboard shortcut. I don’t want to have to look. And I want multiple konsoles open – but Unity doesn’t think that’s appropriate, so pressing the konsole button on the sidebar just jumps to an open konsole window instead of opening a new one. Sure, you can use “shift” to force a new window, but you can’t change the default behavior (at least not intuitively. Maybe it’s buried somewhere too). And it is annoying – especially since it means you can’t use the mouse alone to open a new konsole window.

    Lack of “window list”. I understand they really like the sidepanel thing, but a window list (you know, the bottom of the screen thing that shows you all the windows currently open *with their titles*) is important to some people. I want to know what windows are open at a glance. I want to get the information in the title (file name for office stuff, number of unread mails in mail programs, title of webpages in browsers). I have no way of doing that in Unity.

    Common menu – is nice and space saving, but if I have a big screen and multiple windows open -one next to the other- it can be very confusing. Nothing better than pressing “file-close” and see you closed the wrong file because a different window was selected. Not to mention multiple screens – where you now have to go all the way to the “main” screen to use the menu, no matter where the window is. I can understand it as a feature. Even a default feature. But not as a forced feature.

    How long did it take me to fix the “alt-tab” features? By default it only shows 3 of the open windows (why do they, again, actively hide from me what open windows I have?), does an annoying “zoom out” of the entire screen and gives me a headache. Oh – and takes a freaking second from the time you press “alt-tab” until it actually shows you anything. Yes, I kinda managed to fix it (not perfect, but better) – but still, there are so many annoying “fades” and “zooms” and delays whenever I do anything, and you can’t remove them all.

    I won’t say Gnome 3 is better. It isn’t. I just wish they’d stop forcing on you all the bells and whistles that might look cool, but are very annoying when you actually have to use the computer.

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    You know, I can’t help but think one thing after reading through these comments — Unity is still controversial. Canonical seems to have no problem stirring up controversy, and they’ve certainly done it with Unity. This time around, Canonical has decided to get rid of the option to fall back to Gnome 2 with 11.10. Yes, we knew the company was going to do that as we were warned that was in the works when 11.04 was released.

    What was the company’s motivation? To force us to give Unity a shot, I suppose. In my case, it worked. I can’t claim to prefer Unity to Gnome 2, but it is much improved in 11.10 and here’s hoping it gets better. It would seem, then, that Canonical has taken a bit of a Microsoft/Apple approach here — “this is what you get and you’ll, by God, use it.”

    Will that tactic work for Canonical? That’s hard to say. Unlike Apple and Microsoft, Canonical is not the only kid on the block with a Linux distribution, so forcing people to adopt Unity may result in people migrating to other distros (Mint has been mentioned a few times). It’ll be fun to watch.

    I’m sticking with Ubuntu for now at the very least. Unity is growing on me and the OS makes that underpowered hardware in my netbook zip along nicely. One of these days, I’ll boot Ubuntu from a USB drive on our 64-bit laptop and see how the speed measures up compared to Windows 7 on that system…

  • god said:

    KDE KDE KDE KDE KDE and don’t look back

  • Eliezer said:

    Unity desktop is evolutionary,no more evolution mail client and switch to Tunderbird wich is the best ever and so is the integration to panel.The bar can be adjust to stay always visible so it wont block you from doing anything on the left side of the panel.The only bad desition they made about this is to give users the option where to keep that bar on the left or the right side of the screen.Is more efficient and stable so far,a lot of apps still available and some dont.The change is for good.

  • guyguy said:

    Oh wow. I just discovered you can simply install “xubuntu-desktop” from the application installer, without reinstalling the whole OS, and have a fully integrated xfce environment available on login.

    I’ve been using it for a few hours, and it’s great! It’s all I ever wanted in a DE. Everyone here who complains about Unity interfering with their work should try it. It’s slick, it’s configurable, it’s… perfect. I’m in love. Forget Unity. Unity is trash. Install xubuntu. Be happy again.

  • bob said:

    I really hated Unity and the crave to use my entire screen. I have a screen larger than 3 inches and don’t need the 1/8th of a inch of space the scrollbars take up or the damn launcher! So, annoyed with 11.04 I did a newbie thing and “figured” the problems would be fixed in 11.10. All it did was screw up my scanning software and a Snagit (worked in wine) software so that neither launch. It also screwed up my audio on my laptop so that it pops and sounds mechanical. Thanks! I’ve always upgraded Ubuntu as soon as it was released with ZERO problems. I’ll never do that again.

    At least I was able to get rid of those !!!!!!! overlay scrollbars.

  • EHSPAYNE said:

    I installed awn and set a dock on the left side of the screen. To that I added the three different menu applets and then checked them all out. Two of them gave me the more classic gnome menu and one also added a separate Places menu. So I can find anything like I did in Gnome. I deleted the two menu applets I didn’t like and kept the one I did like. Also, with the Intellihide feature it works nicely, but I used to Autohide my lower panel anyway.

  • Dennis B. said:

    For those of you who want the old gnome 2 back, it looks like you can get it by install the package “gnome” from the universe repository.

    (Press + + T to open a terminal)

    apt-get install gnome

    If it can’t find the package, open up the software sources (search for it in the dash) and make sure that the “Community-maintained Open Source Software (universe)” box is checked. reload if it prompts you to do so. perform command as above.

    **NOTE: it can also be installed by searching for “gnome” in the software center.

  • john wall said:

    Ubuntu 11.04 was a problem both from the point of the 64 bit and 32 bit operating choices, either by downloading and writing to disc and installing or a direct upgrade it crashed. Ubuntu’s unity desktop was a nightmare in 11.04 but now is improved although it does display some graphical problems, I went straight back to 10.10 on Ubuntu as it was clearly a landmark for me as far as Ubuntu was concerned; everything worked fine and then came unity !
    I can’t understand all the complaints, if it doesn’t suit you then use something else, Linux has plenty of choices. Linux mint is excellent although for the last couple of distributions I can’t help thinking it causes some internet problems, often disconnects when other operating systems don’t.
    If you don’t need to use a printer then Sabayon is a great distro,Mepis is pretty good too and even with KDE desktop retains that older style layout which I learned to love.Linux mint by the way have a new option to download for their distro involving Opera browser, Opera is fast and if you use it as Linux mint tell you, then they will earn money from it:hows that for helping your favorite distro !
    Open suse is stable but may be about to use unity, personally I think Suse lost it when Novell sold out to Microsoft , earlier versions such as 9.1 professional were great to use. Remember the choice is yours..

  • AI said:

    Unity in 11.10 Is Great and Best Effort for Linux Community Glory.

  • Tony said:

    I upgraded to 11.10 and it’s crap. The Unity autohide sticks as do the windows I’m going back to 11.04 and wait for 12.04 next April

  • odszkodowanie w uk said:

    Interesting. I wonder when we will get a nest answer?

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