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Ubuntu Unity: A GUI for Beginners and Experts

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Ubuntu made headlines recently with its latest release, 11.04. Most noteworthy was its use of a new desktop shell called Unity. In this article, Matthew Helmke gives an overview of Unity and shares some tips sure to please the power user as well as the newcomer.

In the past, Ubuntu has chosen GNOME as its default graphical desktop environment. This provided a stable and easy-to-use interface that users understood and enjoyed. It was also friendly to power users who like shortcuts and customization.

So, with that in mind, the Ubuntu folks took a big risk when they decided to develop a new graphical user interface (GUI) called Unity. It is my opinion that this risk has paid off nicely. There are some caveats and quirks, but overall the Unity desktop experience is one of the most modern, beautiful, and usable out there. This article will begin with a tour of Unity and will follow up with some ideas that power users will love.

An Unchanged Foundation, A Different Face

From Ubuntu's first release—4.10 in October 2004, up through the 10.10 release in October 2010—GNOME was the Ubuntu desktop. Sure, Ubuntu customized the colors, look and feel, and some of the programs installed by default, but to anyone familiar with GNOME there was no question that this was their familiar desktop environment. Ubuntu's Unity desktop retains much of GNOME as a foundation. It is more correct to say that Unity provides a new interface to GNOME's back end than to say it replaces GNOME. Unity ships with many of the default GNOME programs by default and, indeed, could not exist at all without GNOME as a foundation.

What makes Unity unique is how users interact with the system. Gone are many of the stale desktop metaphors of the past. Gone are the main program menus in drop-down lists from a top panel across the screen. Rather than dwell on what has been removed and try to enumerate all the differences, I will describe what is present in Unity. The reader can draw her own conclusions about what is or is not missing after hearing about what exists.

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