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Ubuntu Unity: An Evolving GUI

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Check out this quick description of the great features in Ubuntu's Unity interface to see why Matthew Helmke, contributing author to The Official Ubuntu Book, 7th Ed, regards it as interesting, powerful, and maybe the future of graphical interaction for Linux.
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Over the last few releases, Ubuntu's Unity interface has undergone significant changes. It has matured from a young upstart that was interesting and adequate (if not universally loved or fully functional) to a stable and powerful interface that seems to many people to be the future of graphical interaction for Linux. While Unity was sponsored by Canonical and initially a project available only on Ubuntu, in the past few months we've seen successful efforts to port it to other Linux distributions, such as Fedora, OpenSUSE, and Arch.

Since the last time I wrote about Unity for InformIT, the interface has changed in ways that are worth mentioning and are no doubt interesting to this site's readers. As you peruse official Ubuntu websites, you'll notice that Unity is no longer referred to as a "desktop environment." This is because Unity is designed and intended for more than the traditional desktop or laptop computer, although it works on these quite well. Unity is also intended to work on tablets, phones, and television sets. Canonical and the Ubuntu community are breaking out from the old standard of "each device has its own unique interface" and forging ahead with a new plan to make the interface of today and of the future. This article highlights some of the steps taken recently to make Unity more powerful, more interesting, and more useful across multiple devices.

No Menus?

Traditionally, Linux users would interact with a graphical user interface (GUI) using a system of menus. This has been a standard GUI design across operating systems for decades. These menus, usually housed either at the top or the bottom of the screen, would place programs in hierarchical lists, hoping to make them easier for the end user to find. This was a marked improvement over the early days, when the user had to browse from the command line, listing the contents of directory after directory until the desired program was found. However, with the advent of new devices, the menu structure seems clunky and difficult. Another option is to populate the screen with icons for various programs, such as on Android or Apple's iOS, but screen real estate isn't limitless.

Unity uses a different method. In Unity, programs are accessed using an interface called the Dash. You open the Dash by clicking the Ubuntu logo icon at upper left on the screen or by pressing the Super key (it usually sports a Windows or Apple logo) on the keyboard. When the Dash opens, the user types the name of the program she wants to run, or a word related to it. For example, she could type LibreOffice or just text to reveal a list of installed programs that seem to match, in this case finding LibreOffice Writer, a text editing and word processing program that's installed in Unity by default. To move between items in the list of programs, you use the mouse or the arrow keys; when the desired program is highlighted, a quick mouse click or press of the Enter key opens it. This search works with installed programs or files on the computer. You can find a video file, a text file, a spreadsheet, and more by using the search in the Dash.

Along the left side of the screen is a vertical bar of icons (the Launcher) representing items you can open—programs, file folders, or other things you want to access quickly. Some things are placed in the Launcher by default, and all open programs or file locations are listed there. The Launcher can be customized easily to include applications, file folders, and more, according to the user's needs.

What If I Don't Remember the Name?

Searching is good, but when you can't think of the best search terms for what you want, it can be frustrating. Unity doesn't leave you hanging. Within the Launcher are a set of Lenses that help you to focus your search, narrowing your choices based on specific criteria. You can use the Applications lens to limit search results to installed programs, or the Files and Folders lens to search files and folders on the system. Unity has default lenses for music and videos, and many more lenses are available for you to install. Do a quick search in the Ubuntu Software Center for "unity lenses" to see what's available today; members of the Ubuntu community regularly create new lenses. Some lenses even enable searching for things across the Internet, such as searching the popular reddit website, Wikipedia, or Google Books, all without opening your web browser first.

Heads Up Display

One of the most exciting features of Unity is the heads-up display, generally shortened to just HUD. The HUD makes menus even less needed or missed once you learn how it works—even menus in your programs. Press the Alt key to open the HUD. It doesn't look like much at first. All you see is a small display open at upper left on the screen with a box that says, "Type your command."

If you're running a program when you start the HUD (such as GIMP, a graphics editor), you can start typing a command that would normally appear in a menu in that program. The HUD searches all the program's menus, returning search results that match either the exact terms you typed or related terms. For example, instead of clicking File > New to create a new file, you could press Alt to open the HUD and type new.

This is powerful—no longer do you need to remember the location for an obscure command that you use only occasionally; instead, you can search for it. You don't have to remember the precise name of the command, either; just enter something close or related. Going back to our GIMP example, let's say you want to find a command that inverts colors in a section of an image. Would you look in the Select menu, the Colors menu, or somewhere else entirely? With the HUD, it doesn't matter. Press Alt and type invert in the search box, and every GIMP menu entry that either includes the word or is related to it will be listed. Use the arrow keys or your mouse cursor to select the one you want.

Using Unity as a Power User

The last time I wrote about Unity for InformIT, I shared a set of keyboard shortcuts. Power users of computers often eschew using a mouse whenever possible because they don't want to take their hands off the keyboard unless absolutely necessary; doing so slows them down. Because Unity was so new when I wrote that introductory article, the keyboard shortcuts weren't entirely stable; in fact, many shortcuts have been added and some have changed since then. For the sake of those power users, I'll conclude this article with a list of some of Unity's keyboard shortcuts that you're most likely to love. To display a more complete list of keyboard shortcuts, hold down the Super key (the one with the Windows or Apple logo). This list displayed on your screen can save time when you're looking for a keyboard shortcut, as well as helping you to memorize the shortcuts without having to create a paper "cheat sheet."

  •          Tap the Super key to open the Dash.
  •          Press the Super key to open the Launcher and display keyboard shortcuts.
  •          Use Alt + F1 to open the Launcher in keyboard navigation mode, so you can use the arrow keys to highlight and Enter to select an icon from the list.
  •          Use Super + A to open the Dash Applications lens.
  •          Use Super + F to open the Dash Files and Folders lens.
  •          Use Super + T to open the trash can.
  •          Use Ctrl + Alt + T to open a terminal window.
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