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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Along with the status icons at top right, the top panel now houses a very Mac-like global menu bar, rather than menus being inside applications' windows. Bizarrely, though, Unity hides the menus from sight until you mouse over them, which is poorly discoverable to say the least. What's more, apps which don't use the GNOME libraries don't get the single menu bar; their menus appear inside their windows, the old way – which jars somewhat. A prime example is the bundled office suite, LibreOffice. If you maximise a window, its title bar also merges into the panel, replaced by the menus on mouseover – all in the pursuit of preserving vertical space, so precious on 16:9 widescreen displays. The Dash replaces the old app menus and the Launcher replaces the quick-launch icons and bottom panel.

Overall, it's strongly reminiscent of Mac OS X. The Launcher is much like Apple's Dock – its icons not only start apps but are used to switch between them. Just like the Dock, a small indicator glows next to the icon to indicate that a program is running. Like in Windows 7's taskbar, there's only one icon per app, rather than one button per window as in GNOME 2 and KDE – but Unity helpfully gives you one indicator per instance, so you can see at a glance how many windows you have open. If you have multiple windows open, clicking the icon presents a list, and if they're all minimised, it restores the latest one (in the current, 11.10 release). If that wasn't the instance you wanted, click the launcher icon again and you get the list. Middle-click the icon to open extra instances of that app.

Overall, though, apart from the replacement of the panels and menus with the launcher and dash, Unity is still GNOME underneath. It has the same file manager, Nautilus, the same suite of applications, the same window controls in the same places – even the same visual theme. Once you get used to the Launcher and the menus, it's not all that different. GNOME Shell is a much bigger wrench.

Some people, your humble scribe included, rather like Unity's new look. In particular, it's no stretch if you're familiar with Mac OS X. However, Ubuntu is primarily a PC OS: its users tend to be migrants from Windows and some are staunch Mac-haters. For these, the new, distinctly un-Windows-like look is a step too far.

Even before Unity's launch back in April, Ubuntu's "Sounder" mailing list – the place for the community to discuss whatever ailed them – was full of people bemoaning the change and criticising the new desktop. As threads on the Internet will, some of the discussions became long and involved and wondered off-topic – one even drifted into a discussion of the rights and wrongs of the state of Israel.

The response of the Ubuntu Community Council was simple: the Sounder list was promptly shut down. Many of its members – including yours truly – have adjourned to a new, open, public list, the Bike Shed, but it was a salutary reminder that Ubuntu and its community only exist at the good-humoured tolerance of its founder and sponsor, Mark Shuttleworth. He pays Ubuntu's bills, and as such, he and his staff call the tune. Indeed, he jokingly refers to himself as the Self-Appointed Benevolent Dictator For Life or "SABDFL".

Some Unity-averse users are staying with older releases. Until the April 2012 release – the next long-term-support version – the current LTS edition, 10.04, is Unity-free. Those wanting more current software have the option of the last GNOME 2-based release, 10.10, or the just-superseded 11.04, where reverting to the old GNOME 2 desktop is just a matter of picking "classic" on the login screen.

But not any more.

In order to support people with lower-spec machines that don't provide the hardware OpenGL 3D acceleration that Unity (and the GNOME Shell, come to that) require to function, Canonical has developed a simpler, 2D version of its new desktop, imaginatively called Unity-2D. Ironically, it's based on the same Qt libraries that caused all the KDE ruckus back at the start of the century. And now, Unity-2D is, indirectly, new cause for complaint.

As of October's release of Ubuntu 11.10, to the dismay of many previously-loyal Ubuntu fans, GNOME 2 is history. The obsolete, or if you prefer, "classic" desktop has been removed; the new version is based on the now-current GNOME libraries: i.e., GNOME 3, but minus GNOME Shell. If you have 3D hardware, you get Unity; if you don't, you get Unity-2D. There's no way to downgrade to GNOME 2; the only option is to install GNOME 3 and use Fallback Mode, or switch to a different desktop altogether.

And 11.10 is the last release before the next Long Term Support release in April 2012, so it sets the pattern for 12.04 – which is the only direct upgrade path for people still on the current LTS release, 10.04.

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