Wednesday, October 10, 2012

ubuntu vs xubuntu

in this post i am basically going to explain why i am unhappy with the direction of ubuntu, and why xubuntu - and the xfce way - appeals to me so much more.

ubuntu, unity, and xubuntu

for the past few releases (basically since maverick), the company behind ubuntu has tried to redefine how we interact with our desktop through the development of unity. i've been very supportive of these efforts overall. making design decisions is tough and treacherous, and if anyone has a vision to improve the desktop linux experience, then i applaud their efforts. now i want to evaluate these efforts. does unity improve the desktop experience?

meh. definitely a mixed bag.

the main problem is that everything feels half baked right now, and the improvements in the next version of ubuntu (quantal) don't really fix most of the issues i have. when analyzed from a user experience point of view, the changes canonical has brought to ubuntu can be largely divided into the following categories (i'm not trying to cover everything, just the most bits that we are likely to interact with the most):
  • notifications
  • the top panel (which, in ubuntu, includes the global menu and the status menus)
  • the launcher (including right click menus)
  • the dash and hud
 the problem is that each of these components, both individually and taken together, include a number of design decisions that do not make sense to me (nor do they work well with my work flow). i will consider each in turn and then compare it with xubuntu's xfce analogues.

notifications in ubuntu and xubuntu

the way notifications are implemented in xubuntu make a lot more sense then how they are implemented in ubuntu. in the quantal version of xubuntu (i don't know about previous versions), system notifications are sensibly placed in the upper right hand corner of the screen, close to the status menus, and they include a little 'x' to close them if they are in your way. on ubuntu, they are placed about an inch lower for no apparent reason, and there is no way to close them until they finally fade out (which can be very annoying at times).

xubuntu definitely wins this one.

the top panel

in ubuntu the top panel includes both the global menu on the left and the status menus on the right.

global menu

first, i have to admit, on my fairly small screen, i really like the global menu. but i also fully acknowledge that on big screens it makes considerably less sense, and it takes more time (and often more clicks) to do things than when the menus are attached to each individual window (for example, i don't have to switch windows and then click on the menu item in the global menu, i can just click the menu item directly). also, there are some inconsistencies in ubuntu's implementation, as has been pointed out in the ars technica review of precise:
The global menubar, which is one of the defining characteristics of the Unity environment, still poses a number of problems. The global menu model simply isn’t compatible with the window-specific menu system used in Linux applications. The effort to bolt these conflicting paradigms together could be executed better.
Despite displaying the menu contents outside of the window, the menus are still window-specific. By design, the global menu bar displays the menu of the focused window. This proves awkward in some applications with dialogs and multiple windows.
specific problems are then enumerated in the article (go and check it out). in other words, the implementation of global menus has introduced odd user experience inconsistencies into the picture, one's which are going to be really hard to fix (and, imho, probably won't be).

so... i really like that the global menus reduce chrome clutter, but they do so at a price. this breaks even for me.

status menus

overall i like the design of the status menus, though they still feel inconsistent/unhelpful in a number of ways. the sound menu i haven't been able to get much use of, it is easier to just use rhythmbox or clementine directly, and when multiple music players are installed, it becomes cluttered fast. the email/messaging menu doesn't play well with pidgin (empathy isn't good enough for my needs), i dislike that i can't close thunderbird to the menu so i don't have to have it open as a window, and lots of applications that would generally install something in this panel are blocked from doing so. at least xubuntu doesn't block these applications, and it plays well with pidgin. also, the weather indicator in ubuntu dies pretty much every single day, whereas i've had a lot less trouble with the weather indicator in xubuntu. and, finally, the calender indicator in both is pretty useless in both - i sure it would tell me about upcoming appointments and birthdays.

the launcher

the launcher in ubuntu pretty much drives me crazy. i liked how, in oneric, it would hide when i pushed a window up against it or made a window fullscreen. this default behavior was eliminated in precise - now i must keep it always open or have it automatically hide - and neither option i like. i could work around this, i think, if i were allowed to move it either to the bottom of the screen or the other side. but nope, this is not allowed (thanks designers for knowing what works better for me than i do :/). and it is buggy. like really buggy. open applications don't show up when they are open (especially libreoffice), right clicking on the menus have caused my system to freeze, and sometimes there is a little arrow next to applications that are not open for some reason. plus, i can't press the icon to minimize an application. in xubuntu, the launcher at the bottom just does what it is supposed to do - launch applications. it doesn't try to bake in a whole bunch of functionality that doesn't work all that well (yeah, i'm talking to you, unity). it hides the way i want and i can move it around if i so choose. also in xubuntu, i keep track of the open windows in the top panel. when i click on an application indicator there, it minimizes it or brings it back into view. it is simple, straightforward, and works well. much better than unity's launcher.

the dash and hud

the dash was one of the things i really liked about ubuntu until they polluted it with the integrated shopping i won't go near it. in fact, it is the main reason that i have given up on unity - canonical, DO NOT send my queries to your servers without my express permission. the end. the dash is trying to be the place to search for everything. no thanks. there is a huge divide between searching for my own files and going online, and i do not want the two to mix.

finally, the hud.

this is probably my favorite improvement that unity has contributed to the user experience, and i have no complaints about it other than wishing it were modular enough to be ported to xubuntu. and if it is not modular enough, then this only shows that canonical is not really helping the open source community, only producing applications that it uses for its own distribution. and this pretty much seems akin to vendor lock-in to me.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

why ubuntu has soured on me, and my move to xubuntu

a couple of weeks back, there was a huge community backlash to the news that the newest version of ubuntu (quantal 12.10) would send ALL queries made in the dash, via the shopping lens, to canonical as a way to help build revenue. that's right, EVERYTHING you type into the dash (when you search for programs or files or anything) will be sent to canonical for the purpose of advertising directly on your desktop. i protested as loud as anyone. canonical's response (besides defending their position) has been to include a program that can disable all internet activity from the dash. unfortunately, i find this solution unsatisfactory for the following reasons:
  • it is opt-out vs. opt in
this angers me. it works to build revenue by relying on people's ignorance of what canonical is doing with their queries. not everyone pays as much attention to the development of ubuntu as i do, and most will be ignorant of what canonical is up to. this is shitty. and unethical.
  • it is not separated into its own lens, but is integrated into the dash home
if i am looking to buy something (or even looking for music, videos, or programs) then I can understand offering search results from third-parties in separate lenses, but NOT when i am merely searching my own computer for programs, files, or whatever.
  • it is a security breach and a violation of privacy.
sorry, i can't see it any other way no matter how canonical apologists try to reassure everyone that our queries are anonymous and that our privacy is being respected. i do not trust you canonical, and if you truly respected your users, then we wouldn't have to (and your money-making scheme here has only shown how untrustworthy you are)., all of this is to say that i'm done with ubuntu, and i will actively discourage its use (which is sad, since i have been a huge supporter of ubuntu for many years). there are many options for linux desktop users, and i'm glad that this fiasco has given me an opportunity to explore other options. one option i'm particularly happy about is xubuntu, an xfce based, community run distro built on top of the ubuntu software infrastructure. in my next post, i'll explain the reasons for this.