Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ubuntu Unity Desktop Review: The disasterous aftermath

Yesterday, I blogged about the current shortcomings of the Unity desktop environment. What happened afterwards, however, is a horror story with a valuable lesson learned, and also something of a testament as to why the *nix command-line still rocks hard.

The problem started when I noticed that Totem and MPlayer started acting weird. When playing a video, the colors were screwed up. But it was kinda funny how people in videos looked as blue as the Smurfs(I now regret not taking a screenshot when I had the chance). So I thought "Maybe I'll check the repositories to see if there's any updates that could fix this".

So I fired up update-manager, and sure enough there were a lot of updates. I proceeded to install them all, thinking it would fix the movie problems and maybe pull in some improvements to Unity too. After the slightly lengthy download and install process, I was instructed to reboot the machine.

On reboot, instead of seeing the familiar GDM login screen, I get greeted with a black screen with only a "ubuntu login:" text prompt. Apparently the X server failed to start up properly. So I logged in and tried to start it manually with "startx". No dice, and it mentioned something about the Nvidia modules. It was then I knew what had happened: the kernel image and/or the nvidia modules didn't jive together. I then tried installing the nvidia-current package and then rebooted. Still didn't work. So I was left with one option: back up my data and re-install the stable Ubuntu release.

But I didn't have a CD/DVD with Ubuntu already on it. I had to first go to the Ubuntu website, download the ISO, and then burn it to disc all from the command-line.

Luckily, I still had access to the Web, could install packages via apt-get, and I knew my way around getting help in a gui-less situation. First, I installed elinks(a text-mode web browser) and rtorrent(a command-line bittorrent client). I launched elinks and navigated to the torrent download link. I saved the torrent file to my home directory, then launched rtorrent to quickly download the ISO.

The real tricky part for me was figuring out how to burn the ISO image via the command-line. After doing a little Googling, I found that the command "growisofs -dvd-compat -Z /dev/dvd=image.iso" fit the job perfectly. After the disc burn was complete, I rebooted and the live session started up without a hitch.

During the live session, I attempted to copy as much of my user data onto a pen drive as I could. Unfortunately, many of the files were somehow uncopiable(undoubtedly a permissions glitch). But whatever I couldn't backup wasn't anything irreplaceable, so it wasn't all too bad.

Then I launched the Ubuntu installer. The installer pretty much took me by surprise, as I recalled I never actually installed Maverick Meerkat fresh before(previously I had upgraded to it from the previous release, Lucid Lynx). The installer is now so polished I can confidently say it's idiot-proof.

Once the install was done, I rebooted and was greeted with an uber-fast bootup from manufacturer splash image to GDM in less than 15 seconds. I'm now still in the process of rebuilding all my lost user data, but I'm back in the game with a couple of golden nuggets of wisdom:
  1. Always regularly backup your stuff, because shit really does happen when you least expect it.
  2. When you're using early alpha software, shit happening is almost guaranteed. Be prepared for it.

However, this experience has compelled me to try a little experiment in the near future. I plan to dedicate at least 2 days of computer use solely within a command-line environment. No desktop environments, no window managers, and no GUI applications at all. Of course this means no SL or YouTube, but I'd like to see how far the command-line can be used to perform tasks usually reserved for a GUI environment. Look out for a future blog post on it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ubuntu Unity Desktop Review

A few days ago I decided to upgrade my desktop Ubuntu OS from 10.10(Maverick Meerkat) to 11.04(Natty Narwal) Alpha 1. Previous experience upgrading to such an early alpha release told me that this would be very risky and likely I would have to re-install back to the stable release. But after the lengthy upgrade process was completed(took a few hours because I had Gnome, KDE, and LXDE desktop environments previously installed), I successfully rebooted and was greeted with the familiar GDM login screen.

I clicked on my username, entered my password and chose "Ubuntu Desktop Edition" for the desktop session. But instead of Gnome or Unity popping up, it appeared that what I got was a very unfinished and incomplete desktop session. There was no launcher, no panel or even an easy logout mechanism. I was ready to dismiss Alpha 1 as a starting point only for the developers. FAIL.

But it turned out the Unity launcher and panel was present, but required desktop effects to be turned on to use them. So I did just that and this is what appeared:

Ubuntu Unity "Desktop"

Looks like a cross between Gnome Shell and Ubuntu's Netbook UI. What initially annoyed me was that all the entries I created in my Desktop directory were being shown twice: in the launcher and on the desktop screen. And notice the launcher entries displaying a question mark as the icon? That's because it seems the launcher can't display icons that are not stored on the system icon directories. I'd have to hover my mouse over the icons to tell what they really are. FAIL.

But the worst current feature of this release is finding all the applications. You have to click on the Ubuntu logo on the top left of the screen, and Nautilus will appear showing you the /usr/share/applications directory. Ugh. No application menu grouping or sorting by task at all here, just a single directory being spit out in front of you. FAIL.

As far as I can see, the current incarnation of the Unity desktop isn't even a true desktop environment yet. It's still a major work-in-progress, much like when KDE 4 first appeared. No doubt we'll see much improvement in future alpha releases, but for now I'll be sticking with Gnome/KDE/LXDE for my real desktop needs. Unity still needs a lot of work to be easy enough for casual use.