Ubuntu Netbook Remix - User Interface Pro/Am Opinions

I'm going to take a look at the Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.04 desktop and user interface.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

I'm going to take a look at the Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.04 desktop and user interface. My intention is to look from two different perspectives - my own, as a Linux "Pro", and that of my partner, my neighbor, or others who we might consider Linux "Amateurs", often having been Windows users. I think the results might be surprising. I will also include some comments about and comparisons with Moblin 2.0 Beta, based on my previous look at the Moblin Desktop and User Interface.

The UNR desktop is divided into three sections. The left section contains what is essentially the Gnome "Applications" and "System" menus, spread out so that they are immediately visible. For new users, this makes it much more obvious where things are located, and on the small screens of the netbook systems that UNR is intended for, it makes the entire menu system more readable.

The center section of the desktop shows the contents of whatever menu section is selected. Initially after boot or login, that is a new section called "Favorites", which is roughly equivalent to launchers on the Gnome panel. By default this contains obvious things like Firefox, Evolution, Cheese, Pidgin and of course Help.

Clicking on each of the other items in the left column of the desktop brings up its items in the center section - Accessories, Games, Graphics and so on, just like in the standard Gnome menus. Any of the items in the other sections can be added to Favorites by right-clicking on the item and choosing "Add to Favorites". Not as simple or obvious as Moblin, which adds a push-pin when an item is highlighted, which will add that item to Favorites.

Oh, it is worth mentioning at this point that UNR includes an "Office" item, which contains OpenOffice.org, while Moblin does not. I'm not sure whether this is a significant advantage, because on a real netbook, with a small screen and keyboard, you wouldn't expect to use Office applications. But I have learned from experience that a lot of people expect to do so anyway.

The right section of the desktop is essentially the Gnome "Places" menu, again spread out so that it is always present and more easily readable on a small screen. I was a bit put off by this section when I first looked at UNR, because it seemed quite busy and cramped. But of course that is only because I have so many partitions on the disk drive, for multi-booting various Linux distributions, and each partition shows in this list. On a more "normal" UNR installation, there won't be all of those partitions, what will show on the right of the desktop will be only "Home", "Desktop", "Network" at the top, and "Quit" at the bottom. By the way, Moblin doesn't have a "Quit" button anywhere that I could find; you just push the power button to shut the system down. I don't find that to be nearly as "obvious" as the developers of Moblin seem to, and it removes the ability to do other things like restart, susped, log out and such. (Please don't bother to write and tell me that you can do that by opening a terminal window and using "/sbin/shutdown" or whatever - I know it, I do it, but it will be a cold day before I try to explain how to do that to a beginning Linux user.)

The final section of the desktop is the status/system panel across the top of the screen. This is a condensed merge of the upper and lower panels of the standard Ubuntu Gnome desktop. The right side contains a few of the standard utility icons (date/time, volume, power and network) the left side contains a "Show Desktop" icon, and icons for open windows (much reduced from the tabs in the standard Gnome lower panel), and the middle is where the title bar for the currently active window goes when it is maximized (as it always is by default). More on this in a moment.

Ok, so that's the initial desktop layout. From the "Pro" viewpoint, I find it to be a bit cluttered, but I am quite a desktop "minimalist", and I don't put many icons or other such things on my desktop. From the "Amateur" viewpoint, my friends say that they find it to be very clear, and pretty obvious what is where and why - with the exception of the right side "Places" column. They both say that they could do perfectly well without that, or perhaps with only a "Places" item in the left column. I tend to agree.

Ok, so how does it work, or what does it look like in action? First, when you move the mouse over the items in the center section of the desktop (the menu items), their icon will "inflate" slightly to highlight the current item. Click on one of the items, and it will start the application. If your computer is a bit slow, or you pay close attention, you'll see the window open at some "normal" size, and then immediately expands to Maximized. This is apparently another concession to the relatively small screens of the intended target systems. You will also notice that when maximized, the window title bar does not contain the usual buttons for "Minimize" and "Restore" (or "Unmaximize"), it only has the "Close Window" X-button. If you are like me, and are either using a larger screen or just don't like having one window always fill the screen, you can get to the other buttons by right-clicking on the window title bar. Once it has been "Unmaximized", the window title bar contains the usual buttons again.

Once you have opened one or more windows, there will be icons at the top left of the display for each of them. You can move between windows by clicking their icons, or return to the desktop menus by clicking the "Show Desktop" (or "Go Home") button to the left of the window icons. For the "Pro" opinion, I find this desktop management system to be quite good - easy to understand and simple to use. For the "Amateur" opinion, when I asked my friends about it they both gave me a look like "DUH, it's obvious, why are you even asking about it". I find that rather interesting, considering that this is a very different way of working than they were used to with Windows!

Finally, a couple of comments about UNR compared to Moblin. The basic desktop appearance is quite different - UNR has everything spread open, and text labels for each item. Moblin has everything on a panel across the top, with a symbol for each item. I have to say honestly that the relevance of the symbol to the item escapes me and pretty much everyone else I've asked about it. I find desktop management and window selection to be more natural on UNR, but I suppose that is because it is essentially the same as what I am used to. While Moblin takes a very different approach, it might work out better on smaller (and smaller, and smaller...) systems in the future. I still think it is likely to drive experienced Linux users (including me) screaming into the night, though. As for pre-loaded applications and utilities, UNR has a lot more than Moblin, because it has pretty much everything that is in the standard Ubuntu distribution. A lot of that might be of no interest or use to the average netbook user, but I suspect that having useful things like OpenOffice and F-Spot, and lots more fun things like various Games might be a significant advantage. I still don't understand why Moblin doesn't seem to have any kind of email client, unless I am just overlooking it; and while Moblin also has games, there are not nearly as many, and they are lurking under the "Applications" menu, where neither of my friends had stumbled across them yet. I think Moblin would do well to give the Games their own item on the top menu - and just think what fun they could have designing an obscure symbol for it!

jw 25/6/2009

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