Six years after its tumultuous switch from GNOME 2 to the homegrown Unity desktop, Canonical announced it was abandoning work on Unity. Going forward, the company will switch the default Ubuntu desktop back to GNOME beginning with next year’s 18.04 LTS release. This means Canonical is also abandoning the development of the Mir display server and its unified interface of Ubuntu for phones and tablets. The company’s vision of “convergence,” as Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth termed it, has officially died.

Shuttleworth posted that news just a few days before Ubuntu 17.04 arrived, which took a considerable amount of wind out of the sails for this update to Canonical’s flagship Unity-based Linux desktop. To be fair, however, the last few Ubuntu desktop releases haven’t had much wind in their sails to start with. There have been a few feature updates and some work on bringing in more up-to-date GNOME and GTK elements, but by and large they’ve been maintenance releases.

While Ubuntu 17.04 offers a few new features, bug fixes, and improvements over its predecessor, it qualifies as a significant release because it will likely be the last version of Unity that Canonical ships. Technically Ubuntu 17.10 will come later this year, but it seems unlikely the company is going to put much effort into developing a desktop it is abandoning.

In fact, Ubuntu’s twice-yearly update schedule has lately felt more like a burden the company has to deal with while the real work of building Unity 8 happened in between. And though Unity 8 did indeed look promising, unfortunately it’s not something that mobile carriers and phone makers seemed to want. As Shuttleworth wrote in his announcement, “what the Unity 8 team has delivered so far is beautiful, usable, and solid, but I respect that markets, and community, ultimately decide which products grow and which disappear.”

So Unity 8 is going the way of the Dodo, which leaves the Unity-based default version of Ubuntu 17.04 as a kind of living fossil. The Ubuntu GNOME project will be the default release of Ubuntu this time next year.

That’s not to say that 17.04 is abandonware. And it will live on in the Universe repos for anyone who’d like to continue using it. So if you’re fond of the Unity interface, there’s no need to panic just yet. There have already been stirrings of a community around it that would like to continue development. Even if there are just a couple of people fixing bugs and keeping the lights on, you should be able to get a good five more years as a Unity diehard. (Canonical is committed to maintaining it for the five-year release cycle of 16.04, which lasts until April of 2021.)

What makes Shuttleworth’s announcement a little odd is that Unity 7 is a very mature and stable desktop. Why not stick with Unity 7? Why move to GNOME? The answer seems to lie in how Canonical is allocating resources. Canonical doesn’t want to employ an army of programmers to keep Unity 7 secure and improving when the GNOME project is available for free with an army of programmers not paid by Canonical maintaining and improving it.

That means the future of Ubuntu, then, looks a lot like the future of, well, any other distro that uses GNOME by default. That’s a little disappointing, especially if you (like me) happened to really want an Ubuntu phone. On the other hand, I have fond memories of pre-Unity Ubuntu… which, of course, also used a more or less stock version of GNOME.

It’s also worth noting that there are several other ‘buntu flavors out there for anyone who doesn’t want to use GNOME, and I’ve recently taken a closer look at two of them—Ubuntu MATE and Xubuntu. But when it comes time to test this latest release, it’s difficult if not impossible to evaluate Ubuntu 17.04 without simultaneously pondering the future of Ubuntu and GNOME, too.

Ubuntu 17.04

There’s more to a distro than its default desktop, and Ubuntu 17.04 is no exception. There’s quite a bit of new stuff in this release, but possibly the best news is that Ubuntu is now using Linux kernel 4.10. That means your Kaby Lake processors are fully supported (as are AMD Ryzen chips for those who love rooting for the underdog). There’s also some support for NVIDIA’s Tegra P1 and some improvements to the open source NVIDIA (Nouveau) drivers.

Another big change that most people will never even notice is that Ubuntu 17.04 switched from a swap partition to a swap file. You could see some speed improvements from that in some situations, and it makes your swap partition unnecessary, which saves a step in the installation process. The exception here is Btrfs, which does not support swap files. If you’re using Btrfs, you’ll need to opt for manual partitioning and create a swap partition yourself.

Also worth mentioning is Ubuntu 17.04’s support for the new “driverless” printers. These printers use the IPP Everywhere and Apple AirPrint protocols, and connecting them to your Ubuntu desktop should be, in Canonical’s words, “as easy as connecting a USB stick” (I don’t have a printer to test with).

This release also sees the usual slew of application updates for Ubuntu’s stock apps. GNOME-based apps have mostly been updated to GNOME 3.24, though there are a few that linger at older versions (Terminal and Nautilus for example).

Updates to Unity 7 include… well, nothing really. Unity is dead, long live GNOME.

Ubuntu GNOME 17.04

Shortly after Shuttleworth announced that Unity 8 and accompaniments were dead and that Ubuntu was returning to a stock GNOME desktop, the Ubuntu GNOME team posted a note saying that “there will no longer be a separate GNOME flavor of Ubuntu.” Instead the development teams from both Ubuntu GNOME and Ubuntu Desktop will be merging. The “flavor” itself will be merged into mainline Ubuntu, and, starting with 17.10, if you update Ubuntu GNOME you’ll actually be sideways-updating to just Ubuntu.

Shuttleworth’s announcement says that Ubuntu will be making minimal customizations to the GNOME interface, and, since the Ubuntu GNOME project currently makes very few customizations, it seems reasonable to assume that today’s Ubuntu GNOME is not too far off tomorrow’s Ubuntu.

Ubuntu GNOME 17.04 uses GNOME 3.24, having leapfrogged over 3.22 from 3.20. There’s quite a bit of new stuff in this release, including a built-in new feature called Night Light, which automatically changes your monitor color to reduce the blue light emitted by your screen at night. Night Light is GNOME’s version of RedShift or f.lux, but, because it was developed by GNOME, it actually works with Wayland, whereas the others do not. As someone who spends most of their time in front of a screen at night, this is reason enough for me to switch to GNOME. And I’m happy to report that it just works.

GNOME’s Calendar app gets a much-requested Week view with this release, though it still lacks support for a broader range of calendars (if you use Google Calendar it works fine, everything else has caused me problems).

Like the Unity desktop, the Ubuntu GNOME devs have stuck with older versions of some apps, including Terminal, Nautilus (both at GNOME 3.20 versions), and Evolution, which remains (for stability, say the release notes) at the GNOME 3.22 version.

One thing that’s not going away with Unity 8 is Snap packages. A “snap” package is designed to work across distros and is already widely supported (Canonical says 10 distros support Snaps as of this writing). Snaps offer sandboxing for improved security and quicker updates (since they come direct from the developer, rather than via the package manager). Because there can never be just one version of something in the Linux world, there are also Flatpaks. Roughly the same as Snaps (though they differ considerably in implementation), Flatpaks are also cross-distro, and support for them in GNOME Software has improved quite a bit in this release, and support is installed by default. So with Ubuntu GNOME you can easily install both Snaps and Flatpaks.

The Software app (still at GNOME 3.22) also now supports installing GNOME Shell extensions, which, if you’re hoping to replicate the experience of Unity 7 in GNOME, you’re going to need to learn to love.

Ubuntu GNOME does not ship with the full complement of GNOME apps, and I would expect Ubuntu to follow this since apps like Brasero, Evolution, and Seahorse are of limited audience at this point. The only possible exception is Evolution, since Thunderbird comes up short in some scenarios. All three apps are of course available for install via the Software app. Likewise there are a couple of new GNOME apps that aren’t installed by default—like the brand-new GNOME Recipes app and GNOME Games—but they are in the repos if you would like to try them out (Recipes is still very rough around the edges).

GNOME for Unity Refugees

So, you like Unity but you want to stick with what Canonical uses by default? That means you’ll be switching to GNOME 3. Unity was based on and uses quite a few components straight out of GNOME, so it’s not like you’re diving into a whole new world, but, that said, there are things you will miss, things you’ll need to work around, and several things you might like better.

Let’s start with the last part. In my experience, on my testing hardware, which consists of a Lenovo x240 and a Dell Precision 7520, GNOME Shell is faster than Unity, particularly for common tasks like calling up the search interface, but also in other areas like launching apps and dragging windows. Neither is what I would call slow, but with Unity I sometimes notice a half-second hesitation before an animation starts, which I never notice with GNOME.

This is highly subjective of course, but I like GNOME’s search interface and sidebar components better because they get out of the way and then come up when I want them. You can set the Unity sidebar to hide and show only when you want it, but it’s still not as smooth as what GNOME offers. Again, this is largely a matter of taste.

While speed may be the single most important element of a UI, there is plenty about GNOME that is going to disappoint Unity users. The biggest gripe I have is keyboard shortcuts. Unity had them in spades. For as graphical as Unity is/was, it was also very easy to drive without taking your hands off the keyboard. GNOME lacks that level of shortcuts. There may be some way of setting custom keyboard shortcuts in GNOME, but if I have to customize every keyboard shortcut, then I might as well go with something far lighter weight and truly customizable like Openbox. What I liked about Unity wasn’t even the shortcuts necessarily but the HUD that would find commands within menus simply by searching a few letters.

Fortunately for Unity refugees there’s Plotinus, which more or less replicates the Unity HUD UI in GNOME. The problem is it’s not simple to install and it’s low level enough that there may be some serious potential problems and conflicts (to be fair, there have not been any so far in my testing). Once you get it installed, though, it’s a great extension and useful enough that System76 plans to roll it into future builds of Ubuntu that ship with System76 machines. That solves one potential pain point for switching, but the other is more difficult: Unity Scopes.

Unity Scopes were like little search engines for the Dash search feature. They got a lot of bad press, some of it from me, for including an Amazon search scope with affiliate links, but in spite of that gaff they were a fantastically useful feature. I have yet to find the equivalent for GNOME. GNOME ostensibly has the same feature, though in GNOME they’re called Search Providers, the problem is that the UI is nowhere near as useful as Unity’s UI. Unity allowed you to interact with items in Scopes without opening any apps (how much varied by Scope); in GNOME you generally just use them to find things and launch apps.

Those are probably the two things you’ll miss the most moving from Unity to GNOME. And with a little bit of effort installing Plotinus and tracking down some GNOME Search Providers, you can get about 90 percent of what you had in Unity back.

As for the things that kind of suck about GNOME that you might want to work around, my top pick would be the huge toolbars at the top of every window. I’m convinced that no GNOME dev has ever used GNOME on anything smaller than a 24-inch monitor (I’m also pretty sure they all look and talk just like Seinfeld’s soup Nazi, no minimize for you!). If they had, they’d realize what a space-wasting horror GNOME toolbars are. But then I generally configure Openbox to have no toolbars and move windows with keyboard shortcuts, so perhaps I’m just weird. Whatever the case, if you use a laptop with limited vertical space it’s possible GNOME’s toolbars will drive you crazy, too.

Then there’s GNOME Files. There’s a reason Ubuntu uses older, heavily patched versions of Files, and I believe it’s because Ubuntu wanted to ship a file browser that was actually useful. Currently Ubuntu GNOME also uses this patched version of Files, so I’m hopeful that will continue going forward. Otherwise you might try Nemo or Thunar or some other file browser.

Oh, and like every computer user on earth save those using stock GNOME who might like minimize and maximize buttons, Ubuntu GNOME (and one hopes, Ubuntu 18.04) ships with GNOME tweak tool installed. Open it up, select the Window menu item, and turn on min and max buttons. Ah, so much better.

Here’s the bottom line Unity refugees: the transition to GNOME will have some bumps, you’ll probably spend some quality time with Google and the Ask Ubuntu site, but in the end you’ll probably be able to get GNOME to work in a way that doesn’t drive you crazy. Heck, there are even GNOME themes that pretty closely match the Unity 7 interface. On the outside chance that you just don’t mesh with GNOME, though, there are alternatives in the Ubuntu stable that are worth a look.

Other ‘buntus

There are quite a few “flavors” of Ubuntu, basically one for every common desktop out there. The two I’ve used the most are Xubuntu and Ubuntu MATE, which use the Xfce and MATE desktops, respectively. They’re both well worth a look, especially Ubuntu MATE, which for my money does MATE even better than Linux Mint.

Xubuntu offers one of the best-looking default Xfce desktops around, and if you want to go back to a more traditional, task bar-based workflow, it and MATE are your best bets. One thing to note: while Xfce is a bit lighter than, say, GNOME, the Xubuntu implementation is not the lightest version around. It comes with a lot of bells and whistles, but at the cost of significantly more RAM use than a more minimalist version of Xfce like you’d get, for example, with Debian.

There’s also a relative newcomer, Ubuntu Budgie, which is based on the Budgie desktop, the default desktop of the relatively new Solus distro. I haven’t tested Ubuntu Budgie in anything other than a virtual machine, but it did just fine in Virtualbox and might be worth a look if you want something totally different.

My favorite ‘buntu is actually not even an official “flavor”; I prefer the minimal Ubuntu iso, which functions just like the Debian minimal CD (and is probably built from it). It’s a bare system without even Xorg. From there I can install just what I need and nothing else. For me, that means Openbox, dmenu, and tint2, along with Xorg and my applications. If you want to go minimal, it’s worth experimenting with.

Convergence concluded

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