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Seven Minutes in Ubuntu: A Mac user's first impressions (thomaspark.me)
170 points by parkov on Oct 2, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments

First: This is really a review of Unity, not Ubuntu. The main ways that Ubuntu/Linux differ from OS X have nothing to do with the UI, but rather the underlying system.

That said, I'm glad to see that somebody likes Unity. Ubuntu's switch to Unity is one of the reasons that I left Ubuntu for another distro.

It seems like Canonical is targeting its product more towards people like the author of this post, in which case it seems that their strategy may be working.

Those of us who have been using Gnome 2 for years have already streamlined and optimized our work flow in that environment. Whenever the UI changes, it breaks existing patterns of behavior that we usually don't even think about anymore. That's why people don't like change: it makes them less productive, at least temporarily as they streamline a new work flow. People didn't like the MS Office ribbon interface, the KDE 4 interface, etc., either. Even when Ubuntu moved the window controls to the left side, I found myself automatically and subconsciously moving the pointer to the right and clicking on an empty space, which was wasted effort and time, until I relearned that behavior.

People who haven't used Linux / Gnome before don't have those expectations and optimizations, so it's not surprising that they will have a more positive view of Unity. Also, Canonical is trying to make Unity emulate OS X to some extent, so the interface meets some expectations of Mac users. They will probably respond more positively.

I think the same thing happened to me. I had been using a tiling WM for a while before Natty came out, but I decided to give Unity a try and I generally found I could make it work pretty acceptably with just a bit of messing around, more nicely than GNOME 2 actually. I still switched back, but not for several weeks.

> Even when Ubuntu moved the window controls to the left side...

One of the first things I did when I upgraded to 10.04 was to move the window controls back to the right side.


The opinions of Unity are definitely mixed. I personally think Unity is great, and I have been using desktop linux for a decade. So, I am also glad to see someone find Unity useful.

Unity is opinionated. That will always lead to mixed reactions, depending on whether your opinions match their opinions.

To apply your first point to your second paragraph: Unity is not Ubuntu. Xubuntu, Kubuntu, and roll your own systems based on the boxes (Openbox, Fluxbox) abound.

I use Xubuntu on my netbook as my students can work out how to get a wordprocessor going or load a youtube video in class.

On the desktop pc I use dwm (large widescreen monitor) and I'm loving the efficiency. In fact, I install dmenu on all the computers and bind it to Super-Space.

> Unity is not Ubuntu. Xubuntu, Kubuntu, and roll your own systems based on the boxes (Openbox, Fluxbox) abound.

Agreed - it wouldn't have been a reason by itself, but it was an annoyance.

More broadly, Ubuntu seems to be moving towards focusing on providing a polished interface, out-of-the-box support, and all of the other things that would be necessary for luring users away from OS X. That's fine, but they're frankly very low on my list of requirements for an OS, so I used the opportunity to switch to a distro that better fit my needs.

As I said, if that's their intended userbase, I'm glad their goal is working. It just so happens that I'm not one of those users.

Ubuntu will never be as coherent and polished as Mac, and being #2 in this area is pointless.

Ubuntu should be supporting its users before they all leave, not trying to woo people who prefer something else.

Coming from an on and off user of ubuntu since Breezy Badger, I'm fine with Unity (especially after getting used to Windows 7 keyboard shortcuts). There are parts of Unity that I completely dislike (e.g. overlay scrollbar being enabled by default), but they're just minor annoyances.

The thing that I'm worried about though, similar to what you're pointing out, is that it feels like they're not making Ubuntu for the previous users of Ubuntu anymore. I still run 11.10 with Unity, but it's getting to a point where I'm noticing an increase of time where I am turning off a bunch of annoying things that Ubuntu have added over time.

I have XFCE on all my other machines that need a desktop environment and it looks like this sole Ubuntu machine will head that way soon.

Well, if they want to break more into the mainstream they will have to move closer to what users are used to. Personally I think it is a bold move to copy OSX instead of windows (if that's what's going on).

The kind of people who like the way it works now should also be able to change it back if they want. If not, we're talking about less than 1% of desktop users. I wouldn't spend much time worrying about them, personally.

If a new user came to Ubuntu, like this person has, Unity will effect the reviews of Ubuntu. So IMO they will not care if its Unity. It's still on Ubuntu. So if this user was to say Ubuntu just sucked ass, then they're talking about the whole OS in one. Not just Unity.

Which distro did you leave for?

Arch. I was already running Arch on my netbook, and it worked beautifully, so when I got a new computer the first thing I did was install Arch on it. Haven't looked back.

Fair enough, I switched to elementary which has been ubuntu without unity for me. How hard was it to switch to Arch from Ubuntu?

The Arch Wiki (and Beginner's Guide) make it really easy to set up your system, especially when combined with the list of commonly used/installed applications.

It takes a bit more time to set up, since you're building your system from the ground up with exactly the applications you want. Once you do, though, you know your system inside and out, and you can customize it exactly the way you want it.

If you have a 'do-it-yourself' attitude, you'll love Arch. If not, you may be annoyed by having to set up things that Ubuntu sets up during the installation (major things like the DE/WM, and minor things like setting up international fonts). Personally, I appreciate knowing exactly what and where everything is on my system and not having the added bloat, hence the switch.

Agreed! Arch = linux legos. :)

I like that analogy - I think I'm going to hold onto it!

@pspeter3 - how has been your experience with Elementary - especially your transition from Ubuntu? Things like package management (any apt-get changes), multimonitor support, wifi/sound drivers, etc. ?

They are doing really cool (and actually usable stuff) with features like Switchboard+Plugs, Synapse, Pantheon, etc. so am really interested in switching.

Because elementary is just ubuntu under the hood. The interface is different and so are the default apps but all the drivers and package management works identically. It's been a great transition. The power of ubuntu with the design of Mac essentially.

The point about angle of escape was really interesting. However, my google fu failed me. The only relevant link mentioning angle of escape leads back to this post. Is there someone who can give me more information about this? (Or a more technical term, if the author uses the term colloquially).

Once again, UI design never fails to fascinate me. The first concrete reason I ever came across that explained the superiority of the Mac user interface was the application of Fitt's law to the menu items. This looks like another solid point in favor of the Mac.

Look closely at the image he includes. He draws a line diagonally through each of the respective Apple and Ubuntu menu headings being discussed, in each case from the upper, outer corner of the menu item to the opposite, lower, inner corner. This line forms an angle with the neighboring vertical edge of the corresponding menu (which is more or less also the edge of the display area/screen). That angle is what he is describing.

In Apple's case, the angle is wider, making it -- in his description -- easier to move the pointer from the menu header, after triggering the menu, onto the menu items. In Ubuntu's case, the angle is narrower. Further, in the Ubuntu case, since the menu text is justified against the far side of the menu, the pointer has to travel further to hover over it and, for the top few items, that travel cannot be a straight line because a straight line would cross the neighboring menu header and so trigger the neighboring menu to drop down. At least, that's how I interpret his argument.

Looking further at his image, I notice that he is including some horizontal space between the Apple menu header and the screen edge as being part of the Apple menu; however, that area carries a different coloration. Not having a Mac at hand, I'm unable to test whether that area also functions are part of the Apple menu header. If not, then he's calculated the Apple "angle of escape" incorrectly.

Also, on my installation of Ubuntu 11.04, running Gnome Classic (aka 2.whatever), in the menu under discussion, one does not have to hover over the text in order to activate a menu entry. In my view, this makes the "angle of escape" argument somewhat less important -- at least, under Gnome 2.x -- in that one can use menu items by moving the pointer in more of a "straight down" direction. Although, the inclination may still be to move the pointer over the menu item text, thus requiring the user to learn to avoid attempting such a straight line pointer movement for the first few menu items on this menu. I don't know whether Unity -- the Ubuntu desktop environment he is actually describing -- handles these menu entries and their activation differently (my Ubuntu machine's old graphics processor can't handle Unity -- to which I sort of say, yay!).

The image is correct, while only small space around the Apple logo highlights upon clicking, the clickable area for the Apple menu runs completely to the left edge of the screen. The Spotlight icon behaves similarly.

I don't think a proper term has ever been used before now. There was a lot of thought put into the angle of escape when accessing sub-menus in the pull down menus. See the answer to "Question 6" in the link below. If anybody know the proper term, Tog would, and he doesn't appear to know of one.


Interesting link, thanks. I remember some worry about the "diagonal movement" issue during the OS X transition, e.g. in Siracusa's DP2 review:


I hadn't realized that while this was "fixed", it was not actually made identical with the older Mac OS behavior.

I guess all those experts citing Fitts' Law have to find a new toy when touchscreens get the predominant means to interact with the UI.

According to Wikipedia (for what that's worth), Fitts' law has been established to apply just fine to touch interfaces (third paragraph under http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitts%27s_law#Success_and_impli... ).

I’m curious why you seem to think that Fitt’s law doesn’t apply to touch interfaces. Sure, certain concepts can’t be translated 1:1 (like infinite sized targets at screen edges) but even those have somewhat similar counterparts in touch interfaces (screen edges are also special places with larger targets in touch interfaces).

How are screen edges no longer infinite? If I ask you to tap something and drag it off an edge of the screen, you don't have to aim.

Your finger won’t be stopped by the screen edge.

So, it takes the same amount of time to tap something on a touchscreen, no matter what size it is and how far away it is from your finger, then?

There's no reference to this in "Tog on Interface" either, but he repeatedly references Fitt's law. I think that applies to the "escape angle" as well.

I think it follows from Fitts' Law or rather is its reverse:

If the cursor is outside an area, the bigger and closer this area is the easier it is to purposefully hit. ⇔ If the cursor is inside an area, the bigger this area is and the farther away its borders are, the harder it is to accidentally leave.

A more general concept is the steering law.

"The steering law in human–computer interaction and ergonomics is a predictive model of human movement that describes the time required to navigate, or steer, through a 2-dimensional tunnel." -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steering_law

Wait 15 minutes then check wikipedia :)

Every source in the wiki article is either not linked or an article at ACM. Pay wall is a pity. I wonder if ACM crawl wikipedia looking for articles hosted on other (free) sites and link them to the same ACM hosted article?

EDIT: I've now added all the real links I could find. I'll check back in a few weeks to see if they have all been removed.

I find the author's implication that users select menu text (as opposed to any part of the entire row) interesting. I always move my mouse until the desired item received highlight rather than aiming for text, so the Ubuntu power menu was never weird to me. I wonder how prevalent either behaviour is...

It wasn't until your comment that I understood what he was talking about. I just couldn't fathom the usage scenario he's describing -- I've never seen anyone use menus that way.

I'm not familiar with any term to describe this, but "angle of escape" seemed fitting.

I posted a video related to this a while back... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVUokjAlREs

the good news:

- in oneiric, the global menu bar is contiguously either clickable or not-clickable: when you hover over it, only clickable items are displayed.

- immediately after install, the new software centre displays a button to launch that application, you don't have to browse the list anymore. also, the list of installed applications is now sorted into relevant categories rather than filled up with system packages.

- the 'updates are available' message in oneiric's system menu makes it much more clear how to get updates, but i don't think it's really possible to teach ubuntu's package-management update paradigm through UI. it's not something new windows or mac converts will ever get immediately.

Indeed, it's a shame that he chose to review 11.04 nearly a week before 11.10 will be released.

He needed a version of Linux to get the job done so he chose a distro and downloaded the latest stable version. I can't see anything wrong with that. I wouldn't expect a casual user (even a programmer) to be aware of Ubuntu release schedule.

"Bad: Firefox 4 instead of the up-to-date Firefox 7!"

Official releases:

- Ubuntu 11.04: 28 April 2011

- Firefox 5: 21 June 2011

- Firefox 7: 27 September 2011 (5 days ago)

Yes, that's a valid criticism: I used a 6-month-old official installer and didn't get last month's software without doing any form of update whatsoever! Clearly a failing of ubuntu!

I think the author has a point: it would be nice if Firefox advised the user that a newer version is available (or, alternately, simply upgraded silently a la Chrome).

I've been a Ubuntu user for a few years now, and it generally ranges from cumbersome to downright difficult to upgrade to the newest Firefox version. There's a reason hacks like Ubuntuzilla exist.

If you give it longer than 7 minutes, Ubuntu will prompt you to update - not just firefox, but a whole range of things. Firefox is just another part of the system, and doesn't really have any reason to update RIGHT NOW! as opposed to once a day when the usual updates come through.

In any case, if you're the kind of person that knows what actual features you will gain from FF7 over FF4 (other than just "sweet, a higher numbah"), you're a power user and should know better than to make the complaint he did - you should be able to do the extremely mild googling required on your new, unfamiliar OS to make it happen.

On another tangent, this kind of comment in the article is one of the big problems with FF deciding to do away with minor numbers and make every release a major number. "But FF 4.0 is so old, we're up to 7.0 now!! Bad!!" when it was the current release a mere 103 days ago.

Firefox does this by default, but its built-in update mechanism is disabled in Ubuntu-shipped versions in favour of Ubuntu's package management.

I got the Firefox 7.0 update through the regular update channels a few days after it was on the Mozilla FTP servers. So actually, the update was even before the official release. I have no idea why there was no update available for OP.

No kidding. It made me sad to see my favorite Linux/package management feature (misused?) slighted especially when it did in fact work quite smoothly.

I recently (about two weeks ago) bought my first Apple ever, a Macbook Pro.

It took forever to find out function+backspace=real backspace not delete

Everything seems to be arranged around single clicks any right-clicking seems alien on a Mac.

It's very glossy and cartoons but you can tell the hardware and OS were made hand-in-hand or at least work very well with each other.

It's pretty but annoying at times it's has a hint of like Linux, I opened Terminal to feel at home, but it's like Linux out at its grandmothers on it's best behaviour.

I wouldn't say either is better than the other but different for sure although like I said very similar way more so than Windows and Linux or Mac and Windows.

Now if only I could stop that creepy "killer clowns on acid in a dark alley" start-up sound.

Welcome to the hivemind. :-)

I have grown very accustomed to the control-click motion for 'right' clicking. I don't think right-clicking is very alien, at least in the programs I use.

Best of happiness in your new Mac!

Are you using a one-button mouse, or no mouse whatsoever? OS X is pretty right-click friendly out of the box.

No mouse. Laptop.

Occasionally I plug in a two-button mouse, but that's limited to fairly specific occasions when I'm actually mousing around. Most of the time I am either scrolling or keyboarding.

Two fingers on the mousepad+click make right clicking pretty easy. Alternately, you can make clicking on the bottom right of the trackpad into a right click. The trackpad prefpane gives you a pretty good array of options to customize its behavior.

Yes I've discovered two fingers=right-click so now it's not so bad although I really miss middle clicking links to open them in a new tab instead of command+T or right-click (Apple Magic Mouse) then select open in a new tab.

It's like I tell people new to Linux that it's not Windows don't expect it to be like that so I should be telling myself Apple isn't like Linux even though they appear similar.

The applications seem to be made with single clicking in mind which would make sense considering Apple's fondness for single button mouses/mice and trackpads.

Overall the experience so far has been enjoyable, it's nice to learn new things.

"I really miss middle clicking links to open them in a new tab"

Hold down CMD while clicking (or the Apple Key as its popularly known).


Apple's mice have had right-click for a good number of years.

Yeah I saw that pretty much the first thing that pops up on Google so it must be an issue with a lot of Mac/Apple owners.

Apple seems to claim they're very customer oriented I wonder why they don't address this issue and make it something the user can easily change without downloading some third party beta app just to kill the start-up sound.

Why does the Unity menu bar's File menu truncate the application name to "Firefox V"? Mac OS X shifts the menu bar to the right for applications with long names.

I'm assuming "Firefox V" was something like "Firefox Version 4", which isn't an unusually long name (especially for such a popular application and one that is a default application for Ubuntu). They shouldn't even include the version number in the application name. Joe User doesn't care.

Why does the Unity menu bar's File menu truncate the application name to "Firefox V"? Mac OS X shifts the menu bar to the right for applications with long names.

The author's screenshot hides the fact that the menu bar is hidden when the mouse is not over the top bar. When your mouse is elsewhere, the entire window's name (In my case "Hacker news | Add Comment - Mozilla Firefox") takes up the top bar.

It says "Firefox Web Browser". They've tweaked this behavior several times.

Without hover it displays the title of the window (unless you have many, non-fullscreen instances, it which case it is just the application title). When you hover, it truncate/fades the application title to show you the menu. They opted for truncation because they want the leftmost menu to appear in a consistent location.

About the un-clickable program name in the menu bar. I agree that it'd be nice, like OS X, to have that as a menu. OS X, or probably Apple, forces control over what items go into different menus. Linux is a lot more free. So, a "preferences" menu item could go in 'file' or 'edit' or 'view' or 'tools'; or maybe only some of the preferences are there and the rest are in a config file. It took me some getting used to.

> OS X, or probably Apple, forces control over what items go into different menus.

No, not in the least.

It's technically possible (indeed, trivial using Interface Builder) to remove all these menus (the application menu is probably the only one whose removal may lead to your application crashing), and move or remove just about all of their content. Neither OSX nor Apple forces anything (at least outside the AppStore, I do not know if there are imposed standards there).

On the other hand:

1. Apple provides extensive application templates in IB, they're generally used unless there's a good reason not to

2. Apple publishes extensive Human Interface Guidelines, the latest revision of the "OSX Human Interface Guidelines" document (2011-07-26) is 276 pages (a low actually, in 2009 it was more than 350 pages), as a PDF it weighs 26MB. And much like the IB templates, it is followed unless there's a reason not to

3. users care about consistency, when guidelines are broken for no good reason users will generally make their displeasure known. And because OSX has a thriving "indie" development scene (paid, low-cost software by very small teams) this generates an environment where interface care and consistency is taken pretty seriously.

Yes, I agree. My post was worded very poorly. Thank you for the corrections! I didn't realise that Apple didn't force the HIG. I do enjoy the care and thoughtful interface decisions.

It's not that Apple don't force the HIG. But if you break them you need to have a good reason as your users expect you to follow the HIG.

I found it interesting 'I got my hands on a PC to use as a web server (thanks Andrea!). Before I could get started on it though, I needed an operating system to install' ... but the version installed was Ubuntu Desktop, rather than Server ...?

The server version is not very "user-friendly" - it doesn't even have X installed. They both have access to the same set of packages to install afterwards. So it's a lot easier to start with the Desktop version and then add some of the "server" packages, than it would be to start with the server version and install X, Unity, etc. afterward.

Many people use servers without X and with a configuration that emphasises server tasks and security. They tend to access the server using ssh or other remote protocols. The choice of a graphical distribution did strike me as a little odd, as did the choice of a distribution with a support life measured in months.

But, linux is about choice!

Heh, author is brand new to Linux, may not even be aware there is a such thing as GUI-less server OSes.

Give him a year and he'll be running a dev box with minimal Arch + Xmonad base and multiple Ubuntu Servers in KVM.

You're wrong about that.

>... these impressions come from someone who’s used mostly Windows at work and Mac at home. Sure, there’s a sprinkling of Solaris, IRIX, and Linux mixed in there, but I’ve never used Ubuntu, haven’t used any distribution of Linux in quite some time ...

The author seems to be using it to prototype a research project as quickly as possible.

I'm also a long time mac user, running the new Ubuntu on my desktop. Couldn't be happier with it, the UI is clean and user friendly. Feels like I'm using a slightly modified version of OS X. Apt-get can be useful at times...always sure to do my large-scale projects on Ubuntu.

I just wanted to correct something about Fitts' Law.

The article talks about how big the angle is, but this is not very relevant. In fact, if you throw the mouse in the upper right direction, it will hit the top right corner no matter which edge it hits first. Thus you actually can hit the corner spots without even aiming in a particular square.

Try this on a mac: throw your pointer into the top left or top right corners, and press the button. You WILL open the menu, even though it may not have been obvious that you would -- the highlighted region around the icon does not extend to the edge. So in fact, it's ok to make them smaller.

The article talks about how big the angle is, but this is not very relevant.

That's not what he means. The "angle of escape" referred to is the angle at which you can move your mouse out of the target icon to a menu item after the menu is open. If you go too far horizontally first, the menu will close in favor of a different menu.

aha, got it.

I dunno. Windows 7 and Mac OSX kinda make Gnome look dated.

Nice post. I'm surprised you didn't talk about it's new 7-like dock. What programs did you use to do that highlighting?

Thanks. As a newcomer to Ubuntu, I didn't realize how new the dock was. It seems straightforward and useful to me. But I'm sure there's controversy with it.

Highlighting was done with Omnigraffle. It took some time find a good way to depict the angle of escape. I ended up rotating a quarter circle and cropping the edges off. Hacky but does the trick.

What's a "7-like dock"?

Similar to Windows 7, I assume.

"My greatest concern was that I’d have to do a lot of installing and configuring before I could get anything meaningful done. All I wanted was a standard setup, and to not derail focus from my work."

And yet he had the time to document the whole experience at the same time?

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