Ubuntu 14.04 LTS User Interface: Menus and Window Decorations

In our last article, we casually mentioned a number of the changes that have taken place between Ubuntu 12.04 LTS and Ubuntu 14.04 LTS over the last two years. Several of those changes are either relatively radical departures from the the established User Interface that Ubuntu has been working so hard to establish with Unity or a complete change of heart since the first version of Unity way back in Ubuntu 11.10. With that release of Unity, it’s fair to say that Ubuntu was trying to shift the UI paradigm on the desktop, pushing it towards where they believed the mobile space was headed (how has that worked out for Microsoft?). Although today’s Unity is largely the same, there are some recent changes in the menuing and window decoration space that show Canonical was not entirely ignoring the user community. Let’s take a look at each.

Application Menus: What’s Old is New Again?
At the time, one of the strongest criticisms of the new Unity interface was in the wholesale move of the menu to the top “Unity Bar”. It didn’t matter whether your application was maximized to full screen or in a smaller window on the desktop, your menu appeared at the top, something like this:

Ubuntu Unity Old Menu Layout

The first thing you notice is that the terminal window in question is not maximized and it’s window controls (maximize, minimize, close) are on the top bar of the application, the menu of the application itself (File, Edit, etc) is on the top bar… huh? One of the things to keep in mind is that at the time of the menu relocation, Canonical was trying to establish two things – a new User Interface standard and Unity as an alternative UI in the burgeoning tablet and Netbook space (limited screen real estate, applications are more likely to be maximized).

That didn’t work out so well and in relatively short order there were hacks that allowed you to restore the status quo. The problem with them is that they were not official and subsequent Unity updates (and version releases of Ubuntu) broke them. In addition, some applications just did not work right with those user supplied “fixes” to the interface.

About Face!
So, after five versions and years of feedback, without so much as an official recognition of the change, we are back to the way things used to be. Now what you see in Ubuntu 14.04 LTS running Unity is the following look:

Ubuntu 14.04 LTS Unity Menu Layout

Now that’s more like it (or at least what we are all used to). Although you do have to explicitly indicate that is how you want the menu to appear (Unity Settings, Appearance, Behavior, Show the Menus for a Window – In the Window’s Title Bar). The question might be why after five releases did they return to the original behavior in all user interfaces? One theory is that with the official death of the Netbook AND the UI war between Android and iOS underway, Canonical is not as interested in driving the user interface standards to that level. It will be interesting to see how that shakes out.

Window Decorations
As you can see from the previous screenshot, the window decorations have been improved slightly but in important ways. In addition to better transparency (and color choices both in the included themes as well as the official downloadable ones), you will see rounded corners, less pixelation, much better support for desktop compositing and the associated window effects.

In fact, Compiz (outdated and abandoned as it is) actually works quite nicely in Unity for the first time in… forever.

Final Thoughts
Unity, Unity, Unity… this isn’t really an evaluation of Unity as much as it is a thoughtful exploration of recent changes and why they may have been made. Is Unity a “good” user interface when compared to Mate? Gnome? Cinnamon? KDE4? XFCE? I guess it really depends on the end user. I know from experience that people new to Linux in general adapted to Unity much more easily and with less difficulty than the established Linux desktop user base. I really think that was what Canonical was going for, grab the new generation of Linux users and get them used to doing things “our” way. Canonical has spent a lot of time and money distancing Ubuntu and Linux (check their site, no mention of Linux anymore) and is trying hard to brand themselves distinctly from the rest of the distribution community.

Alas, these are the philosophical discussions for another time and in another series of articles. In our next article, we are going to dive a bit deeper into the recent changes in Ubuntu as we continue to use Ubuntu 14.04 LTS. If you have any suggestions, leave a comment below!

Terrence T. Cox

A veteran of twenty years in Information Technology in a variety of roles. He has worked in development, security and infrastructure well before they merged into what we now call DevOps. He provides training in Linux, VMWare, DevOps (Ansible, Jenkins, etc) as well as containers and AWS topics.