Saturday, 14 May 2011

Unity Launcher

Notwithstanding the Canonical Design Team's protestation that its new Unity Launcher is not a dock bar, it's difficult to resist the temptation of comparing it to alternatives like AWN and Docky.

Perhaps one reason that Canonical is so keen to distance itself from these more established options is that, given such comparisons, Unity does not fare particularly well. Take Avant Window Navigator for instance: in 10.04, AWN can be customised extensively, including the addition of bespoke launchers and the ability to change the application's behaviour and theme. Such system tweaks are mostly absent in Unity, making the Launcher little more than a placeholder for application shortcuts. However, the news is not all bad!

For a start, the Unity Launcher looks fantastic - it really does. The Faenza-like icons are of generous size without being invasive and the slick design means that size and rendering attributes are never compromised, even when a large number of icons are added to the launcher. The Design Team pulls-off this trick by tilting unused icons; a feature it calls, accordion.

Another nice design feature is the ability to allocate shortcuts to icons - yes, that's right; the ability to shortcut shortcuts is a design feature of the Unity Launcher! You can view the assigned shortcut keys by pressing and holding the Super Key (aka, Windows Key) and the appropriate key identifier is superimposed on the icon.

To activate any particular application, just hit the Super Key together with the appropriate shortcut key.

Perhaps the biggest advantage that Unity can boast over its (non) rivals is the ease with which icons can be added: both drag-and-drop and right-click functionality have been incorporated into the design and this feature may well appeal to a broader audience than the current hardcore Ubuntu users (although I doubt this feature is enough on its own). Reorganising icons is also easy: simply drag-and-drop the desired icon to its new position on the bar. If the icon being relocated stays within the confines of the Launcher, the other icons make room for their companion by opening a gap as the icon is moved either up or down.

Conversely, if the icon does leave the Launcher's confines, a line appears at the insertion point as the icon moves over it. Simply letting go at the desired place drops the icon into its new position - easy!

In common with other launchers, Unity highlights active applications but, once more, the ability to customise this feature is limited.

All-in-all, Unity looks great without being terribly exciting: let's hope that, as the concept matures, the developers build in more flexibility.

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