posted by Howard Fosdick on Tue 17th Jul 2012 04:53 UTC
IconLike Ubuntu's Unity interface? Great. If not, you can easily change it to look and act like Ubuntu used to. This tutorial shows how.

I won't debate whether Unity is an improvement. This article is simply a "How To" for those who want to alter it.

We'll start by customizing Unity. We'll add and delete icons from the applications Launcher on the left-hand side of the screen, then we'll add icons and folders to the desktop. I'll introduce some Unity tweaking tools.

If these changes aren't enough for you, we'll move on to how to add elements of the older Ubuntu interface to Unity. We'll add a classic roll-over menu, permanently-visible window scrollbars, the System Monitor "applet" to the top panel, and the package managers Synaptic and GDebi. I'll also show how to disable Unity's global menu, the context-sensitive menu in the upper lefthand corner of the screen that appears as you move your mouse cursor over it, and disappears as you move the mouse away.

If all this doesn't alter Unity to your liking, we'll replace it entirely with alternatives like GNOME Classic, GNOME 3, Cinnamon, or other GUIs.

All you need to know beforehand is how to open a terminal to issue line commands. Either enter "terminal" into the Dashboard or the Head-Up Display (HUD), or press the hot key sequence CTRL + ALT + t.

How to Change the Launcher

Instead of GNOME's desktop icons and panel applets, in Ubuntu's Unity interface, the Launcher hosts the application icons. You can add any app icon to this list permanently simply by starting the application, then when its icon appears in the launcher, right-click on it and select Add to Launcher. Remove any icon from the Launcher by right-clicking on it, then select Unlock From Launcher.

Auto-hide the Launcher by clicking on the System Settings icon in the Launcher, then selecting Personal -> Appearance. Now pick the Behavior tab, and click on the button to Auto-hide the Launcher.

How to Add Icons and Folders to the Desktop

In Unity you to use the Launcher to start programs, or Unity's two other main components, the Dashboard and HUD. Type application names or search phrases into either. The interface also relies on a global menu (with its disappearing, ever-changing context-sensitive menus) and hot keys (just like interfaces back in the 1980's).

Don't like this design? Modify it into a more traditional desktop. For example, to add icons to the desktop, go to the Dashboard and look at the "recently used" or "installed" applications. From there, you can drag and drop the icon for any app you want to the desktop. Then you need to ensure the app is executable, and change its ownership to that of your own user id. Do this by issuing these two commands through a terminal window:

sudo chmod +x  ~/Desktop/*.desktop
sudo chown   ~/Desktop/*.desktop

If your user id were bobby, the second command would be:  sudo chown bobby  ~/Desktop/*.desktop

To create a new Folder on the desktop, right-click the mouse while over empty desktop space. This brings up a menu, the first option of which is to Create New Folder. Click on that and you'll have a new Folder with the cursor positioned so you can enter its name. You can drag and drop items into the Folder. If any app icon you add doesn't work, just issue the above commands to fix the file permission/ownership issue.

You can tailor Unity lots more, as described in the comprehensive Ubuntu Desktop Guide. To access the Guide, just hover the cursor over the top left panel bar when you have an empty desktop. The default hidden menu appears. Select Help on this menu and you'll see the Guide:


Tools for Tweaking Unity

If you're still not loving Unity, configure it further through interface-tweaking tools. Start with MyUnity, a utility that allows you to change aspects of the Launcher, Dash, panel, desktop, fonts, themes, and more. You can install it from the Ubuntu Software Center. Here's how it looks:


Next, configure Compiz with the CompizConfig Settings Manager. CCSM helps you change all sorts of desktop effects, image loading, accessibility options, window management, and more. Install it by these apt line commands:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install compizconfig-settings-manager

The apt-get update command updates your package index. (You might follow it up with sudo apt-get upgrade to ensure updated package versions.)  Then the apt-get install command installs the new package. Going forward, I'll simplify by leaving out the apt-get update command. You generally want to update the package index before installing any new application. Here's how CCSM looks:


Ubuntu Tweak was originally designed for GNOME, but has been updated for Unity. It's the best tool here to alter Unity 2D. You can change Unity's desktop appearance, startup options, Launcher and Dash, and more. Install it by:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:tualatrix/ppa
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install ubuntu-tweak

The first command accesses the Personal Package Archive or PPA repository containing the packages for the app. You might also see it as apt-add-repository instead of add-apt-repository -- either command does exactly the same thing. The last two lines update your package index and install the program. Here's the main Ubuntu Tweak panel:


Finally, the Unsettings tool allows you to change various behaviors for the Launcher, Dash, panel, fonts, windows, desktop, and themes. To install Unsettings enter:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:diesch/testing
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install unsettings

If you change some options, Unsettings will ask you whether you wish to apply them as you exit the tool. It may also tell you that some settings will only be changed after you reboot. Here's how Unsettings looks:


After you install any of these tweaking programs, you access them like any other Unity app. Select them from the list of "installed" or "recently used" applications, or type their names into Dash or HUD.

Add a Classic Menu

Ok, you've tried tweaking Unity but you still aren't happy with it. Let's start adding elements to make Unity resemble the GNOME 2 interface of Ubuntu 10.04 LTS.

Canonical may consider roll-over menus old hat, but they're quick and easy to use. They hierarchically organize choices so you can access them fast through short mouse motions. Menus are universal. You can be productive immediately with any operating system that employs them, even if you've never used that OS before.

Here's one way to add a classic roll-over menu to Unity:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:diesch/testing
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install classicmenu-indicator

To start using the menu, go to Dash or HUD and enter: classicmenu-indicator. The menu will appear off the top panel bar, as a drop-down from the little round Ubuntu symbol in the top center of this screen shot. The menus look as you remember them from Ubuntu's older GUI, and will be accessible every time you boot Ubuntu:


Unity does not allow you to add applets to its top panel bar like you did with GNOME 2 panels. However, you can add indicators like the Classic Menu Indicator. Many indicators perform functions just like the GNOME 2 panel's applets. From the user viewpoint, there is little difference beyond terminology.

Replace Hidden Scrollbars with Visible Scrollbars

At the Senior Center I support everybody hates the hidden scrollbars in Unity's windows. They're tough to access with bifocals and less precise coordination. Use the Unsettings tool mentioned above to change back to permanently-visible scrollbars. Or, enter these line commands, then restart your computer:

sudo su
echo "export LIBOVERLAY_SCROLLBAR=0" > /etc/X11/Xsession.d/80overlayscrollbars

Changing screen resolution and the Universal Access tools don't fix this problem. Canonical, have some seniors test your product!

Disable the Global Menu

Unity's global menu allows many applications to display their menu in Unity's panel bar, up in the top left-hand corner of your screen. Like the hidden scrollbars, the global menu appears when you move your mouse cursor over it, and it disappears when you move your mouse away. Global menu contents change depending on which application is your current focus. You can disable the global menu with the Unsettings tool. Alternatively, enter this command to disable the global menu, then restart your computer:

sudo apt-get autoremove appmenu-gtk appmenu-gtk3 appmenu-qt

Disable Firefox's global menu separately. Start Firefox, then go to: Tools -> Add-ons -> Extensions. There you will see the Global Menu Bar Integration add-on. Just click to Disable it, then restart Firefox.

If you later decide you want to bring back the global menu, issue this command, then restart:

sudo apt-get install appmenu-gtk appmenu-gtk3 appmenu-qt

Add Synaptic Package Manager or GDebi

The Ubuntu Software Center replaced the Synaptic Package Manager in Ubuntu 11.10 due to its friendlier, simpler interface. While the Software Center is improved from its earliest incarnation, technophiles still prefer the Synaptic Package Manager because it offers fine-grained package management and better control.

To add Synaptic, just install it from the Software Center.  Or open up a terminal and enter:

sudo apt-get install synaptic

Some prefer installing .deb package files with GDebi. GDebi is also installable from the Software Center, or add it like this:

sudo apt-get install gdebi

Add System Monitor to the Panel

If you liked having the GNOME 2 System Monitor applet visible on your panel bar in previous Ubuntu versions, you can add Unity's System Load Indicator to the top panel bar. It displays CPU, memory, network, swap, disk I/O, and system load activity on the panel, just like the old system monitor applet. To install it, either visit the Ubuntu Software Center, or else enter:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:indicator-multiload/stable-daily
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install indicator-multiload

Like the Classic Menu Indicator, you need to initialize this program by going to Dash, entering indicator-multiload, and starting it up.

An alternative is to access the System Monitor through the roll-over menu of the Classic Menu Indicator of the previous tip (Menu Indicator Start Button -> System Tools -> System Monitor). Or, you might like to pin the System Monitor to the Launcher or add it to your desktop if you don't install the Classic Menu Indicator.

The Ubuntu Software Center offers other monitors, too. You can install KDE System Guard, a very comprehensive tool, or the GKrellM monitor, a single vertical panel that sits atop your desktop to give you real-time information. Conky is also installable with Synaptic Package Manager or through line commands.

Install GNOME to Replace Unity

Ok, so you've tried tailoring Unity's desktop and find that you still don't like it. Well, then, it's time to completely replace Unity with either:
  • GNOME Classic -- More accurately called GNOME Fallback, this is the GNOME fallback interface from previous Ubuntu releases. It is very similar to -- but not exactly the same -- as the GNOME interface shipped as the default in Ubuntu 10.04.
  • GNOME 3 -- This is the GNOME Shell 3.4, as installed from the current Ubuntu repositories. GNOME 3 is way different than the GNOME 2 interface that Ubuntu used before Unity. If you don't like Unity, you probably won't like GNOME 3!
  • Cinnamon -- This is a GNOME 3 fork developed by the Linux Mint project. Cinnamon gives you a GNOME 3 interface but with a GNOME Classic panel at bottom, along with a menu and many other features described here. I recommend Cinnamon for those who want to replace Unity with a GNOME interface.
To install GNOME Classic:

sudo apt-get install gnome-panel

To install GNOME 3:

sudo apt-get install gnome-shell

To install Cinnamon:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:gwendal-lebihan-dev/cinnamon-stable
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install cinnamon

After installing any of these new interfaces, you select it from a drop-down list on the main login panel, just prior to logging in.

Tweaking GNOME

If you installed the GNOME 3 shell, you may wish to add the gnome-shell's tweaking tool:

sudo apt-get install gnome-tweak-tool

Find many more good tweaking tools for GNOME 3 here.

Ubuntu Tweak was originally designed for GNOME 2. It helps you change all sorts of GNOME desktop settings, fonts, themes, etc., including settings for the Metacity Window Manager, Compiz Fusion, and Nautilus file manager. See how to install it above.

Install A Different Ubuntu Family Distro

Rather than installing Ubuntu with Unity and then changing it, some simply install a different Ubuntu distro. This keeps you in the Ubuntu family but replaces Unity with any of these GUIs:



If you're so unhappy with Unity that you're giving up on Ubuntu altogether, I recommend Linux Mint. Mint version 13 offers the MATE and Cinnamon GUIs, both of which are traditional GNOME-like desktops with added features. With Mint you can install software from Ubuntu's repositories.


You have many options if you don't care for Ubuntu's Unity interface. You can either modify it, or replace it. I developed this document because some people I support really don't like Unity. I've found that it's easier to tailor it for them or install GNOME rather than to try to sell them on Unity or retrain them.

Good Resources (with Screen Shots)

Top Things to Do After Installing Ubuntu 12.04
Things to Tweak After Installing Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin
Important Tweaks/Things to Do After Install of Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports databases and operating systems. You might also be interested in his OS News article The Sins of Ubuntu. Read more of his articles here.
e p (7)    75 Comment(s)

Technology White Papers

See More