This is one of four related posts:
Some Linux/Ubuntu related books:
Ubuntu Unleashed 2016 Edition: Covering 15.10 and 16.04 (11th Edition)
Ubuntu 16.04 LTS Desktop: Applications and Administration
The Linux Command Line: A Complete Introduction
If you have installed Ubuntu with the Unity desktop, you’ll learn how to use it mainly by playing around with it. Discoverability of its various functions is more or less built into the design. But there are a few things you will want to know right away in order to get up to speed efficiently.
The first thing you need to know about the Unity desktop is that the words people use for the various parts are all over the map. I’ll try to be consistent in my own use of terms, but if you read about Unity in other places, you may need to know, for example, that the “Task Panel” and the “Launcher” and the “Dock” are the same thing.
Task Panel (Launcher, Dock)
So, let’s start with the Task Panel (aka Launcher, or Doc). This works much like the doc on a Mac, but placed by default on the left side of your screen, which makes sense for wide screens. The Task Panel has a bunch of icons on it by default. You can remove or add icons as you wish. Most or all of these icons represent software you can run but that is not running now. This is your handy dandy way of running your most commonly used software (apps, applications). Just click on it and it will go.
Once an application is running, it will have a little thingie on the icon indicating that this is an active application. More than one instance (window, etc.) of an application running will cause the icon to have a slightly different look, and when you click on it you will see small versions of all the windows that are open, so you can pick the one you want to use.
You can quickly switch between applications by clicking on the icons of running applications.
If you start an application from somewhere other than the Task Panel, an icon for that application will normally be added to the Task Panel. This is your chance, using right clicking, to tell Unity to keep that icon on the Task Panel, for easy access, even after you shut that application down. Obviously, there is only so much room on the task panel for icons, but you can scroll up and down. You can also make the icons smaller, which will allow more to fit. But really, you should only keep the half dozen or so applications you use most of the time on the task bar.
Right clicking on an icon, as noted, gives you the option to lock it to, or unlock it from the Task Panel (but that menu item will call it a “launcher.”) But depending on the application, you may have a number of other choices. For example, clicking on the file manager will give you a list of commonly used (according to Unity’s designers) folders you may want to open.
The top icon on the Task Panel opens the Dash. You can also open the Dash by pressing the Super Key (the key formally known as the Windows Key).
The Dash is a big giant square thing that comes flying out of the Dash Icon. there is a space on the top that is clearly for searching for things. A common use of the Dash is to open it, and then you start to type in the name of an application. The Dash will show you an ever-narrowing set of choices which you can pick, or, when you end up with only one choice, you just hit enter and that application runs.
If you have just installed Ubuntu and haven’t done any of the recommended tweaks, try this: Open the dash, and start typing in “terminal”. Once you see the terminal application as your choice, hit enter (or click on it). Now, the Terminal icon is on your Task Panel. Right click on the Terminal icon and lock it to your Task Panel. Once you are set up and using Ubuntu a lot, you may find that you rarely use the terminal, but when you are first installing and tweaking the system, you’ll find it handy to have this icon readily available.
The Dash has many other powers. It can show you recent files, recent downloads, recently used apps, etc. Searching for apps is pretty smart. Terms that are not in the name of the application but that suggest the application might (depending) show you an icon for the application. For example, the search term “Network” will get you several choices including the “System Monitor,” because the System Monitor monitors, among other things, the network.
The Dash has what are called “Lenses.” See the bottom of the Dash to find the “home” lens, the “applications” lens, etc. If you select the “music” lens, you see, and search will search among, the music files in your music directory.
Workspaces are one of those features of early Linux desktops (before Unity) that makes you look at Linux and go “I want that!!!” This idea has been implemented over the ages in Windows and other systems, with varying degrees of success or longevity, but it was originally implemented in Linux in a way that really works. It is now part of the Mac operating system, though that implementation is rather poor, in my opinion. But it was always there in Linux.
See this post on tweaks if your workspaces are not turned on. But if they are, there should be an icon in the Task Panel, near the bottom, which is a workspace switcher.
Here is what a workspace is. Imagine that you open three or four applications and have the windows all visible. That is a workspace. Now, you switch to a different workspace, and those windows are now not visible, because they were on the other workspace. You now have a clean workspace. You can now open other applications (or more instance of the same ones) on this clean workspace. Switching between workspaces allows you to have a handful of applications running and organized on the screen like you want them, but then, you can go to a different workspace and do entirely different work.
For example, I might have a file manager opened to a particular subdirectory, and a text editor or two, for a writing project, on one workspace. On a different workspace, I have an email client, and a web browser with a tab showing Facebook and another tab showing Twitter. I can ignore the email and social networking while I write, but now and then take a break and go over to the other workspace and screw around on social media and check my email.
Workspaces are a great way to pretend you are being very efficient!
When you hit the Workspace Switcher button you get a view of all your workspaces, and can chose among them. You can even drag open applications between workspaces. (And, by the way, you can configure a particular application to always be visible on all workspaces, and otherwise tweak the whole workspace thing quite a bit.)
But, there is a better way to switch between workspaces …
Hotkeys and shortcuts
This is a good point to talk for a moment about hot keys and shortcuts. There is a lot here but I’ll only mention a few features, starting with workspaces.
In Linux, generally (most desktops) including Unity, you usually move between workspaces by holding down the Alt and Control keys and then manipulating the arrow keys. Also, Alt-Tab moves between windows open on a given workspace. Try alt-tab then hold those keys down for a bit longer, and even more magic happens. So, between these two sets of shortcuts, you can move between all your different work thingies really efficiently.
There are a lot of shortcut keys available in Unity. To find a cheat sheet of these keys, press the Super Key and hold it down for a moment. The cheat sheet will appear in the middle of the screen.
All hotkeys and shortcuts can be changed and reconfigured, and you can add shortcuts that don’t exist until you think them up and figure out how to implement them. This is beyond the scope of this post, but you can play around with it later.
Top Menu bar and Application and System Indicators
Unless you’ve been living in a command line cave, you already know about Application and System indicators. In Unity, they are located on the Top Menu Bar. Just play around with them. If you click the time/date, you get a little calendar popout. You can see if you are connected to the internet, and what your volume is turned to. Depending on what software is installed, you may see the temperature at your local weather station, or an indicator telling you that you have new mail.
Menus, hidden, unhidden, and other
By default, in Unity, application menus, the menus that go with a specific program, are invisible unless you approach them with the mouse, and then they appear. But they are not located on the application itself, but rather, on the Top Menu Bar. See this post for instructions as to how to move them to the applications and make them not invisible.
Also, at that link, you’ll find instructions for installing a very cool applet to the Top Menu Bar which will give you an old fashioned menu showing, organized hierarchically, all the software that you have installed on your computer. This is how I usually run software that is not on the Task Panel.
That’s all the important stuff you need to know right away. There’s more, but you’ll discover it over time. You can go to system settings, and to the various system setting tools suggested here to do things like moving the Task Panel to the bottom of the screen, changing your wallpaper (the image on the desktop) and choosing whether to show icons for hard drives or plugged in devices, the trash can, etc.