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How to Make Ubuntu 11.10 More Usable

Posted November 7th, 2011 (Updated 17 Feb 2012) in Linux

Note: Also see the prequel to this post: Why I Hate Unity

As your typical Ubuntu user, I find Unity infuriating and have devoted countless hours towards bringing back the usability and functionality that came with Gnome 2. I’ve racked up quite a few tweaks so far that have gone a long way towards doing this and figured it was about time to share them. My aim was to make 11.10 look and feel exactly like 10.10. I’ve attached below a screenshot of the final result.

11.10 with Gnome Session Fallback
11.10 with Gnome Session Fallback

Let’s get into it.

Switch to a Gnome-2 like UI

This ones the biggest and most obvious change. It gets us 90% towards where we want to go. Once installed, log out and select Gnome Classic. Remember you can add or remove widgets from your panels by holding alt while right clicking on the panel.

sudo apt-get install gnome-session-fallback
Use Gnome Classic
Use Gnome Classic for a much more usable UI

 

Classic Run menu

In Unity I can no longer type /hom<tab>/us<tab>/Pic<tab>/wal<tab> etc to quickly navigate to a folder of my choice. I use this feature all the time and it was a great pain in the ass to not have it present in 10.10.

In Applications -> System Tools -> System Settings -> Shortcuts -> System set Show the Run Command Prompt to Alt+F2

Show the run command prompt
Pick a shortcut for the run menu
Classic run menu
Classic run menu

 

Show Address/Path by Default in Nautilus

As a matter of taste I prefer path text to the breadcrumb buttons. You can return them to the way they used to be like so:

In dconf-editor navigate to org -> gnome -> nautilus -> preferences and set always-use-location-entry to true. If you’re on an older version of Ubuntu you can do the same in gconf-editor by enabling apps -> nautilus -> preferences -> always_use_location_entry

Set this to true (11.10+)
Set this to true (11.10)
Set this to true (11.04-)

 

Remove Overlay Scrollbars

The new overlay scrollbars may be pretty, however I can no longer click an empty spot in the bar and have it quick-jump to that location.

sudo apt-get remove overlay-scrollbar
sudo su
echo "export LIBOVERLAY_SCROLLBAR=0" > /etc/X11/Xsession.d/80overlayscrollbars
Remove overlay scrollbars
Nautilus with standard scrollbars

 

Move Nautilus Navigation Buttons Back to Left Side

Move Back/Forward buttons back on the left side in Nautilus
Move Back/Forward buttons back on the left side in Nautilus

This issues relatively minor but to keep things consistent, see here for instructions on how to move the navigation buttons in nautilus back to the left of the location bar.

Warning: This involves rebuilding nautilus and you’ll probably need to do so after each nautilus update. It’s probably not worth it in the long run.

Enable Ctrl+Alt+Backspace

Ctrl+Alt+Backspace was a handy tool to restart X when all hope would otherwise have been lost. Unfortunately the wise minds at Canonical decided it was a bad thing and removed it. You can still get it back though.

In Applications -> System Tools -> System Settings -> Typing -> Layout Options -> Layouts -> Options -> Key sequence to kill the X server check Control + Alt + Backspace

Turn DontZap back on
Re-enable Ctrl+Alt+Backspace

 

Enable Compiz 3D Effects in Gnome Classic

In /usr/share/gnome-session/sessions/gnome-fallback.session change metacity to compiz under the heading DefaultProvider-windowmanager.

Note: While compiz is enabled you’ll need to use Alt + Super + Right click instead of just Alt + Right click to use the panel context menu.

 

Stop the window decorator crashing

This one had me stumped for a bit. When right clicking on a windows menubar to open the context menu, the window decorator would crash and I’d be left with an undraggable window without close/minimize/maximize buttons. If you’re experiencing this, here’s the fix:

sudo apt-get install compizconfig-settings-manager

In Applications -> Other – CompizConfig Settings Manager -> Effects -> Window Decoration click the reset settings to default button to the right of command.

Fix the window decorator
Click this to fix your window decorator crashes

The default value should be /usr/bin/compiz-decorator. Thanks to Daniel Apostolov for his solution found in comment 27 here. As an addendum to this solution, if your panels have already crashed you can bring them back like so:

gconftool --recursive-unset /apps/panel && killall gnome-panel

 

Restore Old Update-Notifier Behavior

This is a niggling usability issue that has plagued Ubuntu for a few releases now. Back in the day you used to get a handy orange icon (or red for critical updates) in the top panel to inform you that updates were available. This useful functionality was bafflingly replaced with a pop-under window and no notification icon resulting in countless users completely missing updates for an inordinate amount of time before coming across the window by accident. You can return it to the way it should be by doing the following:

sudo apt-get install dconf-tools

In Applications -> System Tools -> dconf Editor -> com -> ubuntu -> update-notifier uncheck auto-launch.

Restore old update notifier behavior
Uncheck auto-launch
Updates Notification
Updates Notification

 

Set Nautilus as Default FTP Handler

When I click an FTP bookmark in the Places menu, I don’t want it to open in my default browser. I want it to open in Nautilus. The method of getting this working changed in 11.10. Check out this post to see how it’s done in 11.10.

 

Remove Copy To… and Move To… from Nautilus Context Menu

  1. Open /usr/share/nautilus/ui/nautilus-directory-view-ui.xml
  2. Search for ‘CopyToMenu’ and ‘MoveToMenu’. Make sure you’re in the ‘File Actions’ section. They should be around line 161.
  3. Comment out the <menu> blocks by wrapping them in <!– and –>
  4. You’ll need to killall nautilus for the changes to take affect
Remove Nautilus Context Menu Items
Comment out the blocks like so
 

So that about wraps up my post. If you have other tweaks you like to make to a fresh Ubuntu install let me know in the comments.

 

Remove Ubuntu One

Don’t need/want the Ubuntu One and its annoying context menu entries in Nautilus or on your desktop? Remove it with:

sudo apt-get --purge remove .*ubuntuone.* .*couch.*
killall nautilus

 

Further Tweaks

You may also want to check out the blog post FAQ on Gnome Classic session or this ubuntuforums post for similar tweaks and improvements.

Note: Also see the prequel to this post: Why I Hate Unity.

  • kansasnoob

    If I’m not mistaken the navigation bit about “Classic Run Menu” should be “Applications -> System Tools -> System Settings -> Keyboards -> Shortcuts -> System”. That is, I think you left out “Keyboards” ;^)

    I’m also not finding the option to “Enable Ctrl+Alt+Backspace” in a fully updated fresh Oneiric, but I may be overlooking it somehow.

    Thanks for sharing your work,

    Lance

    • Agent24

      Good article but some of the locations of options are wrong.

      The “Enable Ctrl+Alt+Backspace” part is in “System Settings -> Keyboard Layout -> Layouts -> Options -> Key sequence to kill the X server”

      Sadly, nobody mentioned anything about getting the window buttons on the right hand side again – this is the part that really drives me nuts!

  • Baban Gaigole

    very nice work done. to disable overlay scrollbar feature follow http://hashprompt.blogspot.com

  • Sam

    Have you tried Linux Mint 12? It has some of what you’ve done setup by default.

    Linux Mint 12 also uses Gnome Shell and MATE instead of unity so you can have the classic Gnome UI with MATE or the new Gnome Shell modified to be more usable.

    The only thin I find annoying with mint is it’s software centre. But you can easily install the Ubuntu software centre or use synaptic package manager.

    • Flynsarmy

      Yes I’m very interested in Linux Mint and love where it’s heading. I haven’t used it yet due to some issues getting it working on my Dell XPS 15z (Caused by NVidia Optimus – see my post on the matter). Now that I’m a bit more experienced with getting Ubuntu working with Optimus I have a feeling I’ll be switching to Linux Mint at some point in the future – probably next release.

      It’s quite a shame really, the Ubuntu release dates used to be some of the most exciting days of the year. I’d sit on the ubuntu-release-party IRC channel and soak up the atmosphere however these days it’s more of a “*groan* What have they screwed up this release?”.

  • Matt

    Nice work. I like the changes to Nautilus, and the compiz setup, though I actually despise Nautilus itself preferring orthodox 2 pane file managers. To that end, though not as good as Krusader, gnome-commander is starting to get pretty usable and has most of the functionality you are looking for.

    Somewhere else you mentioned that you tweaked gnome 3 a bit to make it more usable. I’d like to see that report. I think it has some promise, though deeply flawed at this time.

  • Jim

    How do you bring back the other navigation buttons on the Nautilus toolbar?
    Example buttons: Up, Refresh, View mode (icon, list, compact)

    • Flynsarmy

      I don’t think it can be brought back, however F5 refreshes and backspace goes up a directory.

  • Liam

    This is a well workesd article, but would you not consider changing to Linux Mint 11 or 12?

    • Flynsarmy

      I plan on checking out 12.04 and if it’s a bust I’ll give Linux Mint a go.

  • Derek

    Another question… how do I get to change / add the small icons that you used to be able to set on a folder?