Using Ubuntu Unity – Virtual Desktops


When I first started using Ubuntu a few years back, I remember doing so begrudgingly. It seemed that I was going backwards in productivity when having to use Unity, so I always tried to find alternatives.

Background check here: I am a middle aged IT person that has used Linux for 15+ years. But, I had mostly used Linux in a server role and used rarly used Linux as a desktop OS. When I did use Linux as a desktop I preferred to use KDE on CentOS. I then changed jobs from managing many servers that provided ISP services, to creating IT training labs used by students. Today’s students were becoming very Linux savy and their distribution of choice was Ubuntu, so I decided to use Ubuntu as the desktop.

I decided that I would use Ubuntu as my personal desktop operating system to force myself to learn how to work through all scenarios that may crop up in the lab environments.

At first I tried using Ubuntu straight out of the box. The UI was smooth and responsive, however, it consumed a lot of real estate and was very constrictive. I had been using various virtual desktop software for Windows as well as on KDE on my CentOS system and knew there was virtual desktop availability in Unity, but the question in my mind was; “can I controll it”?

The rest of this blog will walk you through what I have done in Unity and begin to demostrate why I am now a Unity junkie!

More backgroud: my primary system is a Lenovo P50 with 64 GB RAM running Ubuntu 16.04.There are the need for some tweaks to get things to work, but some things that you can tweak on Linux work out much better than stuff you cannot easily tweak in Windows (like using 2k resolution on 4k 15″ notebook screen).

What can you do with Ubuntu Unity?

Well, this is the crux of the story. I can use many virtual desktops and lay them out in a grid of my choosing. selection_101For me I like a 3×3 solution where I can have a an instance of Firefox, Chrome, Thunderbird, Konsole, VMware Workstation and an IDE each open in their own virtual desktop that I can easily move to and move apps around using keyboard shortcuts. You can accomplish some of this with with 3rd pary tools on Windows and OSx using Dexpot and Total Spaces respectfully, but the functionality is no where near what you get with Unity. Nor could I achieve a similar smoothness of operation in KDE that I can in Unity.

Okay, so moving from virtual desktop 1 (upper left) to virtual desktop 2 (upper center) requires the use of Ctrl+Alt+➡️. If you want to move an application, you place focus on the application and use Ctrl+Shift+Alt+➡️. You can also move an application to certain locations on a virtual desktop using a keyboard shortcuts. Ctrl+Super+➡️ will place your app on the right half of your screen. You also have keyboard shortcuts for each linked application, Super+(0-9), in the launcher bar.

So, why is Unity dogged by many as a user interface? My guess is that it is too dumbed down out of the box for users first experience. It required adjustments and the download, installation and configuration of the Unity Tweak Tool before I could truly see the benefits of Unity.

Personally, I cursed using it as a lab operating system for months. After becoming completely frustrated with Unity, I finally allocated the time and effort to dig through forums, man pages and help files to figure out how to better use out of this operating environment. Now I can’t go back to using other systems for this one is working all too well.

How can you set it up?

The first thing you want to do is select System Settings from the app menu in the uppper right-handselection_108 corner of the menu bar. You can also depress Alt + F10 to access the items in the menu bar using the keyboard. Just navigate using your arrow keys to the icon that looks like a gear. A more detailed introduction to using the desktop can be found here.

Once the System Settings window is open, double-click on the Appearance icon.

In the Appearance window, under the Behavior tab put a check into the Enable workspaces box.


Now you will have an icon in your launcher bar that looks like this: selection_104

This icon represents your virtual desktops. By default you have 4 virtual desktops which you can manipulate by using keyboard shortcuts or by clicking on the icon and selecting a different desktop to use.

Okay, how can I get more than 4 virtual desktops?

I am glad you asked that question. Let’s start answering that question by downloading some software to help us out. Lets open a terminal session and type the following:

sudo apt-get update

You will need to submit your password. Then type the following:

sudo apt-get install unity-tweak-tool


Depress the Super + A keys to open the Dash App lens and type unity in the search bar:


Double-click on the Workplace Settings icon. Here you can adjust the quantity and layout of the your virtual desktops as well as many more items.


Note: you can display many keyboard shortcuts available by continually depressing the Super key. Here is a screenshot of the shortcut menu for you:




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