How-To Geek

How to Master Ubuntu’s Unity Desktop: 8 Things You Need to Know


Ubuntu’s Unity desktop is a change of pace, whether you’re coming from Windows or another Linux distribution with a more traditional interface. Unity has its own way of doing things, including powerful keyboard shortcuts.

If you’re not using Ubuntu, you can play with Unity in your browser using the Ubuntu online tour website. This guide is targeted at new Unity users, but even experienced Ubuntu users might discover a few new tricks.

The Launcher

The launcher at the left side of the screen is where you’ll launch frequently used applications and switch between running applications.


Click an application icon to launch or switch to it. If the application has multiple open windows, Ubuntu will show you the windows and allow you to switch between them.


To quickly open a new window, even if the application is already running, middle-click its icon.

Right-click an application icon to access its quick list. For example, right-clicking the file manager icon will display a list of bookmarked folders you can open.


Other applications you launch will also appear on the launcher while they’re running. To permanently attach another application to the launcher, right-click its launcher icon and select Lock to Launcher.

Select the Unlock from Launcher option to remove any icon from the launcher.


You can rearrange the applications on your launcher by dragging and dropping the application icons.

The Dash

Open the Dash by clicking the Ubuntu icon at the top left corner of the screen. You can also press the Super key to open the launcher (the Super key is also known as the Windows key).


The home area in the Dash displays your recently used applications and files.


You can search for applications by typing at the Dash. This search feature searches more than just application names – for example, searching for “theme” will reveal the Appearance application.


Ubuntu includes many applications that aren’t attached to the launcher by default. To browse your installed applications, click the Applications lens at the bottom of the Dash and scroll through the applications.


Other lenses are also available at the bottom of the Dash. Click them to browse for and search files and folders, music, and videos.


Ubuntu includes multiple workspaces. Each workspace is its own desktop, allowing you to group application windows.

To view your workspaces, click the Workspace Switcher icon on the launcher.


You’ll see an overview of your workspaces and the windows open on each one. You can switch between workspaces from here.


Drag and drop windows on the workspace switcher to rearrange your workspaces.


Use the Ctrl-Alt-Arrow Key keyboard shortcuts to switch workspaces. This is probably the quickest, most efficient way to switch workspaces.


Use the Ctrl-Alt-Shift-Arrow Key keyboard shortcuts to move windows between workspaces. This key combination switches between workspaces, but brings the currently focused window with you.

Indicator Menus

Many important functions are located in the indicator menus, located at the top right corner of your screen. Whether you want to switch users, shut down your computer, control the volume level, or change network settings, you’ll find an option in one of the indicator menus.


The mail icon is the messaging indicator, which groups new message notifications for email, instant messaging, and social networking applications into one icon. The icon glows blue when you have a new message.

Switching Between Applications

The trusty Alt-Tab keyboard shortcut switches between applications in Unity, too. When you Alt-Tab, it only switches between windows on your current workspace.

The Alt-Tab switcher groups applications with multiple windows into a single icon. The three arrows to the left of the Firefox icon indicate that we have three Firefox windows open.


If you Alt-Tab and pause with the Firefox icon selected, you’ll be able to switch between the open Firefox windows. You can also skip to this screen with the Alt-` keyboard shortcut. (The ` is the key above the Tab key.)


Hidden Global Menus

Unity uses a global menu – application menus aren’t located in the application’s windows, they’re located on the top panel. This may be somewhat confusing at first, because you can’t see the application’s menu until you mouse over the top panel.


Each window’s title bar also merges into the top panel when you maximize the window. This includes the window manager controls. When an application window is maximized, its close, minimize, and restore buttons are located at the left side of the top panel, above the Dash icon.



The HUD is a new, alternative way of accessing application menus. Instead of clicking the menu, press the Alt key and start typing a menu item’s name. You can search for and activate menu options without touching the mouse.


Keyboard Shortcuts Cheat Sheet

Unity has a lot of keyboard shortcuts, but you don’t need to remember them. Press and hold the Super (Windows) key and you’ll see a keyboard shortcuts cheat sheet.


When you press and hold the Super key, you’ll also see numbers over the application icons on the launcher. Use these numbers in combination with the Super key to switch to or launch applications.

For example, if the Firefox icon is in second place, we can press Super-2 to launch or switch to Firefox.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 05/7/12

Comments (14)

  1. xana452

    Good to have on hand! I really love Ubuntu. I installed it a few days ago and I think it looks really good. Runs smoothly, even considering that I have it on a USB hard drive.

  2. MJ

    Keep posting Ubuntu how-tos, I really like what you are doing!

  3. cam2644

    Unity is slowly growing on me and your articles are really helpful. Many thanks

  4. Texas_Bob

    If only there was a way to move that top (mac-ish) bar to the bottom and make the launcher bar icons VERY small. For a 15″ monitor it eats way too much real estate. I reinstalled the MATE desktop and made it useful again.

  5. jayden

    Unity is growing up, i like it more and more and your articles are helping a lot. keep up doing the good work! Thanks

  6. Dana Ross

    Thank your for this. I’m loving Unity.
    Keep up the articles please.

  7. marc

    Thank’s for the article, really usefull!!

  8. Unity Hater

    Unity is just a piece of crap.

  9. lonk

    When pressing the superkey you are presented with all the possible options from unity, in there somewhere I see a combination of: Alt + Deadgrave. Any living person able to tell me what this is? (Deadgrave I mean… Google gives me nothing useful…

  10. Juan Pedro Sanchez

    Texas_Bob: to change the size of the icons in the launcher do this simple steps:
    1.- click on the right top corner in the Ubuntu sign
    2.- choose system settings
    3.- choose Appearence
    4.- in the bottom right of the new window you can move the dial to select the size of the icons.

    Best regards.

  11. kevin

    now we just have to stop all the microsoft spies and we will have it made.

  12. Chris Hoffman


    I think it’s the ` character — above the Tab key.

  13. jagged97


    the grave accent is referred to in this article, but not by name:

    “You can also skip to this screen with the Alt-` keyboard shortcut. (The ` is the key above the Tab key.)”

    on many keyboards the key is a dead grave in the sense that it only works in combination with a letter key to add the accent. search wikipedia for “grave accent” for more info.

  14. Lord J

    Thanks. Am thinking of installing Ubuntu on my backup rig, because I’ve been using XP on that rig for a few days and it got me wanting to throw my PC out the window.

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