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.

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Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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