A guide to the Unity Launcher in Ubuntu 13.04

This is a guide to the Unity Launcher in Ubuntu 13.04.

To most people the launcher looks like a docking bar stuck on the left side of the screen instead of the usual place for a dock which is at the bottom of the screen.

The launcher consists of a series of icons that provide instant access to the applications the icons represent.¬†Whilst it would seem obvious that clicking an icon will launch a program there are other features that maybe aren’t so obvious.

closedapp Let us start off by looking at some cosmetic aspects of the launcher. Generally the icons are displayed with a black outer background as shown by the image to the left. When the application is first launched the icon flashes to show that the application is loading.

openapplication When the application has completed loading the icon will now be completely filled in with no black outer region. In addition to this there will be a single white triangle to the left of the icon.



If you have two instances of an application running (for example two windows for Chromium) then there will be two arrows to the of the icon. If you have three instances of an application then there will be three arrows. If you have four instances of an application then guess what? No you’d be wrong. There are still only three arrows.

To open an application all you have to do is click the icon on the launcher. If you want to open a new instance of an application however you need to right click on the icon and choose the “new” option.

Whilst this is possible for many applications such as browser windows and LibreOffice documents, there are some applications where it doesn’t make sense to have multiple versions running. (For example system settings).

If you have two instances of an applicatisidebysideon running then clicking the icon with the mouse will show preview windows of the application so that you pick the one that you wish to access.

Another thing to note is that occasionally an icon on the launcher will buzz and shake. This means the application is trying to grab your attention. Clicking on the icon will reveal the purpose of the frenetically shaking image.



The launcher clearly doesn’t have an icon for every application and so to use some programs you have to use the dash or the HUD (Heads Up Display). To access the HUD click the icon shown to the left and the Dash will be displayed.



As you type the name of the application you are looking for into the search box the possible options will appear as icons in the dash.

Clicking the icon of an application will load the program and an icon will appear in the launcher. If you use the chosen application regularly you can make it a part of the launcher by right clicking on the icon in the launcher and then select “lock to launcher”.

You can also add an icon to the launcher by dragging it from the dash straight to the launcher.

If there is an icon for an application on the launcher that you don’t use regularly and you want to keep it installed but demote it to the dash then right click on the icon and choose “unlock from launcher”.

Sometimes there are so many applications open or drives connected that the list is too long for one screen. You can see the rest of the icons by hovering over the bottom of the launcher.

You can customise the launcher in various ways. The first thing you can do is rearrange the icons so that they appear in the order you want them to appear. To do this hover the mouse over an icon you wish to move and then hold the left mouse button down. Now drag with the mouse and place the icon where you want it to appear in the list.

systemsettingsOther ways to customise the launcher require you to access the system settings. You can do this by clicking the icon on the launcher that looks like a cog with a spanner as shown to the left. There are other ways to find system settings such as using the dash or by clicking the last icon at the end of the bar at the top and then choose “System Settings”.


When the system settings window loads you will see an icon called “Appearance”. Clicking this will give you the ability to customise the launcher further.


The appearance dialog splits the launcher settings over two tabs. The first tab deals with the look and feel. Whilst you are in this screen you can change your desktop wallpaper (but that isn’t really part of this article).

The main thing you can change about the appearance of the launcher is the size of the icons. This is particularly useful on netbooks where there is less real estate on the screen to play with.

To make the icons smaller drag the bar to the left and to make them bigger drag the bar to the right.


One thing I prefer about the Gnome desktop over the default Unity desktop is that the launch bar in Gnome only appears after you press the super key (windows icon) on your keyboard or select activities.

In Unity the launch bar is always present. If you have a small screen this takes up valuable space. The behaviour settings tab lets you hide the launcher until you move your mouse over a hot spot.

To hide the launcher change the Auto Hide option to “On”.

By default the launcher will be revealed whenever you click the left hand side of the screen. This is all well and good but if you are playing a full screen game which relies on a lot of clicking then you may accidentally hover to the left of the screen and your game is blocked by the launcher appearing, inevitably losing you a valuable life.

The behaviour settings can be changed so that the launcher only appears when you move the mouse to the top left corner. You can also use the sensitivity bar to determine how long you have to hold the mouse at the left of the screen or in the top left corner before the launcher appears.

Ubuntu like most Linux distributions has the concept of workspaces. Some people swear by the use of multiple workspaces and others use just one.

To try and conceptualise workspaces for those of you coming from a Windows background try and imagine you have 4 screens. On one screen you might have a browser window open and a few other browser windows that you aren’t currently looking at.¬†This means you have one application open multiple times on one workspace. Now say you are watching a movie on the second screen and on the third screen you are developing software and finally on the fourth screen you have a role playing game open. Your eyes can easily flick between the four screens simply by looking at the screen you wish to look at.

Workspaces enable you to separate your applications into virtual spaces which you can easily flick between by using keyboard shortcuts. You can also add a workspace icon to the launcher which will enable you to choose the workspace you wish to work with.

To add a workspace icon simply check the box on the behaviour settings tab. You can also add a “show desktop” icon to the launcher by checking the box in the behaviour settings tab.

I have shown you pretty much all you need to know about the launcher in order to do most daily activities. I am in the process of writing a cheat sheet with keyboard commands that you can use to manipulate the launcher and other parts of Unity with minimal usage of a mouse.

I hope you found this article useful.

Thankyou for reading.


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