The Good and Bad of Ubuntu Tweak

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

February 2, 2010

4 Min Read
The Good and Bad of Ubuntu Tweak

I’ve long heard good things about Ubuntu Tweak, but never used it myself.  With the recent appearance of its 0.5 release, however, I decided to give it a go.  Here’s what I thought.

As its name implies, Ubuntu Tweak is a third-party application that tweaks Ubuntu’s default configuration.  Its goal is to provide “many useful desktop and system options that the default desktop environment doesn’t provide,” and to make those options easily accessible.

Ubuntu Tweak isn’t available from the official Ubuntu repositories, nor does Canonical explicitly endorse the application.  But it’s a quick and easy download from the developers’ site.

Tweak away

After installing Ubuntu Tweak and launching it from the Applications>System Tools menu, I was presented with a relatively straightforward interface.  It’s divided into five sections for managing different aspects of the system: Applications, Startup, Desktop, Personal, System.  Here’s a look:

Ubuntu Tweak Screenshot

Ubuntu Tweak Screenshot

Most of the Applications section is a repeat of Synaptic Package Manager, although it does offer the useful feature of updating certain applications to more recent versions than those available from the standard Ubuntu repositories.  This seems like it could pose the risk of breaking the package manager, but I didn’t have problems. In any case, I guess it isn’t any riskier than installing software from PPAs, which I do all the time and live to tell about.

For the most part, the Startup and Desktop areas of Ubuntu Tweak don’t offer any functionality that isn’t also accessible from the System toolbar in Ubuntu’s main menu.  A few of the settings in this section, however, are only configurable by manually editing text files or sorting through gconf.

Most of the stuff under the Personal section is also redundant, although a couple of very useful features there include a tool for adding scripts to the Nautilus right-click menu and configuring Nautilus document templates.

The only really worthwhile feature I found under the System heading in Ubuntu Tweak was the Security subsection, which allows users to disable various features, such as fast user switching.  Otherwise, most of the rest of this section is a nearly verbatim copy of utilities under the System>Administration menu or the Nautilus preferences dialog.

Is it worth it?

I’d read older reviews of Ubuntu Tweak, tested on previous versions of Ubuntu, that said it didn’t always work as promised. That wasn’t the case for me; everything I told it to do proceeded correctly in Ubuntu 9.10. This is a stable and safe application, as far as I can tell.

That said, I wasn’t as impressed with Ubuntu Tweak as some of its advocates promised I’d be.  It does offer a handful of innovative features, but at least 90% of its functionality is already accessible in GUI form on a default Ubuntu system. For the most part, then, Ubuntu Tweak’s only real value is that it aggregates a number of far-flung tools under a single interface.

Gnome Control Center already does that, though.  For reasons that have always seemed inexplicable to me, Gnome Control Center isn’t available by default from Ubuntu’s menus, but if you’ve never tried it, press alt-F2 and type “gnome-control-center”.  I bet you’ll agree that it provides a single user-friendly interface for doing most of what Ubuntu Tweak does.

Another criticism of Ubuntu Tweak is that while it seeks to cater to newbies, some of its features are advanced, and run the risk of breaking the system if not used properly.

For example, the application allows users to edit their apt sources.list file, without providing any warning that screwing it up could mean they can no longer install applications.  This seems like functionality that the Ubuntu neophyte doesn’t require, and which puts her system at risk if she doesn’t know what she’s doing.

Final word on Ubuntu Tweak

In summary, I’m not ungrateful to the Ubuntu Tweak developers.  They have produced a useful application that has undoubtedly helped many a non-geek make the switch to Ubuntu.  They’ve clearly identified areas where Ubuntu’s default user interface is weak, and have developed a solution.

But I can’t help but wonder if the effort put into Ubuntu Tweak would have been better expended contributing code to upstream projects so that the added functionality Ubuntu Tweak provides would be more easily accessible by default, without the assistance of a third-party add-on to Ubuntu.  That’s the whole point of open-source, after all.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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