The Complete Guide to the Ubuntu Launcher

Learn how to navigate to your favourite applications within Ubuntu

Unity Launcher Right Click Menu

Ubuntu's Unity desktop environment has divided the opinion of many Linux users over the past few years but it has matured very well and once you get used to it you will see that actually it is very easy to use and highly intuitive.

In this article, I will show you how to use the launcher icons within Unity. 

The launcher sits on the left-hand side of the screen and cannot be moved. There are however certain tweaks that you can make to resize the icons and to hide the launcher when it isn't in use and I will show you how to do this later on in the article.

The Icons 

Ubuntu comes with a standard set of icons attached to the launcher. From top to bottom the functions of these icons are as follows:

Clicking opens the individual function for the icons. 

The top option opens the Unity Dash which provides a method for finding applications, playing music, watching videos and looking at photos. It is the key entry point to the rest of the Unity desktop.

Files is also known as Nautilus which can be used to copy, move, and delete files on your system.

Firefox is the web browser and the LibreOffice icons open the various office suite tools such as the word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tool.

The Ubuntu software tool is used to install further applications using Ubuntu and the Amazon icon provides instant access to Amazon's products and services. (You can always remove the Amazon application if you like.)

The settings icon is used to set up hardware devices such as printers and to administer users, change display settings and other key system options.

The trash can is like the Windows recycle bin and can be used to view deleted files.

Ubuntu Launcher Events

Before you open an application the background to the icons are black.

When you click on an icon it will flash and will continue doing so until the application has fully loaded. The icon will now fill up with a color that matches the rest of the icon. (For example, LibreOffice Writer turns blue and Firefox turns red)

As well as filling with color a little arrow appears to the left of open applications. Every time you open a new instance of the same application another arrow appears. This will continue to happen until you have 4 arrows.

If you have different applications open (for instance Firefox and LibreOffice Writer) then an arrow will appear to the right of the application that you are currently using.

Every so often the icons within the launcher will do something to grab your attention. If the icon starts buzzing then it means that it is expecting you to interact with the associated application. This will happen if the application is displaying a message. 

How to Remove Icons From the Launcher

Right-clicking on an icon opens a context menu and the options available will depend on the icon you are clicking. For example, right-clicking on the Files icon shows a list of folders that you can view, the "Files" application and "unlock from launcher".

The "Unlock From Launcher" menu option is common to all right-click menus and is useful if you know that there is an application that you will rarely use as it frees up space for applications you will use.

How to Open a New Copy of an Application

If you already have an instance of an application open then left-clicking on its icon in the launcher takes you to the open application but if you want to open a new instance of the application then you need to right-click and select Open New > ... where "..." is the name of the application. (Firefox will say "open new window" and "open new private window", LibreOffice will say "Open new document").

With one instance of an application open it is easy to navigate to the open application using the launcher by simply clicking on the icon. If you have more than one instance of an application open how do you then select the correct instance? Actually, it is again simply a case of choosing the application's icon in the launcher. The open instances of that application will appear side by side and you can choose the one that you wish to use.

Add Icons to the Ubuntu Launcher

The Ubuntu Unity Launcher has a list of icons by default that the Ubuntu developers thought would suit the majority of people.

No two people are the same and what is important to one person is not important to another. We've already shown you how to remove icons from the launcher but how do you add them?

One way to add icons to the launcher is to open the Unity dash and search for the programs you wish to add.

Click the top icon on the Ubuntu Unity Launcher and the Dash will open. In the search box enter the name or a description of the application you would like to add.

When you have found an application you wish to link to the launcher, left-click the icon and drag it over to the launcher without lifting the left mouse button until the icon is over the launcher.

The icons on the launcher can be moved up and down by dragging them with the left mouse button.

Another way to add icons to the launcher is to use popular web services such as Gmail, Reddit, and Twitter. When you visit one of these services for the first time from within Ubuntu you will be asked whether you want to install these applications for integrated functionality. Installing these services adds an icon to the quick launch bar.

Customize the Ubuntu Launcher

Open up the settings screen by clicking on the icon that looks like a cog and then select "Appearance".

The "Appearance" screen has two tabs:

  • Look and feel
  • Behaviour

The size of the icons on the Ubuntu launcher can be set on the look and feel tab. At the bottom of the screen, you will see a slider control alongside the words "Launcher Icon Size". By dragging the slider to the left the icons will become smaller and dragging to the right makes them bigger. Making them smaller works well on Netbooks and smaller screens. Making them bigger will work better on large displays.

The behavior screen makes it possible for you to hide the launcher when it is not in use. Again this is useful on smaller screens such as Netbooks.

After turning on the auto-hide feature you can choose the behavior that makes the launcher reappear again. The options available include moving the mouse to the top left corner or anywhere on the left side of the screen. Also included is a slider control which lets you adjust the sensitivity. (Some people find that the menu appears too often and others find that it takes too much effort to get it to reappear, the slider helps each person set it to their own personal preference).

Other options available within the behavior screen include the ability to add a show desktop icon to the Ubuntu launcher and also to make multiple workspaces available. (Workspaces will be discussed in a later article).

There is another tool that you can install from the Software Centre that enables you to tweak the Unity Launcher further. Open the Software Centre and install "Unity Tweak".

After installing "Unity Tweak" open it from the Dash and click on the Launcher icon in the top left.

There are a number of options available and some of them overlap with standard Unity functionality such as the resizing of icons and hiding the launcher but extra options include the ability to change the transition effects that come into play as the launcher disappears and reappears.

You can change other features of the launcher such as the way the icon reacts when trying to grab your attention (either pulse or wiggle). Other options include setting the way icons are filled in when they are open and the background color of the launcher (and opacity).