Hippo cut out art
The hippo roars

Grab a magnifying glass and meet me down by the watering hole. Why? Cos we’re going tweak spotting in the Hirsute Hippo!

Admittedly Ubuntu’s upcoming release isn’t crammed full of obvious changes — even the headline switch to Wayland for the default session is (hardware depending) a fairly ‘invisible’ one — but scratch the surface and there’s more than meets the eye.

The folks hacking away on the Yaru GTK theme and the accompanying GNOME Shell theme, as well as Ubuntu’s default icon set, deliver a decent set of refinements to the look and feel of Ubuntu 21.04.

What kind of tweaks am I talking about? Let’s roll through the changes I spotted shortly after making my upgrade to Ubuntu 21.04 at the weekend.

Yaru Theme Changes in Hirsute

The first big visual change is one you can’t miss — well, unless you don’t read this site! As you may know, Ubuntu 21.04 uses a dark GNOME Shell theme by default.

Yes: again. It feels like Ubuntu switches between light and dark styling for GNOME Shell UI elements every few releases because, well, it does! In Ubuntu 19.10 it settled on showing light shell elements but for this release? It has turned-tail again!

The background of the status menu applet, app menus (what’s left of them), and message tray/calendar applet once use a dark background, this time paired with thin grey separators:

Ubuntu 21.04 dark theme
Ubuntu 21.04 dark theme

Looks pretty swish, doesn’t it?

Modal dialogs (like the password prompt that pops up when you need to enter your password) also use this new new theme, as do quick-lists on the Ubuntu Dock. Despite being rendered through GNOME Shell the new DING extension retains light styling, which is keeping with the standard Yaru GTK theme.

But take a closer look at the screenshot above. Is Ubuntu’s dark theme darker than before? If you think it does it’s because it is! Ubuntu has switched from an ‘inkstone’ grey to a deeper, inkier black for Shell elements. I think the whole theme works much better with this palette, with the aubergine accents really complimenting things.

Also darker (but not quite as dark as the shell) is the Yaru dark GTK theme that you can turn on from Settings > Appearance.

Darker dark themes aside the other changes in this list are a bit less obvious. For instance, chunky directional icons in the UI have been replaced with thinner icons, including the dropdown caret (or triangle, if you prefer) on app menus, and the section indicators in the Status Menu:

Arrow indicators before (left) and after (right)

Thinner symbolic icons crop up elsewhere in the UI too, such as in the category icons shown in the native emoji picker:

Thinner emoji category icons in 21.04 (right)

New bell icons are used to denote unread notifications and, when enabled, relay the status of ‘do not disturb’:

Ubuntu 21.04 has New Notification Icons
Unread notification in 20.10 vs 21.04

While these changes don’t alter the look of the UI they do give things a leaner, cleaner feel.

A more noticeable change can be found in Nautilus. Selected rows no longer use a solid orange background (with white text) but use a light grey (with dark text) and a vertical orange line at the start:

Ubuntu Yaru selected row style
Selected rows in 20.10 (left) and 21.04 (right)

Sticking with Nautilus, file icons for pretty much every file imaginable have been updated to include a folded corner in the upper right. This is a perfect example of a minor-sounding detail making a big impression — I’m tempted to have folders full of random files just so I can look at these some more!

a screenshot of ubuntu 21.04 with new file icons
File icons have folded corners in 21.04

These updated mime types aren’t the only icon changes in Hirsute. Several new icons are provided in the latest update to the Yaru icon set, including:

  • Wine (and many Windows mimetypes)
  • gParted
  • NVIDIA Settings
  • Media device icon
  • GNOME Characters
  • GNOME Sound Recorder
  • Transmission
  • Timeshift
  • Htop

The most striking icon redesigns are for the various parts of the LibreOffice suite. These have been tweaked to use fewer colours per icon (for example, the image in the Writer icon, and the chart in the Impress one):

Subtle tweaks to LibreOffice icons

If no-one told you the icon had changed you’d probably assume they looked like they always have. Regardless of whether it’s eye-catching I think this is an appreciable improvement. LibreOffice’s icons look less “busy” as a result.

Finally, a bit of effort has gone into making sure that the Yaru GTK theme matches the Yaru Shell theme (they are separate themes, after all). A few places where the ‘matching’ is most notable are in GTK context menus which now look like Shell menus:

a comparison of GTK and GNOME Shell changes
From difference (left) to consistency (right)

Chances are there are even more changes I’ve not yet noticed. While major theme changes make for better blog posts, these minor tweaks are, in my opinion, just as important. Attention to detail matters. No single inconsistency solved is important on its own, but together they are.

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