How to preview Ubuntu Unity Smart Scopes


If you’ve been following the upcoming release of Ubuntu 13.04, you probably know about the on-again, off-again inclusion of Unity Smart Scopes. As of now, Smart Scopes will not be releasing with 13.04 — because of stability issues. A wise decision, I must say. Instead, Smart Scopes will arrive with 13.10.

But just what are Smart Scopes and why do they matter? Smart Scopes replaces the Unity Lens system and they matter because they make the Unity Dash an incredibly powerful tool. A Scope is, effectively, a search mechanism. With the help of Smart Scopes, you can search for nearly anything, anywhere. The idea was to make the Unity Dash one of the single most powerful search tools on any desktop. From that, the 100 Scopes project was born. The goal was to have 100+ sources for the Unity Dash to search. With that intact, the user can open the Dash, type in a search string, and watch the results quickly filter in. If the user wants to narrow the results, she can easily filter them.

With the old system, installing numerous lenses caused the Unity Dash to bog down. I’ve experimented with installing a few extra lenses in 12.10 to find that, yes, the Dash does begin to slow as you throw more lenses for it to use.

Not so with Smart Scopes. Even in this early stage of development, Smart Scopes blows away the lens system. And, at this moment, Smart Scopes already includes:

  • Audacious
  • Calculator
  • Chromium Bookmarks
  • Clementine
  • Colourlovers
  • Devhelp
  • Deviantart
  • Evolution
  • Firefox Bookmarks
  • Gallica
  • Google Drive
  • GitHub
  • Gmusicbrowse
  • Google News
  • Gourmet
  • Guayadeque
  • IMDb
  • Launchpad
  • Manpages
  • Musique
  • Open Clip Art
  • SoundCloud
  • SSH search
  • Texdoc
  • Tomboy
  • Virtualbox
  • Yahoostock
  • Yelp
  • Zotero

That’s on top of the built-in desktop and Amazon search.

I wanted to illustrate how to install and use Smart Scopes. Do understand that this is not quite ready for every daily usage. If you, like me, are too curious to NOT install this feature, do so on a non-production machine (or a virtual machine), so you’re not running the risk of losing precious data. Of course, the installation procedure does come with a safe way of backing out of this change — so even if the tool doesn’t work well on your system, you can remove it easily.


You must be using Ubuntu 13.04 to install Smart Scopes. If you already have 13.04 running, the installation couldn’t be any simpler. Open up a terminal window and enter:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:ubuntu-unity/experimental-certified

Hit Enter and then type your sudo password. You will be prompted to hit Enter once again. Do so. Once the repository has been added, run the following commands:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

Now all you have to do is log out and log in and Smart Scopes will be ready for you. Should the system become unstable, or you simply do not want to keep Smart Scopes, you can remove it by first installing the ppa-purge tool with the command:

sudo apt-get install ppa-purge

Finally, issue the command:

sudo ppa-purge ppa:ubuntu-unity/experimental-certified

Log out and log back in to return to the old Unity lens system.


Using Smart Scopes is really quite simple. Tap the Super (Windows) key and type your search string (Figure A, right). Results will immediately begin to appear. If the results become too overwhelming, you can filter them. To do this click on the Filter Results button to reveal the two filters: Categories and Sources.
Run down the list of Categories and click all that you want to apply to your search (Figure B).

Figure B

Figure B

(Click on images to enlarge.)

If you still don’t have the results narrowed to your liking, scroll the right Dash pane down to reveal the Sources section. Here you can select what extra sources are to be included in the search (Figure C).

Figure C

Figure C

Once you’ve found what you’re looking for, click it to open it. Or, you can preview by right-clicking one of the search results to open the preview window (Figure D).

Figure D

Figure D

Depending upon the type of item you have previewed, you can act upon the preview in different ways. For example: An item from Amazon can be purchased; a document can be opened, emailed, or have the containing folder opened; a music or video file can be previewed (from within the Dash).

If you’ve needed a reason to be excited about the up-coming releases of Ubuntu, Smart Scopes should give you such a reason. This new Dash feature is, without a doubt, the most powerful built-in search tool of any desktop operating system. And although it’s not quite ready for public consumption, I have found it pretty stable and amazingly useful. Find a machine to install it on and see if it doesn’t bring your desktop searching to new levels.