Linux Desktop Faceoff: GNOME 3 vs Ubuntu Unity

Linux Desktop Faceoff: GNOME 3 vs Ubuntu UnityThe popular Linux distribution Ubuntu recently finalized its move to the new Unity interface, while other Linux distributions are moving to the new GNOME 3 shell. Both interfaces are remarkably different than the Linux environments you’re used to, but remarkably similar to one another. So which one is better for you? We delve down and uncover the differences between each.

Both Unity and GNOME 3 bring sweeping changes to the desktop, like big, icon-based app launchers, application docks, and other window management features designed for tablets and desktops alike. Unity is Ubuntu-specific, and Ubuntu 11.10 has removed the built-in option allowing you to easily switch to the classic GNOME desktop. Other Linux distributions, like Fedora and OpenSUSE, have upgraded to GNOME 3 instead of GNOME 2. Today, we’ll look at the differences between these two new desktop environments, and help you decide which one is more likely to suit your particular needs. For an even comparison, we’ll be talking about them both from an Ubuntu standpoint, since that’s what the vast majority of Linux users have.

If you want to install GNOME 3 on Ubuntu, just head into the Ubuntu Software Center and search for GNOME Shell. Install it, then log out of your system—you should see a small gear icon on the login screen, which you can then use to boot into GNOME 3 instead of Unity.

Main Features

Both environments are remarkably similar, but with a few minor differences and features that make then each unique. GNOME 3 is a bit more minimalistic and adventurous, while Unity keeps a few aspects of the traditional desktop around. Here’s how they break down.

Unity Has a Mac-Like Menu Bar, Dock, and a Feature-Filled App Launcher

Linux Desktop Faceoff: GNOME 3 vs Ubuntu Unity

The Desktop: Unity’s desktop is fairly similar to GNOME Classic’s, except for the large dock on the left side of the screen that replaces the old taskbar. You can still place icons on the desktop, and you can open multiple windows as usual. The title bar is now one unified menu for all your apps, like on Mac OS X: instead of having File, Edit, and other menus within each app’s window, you’ll now see them in the menu bar at the top of the screen. Each window has a close, maximize, and minimize button, and when you maximize a window, those buttons also appear on the unified menu bar. Unity has two versions: one for low-powered machines, and one designed for regular desktops that has some enhanced graphical effects (like a transparent dock). Even on a powerful machine, though, Unity can be a bit slow at times, which can bring down the overall experience.

Linux Desktop Faceoff: GNOME 3 vs Ubuntu UnityThe Dock: Unity’s dock comes with a number of apps already pinned, but you can pin any app by opening it up by right-clicking on its icon and hitting “Add to Favorites”. If the dock has more icons than your screen can fit, it will become scrollable—just mouse down to the bottom and it’ll automatically scroll down the list so you can access other apps. If you have multiple windows open in one app, you’ll see two arrows next to that app’s icon, which is nice, and clicking on it gives you an Exposé-like overview of that app’s windows.

Unity’s dock is sadly not movable from its left-hand position, which is very annoying (Isn’t Linux is supposed to be super customizable?). However, despite this annoyance, it does have some nice Ubuntu integration that you don’t get in GNOME 3—for example, you can right-click on Thunderbird’s dock icon to compose a new message or browse your address book.

Linux Desktop Faceoff: GNOME 3 vs Ubuntu Unity

The Dash: You can access Unity’s application launcher—called the Dash—by hitting the Windows key on your keyboard or by hitting the Dash icon at the top of Unity’s dock. The Dash is a panel that replaces the drop-down menus of classic GNOME. From it, you can search through all your installed apps, settings, files, or even music from one location. You don’t need to click on the search box either—just open up the Dash and start typing. It’ll even show you apps that you don’t have installed, but that you can download from the Ubuntu Software Center, which is convenient. By default, the Dash searches through your apps, though you can hit the icons across the bottom of the Dash to search through files or music through their own “lenses”. This is a pretty nice feature, and it makes the Dash pretty versatile.

It isn’t without its annoyances, though. If you manually navigate through your list of apps in the Dash, it’ll only show one line of apps in any given category. You have to hit a “More Apps” button to see the full list, which is obnoxious and unnecessary. By default, the Dash only takes up about a fourth of the screen, but you can maximize it to take up the entire screen if you wish—but it still only shows a few apps at a time, wasting all that space and making you click around more. It seems like it takes a million clicks to navigate anywhere in the Dash, so while it makes a fine application launcher, it’s far less adequate as a replacement for the old drop-down menus.

Linux Desktop Faceoff: GNOME 3 vs Ubuntu Unity

Workspaces: Unity’s workspaces work much like GNOME Classic’s. You hit the Worksace button in the dock, and you see four desktops layed out in a grid (though you can edit this number to be whatever you wish). Double click on one, and it’ll take you to that desktop, where you can open up more windows and better organize your screen real estate. None of this is very new, but Unity makes it a bit more prominent than older versions of GNOME did.

GNOME 3 Has a Minimalist Desktop, an Organized App Launcher, and a Few Extra Features

Linux Desktop Faceoff: GNOME 3 vs Ubuntu Unity

The Desktop: When you first boot into GNOME 3, you might be a bit thrown off at how minimalist it is. Your desktop is completely blank, with just a sparse menu bar at the top of the screen—you don’t even have a dock on your desktop. Not only that, but you can’t put files on your desktop by default, and the windows don’t even have minimize or maximize buttons. That said, these are pretty easy things to get over—after all, you can still maximize and minimize the windows using keyboard shortcuts or a double-click on the title bar. It also adds a few new window management features, like the ability to snap them to the edges of the screen, similar to Windows 7’s Aero Snap feature—perfect if you need to work with two apps side by side. Like Unity, it has some nice desktop effects—mainly lots of smooth transitions and fade-outs—but it performs a good deal faster than Unity, making it more pleasant to use (not to mention very slick).

Linux Desktop Faceoff: GNOME 3 vs Ubuntu Unity

The Activities Panel: When you hit the Activities button, in the upper right-hand corner of the screen (or hit the Windows button on your keyboard), you’ll enter the Activities panel. Similar to Unity’s Dash, the Activities panel lets you search through all your apps for quick launching, as well as see an Exposé-like overview of all your windows. You can search for apps just by opening Activities and typing, but if you want to manually look through them, you have to click the “Applications” button first. It’s annoying, but the Applications menu itself is much less annoying than Unity’s Dash overall, and requires far less clicking to navigate. The categories menu on the right is also very simply laid out, which is nice.

While GNOME 3’s Activities panel is less annoying than Unity’s Dash, it isn’t quite as feature-filled. Unity’s lenses for searching files and music are great, and the integration with the Ubuntu Software Center is awesome. Since GNOME 3 wasn’t built for Ubuntu, you don’t get any of that.

The Dock: Instead of being on your desktop, like a traditional dock, GNOME 3’s dock is part of the Activities panel, showing up on the left side of the screen whenever you open the panel up. The dock is one area in which Unity really wins: GNOME 3’s dock just seems half-assed. Not only is it annoyingly hidden away, but adding more icons shrinks it down, à la Mac OS X, as opposed to making it scrollable like Unity’s. This doesn’t seem like a problem at first, but it gets a lot harder to use if it shrinks down far, and it starts shrinking down long before it fills the entire side of the screen, which is really stupid. It also won’t tell you if you have multiple windows open in one app, nor will it give you a preview of that app’s windows—you can only see a preview of all currently open windows. And, once again, you lose out on the cool Ubuntu integration features, like the ability to compose a new Thunderbird message by right-clicking its dock icon.

Workspaces: GNOME 3 handles workspaces a bit differently than Unity. Instead of having a predetermined set of desktops, you can open the Activities window and drag any of your windows to the right to add them to a new workspace. You start off with only two workspaces, but can add more and more as you need them, which is a much smarter way of handling the whole process.

Notifications: One of GNOME 3’s very cool new features is the notifications system. Notifications pop up at the bottom of your screen without being very intrusive, and any that you don’t see are accessible from the Activities panel (or by activating the bottom right-hand screen corner with your mouse). Any notifications you haven’t seen will be there waiting for you when you come back, which is great for applications like instant messaging.

The Upsides and Downsides of Both

While each environment has its own little differences, the two are largely similar, both in pros and cons. Both interfaces are a bit more pixel-friendly than GNOME 2, especially GNOME 3 (as long as you don’t mind the hidden dock). GNOME 3’s minimalism also gives it a really clean look, as does its lack of desktop icons—you don’t have anything cluttering up your screen but the windows you open. And, with both heavily promoting virtual workspaces and this Exposé-like window overview, you can more easily focus on one program at a time, which is good for those of us easily distracted.

Both have migrated away from the drop-down menu to an icon-based launcher, which almost looks tablet-like—even when they’re not being used on tablets. This is definitely a downside during daily use, as you have to move your mouse all over the screen just to click on the apps or settings you want to launch. The ability to hit a key and start typing an app’s name is great, though, and something I highly recommend you work into your muscle memory—if you haven’t already with something like GNOME-Do—but still, on the occasions you need to manually sift through apps, the launchers seem out of place and much harder to navigate. For what it’s worth, though, I found GNOME 3’s far less annoying. If you learn your keyboard shortcuts, you’ll probably care about all this a lot less, as the keyboard can take you everywhere pretty quickly.

Customizability has also taken an enormous hit with both environments. Back in GNOME 2, you could tweak the layout of the taskbar, install one of many different desktop themes, and customize your drop-down menus at will. Most of this is completely gone in GNOME 3 and Unity, meaning you’re a bit more forced into using the environment as its creators envisoned, and less how you envision. This is, sadly, one of the things that made Linux so great, and it’s sad to see it going down the tubes. That said, customizability could increase with time, especially after third party developers have more time to create tweaks, but right now, you lose a lot.

The Verdict

Both GNOME 3 and Unity have gotten a lot of flak for drastically changing the traditional desktop paradigm. However, I still recommend trying them both out, because they have a lot of good things going for them—and because this is where all of GNOME’s development power is going, now that GNOME 2.x is mostly dead. You won’t see features like GNOME 3’s notifications panel in a deprecated desktop, so if you want to see any new features in your desktop, you’ll need to switch to GNOME 3 or Unity.

Of the two, I personally prefer GNOME 3. It’s clean, it looks and feels fantastic, and despite the lack of Ubuntu integration, it’s got some nice new features, like the notifications panel and window snapping. Unity isn’t without its plusses, like Software Center integration, the global menu bar, and the Dash’s lenses, but overall I find it more annoying to work with. Much of this is personal preference, so once again—try them both out if you’re on the fence.

Lastly, if you try them out and just can’t stand them, you still have a few choices. Installing GNOME 3 will also allow you to use GNOME Classic, which is essentially the GNOME 2 interface built on GNOME 3. Alternatively, you can try Mate, which is a fork of GNOME 2 that attempts to keep it alive and fix bugs where possible. Neither of these are likely to get many new features, though, so unless you’re okay with a feature-stagnant desktop, you might want to look elsewhere. KDE is a very solid desktop using the more traditional computing paradigm, and XFCE is an actively developed environment very similar to GNOME 2. And, if you’re on a low-powered machine (or just want something simple and fast), I’ve already shared my love for the lightweight LXDE. The great thing about Linux is that you have a lot of choice, so if you don’t like the new defaults in your distribution, change it! There’s a lot more to explore out there.

If you’ve given both a shot, let us know what you think of them in the comments. Politely, please.

You can contact Whitson Gordon, the author of this post, at You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.



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