The popular Linux distribution Ubuntu recently finalised 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 moved to GNOME 3 as their default. 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.
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
Unity’s dock is sadly not movable from its left-hand position, which is very annoying (isn’t Linux is supposed to be super customisable?). 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.
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 quarter of the screen, but you can maximise 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.
GNOME 3 Has a Minimalist Desktop, an Organised App Launcher and a Few Extra Features
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.
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.
Customisability 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 customise 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 envisioned, and less how you envision. This is one of the things that made Linux so great, and it’s sad to see it going down the tubes. That said, customisability could increase with time, especially after third party developers have more time to create tweaks, but right now, you lose a lot.
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 pluses, 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 OK 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.