Is GNOME or Unity the desktop for you?


It’s 2020, and we’re talking about the Unity desktop again. Jack Wallen discusses the pros and cons of GNOME and Unity and offers his opinion on which desktop might be right for you.

Image: Jack Wallen

I wrote about the fantastic new(ish) distribution Ubuntu Unity, and that post exposed serious division and opinions surrounding the Linux desktop. It wasn’t so much an “I dislike Unity or GNOME,” as it was more along the lines of full-blown hatred for one or the other. At least on one side of the spectrum–the other side was fandom.

It’s clearly a love or hate relationship with these desktops.

I understand such an issue is a matter of taste. I prefer a modern take on the desktop that performs in a very efficient way, but many others prefer the old-school desktop metaphors, found in the likes of Cinnamon, Mate, and KDE.

Neither opinion is wrong–that’s the beauty of opinion. 

I’m taking another approach to the comparison between GNOME and the Unity desktop. I highlight the pros and cons of each and then suggest which users would be the best fit for either desktop. There is no scientific method going on here. I’ve been using and covering Linux for more than 20 years, so it’s all about experience and knowing how the evolution of the Linux user has changed over the years. With that said, let’s take a look at GNOME and Unity.

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GNOME: Pros and cons

When GNOME Shell burst onto the market, one would have thought the developers had committed a grievous sin against the desktop. There was panic and pearl clutching–or not. Actually, there were a lot of users abandoning the desktop for more familiar fare. 

GNOME is actually a nice desktop, once you give it a try. Sure, it makes you completely rethink the way you work, and it might not be nearly as customizable as, say, Xfce, but GNOME Shell does one thing better than all other desktops: It gets out of your way. In fact, the whole time you’re working within GNOME Shell, you forget there’s a desktop at all. The only reminder that GNOME is there, ready to help you get things done, is the top bar, which holds the Activities Overview button, the calendar launcher, and the system tray. 

There’s really not much there–until you hit the Super key (aka “Windows” key), which activates the Activities Window. This overlay includes all running applications, virtual desktops, Favorites bar, and Search. Or, you could hit the Super+A key combination, which will show the list of installed applications.

That’s part of the beauty of GNOME–there’s so much there and it’s hiding in plain sight. Instead of cluttering up your desktop, all of the bells and whistles are hidden, but only a key click away.

Another pro about GNOME is the many add-ons that are available from the GNOME Extensions site. By default, GNOME isn’t very customizable; in fact, the GNOME developers have taken a very Apple-like approach to GNOME, ruffling a lot of feathers in the Linux community. Fortunately, the devs made it possible to extend and configure the desktop with the help of extensions. 

There are a lot of these add-ons available. Some of these extensions, such as Dash to Dock, make major changes to how you work with GNOME, while others are very subtle. Chances are, there’s an extension or three that you need to install to make GNOME better suited to the way you work.

GNOME’s performance and stability is another pro. When GNOME Shell first appeared, it was slow and buggy–slowly but surely that lack of speed and reliability vanished. In recent iterations, GNOME has seen an incredible boost to the performance. In fact, I’d put the performance of GNOME up against nearly any desktop environment on the market–it’s that impressive. As for reliability? You won’t find a more stable desktop on the market.

The biggest issue I have had with GNOME Shell is that some app notifications either fail to work or you have to add an extension just to use an app from the system tray. 

Another con is that GNOME is not efficient. Instead of it being a desktop that can be easily managed from the keyboard, there’s a lot of mouse-keyboard back and forth. For the average user, that’s not a bad thing, as they are accustomed to moving their right or left hand back and forth between the mouse and keyboard. But, for those who prefer a much more efficient environment, it can get a bit exhausting to constantly have to move to and fro. Yes, there are plenty of keyboard shortcuts to master, but that mouse or trackpad isn’t going to be rendered obsolete in GNOME.

Unity: Pros and cons

Unity first came into being when Canonical (the company responsible for Ubuntu) decided it wanted to build its own desktop. So out with the old (GNOME) and in with the new (Unity). 

And boy, did Unity polarize the community; in fact, it was when Unity came into being that Linux Mint began its rise to fame. The timing cannot be ignored.

Unity was built from the ground up to revolutionize the way we interact with our systems. Although it shared a few concepts with GNOME such as the Dash and the Overview, Unity added two features (HUD and the Global Menu) into the mix that turned a somewhat GNOME-like desktop into an efficiency lover’s dream come true. These components allow users to shrug off the mouse or the trackpad and keep their fingers on the keyboard. Anyone looking for a desktop that was perfectly efficient, modern looking, and elegant had to look no further.

SEE: Linux Mint 20: Still the best Linux desktop despite one quirk (ZDNet)

But then, Canonical decided it needed to focus on a phone (which failed) and that magical Unity environment crashed and burned. Fortunately, other developers have brought the Unity desktop back to life, so you can still experience its two main pros: Beauty and efficiency.

Unity was also that desktop people would look at and go, “Oh, I want one!” So, without knowing it, Canonical had created its best desktop marketing tool, only the company didn’t bother taking advantage of it.

When I installed Ubuntu Unity, I distinctly remember feeling like I’d been reunited with that super cool friend I always loved hanging out with, because cool by association is still cool. When you mix a seriously eye-catching look with masterful efficiency, you have the makings of a brilliant desktop.

The Unity desktop’s biggest con (outside of the options in the Unity Tweak tool) is it isn’t very configurable. You do things the Unity way, and you like it; fortunately, the Unity way is pretty smart. And all of those GNOME extensions won’t work on Unity.

Another con is Unity doesn’t enjoy the incredible stability found in GNOME. Don’t worry–Unity isn’t going to come crashing down around you. It’s as stable as most other desktops, but GNOME is in another league with regards to stability. Even after a fresh install, I started receiving the annoying and vague crash reports that used to plague Ubuntu before it moved back to GNOME. 

Should you choose GNOME or Unity?

This is a challenging question, because it’s subjective–the way you work isn’t the way I work, so my idea of who these desktops are for might not be in sync with yours. However, I have been using Linux for a very, very long time, so I have insight into what people like on their desktops. My conclusions should not come as any surprise. 

GNOME is for users who need a desktop to get out of their way. They want to focus on applications and require as much screen real estate as possible. GNOME users don’t care so much about tweaking the desktop–they simply want a desktop that is reliable, predictable, and polished.

The ideal GNOME user values the work they do over the environment they do it on. GNOME users want speed and simplicity with a modern and minimal aesthetic. GNOME is for the patient, the forgiving, the zen at heart.

Unity is for users who depend on their desktop environment to make things easy and efficient for them. They need to not bother with the mouse, because the keys on their keyboards are the money makers. Unity is for users who can’t take the time to move their hand from the keyboard to the mouse. Unity is that ideal desktop for users who like the modern look and feel of GNOME, but cannot deal with having to install extensions to make it work the way they want.

Unity is for the impatient, the hyper-kinetic, those who frequently bump up against deadlines because seconds actually matter.

GNOME vs. Unity: Share your thoughts

And there you have my take on GNOME vs. Unity. You probably thought you’d never see another article like this, but I believe (thanks to Ubuntu Unity) that Unity is back and will continue to improve and evolve.

What’s your take? Do you use either of these desktops? If so, why?

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Ubuntu Unity brings back one of the most efficient desktops ever created


If you’ve been waiting for the return of the Unity desktop, your wait is over. Ubuntu Unity is a fresh take on the once-defunct interface.

Image: Jack Wallen

This will be an unpopular opinion among many members in the Linux community, however, I wholeheartedly believe that Ubuntu Unity was one of the most efficient desktops to have ever been created. It was also the perfect desktop environment to get the most out of using a laptop on the go. 

But, on April 5, 2017, Ubuntu decided to drop the Unity interface, in favor of GNOME. This was a wise choice by Ubuntu, as Unity development had stalled thanks to the failed efforts to get the Ubuntu Phone off the ground. By switching to GNOME, Ubuntu didn’t have to continually reinvent the wheel. Instead, Ubuntu could do what it does best–concentrate on improving one of the most user-friendly and stable operating systems on the market.

Although I could justify that decision in my mind, my fingers and my heart wanted Unity to remain.

But why? 

As I’ve said, Unity was all about efficiency and although the developers and designers of Ubuntu have done an outstanding job tweaking GNOME to look somewhat like the desktop users had grown accustomed to, GNOME is not Unity. For me, that desktop is missing one invaluable component–the Global Menu+HUD combo. 

SEE: 10 free alternatives to Microsoft Word and Excel (TechRepublic download)

What is the Global Menu?

Simply put, the Global Menu with the combination of the Head Up Display (HUD) replaced the standard application menu system with a searchable interface. So, instead of having to look for an entry in a menu, you opened the HUD by using the Alt key on your keyboard and then searched for the menu entry you want. It was the most elegant menu system ever created and it made working with applications incredibly efficient. For anyone who preferred to keep their fingers on their keys and off the mouse or trackpad, it was a dream come true. 

This was a solution to a problem you had no idea existed, but once you experienced using the Global Menu+HUD combo, going back to the standard menu systems became an exercise in inefficiency. No one using a laptop for work, wants to deal with an inefficient interface. You need your desktop work for you, not the other way around.

Welcome back

Unity is back as is your ticket out of a world of inefficient desktop interfaces that made using a laptop a less-than-ideal proposition. For those who’ve lauded Ubuntu’s choice to switch to GNOME, fear not–Ubuntu is sticking with GNOME. Unity, on the other hand, has made its return, thanks to the likes of the Ubuntu Unity desktop distribution. It’s a fresh take on an old, once defunct favorite.

Ubuntu Unity is, as you would expect, is built on top of Ubuntu (version 20.04) and has all of the goodness found in Unity 7, with the addition of the more modern Yaro and Papirus theming. Out of the box, you might easily mistake it for a standard Ubuntu desktop (Figure A).

Figure A

The Ubuntu Unity desktop looks immediately familiar.

The reason for this familiarity is because, as I mentioned earlier, the Ubuntu devs intentionally tweaked GNOME to look like Unity. It’s not until you hit Alt with an application open that you see that game-changing HUD goodness (Figure B).

Figure B

The Ubuntu Unity Global Menu+HUD combination makes for an efficient interface.


Unlike Linux Mint’s short-sighted dropping of snap package support, Ubuntu Unity remains in solidarity with snap and includes support for the universal package system out of the box. Snap support is also rolled into the Software tool, so you can install both .deb and snap packages with ease. 

As far as included packages, you’ll find the usual array of entries:

  • LibreOffice

  • Firefox

  • Geary and Thunderbird email clients

  • Cheese

  • Remmina Remote Desktop Client

  • Rhythmbox Music Player

  • Shotwell Photo Manager

  • Synaptic Package Manager

  • Transmission BitTorrent client

  • Unity Tweak Tool

  • kernel 5.4.0-37

To add into that mix, all of the GNOME apps are from version, so Ubuntu Unity keeps GNOME fairly up-to-date.


I installed Ubuntu Unity on a VirtualBox VM (with a paultry 3GB of RAM), and performance was on par with any modern Linux distribution I use. Applications open very quickly, updates run as smoothly as you’d expect, and compiling apps from source is fast. So, if you’re wondering how Ubuntu Unity will compare to the standard Ubuntu, set your concerns aside.

Not everyone’s cuppa

I will admit, Ubuntu Unity isn’t everyone’s cup o’ tea, but for those that did appreciate what Ubuntu was doing, prior to the Unity 8/Mir debacle, you’ll welcome Ubuntu Unity with fingers ready to remain on the keyboard. Ubuntu Unity was a thing of efficient beauty and no other desktop could compare to what it offered. Now, thanks to Ubuntu Unity, we can all go back in time when the Ubuntu desktop interface was something unique and unifying. 

Although the Linux community is widely divided on which desktop/distribution/file system/init system/text editor/browser/cursor/theme is best, there can be no doubt that choice is generally considered a good thing and when using Linux, choices abound. To me, that’s always been one of the best selling points of the open source desktop operating system: If there’s something you don’t like about what you’re using, change it. For those that did enjoy the Unity desktop, you can once again enjoy that incredibly efficient and elegant interface, thanks to Ubuntu Unity.

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