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GNOME 3 vs Unity: Which is right for you?

by Gareth Halfacree

With so much controversy surrounding the recent release of GNOME 3 and Canonical’s Unity, there’s only one way to resolve things: a head-to-head battle royale. Gareth Halfacree investigates which next-generation desktop environment might suit you better to set the record straight once and for all…

Performance and Compatibility
Having a whizz-bang user interface is great, but not if it comes at the cost of performance

Unity and GNOME 3 both share another commonality besides their desire to minimise distractions and help to focus on the task at hand: they both require 3D accelerated graphics to run, dropping back to a more familiar – and significantly more basic – appearance if they don’t find suitable hardware.

It’s something which had the community worried: will my system actually be able to run the new user interface, or will it be outmoded at the drop of a hat?

GNOME 3 vs Unity: Which is right for you?
Alt-Tab functionality gains the ability to walk through an application's windows in GNOME 3

Now that both are released, it’s clear to see that the vision of every desktop needed a high-end graphics card hasn’t come true: while both Unity and GNOME 3 require an OpenGL compatible GPU to be present in the system, they’re happy working on the lightest of devices – including those based on Intel’s GMA series, and CPUs with integrated graphics processing capabilities.

There are one or two compatibility issues to be aware of, however. For those who like to test things out in a virtual environment before committing to a full install – a commendable habit – some issues rear their ugly head. With 3D acceleration support in common virtual machine environments such as VMWare and VirtualBox being relatively new, getting either package to run in a virtual environment is a lesson in frustration.

Thankfully, the fact that both GNOME 3 and Unity are available as Live CDs means that this isn’t the problem it could otherwise be: just burn the disk – or write the ISO to a USB storage device – and reboot, and you can try both environments the way they were intended.

GNOME 3 vs Unity: Which is right for you?
As with GNOME 3, Alt-Tab functionality remains largely unchanged in Unity

The use of 3D rendering to create the main user interface raises another concern, however: performance. Some users, especially those on older or lower-specification systems, raised concerns early in both projects’ lifespans that no amount of eye candy would make up for a choppy experience.

In our testing, however, we’re pleased to say that we had no such troubles. Both desktop environments were happy running even on the oldest laptop we could find and were no more and no less responsive than GNOME 2. In use, GNOME 3 appeared to have the edge over Unity, but the difference was marginal.

Application compatibility is another thing entirely, sadly. While most apps work fine in the new environment, developers will need to make changes as the GNOME 2 branch goes end-of-life. A particular issue was using certain Compiz functions with Unity, in particular the fluid zoom function: while it worked fine in GNOME 3, the framerate in Unity dropped to single figures and made it largely unusable. Although Compiz support in GNOME Shell could be an issue in the future, it appears relatively stable for now.

GNOME 3  – 4/5 … Unity  – 3/5

Round 2 Winner – GNOME 3
GNOME 3 takes the cake in compatibility and performance, largely thanks to issues with certain applications – in particular Compiz – running under Unity. Both are largely problem free, however, and while developers will need to pay attention to the new functionality – and, more importantly, what’s going away – end-users can expect a pain-free transition.

Continue to Page 4: GNOME 3 vs Unity – Features

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    • kornelix

      My worry is that Gnome3 and Unity will require applications to have different code if both desktops are to be well supported, i.e. integration with the task bar, notifications, the menu system. The Linux ecosystem continues to fork, and standards and compatibility are not something the developers can be bothered with.

    • Gnome3really

      why does everyone think gnome 3 is not gonna be good? Unity is a great system but it’s not for everyone, you as a user have a choice to either install it or not. Personally i think it’s a hugh step forward and hope they get gnome 3 working stable i would like to see change as long as they keep it open-source. Ubuntu in my opinion is one of those distro’s that wants step forward and possibly out-do other Operating Systems and everyone in the linux community no matter what distro you use knows that linux needs that next step. This is all in my opinion, sorry if no one agrees but i am for it.

    • Jumping Ship

      Well, I can say that I gave gnome 3 a decent chance with Fedora 15, and I found that the “shell” interface got in my way more than anything else. I did find it to be mostly stable though. The interface itself is terrible for my little computer, with its 1024×600 resolution. The breadcrumbs are huge and use way more screen space than they need too.
      I then gave Unity a chance, and didn’t like it either, it was just as annoying as gnome 3. Unity also ran much slower on my machine. Also, I’m a bit confused about why Unity exists. Isn’t it just a mod of the default gnome 2? If so, then isn’t it doomed to fail in the long run, as applications and updates will eventually cease to be developed for gnome 2/Unity? I don’t know, but I’ve been an Ubuntu user since 6.06 or whatever.
      I tried to KDE 4.6, and found performance to be sup-par, and I thought it was still very buggy.
      As for now, I am using mint 11.
      If a clear winner doesn’t show itself in the near future, I will have to do the unthinkable, and dust off the 11 year old Windows XP disc I have in my basement. I’m already downloading the XP drivers for my system now…

    • Nathan Hulse

      It is unfortunately that GNOME 3 is being besmirched because of GNOME-shell. GNOME 3 running with Compiz actually provides a lighter, faster solution than GNOME 2 and Compiz. It is a step forward and alot of hard work has clearly gone into rewriting the codebase. Furthermore, with GNOME 3 it is possible to install the components you want whilst pulling less dependencies than required by a similar GNOME 2 setup.

      Ultimately, when complaining about Unity, we should remember what Canonical often appear to forget; Ubuntu is really just another Debian deriviative. Theres quite a few GNOME/Debian based desktop distros out there that haven’t gotten too big for their boots. If Canonical think that pandering to the lowest common denominator phone user is a progressive direction for the desktop, leave them to it. The rest of us could benefit from this by regarding it as impetus to learn how to customise our DEs to ones own liking ;-)

    • Alecks

      I haven’t used Gnome 3 but have used Unity since the 11.04 beta release and I can honestly say I’m surprised with how I use it. At first I didn’t like it but I went and figured out the basic key-bindings I needed for a few things and I actually find myself moving around faster.

      Alt+Tab as everyone knows
      Ctrl+Alt+t for a terminal
      Super (Windows key) + type in an application search + enter (example: Super+calculator+enter)
      Ctrl+Alt+Arrow key to switch workspaces

      Ever since I started using Unity I’ve used the GUI significantly less, which is, ironically, a good thing. Plus it works with my Radeon Mobility card, which was surprisingly unexpected.

    • Alecks

      One more thing, I also love the saved vertical screen space since I’m on a laptop, max resolution of 1280×800.

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    • DaveW

      I played around with Unity a bit back on my my 9″ eee netbook when it was first put on the Netbook Remix. I absolutely hated it. I have not tried Gnome 3 but from the screenshots I have seen and what I have read it is not any better.

      I described Unity to an on-line friend who decided to try it. (warned him actually) His take was as good a description as I could have found: The Fisher Price interface.

      So for now I am staying with Ubuntu 10.10 on my bigger laptop. It will probably remain there for the life of the computer. Hopefully when it dies there will be something else.

    • TTTVX

      Gnome 3 and Unity both feel dumbed down and ideally suited to an average crApple user.

    • Jay Geli

      Gnome 3 is not ready. Tried it in F15 and it does not feel right. I mean its supposed to speed up the user interaction with the desktop but changing wallpapers is a hundred clicks away (I may be exaggerating). Also, where is the trash icon? emptying the trash takes a command line to do,. Where is the minimize button on the windows? You have to right click on it to show up then click again. Gnome 3 to me is a confined space and lacks functionality for desktop users. It is more for touch portable devices.

      Unity still provides me with the functionality that i need and a lot faster than gnome 3 with my shortcuts and sidebar.

      These 2 are still in their early stages and currently there is no winner yet, lets give it a few months or so and we will find out.


      But GNOME was better than this before… They changed the interface utterly like asking users to walk with hands from now on… and shave with feet..! because it is version 3… and there is surprising changes as expected.

    • Tom

      I’ve toggled between Gnome or KDE as my exclusive personal OS for about 4 years… have done the multiple distro thing, mass customization, blah blah blah… but do not consider myself a computer geek… just a side hobby. I am not bitter at all about the changes occurring… in fact has provided me more new tweaks to learn about. I was finding Gnome 2 boring and stale, in all candidness Here in mid-September, both new systems have had numerous updates to help shake out a lot of the daemons. And my winner is: Gnome Shell. Many of the benefit points have been covered above and in the article (by all that have pointed out the benefits… other than saying it’s snappiness us much better than Unity and blows away KDE on my old system, for which I give 2 thumbs up!!), so won’t restate. My only real issue with Unity, and it is fundamental, is the hide & seek panel just is not intuitive enough… it frequently pops up when I’m just trying to close a window, or does not pop up when i want… this “feature” really annoys me. For me, gnome shell delivers consistency of intended action, and that is a fundamental requirement for my OS.

    • Nasser

      Just a comment on Greg’s comment!
      Is too radical to completely abadon ubuntu for unity!
      after all uo can install gnome and relog in in gnome desktop using the command:
      {> sudo apt-get install gnome}
      you can add to gnome a launcher or docking bar like docky, cairo or awn.
      Ubuntu is’nt only about a desktop! its is about the best hardware support and best repository applications.

    • Robert Allen

      My only problem the change lately, is the wifi, I’ve tried both and there there a new feel to linux, but with different cards to see what people on forms and sure enough it seems everyone of the issues there is a issue I can revert to a version with gnome 2 on it and it works like clock works, I think to some degree they rushed unity and gnome 3 on us to evolve with the displease meant of windows and the high dollar mac’s but I think were still a long ways off before they can get people to care. Don’t get me wrong I still plan on building a eco friendly htpc off of linux to save money but till they get bugs fixed and such I’m on a stand still

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    • Chandrashekhar

      I have become a fan of GNOME 3 :P I dont know but the basic idea of keeping it all simple has been thrown out in Unity.. I find it too hard to configure. With GNOME 3, I dont want to configure (except the fonts and the basic theme).
      GNOME 3 surely wins hands down :)

    • Jack1059

      I have no idea what gnome 2 or 3 are and as a non power user (linux newbie) I can say I just want my d$%^m computer OS to work. Unity was a pain for me to use. Too inflexible and non intuitive. I loaded linux mint, enjoy the way it lays out the programmes for me to find. And thats the key thing Ubuntu has lost sight of with unity. They seem to have tried too hard to make a ‘new’ UE, rather than making it intuitive for your average user. Good luck to them though.

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      And its 12.04.. waited an entire year…

      If i could came to see a GNOME3/UNITY developer.. I’ll buy (imagination) him/hur a car with touch screen gear SHIfT INTERFACE mounted on the topmost ceiling (not detachable, it is hard copper wired software! soldered..!! way under to some BGAs). And force to drive that wonderful -latest-version- thing for a while and wud tell.. enjoy.. there is no going back. And, wait for the next big version (4) with touch screen steering control… ass well.


      obuntoo.. you became the distro queen.. and bitch-distructing it all..? Whohhh… please… no more F-fleatures please. Since 11.04… freeze the F-upgradato routine… and feeds the downloaded ISOs to /dev/null, INSTEAD, all the alpha, beta and gamma versions, desperately.

      Don’t swallow that ‘normal’ interface, that i were avid using for so many years. It is so difficult to switch the interface to some nice crap. Please read

      M$ paid.. drama? (suspicion)

    • Matt

      Gnome 3 vs Unity
      And the winner is…

      It can’t be XFCE, etc. Why? Because GTK versions before 3.0 are dead now thanks to GNOME.

    • Dassie

      I’m still running Ubuntu “Lucid Lynx”, which has Gnome 2.

      When support for it ends next year, I will probably switch to Debian, and that after more than 5 years of Ubuntu. I don’t like Unity and I don’t like Gnome 3.

      Wait, Debian “Wheezy” is going to be Gnome 3? Dang.

      And so, GNU/Linux turned into Microsoft Windows… giving the “end user” no longer a choice.

    • fake

      They both suck!
      KDE is the best!

    • MT

      I have been using Fedora + Gnome since FC1, and before that, on Redhat. My old laptop can’t handle GNOME3 graphics and now I use Fedora 17 + LXDE.

      LXDE is perfect for me.

    • Ade Malsasa Akbar

      Hello, GNOME, Unity, all DE in Linux take my interest enough. I am a Linux desktop enthusiast. Now I collect the ideas for them on my new blog

      My opinion: it is best if there is 1 distro with 1 absolute desktop environment with 1 user experience. This type of OS is needed by so many newbie user who don;t care with system (only care “jobs done”). Similiar with Jack said on 2011 above.

      However, for me, privately, I can use all desktop environment. I like new technology and it is not like such people, I accept GNOME 3 as is. Hey, at least, GNOME is still free. And I am relax user :) Haha.

      Thanks :D

    • Francoise Labelle

      I tried Gnome-shell for some time when I noticed that Audacity was extremely slow and sluggish. Since I’m a musician and need it daily, I tried Unity and the problem was solved. Behind the surface Gnome-shell had severe problems.

      After using Unity (12.04-12.10) for over a year, I got it to do most of what G-s has to offer, sometimes better, and with complete stablility (exposé on a corner and launcher auto-hide more efficient than g-s).

      I recently tried G-s remix (12.10) and was surprised at the lack of tools for theme customization. I reinstalled Unity 12.10 and Gnome-shell. When I tried to edit panel.ccs to get transparency: it broke G-s beyond repair!! I got rid of it.
      I have to admit that ATI is partly to blame because their driver for HD4200, not bleeding edge, does not support 12.10 (it’s version of xorg) !!!
      But Unity works fine under 12.10 (with or without proprietary driver). G-s may be fine when stable.

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    • monster221

      i currently use mint with mate. i used cinnamon, which is a gnome 3 fork as you know, and was ok with it til i tried to theme… most of the cinnamon themes dont theme the windows, so i was mixing and matching gtk3 themes with cinnamon themes. i said forget all that and switched to mate. i had been using gnome 2 so mate works rather well for me.

      as far as touch ui goes i think you ought to consider kde plasma active and the contour interface that can run on top of it. if you ask me it has unity and gnome shell beat. i personally dont really like kde plasma as a desktop interface except their compositing which is great, i prefer mate over everything so far, but as far as touch goes it is far ahead of everything else.

    • Jesse Krenzelok

      I’m going to throw an apparently forbidden subject in here- the inevitable transition from mouse/keyboard combos to mouse/keyboard/touchscreen combos. Unity, Gnome 3, and even (*ducks*) Windows Metro are trying to be the first in a new-ish world of touching the screen, and they’re all basically ok when it comes to that.

      I like Gnome 3, myself- it seems to do the best job at being a desktop environment that is usable with or without a touch screen. I might be biased, I’ve been using Gnome off and on again since 1997, and always was a fan of their design choices. I’d throw KDE in here, but I can’t- they just try to be like pre-Metro Windows, and that is, if nothing else, very dull and played out. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a tried and true system, but I’m rooting for evolution here.

      Things change, guys and gals- I don’t want a text-based menu system anymore. I have touch screens now, and I just want to be able to tap a chunky icon to get back to what I was doing. The Windows/KDE/Gnome2 aesthetic was great with a mouse, but it’s junk with a Wacom stylus or a capacitance touch screen.

      Turns out, I’m a convertible guy after all- maybe not when it comes to cars, but I love my ultrabook- a tablet that can give me a usable keyboard on demand with a good processor and decent RAM is like gold coated in platinum, even if it is thicker and heavier.

      I’d use any of the three competitors above, but my heart is with Gnome. Last place goes to Windows, but that’s just because they are who they are, and who they are is secretive and greedy. Win 8 with a touchscreen is not so bad- though it does suck hard with a traditional mouse and keyboard.

      At the end of the day, everyone is trying to move to the best solution- we just upgraded to Windows Server 2012 (Along with two Debian servers, of course) and in a surprise move, Windows brought back the terminal. I still am not good with powershell, but they clearly felt the pressure from the Linux community, and agreed to bring back command-line administration as a mainstream option.

      I see the future as cartoonish happy-ware for the casual user, with an advanced souped-up shell for the power users. I welcome that- when I’m relaxing, I just want to point at what I want without a lot of nonsense- but when I’m working, I want fine-grained control options to tweak everything into the best possible scenario. There’s no reason to shut casual people out with unneeded complexity, so long as the people who care can still control what they prefer to control.

      At the end of the day, the only one that I feel gives me that combination of easy fun and power is OpenSUSE running Gnome 3 on a touch-screen ultrabook. YMMV. I personally cannot speak well of KDE, but it’s only because it feels like it’s only trying to be another version of Windows, and I think that that era is beginning to die out. The future will likely be a common end-user experience that blurs the line between smartphones, laptops and desktops, and the three GDMs I mentioned are the best contenders in that field.

      So, for what that’s worth… Just keep it up guys, you are all doing excellent work, no matter your OS or GDM of choice. It just keeps getting better every year on all fronts, and that makes this an exciting time to be alive. Congrats in advance to the victors.

    • Jesse Krenzelok

      That’s nonsense. I’m running two Debian “Wheezy” servers with XFCE, because it’s easy to VPN into when I want an X11 shell. I didn’t even have to install it, it was just one of the options out of the gate.

    • Jesse Krenzelok

      Nice, thanks.

      I think there’s innovation all over, and I’m digging it. I’m more of an Enterprise sort, but I’ve thrown in some significant coding time for business applications, and it’s personally very rewarding. The user interface kind of matters because we stare at it all day, but it’s ultimately sort of a non-issue. As long as it doesn’t crash and destroy my contribution, I am very thankful to have all that supportive work on my side.

      I *could* do everything I do on a monochrome CRT, but it’s nice to throw in a background pic in guake, and have the option to manage some tunes graphically. So thanks, all you GUI designers- you make life a little better for everyone.

    • Jesse Krenzelok

      Not the best hardware support. I tried Ubuntu first, and they are a great community- but the X11 support is extremely poor. No matter how good everything else may be, I still need to use my machines when I need them- without being worried that I will only find meaningless gibberish on my screen.

      They do have an enviable repo system, though.

    • Jesse Krenzelok

      Thanks, that’s exactly my argument, with the same conclusion, but a different intent.

      This is only an “Us V. Them” argument that exists between true believers- don’t fight the last war. The next step will be a unified experience between phone, tablet, laptop and desktop, so that people only need to learn a single system. Everyone on the front lines know that, and you do too.

      I’m sorry that you don’t want to change- that’s a little sad. But in the bigger picture, this is the best chance for Linux to take market share from Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft is already pushing it, and Apple is as well. You should be thanking Gnome and Canonical for throwing valid alternatives into the ring, not cursing them for remodeling your sacred cow.

    • Jesse Krenzelok

      Sorry long-timer, but I don’t think you learned the new system.

      You’ve got me beat by twenty years, but 30 years is still nothing to sneeze and scoff at. To be fair, Novell put a lot of excellent design features into YaST that may be missing from other systems, but your entire argument is invalid with Gnome 3 on openSUSE- the very thing you’re speaking out against is what sold me on the GDM. With one keystroke, I can instantly change from one full-screen application to another- nothing is faster than that, and it can be configured to react to any keystroke I choose, and every application is always full-screen. It’s great, productively speaking, and easily configured with a GUI.

      And forgetting the old days for a minute- the last five years of my experience in the computer industry have shown me that the average user wants the desktop to work like their cell phone, because that is what they’re used to. I don’t really care how it worked in the days of analog tape reels and punch cards, except in an academic sense. Those days won’t be lost, but they are for us nerds- not the average person on the street.

    • Jesse Krenzelok

      openSUSE YaST allows for almost infinite customization to allow for any keyboard shortcuts you desire, including custom commands in Gnome 3. Don’t know about other distros- it seems as though Arch forks have more deviation than Debian forks- I can jump from Debian to Ubuntu to Mint, and they feel pretty much the same- but going from Fedora to openSUSE is an entirely different matter.

    • Jesse Krenzelok

      If you prefer that, I found KDE plasma impressive for what it is.

    • Jesse Krenzelok

      Ever worked in a help-desk position? Canonical and Gnome are correct in making the assumption you have assumed for them. It’s fine for you to get on a high horse and cast judgement, but both projects have offered a simplified interface for everyone, combined with easily accessed features for power users in the terminal.

      I, for one, think that is the only way this whole deal moves forward.

    • Jesse Krenzelok

      I agree- for servers. For my own laptops and desktops, I like to see what’s new, and backups are cheap. Debian is a rock, though. It’s a little strange when it comes to Apache, but it works- and in the rare cases where I’ve broken it while experimenting, it’s always been easy to fix.

    • Trexon

      Actually, you can install whatever DE you want, on any distro. There’s still the choice to put gnome2 on any new version you want.

    • Joshua Baerbock

      Well said sir, well said!

    • Joshua Baerbock

      Will be interesting to see how KDE5 stacks up :-)

    • Joshua Baerbock

      I’m more of a KDE fan myself. But what’s the point of wildly yelling something out without making any comparison points as to why you think KDE is best? Just sayin…

    • Joshua Baerbock

      I personally love type to search menu styles. Even when using KDE I mostly just hit the start menu and typed in the app i was looking for [unless it was simple like Chrome and already favorites to the menu]. I can do that same process with Gnome 3, Unity, XFCE, and many other DE’s. So for me I can use pretty much anything the same way. This includes the much hated metro start menu from Win8.1

    • Joshua Baerbock

      Hehe jokes on you cause Debian will start using Gnome 3 as the default DE I’ve heard :P

    • Joshua Baerbock

      Yup, years from now people will be completely happy and accustomed to these types of interfaces. Some people just can’t handle change :D

    • Joshua Baerbock

      You should check it out again. Much more mature now.

    • Alejandro Cañete

      I don’t know why people say Gnome doesn’t have app menu. You can add or remove it, and even add new ones for paths in your system. Gnome3 is a very good option, polished and nice, and very customizable.

      By the way telling if to choose KDE or Gnome is like saying if choosing vainilla or chocolate is better, in this case is a matter of flavours.

      I think, talking about the article written, unity reduces too much the possibilities of customization, but its great for people starting with linux or people using just a desktop with a launcher. Pro users, well, they have lots of options to choose.

    • Tadevosyan Tigran

      Gnome 3 vs Unity? I think they both are good to play with and even more to do about them! There is no meaning to argue witch one is better! For me, gnome is better cauze it’s user interface, design, mechanics are the best to use. But as I said JUST FO ME so. Unity also not so bad! It’s just a matter of choice. And don’t forget, key role of Linux and open source is to have bunch of available choices! Don’t like unity? Go to gnome… don’t like both, pick KDE, and so on. Everything could be customized. That’s real and most interesting fact in Linux – open source world, and that is why people love them (some even more then apple and so…). So don’t argue… it’s good to have many linuxes and much more UI-s, DON’T WORRY JUST BE HAPPY WITH THAT. :)

    • aggelalex

      You know if they continued to develop every version of GNOME they would never stop working. Everything has a start and an end. However if you still like GNOME2 and don’t want to get away from it you may use MATE, wich is a fork of GNOME2 and continues to be developed.

      See this

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