GNOME 3 vs Unity – preview

Now that GNOME 3 with GNOME Shell has been released, and Ubuntu 11.04 with Unity release just around the corner, GNOME 3 vs Unity is going to be a hot topic for discussion. So, let me start the ball rolling by  doing a quick comparison between the two shells.

What are GNOME Shell & Unity?

As the GNOME website defines it,

GNOME Shell is the defining technology of the GNOME 3 user experience. It provides core interface functions like switching to windows and launching applications.”

GNOME 3  is the new release of GNOME and GNOME Shell is the default shell which has been under active development for the last two years. The stable version was released on 6th of April 2011. The GNOME Shell uses mutter as the compositing window , and clutter toolkit to provide the visual effects.

Unity , on the other hand, is being designed and developed by Canonical, the corporate house behind the hugely popular Ubuntu distribution. Unity was born out of disagreement between Mark Shuttleworth and the GNOME developers on certain aspects of GNOME Shell development.

We were part of the GNOME shell design discussion, we put forward our views and they were not embraced by designers. We took a divergent view from the GNOME shell folks on key design issues, for example how application menus should appear on the system, how one should search to find applications, how one’s favorite applications should be presented.

Mark Shuttleworth

Unity is also a shell which would run on top of GNOME. Unity uses compiz as the compositing and the window manager. Unity will run all GNOME applications and there will be no compatibility issues .


While there has been a lot of discussion in the past about how well  GNOME 3 and GNOME Shell would suite a daily user, due to its radical change in approach of how desktops should look and behave, the latest release seems to be quite interesting.

I recently tried out the latest stable GNOME 3.0 release , on a usb stick, based on Fedora 15 and I must say, I was quite impressed with the look and feel of the system. The GNOME 3 desktop is nicely laid out and it is easy to find applications. Moving the mouse to the Activity section on the top left side of the screen activates the window and application picker. If you have multiple open windows, they will fan out and you can take your pick. Above the open windows you will find the option to choose between open windows and Applications. Clicking on Applications will show all applications installed in the system. The application category is on the right side and you can click on each for the categories to make searching more streamlined. You can also type and search applications by name.  There is a smoothness in how applications behave, open, close and switch and this change is something a lot of users will appreciate .

A controversial change has been made to GNOME 3; the minimize button has been taken off from the open windows. It may sound outrageous but after using GNOME 3 I actually felt that there is no need of a minimize button here. I was more impressed with GNOME 3 because Fedora 15 is alpha quality . Still, I did not experience a single crash of the window manager, the Firefox browser or the empathy messenger. I was even able to successfully compile cisco vpn software and connect to my office network .

In comparison, the first beta release of Ubuntu 11.04 with Unity, the installation was a nothing less than a big  disappointment. The system kept complaining about a system error , the compiz kept crashing and the launcher and the application finder was at times non responsive.Unity for me, is still half baked. It is very difficult for any new person to find where the applications are, drag and drop support of application launchers is not present. The top panel is not customizable at all and  moving everything to the left has not helped the cause.

I have had feedback from a few Windows users on Unity and they were left so confused by the layout and found Unity to be very complicated. Rather, they were at ease with classic gnome + docky combination!

Unity is about to be released for production systems in less than three weeks . I strongly feel that it is going to be a big gamble for Canonical and Ubuntu as there are too many bugs in Unity and too little time to iron them out.  Canonical and Ubuntu are risking a lot. Unity has not been widely tested .  Dissatisfied users may end up switching distributions to GNOME 3 based Fedora 15 instead.

My personal opinion would be to ship gnome classic as the default desktop with Unity as an option and make it default from Ubuntu 11.10 release. Unfortunately, I don’t call the shots at Canonical !

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