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GNOME is a desktop environment for free and open source operating systems like Linux. It manages what you see on screen, such as panels and docks, and it’s how you switch between applications. Many Linux operating systems use GNOME.

Back in 2010, the most popular Linux operating system created its own interface based, in part, on GNOME. It was called Unity Unity Explained: A Look at Ubuntu's Default Desktop Environment Unity Explained: A Look at Ubuntu's Default Desktop Environment If you're switching to Linux from Windows, you might choose Ubuntu. But despite it's versatility, Ubuntu comes with an unusual desktop environment, Unity. Don't be discouraged: it's simple to use! Read More . Around that time, GNOME 3.0 was just hitting the scene, and not everyone was a fan.

Back then, I read numerous opinions that GNOME Shell and Unity were just alike. I didn’t see it. To me, they were very different interfaces with some similarities, but not nearly enough to call them basically the same.

Now that Ubuntu is switching from Unity back to GNOME What Switching Back to GNOME Means for Ubuntu What Switching Back to GNOME Means for Ubuntu Canonical has announced the end of the Unity desktop. From Ubuntu 18.04, the GNOME desktop will be restored. What does this mean for Ubuntu, and its relationship with Linux users? Read More , I decided to try out a beta of the upcoming release. After doing so, I see just how similar the two interfaces actually were all along.

It’s All About the Dock

By default, GNOME only shows the dock when the Activities overview is open.

This means that a default GNOME desktop only shows the panel and a blank desktop until you begin opening windows. You can open the Activities overview to access the dock for apps, or you could simply open software by typing. To launch apps, I found it easier to open the Activities overview by hitting the Super (Windows) key, typing in the first few characters of an app’s name, and hitting Enter.

In Unity, the dock is always visible. It’s present from the moment you first sit down at your computer, and it’s there no matter how many windows are open. This drew my eyes to the dock and made me turn to it as a primary means of opening and managing apps. This was the case even though you could search for and open apps using the Unity Dash via the exact same keyboard shortcuts as in GNOME.

For the first version of Ubuntu that defaults to GNOME Shell (the name of the GNOME 3 interface), the developers have opted to keep an always-visible dock. This is the most striking change the designers have made. Ubuntu’s dock for GNOME looks a lot like the dock for Unity.

ubuntu gnome unity desktop

To open apps, you either click an icon on the dock, open the app drawer at the bottom of the dock, or open the Activities overview by searching. These options are all functionally the same as in Unity. I intellectually understood this before, but it didn’t fully click. Now I see it.

Like the Unity Update Many Have Longed For

For year after year, release after release, Ubuntu continued to ship with the same version of Unity. Unity 7 felt largely the same in version 17.04 as it did in 12.04. That’s because the developers had all shifted their attention to Unity 8 How to Install Unity 8 and Mir on Linux Ubuntu Right Now How to Install Unity 8 and Mir on Linux Ubuntu Right Now In time, Unity 8 is expected to unify the Ubuntu experience across phones, tablets, and desktops, using the Mir display server. You can try both of them out today with Ubuntu 16.10 Yakkety Yak. Read More , which never actually launched.

At first glance, GNOME in Ubuntu 17.10 looks like a newer version of Unity. If you didn’t already know about GNOME Shell, you could easily mistake this for an updated version of Unity where Canonical decided to move a few things around and get rid of a few lesser-used interface elements.

The newest version of GNOME comes with a transparent panel across the top of the screen. This differs from Unity’s old opaque panel, which, to me, has long looked rather dated. It hasn’t changed in nearly a decade. With a translucent panel and dock, the new Ubuntu feels new and modern.

ubuntu gnome unity transparent top bar

The updated theme adds to this feeling. Rather than stick with GNOME’s default Adwaita theme, the Ubuntu developers have opted to stick with Ambiance. This is the theme that has been a part of Ubuntu since version 10.04.

However, the team has made tweaks that make the theme better fit the size and shape of GNOME windows. The result is that Ambiance now looks more spacious and round.

ubuntu gnome unity files

Plus the team has swapped the GNOME Cantarell font out for the Ubuntu font. This typeface has appeared on everything Canonical, from Ubuntu to Ubuntu Phone to the Ubuntu website. It’s a relatively trivial change, sure, but it does make GNOME look more at home on Ubuntu.

So Things Haven’t Changed All That Much?

That’s not entirely true. If you have been using Unity for years, you’re going to notice that the global menu is no longer in the panel. Application menus are now split between the top bar and application windows themselves, which is the GNOME way of doing things. In both locations, you have to click a button to pull up options.

ubuntu gnome unity menu

The HUD is gone, reducing the number of things you can do from the keyboard. GNOME’s Activities overview lets you do a lot by typing, but the HUD had the ability to search through application menus, and it had a very minimal interface that didn’t require zooming out of the desktop.

While the GNOME Activities overview handles much of what Unity’s Dash, scopes, and lenses could do Ubuntu 13.10 Launched With Friends Scope, Dash Filters and More Ubuntu 13.10 Launched With Friends Scope, Dash Filters and More Canonical has launched the latest and great version of the world’s most popular free and open-source desktop operating system, Ubuntu 13.10 “Saucy Salamander”. Read More , there are some things missing. The new version of Ubuntu doesn’t search for items on Amazon, for example (though Amazon still appears on the dock).

Workspaces no longer have a place on the dock. Instead, you access them from the Activities overview. Instead of having four workspaces, new ones appear automatically as needed.

ubuntu gnome unity workspaces

Notifications have also changed. GNOME notifications come with the added benefit of allowing you to take actions, such as closing them or opening the relevant app.

What Do You Think?

When Canonical announced that it was abandoning Unity and switching back to GNOME, the news came as a surprise. Some people were excited, were others were very disappointed.

Fortunately for those in the latter camp, you don’t have to say goodbye to Unity. If you consider Ubuntu’s take on GNOME to still be too different from Unity, you can opt to continue using Unity instead 5 Projects That Prove Unity Is Far From Dead 5 Projects That Prove Unity Is Far From Dead Struggling to come to terms with Unity's abrupt end? You're in luck. These projects will help you get the most from Canonical's abandoned desktop environment for years to come! Read More . The interface may not receive as much investment as it used to, but code remains available for others to work on, and users can continue to install Unity as an alternative to GNOME.

How do you feel? Has your opinion changed any now that we’ve seen the work the Ubuntu team has been up to? Does this feel enough like Unity for you? Does it feel too much like Unity? Let us know in the comments!

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  1. Warren
    October 20, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    I use dock drawers extensively in Unity. Been testing 17.10 for a month or so and I've not yet found any way to add drawers to the Gnome3 dock. Anybody know how?

  2. Edward
    October 19, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    Not having the global menu is my biggest gripe with the new OS. This feature MUST be added back for to have the move to GNOME to be worth it!

  3. Rui Baeta
    October 15, 2017 at 11:25 am

    Hi there,

    I always liked Ubuntu, but the Unity interface made me look for other alternatives, like Xfce, Lxde, Mate and Cinnamon.

    What I actually hate in Unity is the Application menu split between the top bar and the application itself. This is nothing new, Apple UI is using this approach for decades.

    Is there any way to disable this split menu?

    Thank you for your post.

  4. Santosh Kumar
    October 15, 2017 at 7:27 am

    But industrial software vendors release/test their software with RHEL/CentOS. How could one stick with Ubuntu?

  5. Seamus
    October 14, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    Uh...Unity was built with Gnome technologies. This shouldn't be a surprise.

  6. Ole Jon Bjorkum
    October 14, 2017 at 6:30 pm

    Running Ubuntu GNOME 16.04, because it's LTS AND I'm a developer, but with the LTS Enablement Stacks (https://wiki.ubuntu.com/Kernel/LTSEnablementStack) for newer and better kernels and Xorg releases, and the GNOME3 Stable PPA that updates a few GNOME apps that didn't make it into Ubuntu 16.04 before release, I really enjoy GNOME 3. The Ubuntu modifications to GNOME seems nice and reasonable to not change user experience too much. Maybe I'll switch to regular Ubuntu at the next LTS release (Ubuntu 18.04) but after the first point release (18.04.1) which always fixes the most important bugs.

    Going to test Ubuntu 17.10 in a virtual machine now, also to make sure my app works fine still.

  7. Joseph
    October 14, 2017 at 2:25 pm

    I really miss these features:
    - HUD (The most important for me)
    - Global menu (Not every program has the Gnome HeaderBars)
    - Hotkeys and Shortcuts
    - QuickLists
    - Guest Session
    Unity wasn't about "UI" but little features that make your daily work a little bit better.

    • Oded
      October 15, 2017 at 12:51 pm

      The HUD was a brilliant idea - at least if your mouse averse like me - that unfortunately had pretty poor discoverability so not everyone was aware of it. And now (with unity 7 dead, though they is not yet a forgone conclusion) there's nothing like it anywhere.

      That being said, if your looking for the other stuff: global menu (or and menu system), hotkeys and shortcuts, quick jump lists and many more advanced desktop features - look at Kubuntu (or install the KDE session on your existing Ubuntu install). It has all that and more:
      - multiple desktop experience styles, from classic panel and start button, launchpad-style search bar, GNOME style search and launch activities view, and more
      - panel and desktop widgets
      - multiple panels (if you're into that sort of thing)
      - more theming and styling options than you can shake a stick at
      - amazing file browser with support for tabs, side by side split views, previews for video and audio files or an embedded terminal
      - lots of nifty features that will make your life easier - like muting an app from the app list on the panel or controlling app volume separately from the volume control icon, auto move apps to a pre-specified workspace (no more apps popping up in whatever workspace you weren't expecting), grouping multiple apps to the same window - like tabs in a browser.

      Try it, and you won't look back.

  8. John Stuart
    October 14, 2017 at 11:05 am

    As a noob I've only used MATE,see no reason to change. With all reverences to Gnome as MATE is a close relative.

  9. Brainstorms
    October 14, 2017 at 3:25 am

    When Unity debuted, it was buggy, so I changed to Gnome 3. Gnome 3 was buggy (or, somewhat limited by having few extensions at the time), but I stuck with it. For a while. I did like the way it worked; it was clever. It still is. But I tried Unity again after it had time to mature. And really liked it, and have used it since. I trust that Gnome 3 has improved, too. I must say I'm encouraged by the "Unity-like" extension set...

  10. spyjoshx
    October 13, 2017 at 5:46 pm

    This update will be the best YET!!