Gnome-Based Desktop Environments Explained: MATE vs. Gnome Shell vs. Unity vs. Cinnamon

Danny Stieben 22-07-2013

Ever since Gnome went ahead with their Gnome Shell idea, the Linux community has been at a frenzy to find a new desktop environment that is right for them. A majority of users used Gnome 2, but the introduction of Gnome 3 attracted a lot of users, forking Gnome 2 into MATE, modifying it with Cinnamon and Unity, or flock completely away from anything Gnome-related to desktop environments such as Xfce XFCE: Your Lightweight, Speedy, Fully-Fledged Linux Desktop As far as Linux goes, customization is king. Not only that, but the customization options are so great it might make your head spin. I have previously mentioned the differences between the major desktop environments... Read More , LXDE Using An Old Computer? Give It New Life With LXDE As Linux is arguably the most customizeable operating system between it, Windows, and Mac OS X; there's plenty of room to change just about whatever you please. Proper customizing can potentially lead to massive performance... Read More , or KDE Enjoy A Clean, Improved Desktop With KDE 4.7 [Linux] One of Linux's most popular desktop environments, KDE, released their latest series (version 4.7) at the end of July. This version improves on work done in previous releases by adding new features while improving performance... Read More .


But the Gnome desktop environment came with a lot of popular software that supported it very well, which still leaves a lot of people trying to find the version of Gnome — MATE, Gnome Shell, Unity, or Cinnamon — that’s appropriate for them. Here’s a quick take at these four to see what the major differences are.

MATE A Review of MATE: Is It a True GNOME 2 Replica for Linux? The world of Linux desktop environments has dramatically changed since then. Gnome 3 was born, Gnome 2 was essentially thrown to the side, Gnome 3 was forked to create Cinnamon, and so on. However, Gnome... Read More


MATE is the continuation of Gnome 2, so if you’ve used Gnome 2 (or are still using a very old distribution to keep it), then MATE will seem extremely familiar. There may be a few applications with different names (Nautilus is called Nemo in MATE), but otherwise everything should be the same. The use of GTK3 is minimal if at all, so you won’t be able to benefit from any of those advancements. But it’s a great desktop environment if you were completely happy with the way things were and just want continued bug fixes. For more information, check out our full article about MATE.

Gnome Shell GNOME 3 Beta - Welcome To Your New Linux Desktop Read More


Gnome Shell is the main desktop component of Gnome 3, which drastically changes how people use their computer. Some important differences is that everything is accessed through the Activities button in the top left corner, including open windows, installed applications, and virtual desktops. Also, applications can but aren’t meant to be minimized, but instead spread across multiple virtual desktops.


This drastically changes your workflow, and a lot of people claim that it’s highly unintuitive. Gnome Shell also uses Mutter for desktop effects rather than Compiz Enjoy Great Desktop Effects With Compiz Fusion [Linux] Some people just want to use something that looks really pretty. On the other hand, there are some geeks who want to trick out their systems with the same effects to make a truly interesting... Read More (or whatever else might have actually worked), so mixing the two is impossible. However, Gnome Shell does use GTK3 which offers new visual effects, buttons, and more. If you are a Gnome purist, using Gnome Shell is given. For anyone else, it’s more a matter of if you like it or are able to work with it.

Unity Ubuntu 11.04 Unity - A Big Leap Forward For Linux It's here. The newest version of Ubuntu sports an entirely new user interface: Unity. It also includes a much-improved Software Center, alongside the usual updates for the thousands of free programs Ubuntu offers. Canonical decided... Read More


Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu Ubuntu 13.04: What's New In Raring Ringtail? [Linux] On April 25th, the newest version of one of the most popular Linux distributions was released -- Ubuntu 13.04, codenamed "Raring Ringtail". Unlike previous releases of Ubuntu, 13.04 doesn't bring extraordinary new visual features which... Read More , looked at Gnome Shell’s progress while it was still being developed and disagreed with the way Gnome was doing things. Instead, Canonical created the Unity shell for Ubuntu systems. It runs on the same Gnome 3/GTK3 backbone, but the actual desktop mechanics are different. While you can find all of your applications via the Ubuntu Dash that is also found in the top left corner, it can also do plenty of other things through the use of different “lenses” which add functionality to the Dash. Otherwise, you can see all favorited or open applications along the left-hand panel, as well as minimize to those icons. It arguably presents a more intuitive approach to the desktop, but it still doesn’t stay traditional (no matter if your definition of traditional is Gnome 2 or a Windows-like desktop). People who don’t think that Unity is traditional enough tend to keep away from both Gnome Shell and Unity.

Cinnamon [No Longer Available]



If you want to take advantage of the Gnome 3/GTK3 backbone without having to deal with Gnome Shell or Unity, then your best choice is Cinnamon. For a handful of people who still want to stay in the Gnome track and yet use the latest software, this may be their best choice. It lets people still use GTK3 themes as well as Gnome 3’s Control Center, but the desktop is very similar to that of Windows/KDE in that there is a single panel along the bottom of the screen, and a Start Menu-like button at the bottom left corner.

The Cinnamon project was created by the team behind Linux Mint, continuing their mission to fix what they believe are usability issues in Ubuntu. While Cinnamon is the default desktop environment for Linux Mint (with MATE available as well), both Cinnamon and MATE should be available for a large number of other distributions. A quick search in your package manager will tell you if this is the case or not. Just be sure that you’re running the latest release of your distribution to maximize the chances that it is included.


So in the end, there’s absolutely no way in saying which desktop environment is ultimately the best one for you. Each person has his or her own preferences that each of these may or may not cater to. In summary, if you prefer Gnome 2, MATE should be ideal. If you like the Gnome project’s ideas, give Gnome Shell a try. If you like a somewhat more sane and highly support desktop environment, Unity is a good choice. The only downside to Unity is that it’s pretty hard to find outside of Ubuntu itself.

Lastly, if you want to run on new, supported code but don’t want to relearn how to use your desktop, then Cinnamon may be best for you. These are only recommendations, and you’ll only truly know which one is best for you by trying them all out. Unless otherwise mentioned, you should be able to install these desktop environments via your respective package manager. Just to be extra sure, performing a quick Internet search of the desktop environment and your distribution (such as “fedora cinnamon”) should return the answers you need.


Which desktop environment do you use? What do you like about it, or hate about others? Let us know in the comments!

Related topics: GNOME Shell, Linux Distro.

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  1. Billy
    April 21, 2018 at 5:09 pm

    The MATE desktop file manager isn't called Nemo, it's called Caja.

  2. Randall Burgess
    February 2, 2018 at 2:17 pm

    I started with fvwm way back in the day. It just checked and supposedly it still compiles and runs on modern distros. That was on Redhat Linux in the mid-'90's, based on an incredibly intelligent friend of mine's suggestion.

  3. Peter Chandler
    January 12, 2017 at 7:24 pm

    Found Unity really struggled on mature computers. Gnome Flashback works like a dream on Ubuntu, runs much much faster than Unity, a little akin to Cinnamon in a series of alphabetical menus, but drop down from 'Applications' & 'Places' top left of the screen, with the menu bar at the top giving access to items you would find at the right of the Windows task bar such as sound, networking, settings etc; then with a task bar across the bottom of the screen a little like Windows.

  4. user
    May 4, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    "Nautilus is called Nemo in MATE"

    No. Nautilus is called Caja in MATE, and Nemo in Cinnamon.

    • Sam
      November 29, 2017 at 11:57 am

      Thanks for the correction. That bit had scared the creeps out of my little knowledge of the mate desktop that I'm utilising currently.

  5. Anonymous
    October 2, 2015 at 5:17 am

    One thing that makes Linux what it is, is the fact that you can choose whichever desktop environment you so choose, and be comfortable with it,....regardless of whom like it or not. I happen to use ALL of the listed desktop environments on my servers, and in the home on my desktop. I don't have a favorite, but I do have a soft spot for Fedora’s Gnome desktop. I happen to like the odd and quirky, and that desktop is as quirky as they come!

  6. Anonymous
    September 22, 2015 at 5:05 am

    in Arch Linux,, there are two version of MATE, the stable one was build on Gtk2 and the experimental one build on Gtk3

    soon,, MATE build on GTk3 will available

    • Anonymous
      September 22, 2015 at 5:06 am

      It planned on release MATE 1.12

  7. Anonymous
    December 19, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    Thank you for the excellent review of desktop environments. Although I have been running KDE for several years, I evaluate other desktops from time to time. In my recent testing of Cinnamon and MATE, I encountered more technical problems with Cinnamon than with MATE. In addition, I found it easier to configure MATE to my liking than was the case with Cinnamon. Overall, if I had to choose between these two, I would definitely choose MATE. For now, I will be continuing with KDE, but when the next long term support (LTS) version of Linux Mint emerges, I will reevaluate alternative desktops, and MATE will be at the top of the list.

  8. Torin
    November 18, 2013 at 11:07 am

    +1 MATE

  9. someGuyFromTheInternet
    October 10, 2013 at 1:50 am

    I used to use Ubuntu but Unity is just so ugly and stupid. It was my first linux distro and it nearly put me off linux for good, till I found mint. Mint is quite nice and easy to use but I would definitely recommend Zorin OS to new users. The look changer is pointless for me as I love the default windows 7 theme. There is also a windows XP look as well as Gnome. In the paid ultimate version there is also a Mac OS X look as well as other features but the free version was enough for me. Check it out!

  10. Joey Kincaid
    October 9, 2013 at 12:41 am

    I used Ubuntu for years. After the Gnome scuffle, Canonicle decided to go their own way with Unity, and I anxiously awaited this new desktop. Ubuntu was so good that I expected digital nirvana upon Unity's release.

    Upon its launch, I greedily downloaded Unity like a baby chick in its nest, stretching its neck to grab precious vittles from its mother. Instead of sating my hunger, the Canonical momma bird turned around and shit down my throat. Unity is even worse and less intuitive than Windows 8. I wouldn't have thought such a thing was possible.

    I happily changed distros to Linux Mint and have been using Cinnamon ever since. I looked at other alternatives, but Cinnamon is the most attractive to me, and it's best for the way I expect to interact with the desktop.

    I liked Gnome in the past, so Mate is okay too, but Gnome 3 is schizophrenic.

  11. personne
    October 4, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    It's not about "relearning," it's about what desktop suits you best. if you run multiple instances of the same app, or want minimum screen clutter without distracting show/hide displays,unity isn't useful. It's also been very disruptive in a bad way to usability between computer environments, and is so far schizoid between being keyboard and touch driven. It has earned a lot of well deserved resentment in the wider community, but defenders/apologists use derisive terms like "traditional" for those who don't see it as being better.

  12. Eddie G.
    August 20, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    I have used just about every desktop interface out there, from KDE to Elementary, through to Gnome and others. My observations are that if you are a person whi is just leaving the world of Windows, then you should use either MATE.....Cinnamon....or KDE as a way to familiarize yourself to Linux and all it has to offer, and although Unity and Gnome 3 might take some getting used to, I found it easy to use both of them, (although the "hot corner" in Fedora thre me for a loop in the beginning.!) Once a person who is just starting out on Linux has gotten comfortable enough, they might consider tring out one of the many differnt desktop interfaces to see if there's one that helps them complete things more efficiently. I have been using Ubuntu and Unity for a while as a secondary machine, while I have a Fedora machine with the Gnome 3 interface as my main workhorse, I only recently installed Debian on an older machine and have been trying to reacquaint myself with the KDE desktop. But either way you look at it, we users have the good fortune of not being tied down to just ONE interface! so pick yer' poison and have fun!!!

  13. Dan N
    July 23, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    I'm using Mint 14 w/ Cinnamon on my desktop, laptop and netbook. Works great on all three.

  14. Dan
    July 23, 2013 at 10:47 am

    I prefer LXDE for Linux distros in general, and XFCE if I wanted the look and feel (and libraries) of Gnome 2.x.

  15. Omipenguin
    July 23, 2013 at 8:11 am

    Or what about Elementary Luna OS. Which is the best when it comes to Linux based Desktop System in my opinion. Im using Luna although it is beta but so far I found no problem and found it to be more stable than Ubuntu Stable release

  16. Burt P
    July 23, 2013 at 2:13 am

    I like Mate. It is flexible and easily customizable. Cinnamon is also very attractive too, but I think Mate is less resource hungry. Just my impression - have not measured the resources used.

  17. SKLOH
    July 22, 2013 at 11:34 pm

    I installed Linux-Mint MATE along side winxp but after some updates, the desktop changed (by itself) into something like Unity. Is there a way to change it back? I am new to Linux.

    • Lisa Santika O
      July 23, 2013 at 6:42 pm

      That is weird. I think Linux Mint's GUI doesn't look too different between its last few versions. What were you updating? Which part looks like Unity?

      • SKLOH
        July 23, 2013 at 10:01 pm

        After installation, the desktop look exactly like the first picture appeared in this article. I took the several updates prompted (including level 3) by the update manager, and when I reboot my Acer netbook, the desktop changed to the picture shown under Unity in this article with a column of icons on the left hand side and the ubuntu icon on top.

  18. Douglas G
    July 22, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    I use Gnome Shell on Ubuntu 12.04. I had been using Unity, but found that I liked Gnome Shell a bit better.

  19. Febrian A
    July 22, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    i am using Linux Mint with Cinnamon.

  20. Mike Freeman
    July 22, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    The desktop for MATE is Caja, not Nemo. Nemo is the desktop for Cinnamon.

    • Do you even read what you post?
      July 22, 2013 at 7:00 pm

      Caja and Nemo are both file managers. Mate and Cinnamon are desktop environments.

      Caja is the file manager used in the Mate Desktop environment.

      Nemo is the file manager used in the Cinnamon Desktop environment.

      Caja and Nemo is akin to Windows Explorer for Windows and Finder for Mac.

      Don't listen to the guy above me, He doesn't know what he's talking about.

      • Gatz
        July 22, 2013 at 7:38 pm

        well.. at least he assigned Caja with Mate and Nemo with Cinnamon :D

    • Danny Stieben
      August 31, 2013 at 5:51 pm

      Whoops! My bad!