GNOME Explained: A Look at One of Linux’s Most Popular Desktops

Bertel King 26-10-2016

You’re interested in Linux, and you’ve come across the word GNOME. All caps. That signifies that we’re not talking about adorable little garden guardians. Those letters were originally an acronym for GNU Network Object Model Environment. That’s information you will never need to know again. Here’s what’s matters — GNOME is one of the most popular interfaces available on open source desktops.


Now let’s break down what that means.

GNOME Is a Desktop Environment

That’s a technical way of saying that GNOME is what you see on your screen. It’s the panel across the top. It’s the way you switch been applications and open new ones.

What Is GNOME -- Software

On Linux, GNOME is one of many desktop environments The 12 Best Linux Desktop Environments Choosing a Linux desktop environment can be difficult. Here are the best Linux desktop environments to consider. Read More that you can choose from. This contrasts with Windows and macOS, which each only have one. You don’t say that you’re using the Windows desktop environment running on top of the Windows kernel. No, you’re just using Windows. But since Linux is put together using parts from many different contributors What Is a Kernel in Linux and How Do You Check Your Version? Linux is an operating system, right? Well, not exactly! It's actually a kernel. But what is the Linux kernel? Read More , things aren’t that simple.

By now, you’ve probably come across the word “distribution.” That’s the name for the complete collection of parts needed to make your computer run. Ubuntu, Fedora, and openSUSE are some of the most popular distributions The Best Linux Operating Distros The best Linux distros are hard to find. Unless you read our list of the best Linux operating systems for gaming, Raspberry Pi, and more. Read More (which are often called “distros” for short).


Each distro provides a desktop environment. Some specialize on one, while others give you a choice. More often than not, GNOME is one of those choices.

GNOME’s History

GNOME first appeared in the late 90s, when Miguel de Icaza and Federico Mena created a free software desktop environment and companion applications. The free software project began as an alternative to the K Desktop Environment, which relied on the proprietary (at the time) QT widget toolkit. GNOME relies on the GTK+ toolkit instead.

QT adopted an open license in 1999, but GNOME was already established by that time. It became the default desktop environment for prominent distros such as Fedora and Ubuntu.

Part of the appeal is due to the project’s relative simplicity. Its Human Interface Guidelines have been a guiding principle since version 2.0. These dictate that all GNOME programs share a common user interface with a focus on being easy to use.


This stands in contrast to many traditional Linux applications, which often pack in as many features as possible. That approach leads to a steeper learning curve and often overwhelms people approaching a program for the first time. GNOME’s direction has led to Linux being more welcoming to newcomers. In many ways, it has become easier to use than Windows 6 Ways Linux Is More Welcoming Than Windows for Newcomers If you recently installed Windows 10, you may have experienced a rather cold piece of automation. Contrast this with installing Linux, which is warm and informative - just two of many reasons to choose Linux... Read More .

GNOME 3.0 arrived in 2011, bringing with it a major visual overhaul. The traditional taskbar was gone, along with minimize and maximize buttons. Now a separate overview screen handles most application and window management, and it’s not quite like any other desktop environment.

How GNOME Works

A panel across the top consists of an Activities button, the name of the current application, the time, and status indicators. Selecting Activities opens the Activities overview, which is the primary interface for launching and switching between applications. Here you see a dock on the left, your open windows in the middle, and your workspaces on the right.

A search bar sits at the top of the Activities overview. You can look for apps, files, settings, the time, or the answer the math problems. Since pressing the Super (Windows) key is a shortcut to the overview, you can open apps and files simply by pressing Super, typing a few letters, and pressing Enter.


GNOME 3 applications lack a titlebar. They save that space to make room for buttons and options. A single X in the top right corner of each window lets you close. To maximize, drag a window toward the panel at the top of the screen. You can minimize by right-clicking, but the interface encourages you to move extra windows to their own workspaces.

GNOME is very customizable, though you wouldn’t know it at first glance. You can change most aspects of the interface by heading to You can manage your extensions, change fonts, and more by downloading the GNOME Tweak Tool.

Downsides to GNOME

GNOME is heavy on animations. Whenever you enter the Activities overview, your open windows move across the screen so that you can see them all. This is disorienting for some users. Others simply don’t like the way animations make their computers feel more sluggish. They would rather spend system resources on processing applications, not special effects — especially on older hardware 8 Lightweight Linux Distros Ideal for Intel Atom Processor PCs Don't let your Atom-powered laptop gather dust. Install a lightweight Linux distro and enjoy mobile computing once again! Read More .

GNOME’s unique layout also doesn’t integrate nicely with non-GNOME 3 apps. GNOME 2 software and non-GTK programs open with a traditional titlebar, and they lack any options in the panel. This leads to an awkward experience where options are in the panel for some apps and tucked away in menu bars for others.


What Is GNOME -- Menu

More than many other desktop environments, the modern GNOME interface is quite a transition from the traditional paradigm. Some people simply find it too jarring to make the change.

Who Should Use GNOME?

GNOME is an ideal desktop environment for newcomers. While unique, the interface is easy to grasp if you aren’t already accustomed to something else. Applications have straightforward names, such as Files for the file manager and Music for, well, music.

Users also benefit from the huge selection of software. You can accomplish core tasks such as browsing the web, managing files, listening to music, manipulating images, using only GNOME applications. This reduces the number of additional programs you have to hunt around for. And since most have a similar interface, the knowledge you gain using one helps you use the next.

GNOME is also good for Linux users who want a modern and customizable desktop interface without much in the way of complexity.

Have you used GNOME before? What do you like? What don’t you? I’m a big fan of GNOME, but I know it’s not for everyone. If you prefer another desktop environment, which one is it? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Related topics: GNOME Shell, Linux Desktop Environment.

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  1. AJ Puzon
    June 23, 2019 at 2:47 pm

    For the first time i used gnome i actually hated it, adding to the insult that i was reading on the forums of gnome haters, it's surprising that many disliked it as it was very different workflow but easy to use and enjoyable nontheless. But once i used Pop OS which gnome was the default de, it just clicked to me that i just need a really good theme, it was like the macOS interface for Linux desktop but even better, and the main purpose of the DE was to minimize distraction and enables you to work, it kinda works for me plus the apps themselves like Nautilus, they are basic but gets the job done.

    I hope the devs get to fix the stuttering next iteration of it, but thanks gnome devs nonetheless :D

  2. Eddie G.
    June 22, 2017 at 12:51 am

    I've been a Linux user since around 2002 / '03. And the very first distro I installed? Was Fedora Core!.....I loved it..and used it daily. then when they switched to GNome 3? first I didn't like it...but only because it was nothing like what I was used to....but after spending time with it and getting to know it's inner-workings? I won't use any other desktop! I mean I DO have other computers and laptops running everything from OpenSuSE with Linux Mint with Cinnamon...and even Ubuntu with MATE (changed over to MATE since Unity isn't supported by Canonical anymore....although I heard there are individual developers who are going to keep it going. The only problem with that scenario...Unity being upheld by private that at any time...due to financial stress....servers cost money to keep running all hours of the day or night!..or some other reason.......they could fold and you'd be left with a desktop that wouldn't be getting the latest updates or anything! So now for any Ubuntu I happen to install?'s MATE...and of course there's my Fedora 26 with GNnome on it! I love everything about Gnome!.....from it's simple interface to its smart layout...where everything has its place and that place is easy to find or get to! I can only hope it continues to get better and better as time goes on. I think the best decision they ever made was to go from Gnome 2 to Gnome 3!'s wishing them many years more of success!! Go Team GNome!!! LoL!

  3. mikeshelto
    December 13, 2016 at 11:46 pm

    As a relative newbie, I switched from Mint Cinnamon to Fedora Gnome about month ago and haven't looked back. Gnome grows on you and seems to be a purer overall experience.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      January 18, 2017 at 8:39 pm

      I've never really used Cinnamon, but that feeling of purity has drawn me toward GNOME in the past, too.

      • Terry
        December 16, 2017 at 2:56 am

        Cinnamon on Fedora is the perfect desktop.