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. 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, 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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. 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!