GNOME Shell vs. Ubuntu Unity: Which desktop wins?

The war is almost on: GNOME Shell vs. Ubuntu Unity. Both have been available long enough to draw the conclusion as to which will rise above and find success. Jack Wallen offers up his take on the battle.

Both GNOME Shell and Ubuntu Unity are looming on the horizon. Both of these desktop replacements will incite a lot of reactions from users — some good, some bad.But when it all boils down, one of these two takes on the desktop will rise above the other. Which one? I'm going to compare the two and offer up a conclusion on the future of both GNOME Shell and Ubuntu Unity.

At first glance

I want to first examine how the user is going to feel upon first glance. Let's imagine the user has no previous knowledge of either desktop. How will they react? If you look at the two desktops, side by side (see Figures A and B), you might well draw the same conclusion I draw: Ubuntu Unity, at first glance, will be much more accessible to new users. Why? The new user is not going to immediately know to hover their mouse in the upper left corner or click the Activities button to open up the launcher menu. In Unity, the launchers are right there on the desktop, waiting to be clicked and used.

Figure A

Figure B

Ubuntu Unity desktop

Figure B

Figure B

Gnome desktop

Each of the desktops you see in the images are default (minus the addition of The GIMP for quality screenshots.) The lack of an obvious means to launch applications in GNOME Shell will trip up new users.

The Unity advantage pretty much ends there.

Dig a little deeper

Once you get beyond the surface, a few glaring issues start popping up for Ubuntu Unity. I will highlight the most glaring.

Connect to server

One of the most handy menu entries in GNOME (for me at least) is the Connect to Server entry in the Places menu. This allows the user to connect to nearly any type of server quickly and easily. The user can even connect to a Windows Share from here. In Unity - you won't find that. In fact, you will be hard pressed to find any means to connect to a server in Ubuntu Unity. The only way to make any sort of connection in Ubuntu Unity is:

  1. Open Nautilus from the command line.
  2. Click Go | Network and then attempt to connect to your Windows network.

This, however, did not work for me. From GNOME Shell I could effortlessly connect to my shared folders using the Connect to Server wizard. From Ubuntu Unity...no dice. Even though I know Samba is configured correctly and working, Ubuntu Unity simply wouldn't play along.

Configuring the desktop

In order to configure the GNOME Shell desktop the user only has to right-click the desktop as they have for years. Ubuntu Unity? No dice. In order to configure desktop with Unity, the user must click Applications | System | Appearance. Most new users aren't even going to know how to get to Systems from within Applications. And if they do figure it out (it's not difficult), chances are they won't know that Appearance configuration is tucked into the System category. Shouldn't there be a Preferences category? Bad call on Unity's part.

And while we're at it...both desktops are still using Mutter. I realize that Unity is in major transition from X to Wayland and the rumors have been flip flopping since the announcement as to which compositor it will use. (I just googled it and still find instances where some are saying Mutter and some are saying Compiz.) Regardless of which it uses, just make sure compositing can be customized. That has been one of the best features of Linux desktop - customization!

What? No run dialog?

That's right. Ubuntu Unity has forsaken the trusty run dialog. I don't know about you, but that dialog has been my bread and butter for launching applications for a very long time. Why would a desktop designer think removing that tool is anything but a horrible idea? GNOME Shell? Of course, you can have your run dialog!

What? I can't change my window manager?

This is the case for both desktops. You can not change your window manager. Say you prefer Emerald over the standard window manager...if you're using either GNOME Shell or Ubuntu Unity, you're out of luck. One of the draws of the Linux desktop has always been its flexibility. If you're using either GNOME Shell or Ubuntu Unity, kiss that flexibility goodbye.

Draw a conclusion

Anyone that has read my column long enough knows I have been a big champion of Ubuntu and Canonical for a long time. When Mark Shuttleworth announced that Ubuntu was migrating to Ubuntu Unity I was on his side. I assumed there was good reason for the shift. Well, I've had plenty of time to give Unity a try and, to be quite frank, it's a mistake. Ubuntu Unity simply does not perform or behave up to the standards users have grown to expect from a Linux desktop. My fear is this will actually do more to harm than to help the Linux desktop cause. When new users install Ubuntu 11.04 they will be greeted with a desktop designed for netbooks and will feel cheated.

As for GNOME Shell...that's a tougher one. It's certainly not a step back because it functions so well and offers a lot of really nice "evolutions" to the current state of the desktop. My biggest gripe with GNOME Shell is its lack of flexibility. But GNOME Shell certainly does have a lot more polish and looks worlds more professional (where Unity seems to be convinced looking like a toy is a better take on the desktop.)

Given the choice between the two, I would choose GNOME Shell any day. Fortunately that is not the only option. We will see plenty of Ubuntu re-spins (a GNOME Shell spin will probably appear right away). In fact, these migrations will probably bring some of the alternative desktops (such as my favorite, Enlightenment) to the fore. And that is probably where I will be heading to full time - Enlightenment. What about you? What is your take on the GNOME Shell vs. Ubuntu Unity battle?


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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