GNOME 3 vs Unity: Which is right for you?

With so much controversy surrounding the recent release of GNOME 3 and Canonical’s Unity, there’s only one way to resolve things: a head-to-head battle royale. Gareth Halfacree investigates which next-generation desktop environment might suit you better to set the record straight once and for all…

Both GNOME 3 and Unity are very different beasts to GNOME 2, but which takes the most learning?

For those used to GNOME, which has survived largely unchanged since its inception and which been a default for many distributions since 1999 after licensing issues were raised over KDE’s use of Qt, the news that GNOME 3 takes a different approach to things is likely to come as a shock.

Interestingly, both GNOME Shell – the user-facing portion of GNOME 3 – and Unity take a similar approach for their radical rethinks of the user interface: the idea that users want to focus largely on the task at hand, and want minimum distractions from notification bars and inactive windows.

GNOME 3’s initial desktop feels familiar, if a little spartan

Accordingly, both have opted for a minimalist approach: the active application is given the maximum possible screen space. “We feel that our design process, which involves continuous user-testing of Unity throughout its development cycle, gives us the biggest advantage over other desktops,” claimed Canonical’s Neil Patel in support of Unity. “I believe it has helped in producing a user experience that is very easy to get to grips with, which looks great, but also offers a user experience that doesn’t alienate power users.”

The initial Unity desktop maintains the Ubuntu feel, with the addition of an icon row

Both GNOME 3 and Unity have done away with the traditional applications menu, opting for an icon-based launcher that is clearly designed to be at home on touch-based devices. Both offer a text-based search to make it quick to find the required program, but GNOME 3 goes a step beyond by adding the ability to search the Internet from the same screen.

The icon-based launcher is by far the most surprising aspect of either environment for a migrant from GNOME 2. GNOME 3 makes it a little harder by hiding the applications in a secondary tab: by default, a tap at the top-left of the screen shows currently open windows, rather than applications to launch. It’s a convenient way to lay things out, but one that will catch newcomers unawares.

Unity isn’t without its gotchas, however: the traditional GNOME bookmarks from previous editions of Ubuntu have turned into a column of icons that appear and disappear as you move your mouse around the left-hand side of the screen – often disappearing just before you were quite ready. A unified menu bar, similar to that used on Apple Macs, also takes a little getting used to.

Thankfully, both GNOME 3 and Unity are similar enough to GNOME 2 that newcomers and experienced users alike should have little difficulty adjusting to either, although it will take a period of adjustment for things to feel ‘natural’ again.

GNOME 3  – 4/5 … Unity  – 4/5

Round 1 Winner – Draw
It’s a tie in our first category: while the relegation of application icons to a secondary status in GNOME Shell takes some getting used to, Unity has its own issues. Assuming you’re willing to make the change, neither should take too much getting used to, thankfully.

Continue to Page 3: GNOME 3 vs Unity – Performance & Compatibility