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…

Performance and Compatibility
Having a whizz-bang user interface is great, but not if it comes at the cost of performance

Unity and GNOME 3 both share another commonality besides their desire to minimise distractions and help to focus on the task at hand: they both require 3D accelerated graphics to run, dropping back to a more familiar – and significantly more basic – appearance if they don’t find suitable hardware.

It’s something which had the community worried: will my system actually be able to run the new user interface, or will it be outmoded at the drop of a hat?

Alt-Tab functionality gains the ability to walk through an application's windows in GNOME 3

Now that both are released, it’s clear to see that the vision of every desktop needed a high-end graphics card hasn’t come true: while both Unity and GNOME 3 require an OpenGL compatible GPU to be present in the system, they’re happy working on the lightest of devices – including those based on Intel’s GMA series, and CPUs with integrated graphics processing capabilities.

There are one or two compatibility issues to be aware of, however. For those who like to test things out in a virtual environment before committing to a full install – a commendable habit – some issues rear their ugly head. With 3D acceleration support in common virtual machine environments such as VMWare and VirtualBox being relatively new, getting either package to run in a virtual environment is a lesson in frustration.

Thankfully, the fact that both GNOME 3 and Unity are available as Live CDs means that this isn’t the problem it could otherwise be: just burn the disk – or write the ISO to a USB storage device – and reboot, and you can try both environments the way they were intended.

As with GNOME 3, Alt-Tab functionality remains largely unchanged in Unity

The use of 3D rendering to create the main user interface raises another concern, however: performance. Some users, especially those on older or lower-specification systems, raised concerns early in both projects’ lifespans that no amount of eye candy would make up for a choppy experience.

In our testing, however, we’re pleased to say that we had no such troubles. Both desktop environments were happy running even on the oldest laptop we could find and were no more and no less responsive than GNOME 2. In use, GNOME 3 appeared to have the edge over Unity, but the difference was marginal.

Application compatibility is another thing entirely, sadly. While most apps work fine in the new environment, developers will need to make changes as the GNOME 2 branch goes end-of-life. A particular issue was using certain Compiz functions with Unity, in particular the fluid zoom function: while it worked fine in GNOME 3, the framerate in Unity dropped to single figures and made it largely unusable. Although Compiz support in GNOME Shell could be an issue in the future, it appears relatively stable for now.

GNOME 3  – 4/5 … Unity  – 3/5

Round 2 Winner – GNOME 3
GNOME 3 takes the cake in compatibility and performance, largely thanks to issues with certain applications – in particular Compiz – running under Unity. Both are largely problem free, however, and while developers will need to pay attention to the new functionality – and, more importantly, what’s going away – end-users can expect a pain-free transition.

Continue to Page 4: GNOME 3 vs Unity – Features