When GNOME 3.0 started with a new user interface, parts of the Linux community were looking for a new desktop environment that would suit them.
Some have converted GNOME 2 to MATE or changed it to Cinnamon and Unity. Others fled completely away from anything related to GNOME in connection with other desktop environments.
However, GNOME had more to offer than the user interface, which hesitated many to leave the ecosystem behind. For this reason, many of the most popular alternatives are still ultimately based on GNOME. Here's what sets them apart.
GNOME is a desktop environment that has been around since 1998. The name originally stood for GNU Network Object Model Environment and is often pronounced with a hard G, just like gnu (Guh-nome).
GNOME uses the GTK toolkit. Nowadays the GNOME project maintains GTK, but the coding language started as a toolkit for the GNU Image Manipulation Program, better known as GIMP. Many desktop Linux apps use GTK.
A desktop environment is more than an interface. GNOME also includes a range of apps, a range of technologies, and the community of people who have grown around this software.
The early versions of GNOME had a traditional desktop paradigm that resembled older versions of Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS. With version 3.0, the GNOME team chose a different path and introduced a new design known as the GNOME shell.
The GNOME Shell includes an activity summary that shows your open windows, an app launcher, and makes virtual desktops a central part of the experience. Virtual desktops became so important that the GNOME team decided not to use the minimize button and instead encouraged users to organize windows on their virtual desktops.
GNOME Shell also attaches great importance to searching. You can open or install apps, search files, check the weather, view the time, and perform many other tasks by typing directly into Activity Summary.
With this change, GNOME 3.0 introduced or adopted methods of using a computer that have since played a prominent role in commercial desktop operating systems. However, many people did not want to change the way they used their computers so drastically or simply preferred the traditional desktop workflow.
Still, GNOME remains the most widely used Linux desktop environment
GNOME explains: A look at one of the most popular Linux desktops
. Ubuntu, the most popular desktop Linux distribution, uses a modified version of GNOME by default. Fedora, the community-driven companion of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, may offer the puristic GNOME experience.
Linux manufacturers such as System76 and Purism ship their own Linux distributions that come with GNOME. Linux and Dell laptops from Lenovo and GNOME run immediately.
If you like the classic GNOME experience but want to keep the modern look, you don't have to switch to a separate desktop environment. Simply log out and select the gear icon on the login screen to switch from GNOME to GNOME Classic.
This is not an exact copy of GNOME 2 and there are no lower system requirements than GNOME Shell, but it may be exactly what you are looking for.
Photo credit: Ubuntu Unity
Given Ubuntu's popularity, it was a big deal when Canonical decided not to throw its weight behind GNOME 3.0. Instead, the company continued to develop its own Unity interface, which used a dock on the left side of the screen and placed an even stronger search focus than GNOME. In this way you can not only start apps, but with a function called HUD (Heads Up Display) you can also navigate by entering the menu bars. If you want to use your mouse to navigate through an app menu, you'll find it at the top of the screen.
While Unity was free software, the broader community shied away from Canonical's efforts. Part of this resulted from Ubuntu's use of patched versions of GTK to provide Unity, which increased the work involved in porting the interface to other distributions.
In 2017 Canonical discontinued Unity and re-created GNOME Ubuntu's standard desktop. The community started where Canonical left off. The UBPorts developers continued their work on Unity8, which never appeared more than a demo in Ubuntu. As for Unity7, the software that many people have come to love, this user interface has revived the new Ubuntu Unity distribution that started with Ubuntu 20.04.
MATE is a continuation of the GNOME 2 series. By default, most MATE desktops use a layout with two control panels, one at the top and one at the bottom. Using the options at the top left, you can start apps, open the file manager and navigate through the system settings. The system tray icons and the cloud are at the top right.
Below is a list of your open windows as you would find them in older versions of Windows. Your virtual desktops are shown in the lower right.
While MATE developers worked hard, the desktop looks largely the same as the GNOME 2
MATE explains: A look at one of the most durable Linux desktops
over a decade ago. This is because MATE is primarily a nature conservation project that ensures that the existing user interface continues to work with modern technologies and apps. New functions are displayed, which, however, expand rather than change the established procedure.
MATE has lower system requirements than modern versions of GNOME, making it feel faster on older or underperforming computers.
You can install MATE on most Linux distributions. Ubuntu MATE is an Ubuntu variant that comes with MATE as the standard interface. Fedora has a MATE spin. Nothing prevents you from using MATE on Debian, openSUSE or Arch Linux.
When GNOME 3.0 was launched, the changeover wasn't just about a new user interface. GTK 2 also made GTK 3 place. While MATE kept GNOME 2 alive, it initially meant staying with GTK 2. Cinnamon was a way to keep a traditional user interface while GTK 3 continued to be adopted. Before a separate desktop environment was introduced, Cinnamon was a series of GNOME extensions.
Cinnamon was not an attempt to emulate GNOME 2. Instead, Cinnamon adopted a design language that was more similar to Windows. There is an app menu at the bottom left, a task bar at the bottom right and a window list in between.
While the design is by no means a pixel-by-pixel copy of Windows, the experience is well known enough
Cinnamon Explained: A look at one of Linux's most Windows-like desktops
for people switching to Linux for the first time.
Many consider Cinnamon to be perhaps the simplest version of Linux. The Linux Mint team created Cinnamon and remains the main developer. That said, you can run Cinnamon on Ubuntu or Fedora or Arch Linux, and the list goes on.
Pantheon is the desktop environment of the basic operating system, which was first introduced in 2011. The design is deliberately minimalistic. In the top right there is an app menu for opening software, a dock for managing opened apps and system icons. As with GNOME, there is no collapse button, although there is still a collapse button. In the elementary operating system, the focus is on the apps.
Pantheon doesn't include many customization options and is even less configurable than GNOME due to the lack of extensions. Thanks to the commitment of the Elementary team to design, Pantheon is one of the most polished and accessible free desktops.
You can find Pantheon in other distributions like Fedora or Arch Linux, but the desktop environment was designed with the elementary operating system in mind.
Unlike the other GNOME-based desktops, Budgie didn't emerge during the GNOME 3.0 transition. Instead, the project started in 2013 with the goal of creating a simple user interface that resembles that of a Chromebook
What is budgie? The Linux desktop environment that feels like a Chromebook
But Budgie is not a ChromeOS clone. This is a fully functional Linux desktop environment.
While MATE and Cinnamon are both GTK-based desktops, they both have a certain distance from the current direction of GNOME. This is less the case for Budgie, who is actively dependent on the core parts of GNOME and uses some of the same tools as the GNOME tool for managing system settings. The app design is also similar, making traditional title bars (where app names and toolbars are separate) unnecessary for many apps.
Budgie is closely associated with Solus, a distribution formerly known as EvolveOS. Solus continues to drive Budgie’s development, but it’s not the only one that has invested. Ubuntu Budgie is the most popular alternative, but like MATE and Cinnamon, you can download Budgie on most Linux distributions.
GNOME desktop environments, summarized
GNOME 3.0 came with a controversial design that many people have loved since then, although some elements of the user interface that have become standard have been discarded. Microsoft Windows, Apple MacOS and Google Chrome OS all have buttons to minimize and maximize. They all have a taskbar or a dock. It's no surprise that a lot of people want to keep these things.
However, if you don't want to swap GNOME for another desktop environment, you can get many of these features using GNOME extensions
8 GNOME shell extensions that improve the user interface
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