Linux Desktops: Cinnamon vs. Unity

Monday May 14th 2012 by Matt Hartley
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The Unity Linux desktop is best suited for newbies, while Cinnamon is ideal for intermediate and advanced users.

In years past, we've offered comparisons of KDE vs GNOME, along with comparisons of other desktop environments. But what about two desktop environments based on the GNOME shell?

First we have Cinnamon, which is actually forked from the GNOME shell. Next, we have Unity which is built from the GNOME shell specifically.

In this article I'll explore two different approaches to utilizing the desktop, both of which share history from the GNOME desktop.

The Unity desktop experience

Despite my early discomfort with the Unity interface on Ubuntu, my perception changed with version 12.04. Unity has come a long way and it's actually quite comfortable to use these days. Part of this desktop acceptance is admittedly due to the release of a newer version of Unity, which offers greater speed and stability.

Admittedly, I don't find myself using all aspects of Unity everyday. For example, I rarely use the Unity dockbar. Instead, I find myself using Synapse. While it's a little more involved for newer users, I've personally found it to be less work to find what I'm looking for than relying on the Unity dash.

Don't get me wrong, the Unity dash is cool. However IÅfm just more familiar with Synapse. That said, the Unity HUD is fantastic and I find myself using it frequently. Using the HUD with software like a web browser means that locating web pages from your history based on keywords is very simple to do. The HUD is a huge time saver.

Where I wish Unity was a bit different is how it handles minimizing windows. I don't think this request is unreasonable, as the workspace switcher is hardly a replacement. The option to minimize a window still exists in Unity, but it's not readily accessible from the dockbar, at least not without adding a PPA-based hack.

On the flip side, I'm thrilled to see that Unity hasn't killed off my Compiz classic behavior such as the spinning desktop cube, among other Compiz Fusion effects I've come to love over the years.

Another feature that has begun to win me over are Unity lenses. Even though I rarely use the dockbar, I have been known to play with the various Unity lens options from time to time.

Synapse doesn't quite offer the visual experience that the Unity lenses offer in the Dash. For example, you can easily install a lens for Google Books, Ask Ubuntu (great for troubleshooting), Music, Gwibber, Reddit and even for your Google Docs.

Looking to the top of Unity, the experience is quite a bit different than we've seen with GNOME 2, in earlier releases of Ubuntu. A lot of the functions have been unified, which I see as positive. It saves me space and on a single LCD monitor this is welcome.

What isn't welcome is the duplication of top panel in Unity. Even though the dual-monitor support in Unity for Ubuntu 12.04 is good, I really want the option to turn off the second top panel. It's meaningless duplication and even the add-on tool known as MyUnity doesn't appear to offer a solution.

Another item to consider is how Unity handles audio. Sadly, it really hasn't changed its audio controls much since GNOME 2. This isn't anything against PulseAudio, as I have never had any problems with it. Rather, this is a complaint about the fact that the sound control doesn't actually work very well with multiple microphones. For example, when I make a Skype call, the sound controls don't allow me to select which device I want to handle that application.

Even though Skype (or any other application) shows up under the Applications tab of the sound menu, it merely gives me a volume slider. And this is with no less than three devices connected with microphones.

The PulseAudio Volume Control does provide me with application specific control over which microphone I want to use with each application. But the "default microphone" option in the sound settings rarely works with VoIP software, and the default sound menu for Unity is really not very effective.

Worse, just to use the parts of the menu that do work, I have to open a completely new dialog box. In my opinion, this is really poor design.

The Cinnamon desktop experience

When I first began using Cinnamon on my desktop, I found myself loving it. It called to mind GNOME 2, but didn't feel as dated as MATE.

It certainly did a nice job blending the old familiar feel I enjoyed with some new tweaks and a fresh take on the desktop experience. Like with Unity, however, I never really took to the idea of the Cinnamon menu. Instead, I preferred to use Synapse as it saves me time and lessens needless mouse work.

One thing that bothered me about Cinnamon was the fact that my typical Compiz Fusion behavior didn't work. Instead, it seems that Cinnamon has its own desktop behavior through the Cinnamon desktop control panel. The 3D effects provided by Cinnamon are okay, however I decided pretty quickly that I needed to install the Compiz Fusion manager so I could tweak my desktop with the effects I enjoy.

Sadly, this didn't appear to be possible with Cinnamon. For whatever reason, my changes in the Compiz Fusion manager simply weren't taking effect. So, my choices for desktop behavior appear to be limited.

One of the "old school" options I missed from the old GNOME 2 days was the option of minimizing my windows from the panel. Thankfully Cinnamon allows me to do this. As a matter of fact, Cinnamon allows me to add and remove applets and other aspects of the panels with relative ease. This is something I was missing in Unity.

By the same token, Cinnamon doesn't offer me access to content lenses like Unity does. So I guess it comes down to what's important to you as the end user.

Shared experiences

What I found fascinating with both desktops is how similar they are in select areas. Take the unified control panel, for example. In both Unity and Cinnamon, the control panel is basically the same. Everything is laid out according to function, sectioned off by Personal, Hardware and System settings.

The speed of the desktop environments also appears to be similar. Based on using both extensively on two similar PCs, they appear to offer about the same level of responsiveness.

Because both Unity and Cinnamon share a GNOME shell heritage, much of the menu setups and overall feel have a shared experience throughout the desktop. The differences are mostly how you access applications and browse around the desktop. The icons and settings generally feel very similar.

Final thoughts and recommendations

The first thing I want to point out is that both desktop environments provide a strong, reliable experience. Any differences really come down to the same things that might point us in the direction of KDE or Xfce. It's really a matter of how you want to browse around the desktop, as there's no wrong answer.

So which desktop is best for the advanced/intermediate user and which do I recommend for the beginner? I believe that Unity is the most newbie-friendly. Because there's no reliance on a familiarity with the Linux desktop for newbies, Unity offers a great place to launch from.

Now for intermediate and advanced users, there's no easy answer here. Many users in this area will rely on MATE, KDE or other alternatives. This is a user type with a much broader set of expectations.

I can suggest, however, is if you haven't tried Unity in Ubuntu 12.04, don't let past experiences color your judgment of the desktop. The latest release of Unity feels great and – despite it seeming a little "off" to those who prefer a minimalist desktop – users of richer desktops such as KDE might actually come to like what Unity has to offer.

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