Ubuntu Unity vs. GNOME 3: Which is Better?

Tuesday Apr 12th 2011 by Bruce Byfield
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Both Linux desktops were designed with usability in mind, yet one seems to have a slight edge.

GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's soon-to-be released Unity are the first GNOME desktops designed from the start with usability principles in mind. Not that releases in the GNOME 2 series ignored usability, but in GNOME 2, usability was an addition to the desktop, comparable to adding the foundation after the house was built.

Whether you use GNOME 3 or Unity will probably depend on your distribution's choice. But assuming you have a choice, which should you use? Suggesting an answer is hard, because in many ways the two are distinctly similar in design, with the differences largely in the details.

Which you prefer will have little to do with the applications available. Contrary to what some imagine, both are shells -- different interfaces that interact with mostly the same GNOME backend and applications. A few utilities, like Unity's Main Menu editor, are specific to the shell being used, but most of the software will be the same regardless of the interface with which you interact with it.

Similarly, because both are informed by recent design principles -- and possibly influenced by each other, since they were designed at the same time -- the look and organization of GNOME 3 and Unity is often surprisingly similar. In particular, both have more in common with the interfaces for music players and phones than with desktops for workstations.

Among other things, that means more clicking and changes of screens or windows in either than in a workstation desktop. Moreover, while both allow you to customize details such as the background color, options that affect work flows are generally rarer -- both, for example, assume that users will rely on menus for starting applications.

Although you can sometimes enable deprecated work flows, you will generally need expert advice or the patience to search many layers below the main desktop to find the controls that you need.

Given these similarities, don't be surprised if at first Unity and GNOME 3 seem almost identical. However, as you work with them, the differences do start to emerge fairly quickly.

Largest Difference

The largest difference between the two interfaces is that GNOME 3 uses a minimum of two screens: one in which open windows displays, and the overview in which the system is configured and applications chosen and run.

By contrast, Unity remains oriented towards a single screen unless you use virtual workspaces. For light usage, this setup is less confusing and tiresome; in GNOME 3, it can sometimes seems like you are changing screens every few seconds. However, on a netbook in particular, Unity opens many windows full-screen -- or near enough to make no difference. If you work with more than a couple of windows open at the same time, the effect is not much different than working in GNOME 3.

Where most people are likely to notice the differences between GNOME 3 and Unity is in their implementation of similar features.

For example, if you add applets to your desktop's panel, or application launchers to your desktop, one of the first things you will notice in both Unity and GNOME 3 is the difference in work flows. GNOME 3 does not include the option of icons at all, and, while Unity does allow desktop icons, its design steers users away from them. Both interfaces feature uncustomizable panels with little on them except a clock and a collection of app indicators -- that is, controls for sound, batteries, Internet connections, and personal information. GNOME 3 also uses the panel for a task indicator.

GNOME 3 and Unity also eliminate the traditional drop-down menu. Considering that almost all monitors these days are wide-screen, with more horizontal than vertical space, this decision seems logical, especially for interfaces that might be used on netbooks. Instead, both add a panel on the left side of the screen, often referred to as the dashboard in GNOME 3, and as the launcher in Unity. But, whatever the name, this new feature displays basic and running applications.

Of the two, Unity's launcher is the most flexible. Since GNOME 3's dashboard displays on a separate screen – no applications run on this screen – it does not need to auto-hide when a window needs its space, and in its current incarnation it is mostly uncustomizable. GNOME 3's dashboard also has the problem of shrinking to near illegibility if you open too many apps, forcing you to fall back on the mouseover help to identify the icons.

In contrast, you can customize some of the icons on Unity's launcher. The launcher also accommodates large numbers of open windows by showing a collapsed view at the bottom that opens quickly when you need to scan them. Unity's launcher also replaces a task indicator with small arrows to mark open applications. Although these arrows are easy to miss at first, they are an elegantly economical use of space once you are aware of them.

However, Unity's icon for virtual workspaces is perhaps too easy to overlook or work with. GNOME 3's panel for multiple workspaces on the right of the overview is much more efficient, at least until you open more than four or five workspaces at the same time.

At right angles to GNOME 3's dashboard is another menu across the top with items for open windows and applications, with sub-items that appear as large icons on the desktop and can be filtered by a variety of views or by a search window -- both of which are easy to miss on the far right of the desktop.

Unity, on the other hand, opens its application menu from its launcher (and, rather confusingly, refers to the resulting view as the dash). Unity's dash is filterable by categories, and includes a search field that is much easier to find than GNOME 3's.

However, Unity's sub-menus do have the annoying habit of displaying only a single line of items plus a link announcing how many items are not displayed -- even if there is only one. While shrinking icons to fit the space is obviously not a solution if dozens of other items exist, I can't help wondering whether an exception couldn't be made when only a few other items are available.

For that matter, you might question whether the change from drop-down menus is worth the effort by the developers or the trouble that users must take to familiarize themselves with it. In the efforts to avoid the menus overlaying too much of the screen, both GNOME 3 and Unity have created alternatives that cover the screen far more thoroughly than any drop-down menu. The result is easier to read for the visually challenged, but otherwise might be said to exchange one set of problems for its exact equivalent.

The same might also be said for the handling of windows, especially in GNOME 3. By default, neither interface allows resizing of windows beyond switching between their default size and maximizing them. Moreover, both use hot spots on the edges of their desktops to minimize or maximize, or tile windows. But GNOME 3 takes the extra step of eliminating title bar buttons to minimize or maximize buttons, forcing users to rely on the hot spots. Like the change in the menus, these changes seem to enforce an orthodoxy and limit user choice for no clear benefit.

Choosing Between Linux Desktops

Both GNOME 3 and Unity risk rejection simply because they are new. Each is different enough from the GNOME 2 desktop that, while they are easy enough to navigate with a mouse, they take a day or two to get used to.

Each, too, improves immeasurably when you learn the keyboard shortcuts. Working with the mouse, many users might risk repetitive stress with either. Consequently, part of your choice of the new GNOME interfaces might depend on your willingness to memorize a dozen or so shortcuts.

Then, too, the answer depends on how you work. For instance, if you work from the menu, then Unity has the more polished design. However, if you take advantage of virtual workspaces and habitually work with more than half a dozen windows open, then you may prefer GNOME 3.

Some, of course, will simply reject both Unity and GNOME 3, and either hope for a fork of GNOME 2 or look at KDE, Xfce, or one of the other alternatives.

However, if the choice is only between the new GNOME interfaces, I consider Unity to have a slight edge overall. Unity has improved more than I would have thought possible when it was released as Ubuntu Netbook six months ago. It even seems to be developing notifications that are both colloquial and helpful. It is still rough in places, but, at its best, Unity positions items more visibly than GNOME 3, and leaves an impression of well-thought simplicity that contrasts favorably with GNOME 3's sense of needless complication.

The differences are slight, and probably will change as each new interface matures. But, for now, I recommend trying Unity first, and giving both a chance before looking for other alternatives. For all their innovations, they are still GNOME shells, and long-time GNOME users might be more comfortable with either than with looking elsewhere.

ALSO SEE: GNOME vs. KDE: The Latest Round

AND: Can Firefox Be Saved? Two Proposals

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