Seven Alternatives to GNOME 3

Tuesday Apr 19th 2011 by Bruce Byfield

If the Linux destkop’s new version isn’t right for you, your options are numerous.

If you've decided that GNOME 3 is not for you, what do you do?

The first thing you should do is make sure that you are not just reacting against the fact that you are facing a new desktop. The fact that many people – the exact percentage is uncertain -- like or tolerate GNOME 3 should be proof enough that you should be wary of snap judgments. Persist with GNOME 3 for a week, and you may find it more endurable than you originally imagined, especially if you learn how to change the default settings.

But if you are determined to avoid GNOME 3, what are the odds that you will find something to your liking? Probably, you will have to endure some differences. But assuming what you want is a desktop that resembles GNOME 2 as closely as possible, here are some possibilities to consider:


Considering the troubled relationship between Ubuntu and GNOME, Unity might be considered Ubuntu's answer to GNOME 3.

Like GNOME 3, Unity is a modern rethinking of the traditional desktop informed by the standards of mobile interfaces, and requires hardware acceleration. However, where GNOME 3 gives the impression of added complexity, Unity creates the impression of greater simplicity. But on closer examination, this impression is misleading -- Unity does not simplify so much as hide complexity in its depths.

The biggest drawback to Unity is that it is another large departure from the classic GNOME desktop. If what you want is an interface as close to that of the GNOME 2 series as possible, then Unity is probably no more for you than GNOME 3.


Enlightenment began as a window manager, but is now closer to being a desktop. It has fallen out of favor in recent years, largely because its latest release is entering its second decade of development, but remains popular in some circles. Its packages are available in several major distributions, including Fedora and Ubuntu.

Enlightenment's desktop has a generic resemblance to the GNOME 2 series, and has a full set of customization settings and virtual workspaces. So long as your distribution of choice continues to offer the packages, Enlightenment is well-worth considering as an alternative.


The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment (LXDE) provides an interface with all the features you expect, including a menu, panel, icons on the desktop, and an array of customization options. Major distributions include it as an alternative, and you can select it while logging in.

LXDE's greatest strength is its no-nonsense approach and speed. Its greatest weakness is a lack of anything except the most basic panel applets. In other words, LXDE includes a task bar and a pager for switching virtual desktops, but not a note utility like Tomboy or a wide selection of clocks.

KDE 4 and Trinity KDE

Traditionally, KDE has been the first choice for those who are looking for an alternative to GNOME. That remains broadly true, but the KDE 4 release series has a set of innovations that, if anything, are even more radical than GNOME 3's, including such things as containments (shells for a workspace) and Folder Views (collections of icons that can be swapped in and out).

By setting a Folder View to cover the entire screen, you get a desktop experience very similar to that of the GNOME 2 series. However, I suspect that anyone impatient with GNOME 3 is unlikely to satisfied with the latest KDE.

Instead, you might try a Trinity KDE, a project that begins with the KDE 3 series. Trinity KDE provides packages for Debian, Ubuntu, and Slackware, and offers a classic desktop experience that requires little, if any learning.

The only potential problem is that those who want a desktop that resembles the GNOME 2 series are likely to have tried the KDE 3 series some time ago, and disliked it. Yet Trinity KDE might be more acceptable now that you want an alternative to GNOME 3 -- and, as always, customization works wonders.


Xfce is the most popular of the lightweight desktops. Its general impression is of a stripped-down, faster version of the more recent releases in the GNOME 2 series. It even uses the GTK+ 2 toolkit for drawing windows, just as GNOME does. However, you may have to search for the configuration options, especially if you want icons on the desktop.

With the exception of the file manager Thunar, Xfce lacks first-class utilities, as well as GNOME's broad ecosphere of applications. In compensation, it runs both GNOME and KDE applications well, giving you the option to have the necessary support start as soon as you log in.

GNOME 3 Fallback Mode

In case your video card does not have the hardware acceleration necessary for GNOME 3, a fallback desktop is available. You can start the fallback yourself at Applications -> System Settings -> System Info -> Graphics -> Forced Fallback -> On. This alternative closely resembles GNOME 2.32. Reconfigure so that you can have titlebar icons and desktop application launchers, and the resemblance is almost perfect.

You will notice some changes, such as the mercifully unobtrusive notifications and the ability to move to the chat window without your current window losing focus. However, these are small changes that are unlikely to affect your workflow in GNOME.

The only potential problem with the GNOME 3 fallback mode is that, sooner or later, it might be discontinued, particularly as the hardware acceleration on free video drivers improves. Yet even if that happens, you should still have a year or more in which to consider alternatives.

Narrowing Down the Alternatives

As anyone familiar with the range of free software desktops is aware, these are only the leading contenders for GNOME 3 replacements. I have deliberately not mentioned most of the available window-managers, particularly the tiled ones, because anyone who wants to recreate the experience of GNOME 2 would probably not be satisfied with them.

Which of the seven summarized here you choose depends on how closely you want to recreate the GNOME 2 experience, and what you expect in a desktop. GNOME 3's fallback mode has an obvious advantage, but some may be angry enough at the changes to move away from GNOME entirely.

Those who want to replace one fully-equipped desktop with another might consider Trinity or Xfce if they want little change. If they are more adventurous, then the latest KDE or Unity might be worth investigating. If greater speed sounds attractive, then Enlightenment, LXDE become possibilities. If you want to balance features and speed, then Xfce may meet your preferences.

Eventually, a fork of the GNOME 2 series may become available. It will not be EXDE, a tentative project that recently explored the possibility and has apparently rejected it, but one will probably emerge if enough people are interested. Meanwhile, since you are dealing with free software, you have no shortage of alternatives to explore.

ALSO SEE: GNOME vs. KDE: The Latest Round

AND: Best Linux Desktop Backup Utilities

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