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Unity Vs Gnome Shell : Comparative Review

These two desktop shells are the buzz words of many Linux enthusiasts these days. In fact, these two desktop shells deserve the credit since they brought the much needed public attention to Linux. Both have received their fair share of mixed reviews from the community. I have used both of them and I think that both represent the future of the desktop environment in their own way. However, which one is better? Well, read on to get to know the answer to that million dollar question.

All right, first let’s get some info about the two environments. Then let’s compare both these desktop environments in terms of usability, customizability and features.

Unity is a desktop shell developed by Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu. It first started of as an interface for the Netbooks. Later on from Ubuntu 11.04 it represented the default desktop shell of Ubuntu Desktop. Unity brings to the table indicators, a dash and launcher.  On the other hand, Gnome-shell is being developed by Gnome for the past few years. It also brings lots of new features like an overview mode, launcher, integrated chat support, dynamic workspaces and many more.

Features

Let’s look at all the features offered by Gnome-Shell and Unity.

Gnome-Shell

  • Overview mode
  • Launcher (only show in overview mode)
  • Dynamic Workspaces
  • Integrated chat
  • Online calendar support
  • Gnome-shell extensions
  • Integrated notifications

Unity

  • Dash
  • Launcher
  • Easy notification of progress, email and messages count in the launcher
  • Lens and Scopes(search filters)
  • Sound and messaging indicator
  • Support for user made indicators

I am not going to dive into detail about each of these features since the community should definitely be aware by now about them. The main important thing to focus here is the similarity in the features offered by the both the shells like a dash or overview mode, launcher and notifications of new events like email and messages. Sure they perform them in a different manner but nonetheless they both offer similar features.

Still I believe that credit should be given where it is due.

The integrated chat in gnome shell is definitely attractive, convenient and is definitely superior to any solution presented in Unity. Also, the dynamic workspaces provides an easy way to manage workspaces without having to worry about adding and removing it manually.

However, on the other hand the status of the application shown in the Unity launcher like unread email count, progress bars, launch animation like wiggle and pulse is unique to Unity and is very helpful. In addition, the dash in Unity has a much wider potential due to Lenses and Scopes. There are at present over 30 lenses and scopes which are in development. They range from cooking lens to youtube video lens.

Verdict: Both Gnome-Shell and Unity are equal in this category

Customizability

Not all but many Linux users use Linux because of the freedom offered in modifying the desktop environment to their liking. This can be evident by looking at deviantart desktop screenshots or by just searching linux desktop screenshots on google. There is simply a huge variety of things you can do with your linux desktop which is why it is very important that Unity and Gnome-Shell also offer this function.

Few months back I would definitely have said that Gnome-Shell is a bit more customizable than Unity. This was mainly due to the gnome-shell extensions. However, at present Unity is fast catching up with its customization options due to applications like MyUnity and Ubuntu Tweak which we reviewed recently. You can find these reviews here and here.

Currently, I have around 10 gnome-shell extensions installed which makes my interactions with the shell easier and also adds more functionalities.

Gnome-Shell

  • Gnome-Shell extensions
  • Gnome-Shell themes
  • Custom icons
  • Gnome Tweak Tool
  • Manually edit icon sizes, spacing between icons in the overview mode

Unity

  • Custom indicators
  • Compiz manager (launcher icon size, opacity, keyboard shortcuts, )
  • Custom icons
  • MyUnity, Ubuntu Tweak and many more
  • Custom Lenses and Scopes

By using themes you can change the appearance of the overview mode, launcher which can also be done with Unity’s dash and launcher. In addition to this, Unity’s dash by default takes the colour of the wallpaper which is dynamic and creates a nice blend with the wallpapers.

The Gnome Tweak Tool helps you to change the behaviour of gnome-shell to your liking like adding minimize, maximize buttons, allow nautilus to manage the desktop, change themes, extensions and many more. On the hand, MyUnity and Ubuntu Tweak compliment this by providing customization option for Unity.

Gnome-Shell extensions can be compared to the gnome 2.x applets. All the functionalities that users need like weather applet, pomodora applets and customizing the behaviour of gnome-shell can be done with gnome-shell extensions. Lenses and Scopes are what Unity offers in this respect which increase the importance of the Dash considerably. But they are limited to only the dash while gnome-shell extensions can potentially modify the appearance and behaviour of the entire shell which is why Gnome-Shell is better than Unity in this aspect. Cinnamon (modified Gnome-Shell) is an excellent example to customizability of Gnome-Shell.

Also the presence of a website where all the shell extensions can be easily installed or disabled is definitely a bonus. The Ubuntu developers have already started to integrate all the lenses and scope under the Theme and Tweaks category in the Ubuntu Software Center. But this is still a work in progress.

Verdict: Gnome-Shell is better than Unity

Usability

In this category, I look at some key points like new user friendliness, work productivity and performance.

Looking at new user friendliness, Unity definitely since the launcher is shown always by default which is something a new user cannot miss. From there, the dash can be easily invoked since it is the first item on the launcher. While in Gnome-Shell, the overview mode can only be invoked by hovering or clicking the activities link at the top. This is not that intuitive as the Unity Launcher. Also by default, the launcher in Gnome-Shell is only available in the overview mode which is not productive. Sure you can change this behaviour with shell extensions but this is not something present by default.

Also, Unity now presents the Keyboard Shortcut overview when you hold on to the Super key which is helpful for both new and power users. It increases the discoverability which is lacking in gnome-shell.

Gnome-Shell is based on Mutter while Unity is backed by Compiz. Gnome-Shell no longers requires a 3D hardware driver to run which means more range of computers can run it without any problems. Unity 2D is the counterpart of this although it is lagging behind its Unity 3D in terms of bug fixes.

Verdict: Unity is better than Gnome-Shell due to its new user friendliness

Final Verdict

Hmm..which one is better? I believe that these desktop shells should be thought more like Linux Distros. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages and most importantly you are free to choose which one you like. Do not let this blog post or any other blog post or anyone for that matter make that choice for you. Despite all the negative remarks that these shell environments may have got, try it out yourself for at least a month and then make the decisions. They both represent the future of computing and interaction with the desktop. Sure you need to change some of your old habits but that is all part of the change. Each of these shells perform some tasks better than the other and you choose the one which suits your tastes and the functions you need it to perform. Its like comparing Arch Linux and Ubuntu. If you are someone who doesn’t care about getting dirty with configuration files and need up to date software then Arch Linux is the one you need. While if you are new to Linux or like things that just work then Ubuntu is what you should choose.

At the end of the day, use what suits you! Just think, Imagine you are someone who reads his email online then Unity’s launcher showing email notification, unread mail count..are not that useful. While the same lies with Gnome Shell in terms of chat notifications. It all depends on the feature that affect you that matters the most. And this alone should influence the decision about which desktop shell to go for.

Otherwise, why choose? Just install both these desktop shells on your system and choose anyone at the login screen. That’s the beauty of Linux! Choice is abundant..If you were to hear complaints from windows users about a certain feature in windows. There is nothing much they can do about that..while you have nothing to worry since a simple apt-get install will solve any problem you might have.

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