I often come across the terms Unity and GNOME while reading about Ubuntu. I understand that Unity is the default desktop environment for Ubuntu. What is GNOME and how is it related to/different from Unity?


3 Answers 3


What is GNOME?

GNOME is a lot of things. Usually, GNOME refers to GNOME Desktop Environment. Quoting the Arch Wiki:

A desktop environment bundles together a variety of X clients to provide common graphical user interface elements such as icons, toolbars, wallpapers, and desktop widgets. Additionally, most desktop environments include a set of integrated applications and utilities.

It is created and maintained by the GNOME foundation. They are the driving force behind a large number of popular applications, as well as the providers of a set of libraries such as GTK, GObject and even a language called Vala, which are used to build the applications in the GNOME DE, and are part of the GNOME project as a whole.

There are two relatively well known versions of GNOME: GNOME2, long since obsolete and dead, and GNOME3, the current version. Ubuntu have tracked GNOME (whichever version was current) for as long as I can remember. You can see GNOME2 in action in Ubuntu 10.04, for example. Once GNOME2 went away, a classic mode variously called GNOME Classic, GNOME Flashback (and possibly other names), with nowhere near the flexibility or customizability of GNOME2 was introduced. It just sort-of looked like GNOME2.

GNOME2 was forked to become MATE. MATE is the closest experience to GNOME2 you can get now, but with feature updates. Ubuntu MATE is now an official flavour.

GNOME3 is what you see when you look at the GNOME website, or when you install Ubuntu GNOME, and is underneath many applications in Ubuntu, and Cinnamon. MATE is adding support for GTK3, the library underneath GNOME3. Typically when end-users speak of GNOME3, they mean GNOME Shell (since that is what you see).

How does it relate to Unity?

You can think of GNOME as the parent of the Ubuntu default Desktop Environment (DE) (or an uncle, at least). It is the upstream project of many Ubuntu applications.

Ubuntu's default desktop environment uses most of the GNOME applications with a few changes:

  • Unity instead of GNOME Shell (up to Ubuntu 17.04)
  • Firefox instead of Web (once called Epiphany)
  • Thunderbird instead of Evolution
  • LibreOffice Write instead of Abiword
  • some patches to GNOME Terminal and Nautilus, I think.
  • Ambiance GTK theme instead of Adwaita
  • and perhaps a few more

Unity and GNOME Shell have a few similarities:

  • A top panel
  • A dock
  • A searchable replacement for the menu system for listing applications.

However, I think the similarities end there.

The Ubuntu GNOME distribution uses GNOME except the few cases where applications have been patched (like GNOME Terminal).

Relevant reading:

  1. What is the relationship between Unity, Gnome, Gnome 3, Compiz, Metacity, and LightDM?
  2. What kinds of desktop environments and shells are available?
  3. When installing packages (particularly those with graphical UIs) how do you determine which is fitting for your distribution?
  4. What is the default desktop environment for Ubuntu 13.10?
  5. What is a desktop environment, session and shell?
  • Ubuntu package does not contains Gnome, its default is Unity. I want to know does Ubuntu Gnome contains Unity alongside of its default Gnome? Mar 24, 2017 at 5:32

GNOME is a project that provide support GNOME desktop environment, which in turn uses the GNOME Shell as default shell. I will presume you are talking about the differences between the Unity shell and GNOME Shell (which are the only things that can be accurately compared).

Technically, the only differences is that while GNOME Shell uses mutter/clutter (and sometimes metacity, but is not the default) as window manager, Unity uses Compiz (in fact, Unity is a Compiz plugin, but lets forget about that) and the use of NotifyOSD instead of libnotify library. After that, there aren't any other important architectural changes. Both use most of the same libraries (which in turn seems to cause conflicts when you install both), and Unity provides integration with 3rd party services (with the Scope and Lens features).

Then the other differences are purely aesthetics, the use of top bar + launcher/dock (at the left) + dash vs GNOME's top bar + dash, the use of different theming, in general, they try to offer different user experience.

Now, from the institutional point of view, Unity is pushed forward by the Ayatana Project while as I said at the start GNOME Shell is developed by the GNOME project. And that's most of it. So, actually there's more in common between GNOME Shell and Unity than other shells, like kdm, xfwm4, etc.; through there's little in common between Unity shell and Cinnamon (if you ignore the use of GTK3).

  • what about gnome 2? you get a ton of people who talk about gnome classic and very few people run stock gnome 3 now
    – sbergeron
    Sep 21, 2014 at 22:45
  • @sbergeron really? Stock gnome 2 should be extinct by now (no mayor distro have gnome 2 package) and the question isn't about gnome 2, but plain GNOME (in which case I made a explanatory introduction about the differences). There's nothing in the question body/title that suggest the question is about Gnome 2, nor Ubuntu includes Gnome 2 package, so it's irrelevant.
    – Braiam
    Sep 21, 2014 at 22:55
  • except there are fallback modes, there is mate, and a lot of people talk about gnome as it used to be and that info is VERY useful. I know I would have found it useful as I've used gnome 2 and would have kept it if I could have, and have probably referenced it more times that I can count by now is some places
    – sbergeron
    Sep 21, 2014 at 22:56
  • 1
    The question really has nothing whatsoever to do with gnome 2. Braiam: I was hoping you would highlight the differences between gnome (as a project) and Unity as a DE.
    – Seth
    Sep 21, 2014 at 23:00
  • 1
    If you want to compare GNOME project with anything, it should be Ayatana, not with GNOME shell.
    – Braiam
    Sep 21, 2014 at 23:18

There exist a lot of different desktop environments and window managers for Linux. Gnome used to be the default one for Ubuntu, but in recent versions this has changed to being Unity.

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