This is how all happened. I was trying to search good screen recorder and found on some website that recordMyDesktop will work well under GNOME *Shell. So I tried searching in google "how to find whether I'm using gnome shell". The first link directed me to official gnome wesite there it showed a message as below. enter image description here So I thought it is something to do with desktop environment and continue browsing as below.

In this question I tried first answer to find my desktop environment, but the command DESKTOP_SESSION gave me "command not found". So I tried 5th answer by Nadiw. The command and output are as below.

ls /usr/bin/*session
/usr/bin/ck-launch-session  /usr/bin/gnome-session

So it is confirmed I'm using GNOME but it is not showing as desktop environment instead its showing "session", by which I got confused.

Hence I tried third answer by Luis Alvarado from this post. The command and output are as below


Now I found this totally irrelevant. My questions are

  1. If the desktop environment is Unity how can it use a session of GNOME and GNOME shell.

  2. How GNOME shell is different from bourne shell, t shell and others

  3. Or if one of the outputs I'm getting is wrong? Then how to find which DE i'm using? And which is the default DE for Ubuntu 14.04.

  4. On which of these factors I should depend while downloading a software? Whether it is Desktop Environment or session or shell?

  • This doesn't answer your question about desktop environments, but recordMyDesktop works beautifully for me using Ubuntu with the standard Unity shell. It also worked great back in the Gnome 2 days (before Gnome Shell existed). Sep 22, 2014 at 5:33

2 Answers 2


DESKTOP_SESSION is not a command, it's a variable. You can do echo $DESKTOP_SESSION to see what the value is, just like with XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP:



(I'm using GNOME Shell. Yes, I did not get any output for XDG_DESKTOP_SESSION. This is a known bug.)

This output is not irrelevant:


It is the most relevant bit of information you have, that you are running the Unity shell.

  1. To install Gnome Shell:

    sudo apt-get install gnome-shell

    See the third of the reference links for screenshots for selecting Gnome Shell.

  2. The interface, the part that you interact with, is called a shell. The Bourne shell and other classic shells are command line shells. Gnome Shell, Unity, etc. are graphical shells.
  3. The default Desktop Environment for Ubuntu is GNOME 3, with the Unity shell and other modifications. Because the base is GNOME, you'll see some output which is true for GNOME Shell as well, for the various tests.
  4. Usually, none. The answer to this is very complicated and application-dependent. Have a look at the fifth linked question.

As for the browser error, if it persists after you start using Gnome Shell, see the FAQ.

Also see:

  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. How do I install and use the latest version of GNOME?
  4. What is the default desktop environment for Ubuntu 13.10?
  5. When installing packages (particularly those with graphical UIs) how do you determine which is fitting for your distribution?
  • May I ask a small question: is there a list of all $ variables ? I can autocomplete $XDG_ by pressing tab, and it shows several possibilities, but surely there are other variables, related to other programs and parts of the OS Sep 22, 2014 at 5:05
  • @Xieerqi try the env command or try tab completion with only $.
    – muru
    Sep 22, 2014 at 5:06

To answer your question number 2, a shell is command interpret. You communicate with OS through shell. In GNOME and Unity you do it graphically, by clicking on stuff, and in Bourne shell - by text commands entered into terminal

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