What's the best Linux desktop environment?

Examining the usability of Gnome and Unity

11.10

Ubuntu unity

Ubuntu ruffled quite a few feathers when it decided to promote its netbook Unity interface to the desktop, replacing Gnome 3 Shell. Even users who liked Unity on a netbook didn't think it was appropriate for the desktop, and Ubuntu was criticised both for fragmenting the Gnome ecosystem and releasing a radical interface that promised more than it delivered.

In a keynote speech at OSCON in 2008, Ubuntu's Mark Shuttleworth laid out his intentions to take on Apple in terms of the quality of the desktop experience. "I think the great task in front of us in the next two years is to lift the experience of the Linux desktop from something stable and usable and not pretty to something that's art," he said.

After the 11.04 release, many experts believed that Ubuntu invested a lot of time rebuilding an interface that didn't need fixing in the first place.

Time for redemption

Asking for the community to pitch in to help improve Ubuntu, Jono Bacon acknowledged that Unity 11.04 was rough around the edges. He also stressed the importance of quality in the Unity experience and re-iterated Shuttleworth's "fit and finish" goal for Unity in 11.10.

The list of improvements start before you log in, with GDM making way for the LightDM login manager. There are many improvements in the Launcher, including better app integration.

Ubuntu has also replaced the traditional Places function with Scopes and Lenses, which give users access to lots of filtering options on their searches, such as file type, date modified, etc.

Acting on user feedback, there's also new Alt+Tab functionality that will work across multiple desktops, and a new Power menu that lets users access various settings straight from the Unity panel.

Unity was under heavy development while we were compiling this feature, but despite the fact that Ubuntu 11.10 was only up to its beta 2 release, there were marked differences in the Unity interface.

All our testers noted similarities between Gnome Shell and Unity and their radical departure from the Gnome 2.x series. Some found it easier to get started with Unity – the Launcher with a few common apps is visible when the desktop loads. To launch additional applications, they headed to the Dash Home Launcher, which has shortcuts to categories of apps such as Media and Internet.

Those not familiar with the app names in Linux-land, found the Activities shortcuts, such as View Photos, Check Email and Listen to Music, very helpful. As they started exploring, frequent clicks to the More Apps shortcut turned off users who were unfamiliar with the names of the distro's apps. That was until they discovered the Filter Results option, which breaks down the huge list into separate, more familiar categories.

Unity 2d

Surprisingly, many found Gnome's approach more practical as they had no option but to head straight to Activities. Unity's Dash Home tooltip was described as confusing and didn't describe what they'd find inside. In Unity, they also had to Filter Results to get app categories, whereas in Gnome they're already visible.

Users who knew the name of the app simply typed it into the search box much like in Gnome. But those on the touchscreen laptop found it rather inconvenient to switch from one input interface to another, and preferred to navigate to the apps via touch.

After settling in, though, most users' workflow wasn't very different, as they just pinned the most frequently used apps to the Launcher.

The one feature all users moaned about was the on-screen keyboard. Unlike in Gnome, once enabled in Unity it's displayed permanently and hoards limited desktop real estate, which is why many decided to turn it off, even on the touchscreen laptop.

A feature everyone liked, though, was the Zeitgeist-powered search bar in the Dash, which looks for all types of files besides applications.

Thanks to the close integration between Unity and the other bits of Ubuntu, regular desktop users were blown away by the ability to automatically install apps from the software centre. One user, who had a nightmarish experience installing Skype on Windows 7, couldn't believe his eyes when Ubuntu installed it for him in one click.

The search in Gnome Shell only gives options to look for terms that don't match any file or application on the system, on Wikipedia and Google. For those who regularly use those websites that's very handy, but they'd happily trade it for Ubuntu's app integration.

Users also liked the right-click context menu on Unity's Launcher icons. For example, Chromium gives options to open new windows in incognito mode or with a temporary profile, as well as to open a new instance or to pin the app in the Launcher. Gnome Shell, on the other hand, only offers options to do the latter two.

Unity is also better equipped to handle open apps. As an example of Gnome Shell's apparent lack of usability, Torvalds wrote that when he clicked an icon for an app, such as the terminal, it brought only the existing terminal to the forefront. Most of our testers were annoyed by this as well. Clicking on the icon in Unity launches a new instance of the app.

The third most visible advantage of Unity over Gnome Shell is the behaviour of the Alt+Tab window switcher. If you have multiple windows for a particular app, under Unity you can cycle through all of them seamlessly. However, in Gnome Shell, testers were irritated they had to use the mouse to choose windows grouped under a particular app.

Many noticed the new Power button in the top right-corner and used it to install updates and apps to use attached devices, such as webcams. Power users liked the fact that they could easily point to any apps that they wanted to launch at startup.

But there are those who still aren't impressed by Unity. Werdmuller said: "Whereas there's been so much innovation on the Linux desktop, this feels a copy of what's happened in the commercial world – and inevitably, it's less useful than the interfaces it takes inspiration from. For me, the selling point of Linux is still its different approach!"

Step-by-step: Installing Gnome 3 in Ubuntu

1. Install from repo

Gnome 1

Since Ubuntu 11.10 is based on Gnome 3, there's no need for a PPA to install Gnome Shell. Just pull gnome-shell from the Ubuntu Software Centre and you're all set.

2. Get fallback mode

Gnome 2

Search for and install the gnome-panel package. Now the login manager will have additional options to let you log in to the Classic mode.

3. Tweak Gnome

Gnome 3

If you aren't satisfied with Gnome Shell's config options and want to further customise your desktop, grab gnometweak- tool from the Ubuntu repos.