Ubuntu Unity vs GNOME 3: Which Is Better for You?

For Linux users, few decisions are as contentious as choosing between the Ubuntu Unity and GNOME 3 desktop environments. Both are highly polished, modern interfaces aimed at providing an intuitive experience for users. However, there are passionate fans on either side defending their preferred desktop.

As an independent technology writer who has used Unity and GNOME 3 extensively over the past decade, I aim to provide an unbiased, detailed comparison. My goal is to give you the information to decide which interface better matches your needs and preferences as a Linux user. This article examines the following key factors:

  • Ease of use for beginners vs customization for experts
  • Appearance and aesthetic appeal
  • Performance and hardware requirements
  • Applications and software ecosystem
  • Community support and development

To start, let‘s look at the origins and core features of each desktop environment.

Evolution of Two Linux Desktops

Ubuntu Unity first appeared in 2011 as a radical rethinking of the GNOME 2 desktop. Prior versions of Ubuntu used GNOME as the default interface, but Canonical decided to build their own custom shell. Some of Unity‘s signature elements include:

Launcher – The vertical launcher bar condenses access to apps, files, and system functions on the left side. It auto-hides when not in use.

Dash – The Dash pulls double duty as an application launcher and file browser. Search and filters help you quickly find anything.

Workspaces – Multiple workspaces allow you to organize open application windows across virtual desktops.

Head-Up Display (HUD) – The HUD enables accessing menus by tapping the Alt key and typing, which aims to save time over clicking through menus.

GNOME 3 emerged right around the same time as Unity, delivering a major overhaul of the GNOME 2 interface. It adopted new concepts like:

Activities Overview – This view displays all open windows, workspaces, notifications, and system options via search and large icons.

Applications Menu – The always visible applications menu runs horizontally across the bottom, splitting apps into categories.

Customizable Top Bar – The top bar can be customized by adding clocks, notifications, system trays, calendars, and other items as desired.

Extensions – Third-party extensions allow tweaking or replacing major components of the GNOME shell, unlocking customization potential.

Now that we‘ve covered the basics of each desktop, let‘s do a deeper dive into the factors you should consider when choosing one or the other.

Ease of Use

For new Linux converts, especially those coming from Windows or MacOS, both Unity and GNOME 3 offer simpler, cleaner interfaces than traditional Linux desktops like GNOME 2 or KDE Plasma 4. But there are some differences that impact their ease of use and learning curve:

Getting Started

  • Unity puts key apps front and center in the launcher. The Dash provides one place to find and launch any application or file.

  • GNOME 3 relies more on the Activities overview, which aggregates everything but can feel cluttered. The Applications menu takes more clicks to browse.


  • Unity‘s HUD overlay enables rapidly accessing app menus with the keyboard once you learn the shortcuts.

  • GNOME has no equivalent to the HUD, requiring clicking through layered menus.


  • GNOME menus and settings offer more descriptions and help integrated for new users. Unity is more spare, leaving users to direct exploration.

Based on my experience, GNOME 3 has a slight edge for brand new Linux adopters coming from other operating systems. Ubuntu Unity favors those with some Linux familiarity who are willing to invest time mastering the HUD and keyboard shortcuts.

However, both desktops are highly usable even for newcomers to Linux. Neither environment will be as challenging to pick up as old-school Linux UIs.

Customization & Power Users

While easing adoption for new users is crucial, customization remains important for many power manipulators. The good news is both desktops allow significant tailoring, but in different ways:

Unity Customization Features

  • Change themes, icons, add desktop files/folders, tweak launcher behavior

  • Add quicklists for right-click context menus on apps

  • Adjust transparency, fonts, dash behavior

GNOME 3 Customization Avenues

  • Extensions allow radical customization or replacement of UI elements

  • Theming controls look and feel while open source ethos encourages contribution

  • Tweak performance via advanced settings like disabling animations

In summary, GNOME 3 is the clear winner for customization. Developers and advanced Linux users have virtually unlimited possibilities through community extensions. Unity opts for a more locked down experience with less room for modification.

For those who desire granular control over their desktop environment, GNOME 3 is the superior choice. Ubuntu Unity favors simplicity over extensive customization.

Performance & Hardware

Given Linux‘s broad usage from tiny single-board computers to high end workstations, desktop environment performance and resource efficiency are important considerations:

Unity Performance

  • Lower CPU and RAM usage, especially suitable for netbooks and older hardware

  • Can run well even on lighter machines like the Raspberry Pi

  • Very snappy UI performance, thanks to optimization for lower specs

GNOME 3 Performance

  • Historically higher CPU/RAM usage, but improved significantly in recent versions

  • Defaults like animations and transparency effects impact performance

  • Reducing fancy visual effects improves speed, especially on lower end systems

  • Still lags Unity on super lightweight platforms like the Pi Zero

Here are some representative benchmarks comparing idle RAM usage after login:

Desktop RAM Used
Ubuntu Unity 275MB
GNOME 3 (No Extensions) 450MB
GNOME 3 (With Extensions) 650MB

For older or underpowered hardware, Unity is the clear choice. GNOME 3 has largely closed the performance gap, but Unity still shines on lower spec machines. On modern desktops and laptops, both environments deliver excellent speed.

Look and Feel

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to visual presentation. Individual aesthetic preference plays a major role in choosing a desktop interface.

Unity Look and Feel

  • Sleek, refined aesthetics using dark backgrounds and monochromatic tones

  • More conventional visual metaphor aligning with other mainstream OSes

  • Snappy animations and transitions focused on performance

GNOME 3 Aesthetics

  • Bright, colorful look with light backgrounds and large icons by default

  • Increased use of whitespace, preference for flat design language

  • Smoother animations and transitions with a more "elastic" feel

There are certainly users who strongly favor the cleaner Unity styling versus the more vivid aesthetics of GNOME 3, or vice versa. Thankfully both environments are highly themeable, allowing tweaking the look substantially.

In my view, aesthetics should not be a primary driver when choosing between these capable interfaces. Matching your workflow and productivity needs matters far more.

Default Software Selections

One important factor where individual preference makes a big impact is the default application selection:

Unity Software

  • Firefox for browsing, Thunderbird for email, LibreOffice for documents, Shotwell for photos, Rhythmbox for music

  • Mainstream apps like GIMP image editor, VLC media player, Transmission BitTorrent

GNOME Core Applications

  • GNOME Web (Epiphany) for browsing, Geary mail client, GNOME text/photo editors

  • Focus on aligning apps with open source ecosystem and design

Of course, both desktops allow you to install any alternative applications desired. The defaults are easy to change if you prefer different programs. Software availability should not drive your core desktop environment decision. Evaluate the interface and workflow separately from the apps.

Development Models

Looking "under the hood" at the development models powering Unity and GNOME sheds light on their differing philosophies:


  • Designed and built by Canonical as part of their commercial Ubuntu distribution

  • Follows a time-based release cycle with major versions every 6 months

  • Less public design discussion and more top down development


  • Created by the non-profit GNOME Project as a fully open source desktop

  • New major versions released only when ready, approximately every 6-12 months

  • Very transparent and open development process with community input

This explains some of the divergent priorities seen in the desktop environments. Ubuntu Unity is guided by Canonical‘s commercial interests, while GNOME answers to its community of contributors.

Community Support

The size and quality of a Linux desktop‘s community affects the support experience:

Ubuntu Forums

  • 2 million members make Ubuntu‘s forums one of the largest and most active

  • Constant user activity and quick answers to support questions

  • Reflects Ubuntu‘s mainstream popularity, especially with beginners

GNOME Discourse

  • Smaller user base gets involved with the open source process

  • Support oriented towards developers and technically advanced users

  • Less active than Ubuntu forums due to GNOME‘s relatively niche appeal

There is a tradeoff between Ubuntu‘s wider popularity and GNOME‘s dedicated but smaller following. New users may appreciate Ubuntu‘s vibrant community, while GNOME offers access to knowledgeable developers.

Verdict: Evaluating Your Needs

So now that we‘ve compared these two capable Linux desktops in depth, which one comes out on top? Here is my guidance based on different use cases:

  • For new Linux users seeking maximum ease of use, Ubuntu Unity has an edge. Its unified interface, HUD shortcuts, and simplified workspaces lower the initial learning curve.

  • For intermediate Linux users who don‘t mind tweaking their desktop but still value simplicity, Unity is often the better fit.

  • For power users and developers who desire extensive customization of their working environment, GNOME 3 excels. Extensions provide almost unlimited flexibility.

  • For lower powered hardware like netbooks or older machines, Unity delivers the best performance. GNOME 3 has largely closed the resource gap, but Unity remains more efficient.

  • For those who care deeply about aligned with free/open ideologies, contributing to GNOME 3 may be more rewarding than Ubuntu‘s corporate-backed model.

My goal was to illuminate the key factors at play when evaluating Ubuntu Unity versus GNOME 3. By taking stock of your needs and priorities as a Linux user, you can make the optimal decision. There is no universal "best" desktop environment – find the interface that meshes with your workflows and values. Both Unity and GNOME 3 are mature, capable choices for an enjoyable Linux experience.

Written by Jason Striegel

C/C++, Java, Python, Linux developer for 18 years, A-Tech enthusiast love to share some useful tech hacks.