Gnome-Based Desktop Environments Explained: MATE vs. Gnome Shell vs. Unity vs. Cinnamon

Ever since Gnome went ahead with their Gnome Shell idea, the Linux community has been at a frenzy to find a new desktop environment that is right for them. A majority of users used Gnome 2, but the introduction of Gnome 3 attracted a lot of users, forking Gnome 2 into MATE, modifying it with Cinnamon and Unity, or flock completely away from anything Gnome-related to desktop environments such as Xfce, LXDE, or KDE.

But the Gnome desktop environment came with a lot of popular software that supported it very well, which still leaves a lot of people trying to find the version of Gnome — MATE, Gnome Shell, Unity, or Cinnamon — that’s appropriate for them. Here’s a quick take at these four to see what the major differences are.



MATE is the continuation of Gnome 2, so if you’ve used Gnome 2 (or are still using a very old distribution to keep it), then MATE will seem extremely familiar. There may be a few applications with different names (Nautilus is called Nemo in MATE), but otherwise everything should be the same. The use of GTK3 is minimal if at all, so you won’t be able to benefit from any of those advancements. But it’s a great desktop environment if you were completely happy with the way things were and just want continued bug fixes. For more information, check out our full article about MATE.

Gnome Shell


Gnome Shell is the main desktop component of Gnome 3, which drastically changes how people use their computer. Some important differences is that everything is accessed through the Activities button in the top left corner, including open windows, installed applications, and virtual desktops. Also, applications can but aren’t meant to be minimized, but instead spread across multiple virtual desktops.

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This drastically changes your workflow, and a lot of people claim that it’s highly unintuitive. Gnome Shell also uses Mutter for desktop effects rather than Compiz (or whatever else might have actually worked), so mixing the two is impossible. However, Gnome Shell does use GTK3 which offers new visual effects, buttons, and more. If you are a Gnome purist, using Gnome Shell is given. For anyone else, it’s more a matter of if you like it or are able to work with it.



Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, looked at Gnome Shell’s progress while it was still being developed and disagreed with the way Gnome was doing things. Instead, Canonical created the Unity shell for Ubuntu systems. It runs on the same Gnome 3/GTK3 backbone, but the actual desktop mechanics are different. While you can find all of your applications via the Ubuntu Dash that is also found in the top left corner, it can also do plenty of other things through the use of different “lenses” which add functionality to the Dash. Otherwise, you can see all favorited or open applications along the left-hand panel, as well as minimize to those icons. It arguably presents a more intuitive approach to the desktop, but it still doesn’t stay traditional (no matter if your definition of traditional is Gnome 2 or a Windows-like desktop). People who don’t think that Unity is traditional enough tend to keep away from both Gnome Shell and Unity.



If you want to take advantage of the Gnome 3/GTK3 backbone without having to deal with Gnome Shell or Unity, then your best choice is Cinnamon. For a handful of people who still want to stay in the Gnome track and yet use the latest software, this may be their best choice. It lets people still use GTK3 themes as well as Gnome 3’s Control Center, but the desktop is very similar to that of Windows/KDE in that there is a single panel along the bottom of the screen, and a Start Menu-like button at the bottom left corner.

The Cinnamon project was created by the team behind Linux Mint, continuing their mission to fix what they believe are usability issues in Ubuntu. While Cinnamon is the default desktop environment for Linux Mint (with MATE available as well), both Cinnamon and MATE should be available for a large number of other distributions. A quick search in your package manager will tell you if this is the case or not. Just be sure that you’re running the latest release of your distribution to maximize the chances that it is included.


So in the end, there’s absolutely no way in saying which desktop environment is ultimately the best one for you. Each person has his or her own preferences that each of these may or may not cater to. In summary, if you prefer Gnome 2, MATE should be ideal. If you like the Gnome project’s ideas, give Gnome Shell a try. If you like a somewhat more sane and highly support desktop environment, Unity is a good choice. The only downside to Unity is that it’s pretty hard to find outside of Ubuntu itself.

Lastly, if you want to run on new, supported code but don’t want to relearn how to use your desktop, then Cinnamon may be best for you. These are only recommendations, and you’ll only truly know which one is best for you by trying them all out. Unless otherwise mentioned, you should be able to install these desktop environments via your respective package manager. Just to be extra sure, performing a quick Internet search of the desktop environment and your distribution (such as “fedora cinnamon”) should return the answers you need.

Which desktop environment do you use? What do you like about it, or hate about others? Let us know in the comments!

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