6 reasons why GNOME is still the best Linux desktop environment

6 reasons why GNOME is still the best Linux desktop environment

GNOME 3 is a responsive and stable environment that allows the user to focus with minimal distractions.

6 reasons why GNOME is still the best Linux desktop environment
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Gunnar Wortmann via Pixabay. Modified by Opensource.com. CC BY-SA 4.0.

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I've been using Linux for about 15 years now, trying multiple desktop environments along the way. For the majority of my career, I was a diehard KDE Plasma user (starting with version 2.x). I stuck with Plasma for the majority of the 4.x series, eventually moving on due to stability issues. I've tried Xfce, MATE, Openbox, and many others, but ever since I switched to GNOME 3, I've never looked back. It's a responsive and stable environment that allows me to focus on my work with minimal distractions.

Here are six reasons I thoroughly enjoy the GNOME 3 Shell.

1. Smart and stable

I haven't experienced any issues with stability since switching to GNOME 3. I've run it on three System76 machines and two Dell Latitude laptops, and it's worked like a charm on each. The experience couldn't be better—it's rock solid and never crashes. This is very important—I use GNOME 3 for work, and the last thing I want is to lose what I'm working on—and lose precious time.

Although my experience with GNOME 3 has been solid, I have seen crashes while testing beta distributions that weren't fully baked. While these crashes were typically due to faulty beta drivers (rather than GNOME itself), GNOME 3's recovery feature still allows me to recover from lockups. If the shell ever stops responding, all I have to do is press ALT+F2, then R and Enter to restart the session without losing any application that was running. In fact, even after forcefully restarting the GNOME Shell, it not only brings back my applications but also puts them back on the same display/workspace they were on before the restart.

This just goes to show you how smart and stable it is—it never really crashes for me, yet it still has a built-in recovery feature so I can restart the entire session without losing my work.

2. Stays out of the way

One of the complaints I've heard about GNOME 3 is that the desktop components are too large and take up too much real estate on the display. But I think GNOME 3 has a cleaner interface than most other environments. Most of its desktop components are contained within the activities overview, with just a single (very skinny) panel on the top of the screen, leaving the rest of the desktop free for whatever I'm working on. GNOME 2.x and MATE with the default layout had two panels that took up twice as much space. Although you can customize environments like MATE to use a single panel, GNOME 3.x does away with the two-panel layout of old, leaving more room for your applications.

Since most of GNOME's desktop components are contained within the activities overview, it never gets in my way. If I want to focus even harder on something, I can simply press F11 while using GNOME's terminal application and make it take up my entire screen. If I want to access the GNOME interface again, I simply press the Super key. Of all the desktop environments I've tried (and I've literally tried them all), GNOME makes me more productive and leaves more room on my display for the things that really matter to me.

3. Display switching actually works

For many years, I've used a laptop with a docking station hooked up to dual displays, and this has been the single most frustrating part of using Linux. I can't count how many times I've lost work because my laptop froze while docking and redocking, or the many Xorg Server crashes I've experienced as a result. I'd pretty much gotten used to the idea that using docking stations with Linux is chaotic—until I switched to GNOME 3.

GNOME 3, so far, is the only desktop environment I've used that is completely reliable with a docking station. When I undock, GNOME switches on my laptop display and moves all the applications I had running on the two displays to the single internal display. GNOME not only handles docking without locking up, it's also smart enough to move the applications back to the displays they were on before undocking. This works completely flawlessly for me, with no freezes or crashes. Since I use a docking station, GNOME seems to be my best choice.

4. Lots of extensions

Some people say GNOME 3's default interface is very limiting and there's not much you can do to customize it. While the defaults work great for me, it's simply not true that there is no customization in GNOME. Its interface can be customized with extensions that allow you to tweak the environment just the way you like. These extensions can display current weather conditions, add a refresh icon to the list of wireless networks in NetworkManager, insert new menus, and do much more. Extensions are available at extensions.gnome.org, and you can manage them through the GNOME Tweak tool.

Extensions are both a blessing and a curse, because the countless extensions available have varying degrees of stability and quality. The best extensions allow you to do things you wouldn't normally be able to, while the worst ones may slow down the environment or cause it to crash. My recommendation is to use extensions lightly (quality over quantity). Too many extensions can cause stability issues or clutter up the environment. On average, I try not to install more than three extensions. I find this gives me just the amount of spice I need to enhance the experience without bogging it down. My personal favorites are OpenWeather, TopIcons Plus, and Workspace Indicator. Although Dash to Dock is quite possibly the most popular extension (and the one most newcomers install first), I don't use it because I don't find having a panel to be very useful, given that the default GNOME 3 experience is efficient at handling multiple applications on its own.

While extensions can be great, for the most part I don't really need them. GNOME 3's default layout more than suits my needs, and any extensions I install simply enhance the experience, but aren't required for me to get my work done.

5. Dynamic workspaces feature

Dynamic workspaces is one of the features that makes using GNOME 3 a must for me. The concept is simple. You start out with a single workspace and more are automatically added as you need them. You can easily view all the applications running on a workspace simply by pressing the Super key. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you're the type of person who ends up with windows hiding behind other windows, this makes it easy to see exactly what is running and allows you to close applications you're not using. Holding the Ctrl+Alt keys while pressing the Up or Down arrow allows you to switch between active workspaces. As you open applications on a workspace, a new blank workspace is automatically created for you to start using. When you close all the applications in a workspace, they're deleted for you.

This may seem like a jarring difference from how we've historically managed running applications, but if you give it a try, you may end up preferring this method. I typically have a single application running in each workspace. I find that switching between them by using the Ctrl+Alt+Up/Down arrow key combination is much faster and more efficient than clicking on an application in a panel. If I want to run multiple applications in a workspace, I tile them against the left and right edges of the display.

Another thing I like about GNOME 3's way of handling workspaces is that, if you have more than one display attached to the computer, by default only one display has workspaces enabled. This means that as I switch workspaces, only my left monitor cycles between them. The display on the right stays static. This allows me to have a terminal window open on my right-hand display, and I can switch to the workspace with my email client when I want to check my messages—without losing sight of what's going on in the terminal.

6. Customizable themes

To be honest, the default GNOME 3 theme is not the most beautiful one I've ever seen in a desktop environment (while certainly not the worst). Its simplicity is nice, but for someone like me who enjoys tinkering and theming, it's important that I can customize the visuals to suit my tastes.

Thankfully, installing themes in GNOME is easy. To install a new theme, you simply download it (gnome-look.org is a nice source) and extract the downloaded archive into the .themes directory within your home directory. By using the GNOME Tweak tool, you can cycle among the themes you have installed. This allows you to change the appearance of the applications as well as the GNOME Shell itself.

Until recently, there haven't been a whole lot of themes available for GNOME 3, with the Arc and Numix themes pretty much hogging all the spotlight. While those themes are certainly fine, it's nice to have more to choose from. Thankfully, ever since Ubuntu announced it is switching to GNOME as the default desktop environment, the theming community seems to be working overtime, and many more themes are available now. My personal favorite currently is Vimix Dark. What's yours?

Although I typically check out other desktop environments to stay current on the evolution of desktop Linux, I always come back to GNOME. And while GNOME 3.x may not be for everyone, I recommend giving it a thorough chance. While the GNOME way of doing things may seem strange at first, it is a great desktop environment and allows me to do my work with more efficiency than any graphical user interface I've ever used, Linux or otherwise. Because I enjoy using GNOME 3, I'm eager to see what enhancements the developers have in the works.

Looking for more reasons to love the GNOME desktop environment? Check out these two other articles about great features in GNOME:

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About the author

Jay LaCroix - Jay LaCroix is a technologist from Michigan, with a focus on Linux and open-source software. Using Linux since 2002, Jay has been a die-hard fan ever since. He is currently a DevOps Engineer and freelance consultant and enjoys training and empowering others to use Linux and to make the most of this amazing software. In his free time, Jay is an author of books such as Linux Mint Essentials, Mastering Linux Network Administration and most recently, Mastering Ubuntu Server. In addition, Jay... more about Jay LaCroix