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How to Install & Use GNOME Shell on Ubuntu

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Give GNOME Shell a spin if you’re looking for a slick, new Linux desktop environment. It’s similar to Unity in some ways, but more flexible in others – GNOME Shell supports extensions, which can add missing features.

GNOME Shell is the default interface in GNOME 3, and it’s a clear break from GNOME 2. To try GNOME Shell without installing anything on your current system, use the Ubuntu GNOME Shell Remix live CD.

Installation

GNOME Shell is available in the Ubuntu Software Center, so you don’t have to do anything special to install it. Just search for and install the gnome-shell package

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You can also install GNOME Shell from the terminal with the following command:

sudo apt-get install gnome-shell

Logging In

To access GNOME Shell, sign out of your current desktop. From the login screen, click the little button next to your name to reveal the session options.

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Select the GNOME option in the menu and log in with your password.

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The Desktop

GNOME Shell’s desktop includes a minimal interface with just a top bar. By default, there’s no way to launch applications or view open windows without pulling up the Activities screen. Of course, the standard Alt-Tab keyboard shortcut works.

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The items on the top bar work similarly to the ones in Unity. Extensions can also add their own options to this bar.

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Unlike Unity, GNOME Shell doesn’t use a global menu bar. The menu bar stays in each application’s window. Of course, you can also disable the global menu bar in Unity.

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Activities

Click the Activities button on the top bar to pull up the activities overview. You can also press the Windows (or Super) key on your keyboard or just move the mouse cursor to the top left corner of the screen, which functions as a “hot corner.”

The applications bar, known as the dash, only appears on the activities screen. You can also browse and search for applications here.

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From the Windows tab, you can view your open windows. It only shows windows on the current workspace.

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Drag and drop windows to move them between workspaces. You can also switch between workspaces with the Ctrl-Alt-Up/Down keyboard shortcuts, or use the Shift-Ctrl-Alt-Up/Down keyboard shortcuts to move the current window between workspaces.

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Unity’s embrace of workspaces in the activities overview is a key difference from Unity. If you use workspaces, you may appreciate it – people that don’t use workspaces may dislike the importance placed on workspace window management.

GNOME Shell also differs from previous versions of GNOME by placing more of an emphasis on applications instead of just windows. Where each open window once took up a place on the GNOME taskbar, the activities overview now groups windows by application.

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Extensions

GNOME Shell’s included extensions system allows you to customize it and add features that you miss from other desktops. The GNOME Shell extensions website hosts a variety of extensions, which you can install with just a few clicks.

For example, the Applications Menu extension adds a GNOME 2-style applications men to the top bar.

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If you’re looking for a more traditional desktop, try the Cinnamon desktop or MATE, a fork of GNOME 2.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 04/30/12

Comments (9)

  1. MJ

    I’ve been using this for a month or two, and so far I found it better than Unity. It is not that I hate Unity, but just feel that Gnome Shell is more dynamic (chat notifications are great), and specially more stable. I could not play Sauerbraten on Unity, and on Unity 2D it would freeze from time to time. On the other hand I had no problem playing Sauerbraten on Gnome Shell (just an example).

  2. dmachop

    Don’t ever……ever do that in Ubuntu.

  3. Citrus Rain

    Over the past 4 months of my computer working, I’ve tried installing this on 11.10, and adding a mint partition just for the better gui. Both times ended with the same fail. My graphics card drivers couldn’t handle it being on a 36″ screen, and replaced various letters and numbers with solid white squares and rectangles.

    But 12.04 works properly with it, and I AM LOVING IT!
    I installed a taskbar called “flipper” (or something similar in spelling) so I could handle things faster. However that changes the desktops to be aligned horizontally rather than vertically, causing the extension to switch by using the scrollwheel on the left side of the screen to not be able to work. Also – the applications can’t be re-ordered like in GNOME 2 or Windows 7. And all 3 mouse buttons maximize or minimize. No right click menu.
    I also installed a “places” menu extension so I have a folder directory up by the bluetooth.

  4. Prasad Kumar

    I had always hated Unity from the very beginning. I started using GNOME Shell from the very beginning. In fact it is the first thing I do after installing Ubuntu. But in 12.04 I decided to give Unity a try. It is mainly because of the HUD feature. But I will be glad to go back to GNOME Shell once the Unity for GNOME Shell extension(http://www.omgubuntu.co.uk/2012/04/new-extension-brings-unity-dash-to-gnome-shell/) will be ready. I miss the chat notification, window management, the slick UI.

  5. Mohan

    I like Gnome Shell, but I feel like I can get done more on Unity, and I have ever since both desktop environments came out.

  6. cam2644

    The Gnome shell makes Ubuntu more like Mint- which is no bad thing.
    I’m trying Unity again on the 12.04 LTS but on another machine I’ve been impressed by Kubuntu 12.04LTS which uses KDE and could be a happy refuge for Unity escapees.

  7. jerry gosney

    I immediately switched from Ubuntu to Debian when the Unity desktop was released. Why fix what wasn’t broken? The Deb desktop is almost the same as gnome 2. I know what I want to do, where to find it and don’t have to deal with cryptic icons.

  8. Ric

    I used to like Gnome when suddenly Ubuntu switched to Unity, which I hate big time… So in the end I went to Kubuntu and I love it so much.

  9. chen

    I tried Unity from the very beginning when it came out, but I still can not find a way to like it. Classical Gnome 2 is just much more effective to promote productivity. I personally do not need BIG buttons solely for distraction.

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