What Unity Users Need to Know About Ubuntu 17.10’s GNOME Shell

Ubuntu 17.10 “Artful Aardvark” has dropped the Unity 7 desktop, instead switching to GNOME Shell. Ubuntu’s developers tried to make the GNOME Shell desktop work as much like Unity as possible, but there are still some big differences. Here’s what you need to know.

How GNOME Shell Works Differently From Unity 7

The GNOME Shell environment is designed to look familiar, even including an always-on-screen dock to replace the launcher, which is something that GNOME Shell doesn’t normally have.

Rather than clicking the Ubuntu logo icon at the top of the launcher, you’ll click the 9-dot “Show Applications” button at the bottom of the dock to view, search, and launch your installed applications. Most of the applications are the same ones Ubuntu used on Unity, as Unity has always borrowed a lot of applications from GNOME.

To open this screen with a hotkey, press Super+A. (The “Super” key is another name for the Windows key on most keyboards.)

To pin an application to the dock after launching it, right-click it and select “Add to Favorites”. Its icon will appear on the dock even when it’s closed, allowing you to more quickly launch it.

Rather than clicking the “Show Workspaces” button (which was disabled by default on Unity) to view an overview of your open windows and virtual desktops, you’ll click the “Activities” link at the top left corner of your screen. You can drag and drop windows to the virtual desktops at the left side of the screen here to move them between desktops.

To open this screen with a hotkey, press the Super key.

To move between workspaces, press Super+Page Down or Super+Page Up. To move windows between workspaces, press Super+Shift+Page Down or Super+Shift+Page Up. You can find more keyboard shortcuts on the official GNOME Keyboard Shortcuts page.

To select a Wi-Fi network, adjust your volume, sign out, lock your screen, turn off your PC, or access settings, click the status icons at the right side of the top menu bar.

To view your calendar and notifications, you click the time and date, which is located at the center of the top bar rather than at the right side.

You Can Finally Move the Launcher

Unity only allowed you to have the launcher on the left side of your screen, although a hidden option to move it to the bottom of your screen debuted in Ubuntu 16.04 LTS.

The launcher, now known as the dock, can now be positioned wherever you like. You can move it to the bottom or right side of the screen, and the option is easy to find. You can’t move it to the top, though—that part of the interface is reserved for the top bar.

To find this option, click the status icons at the top right corner of your screen and click the “Settings” icon, which looks like a wrench and screwdriver.

Select the “Dock” option here and choose the position you prefer from the “Position on screen” menu.

The HUD is Gone

The “heads up display”, or HUD, feature in Unity is now completely gone. This feature allowed you to press the “Alt” key in any application and get a search box where you could search for and type actions. For example, instead of clicking Format > List > Bulleted List in LibreOffice Writer, you could just press “Alt”, typed “Bulleted”, and select the “Bulleted List” option.

It was an interesting idea, but it never took off beyond Ubuntu and the Unity desktop. With the switch to the GNOME Shell environment, nothing like the HUD is available, even as an extension. It seemed like the HUD would have been dropped in the switch to Ubuntu’s Unity 8 desktop, anyway.

You Can Customize GNOME Shell By Installing Extensions

The GNOME Shell desktop is much more customizable than Unity. It features a full extension system. However, you must install a few pieces of software to enable it.

First, you’ll need to install the GNOME Shell Integration add-on for your web browser. If you use Firefox, get it from Mozilla Add-ons for Firefox. If you use Chrome or Chromium, install the add-on from the Chrome Web Store for Chrome or Chromium.

You’ll also need to install the integration software by launching a Terminal window and running the following command:

sudo apt install chrome-gnome-shell

Despite the package name, this is required for Firefox users as well as Chrome and Chromium browser users.

With the add-on and integration software installed, visit the GNOME Extensions site in your web browser to browse for extensions. Click an extension and set it to “On”. It will install and automatically activate. To disable an extension, find its page on the GNOME Extensions site and set it to “Off”.

Unity Tweak Tool Users Will Want GNOME Tweaks

The Unity Tweak Tool allowed Ubuntu users access to a variety of configuration options that were hidden by default. GNOME has something similar and, like the Unity Tweak Tool, it doesn’t come installed by default.

To install the GNOME Shell equivalent, open the Ubuntu Software application and search for “GNOME Tweaks”. This application was previously known as the GNOME Tweak Tool.

Launch the application and you’ll find a variety of advanced settings that aren’t normally exposed, like the ability to choose your desktop theme, manage startup applications, and see a list of your installed and enabled extensions without using the GNOME Extensions website.

You Can Move the Window Buttons Back to the Left (If You Want)

Ubuntu 17.10 moves the window buttons back to the right side of each application’s window title bar, where they are on most other Linux desktops and on Microsoft Windows.

However, if you’re really used to having the window buttons on the left, like on macOS or previous versions of Ubuntu, you can reverse this change. However, this may not work in every application you use. It depends on whether the application respects this setting or not.

To move your window buttons to the left, open a Terminal window and run the following command:

gsettings set org.gnome.desktop.wm.preferences button-layout 'close,minimize,maximize:'

To restore your window buttons to their default right position, open a Terminal window and run the following command:

gsettings set org.gnome.desktop.wm.preferences button-layout ':minimize,maximize,close'

You Can Still Install Unity 7, But You Probably Shouldn’t

You can still install the old Unity desktop on Ubuntu 17.10 if you prefer it. However, Unity has been moved from the main software repository to the “universe” repository of unsupported open-source software. It’s no longer being developed and won’t see any changes or fixes. It may have some bugs on Ubuntu 17.10 and will likely be removed completely within the next few releases of Ubuntu.

If you really want Unity, we recommend running Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, which is still supported. This long term support release features a properly supported Unity desktop.

But, if you really want to install Unity, Ubuntu 17.10 won’t stop you and neither will we. To do so, open a Terminal window and run the following command:

sudo apt install unity

Agree to the prompts and, after it’s all done, restart your PC. (Signing out instead of restarting should work, in theory, but we didn’t see the Unity option on the sign-in screen until we restarted.) Click the cog icon on the sign-in screen and select the “Unity” desktop option.

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+.