5 Alternatives to Unity in Ubuntu Oneiric

With the past few releases, Ubuntu has been focusing more and more on their homegrown desktop Unity. Some people love it, but a lot of us don’t. Fortunately, as with all things Linux, there are many alternative options. For those of us who just can’t find a way to unite with Unity, here are 5 great options that you might find you like better.

1. Gnome 3 with Gnome Shell

Let’s get the most obvious choice out of the way first. Historically, Ubuntu has always run the Gnome desktop environment. Gnome was one of the first DEs for Linux, and is still going strong. When they recently released version 3, it was a complete overhaul of both the desktop interface and much of the software behind it. Currently, Ubuntu uses Gnome 3’s backend software with the Unity desktop, but if you want the full Gnome 3 experience you need Gnome Shell.


As regular readers may know, we’ve covered Gnome Shell in detail several times before.

Gnome shell can be installed through the Ubuntu Software Center, or from the command line with

2. KDE

The other big kid on the block is KDE. It and Gnome have been battling for the Linux desktop for years, each with their own group of avid supporters. As one of the heavyweight contenders, KDE packs a full suite of mature and capable software, a beautiful desktop, and decades of Linux desktop design experience.


All of KDE’s power and flexibility does not come cheap. A full KDE installation is a pretty hefty thing, and for all its fine points, KDE might not be a great option for low end or mobile computers.

KDE can be installed through the Ubuntu Software Center or from the command line with

or if you want, download Kubuntu, which comes with KDE as the default DE.


For a long time, XFCE was jokingly known as “Gnome Lite”. It uses similar backend software (such as GTK) and has an overall look and feel similar to the Gnome 2.x series. It’s generally regarded as lighter and faster than Gnome, however most of those comparisons were made prior to Gnome 3. Now the two desktops take such vastly different approaches, and such comparisons would have less meaning.


Still, its resemblance to Gnome 2 is much of the reason why many people (including Linus Torvalds himself) have migrated to XFCE due to dissatisfaction with Gnome 3.

XFCE can be installed through the Ubuntu Software Center or from the command line with

or download Xubuntu which comes with XFCE.


A lightweight option that’s been growing in popularity lately is LXDE. It’s a desktop environment built around the OpenBox window manager. It includes several small apps and utilities like the PCManFM file manager and a custom panel and terminal.


LXDE is a fairly nice setup, particularly on lower-end machines, but it’s been this author’s experience that LXDE and its related apps always seem to have the feel of being almost done. If you’re the type of user who likes everything to be smoothly polished, feature-complete, and rock-solid – LXDE might not be great for you. If, however, you need something light, fast, and simple – I highly recommend you try it out. It may not be your dream desktop, but it’s almost there.

LXDE can be installed through the Ubuntu Software Center or from the command line with

5. Enlightenment (E17)

Once considered a thing of myth and legend, E17 is now a part of Ubuntu 11.10’s online repositories. Many years of development have gone in to this release, and it’s got loads of features. This is a desktop that aims to do it all – high performance, high productivity, extreme flexibility, and loads of eye candy. Chances are it does not much resemble any desktop environment you’ve used before, so if you decide to take the plunge, be prepared for a little bit of a learning curve.


Once you’ve learned to do things the “enlightened” way, it may be tough to switch back. E17 can be installed through the Ubuntu Software Center or from the command line with


Each of these has its own pros and cons. Some people love Gnome 3, some think it’s garbage. Some people use KDE every day, others won’t go near it. The beauty of Linux is that whatever you like, you can have it – for free. If it doesn’t exist, make it. That’s what open source is all about: choice. Hopefully this guide has helped you make yours.

Joshua Price

Josh Price is a senior MakeTechEasier writer and owner of Rain Dog Software


  1. Talking about Enlightenment (E17) I suggest you go and check Bodhi Linux. Bodhi is an Ubuntu derivative and has undergone a lot of work by Jeff hogland and his team to create a really usable E17 environment.
    On Distrowatch at the following URL

  2. I’m curious to know what people don’t like about it, just out of curiosity, being a developer myself. It might be helpful :)

    1. I’m using ubuntu 10.04 LTS on several machines, I put 11.10 on one and didn’t like the interface.

      All my systems have just one panel at the top.
      There is the menu icon with places in the dropdown menu.
      **DockbarX in the panel [Running applications]
      **Window Applets in the panel [titlebar and buttons]
      Clock and Volume contol

      **These applets didn’t work in 11.10 — even in classic mode

      I tried XFCE to make it look like Gnome 10.04, but in 11.10 I couldn’t find the gnome plugin/wrapper for Xfce

  3. Both Unity and Gnome3/Gnome Shell literally made me run from Ubuntu to Fedora 15 @ KDE 4.6. I love it.

  4. Josh, what I’ve been seeking is a way to reproduce on Ubuntu 11.10 GNOME2’s ability to move launch icons into the Ubuntu top panel – for an example of what I mean, see the screenshot from my 64-bit Ubuntu 11.04 setup. Is it possible to build something like this in the current version of KDE (I prefered GNOME2 to earlier versions of this interface) or XFCE or Enlightenment, with which I have no experience ? I’ve tried GNOME3, but couldn’t find any way to do this in that interface….


    1. Tavis is the KDE expert around here, but I know that Gnome Shell can do it with one of the Frippery extensions, as shown here.  http://intgat.tigress.co.uk/rmy/extensions/index.html

    2. Have you tried the Gnome-session-fallback? This will install the old Gnome interface (with panel, but based on Gnome 3).

      *sudo apt-get install gnome-session-fallback*

      1. Thanks for your reply, Damien ! I had indeed tried «Classic Gnome» with «Gnome-session-fallback» installed, and I’ve now tried tried it again, but the problem remains – when I click «Program» in the top panel and right click on, say, a browser in order to place the icon in the top panel as is SOP in GNOME2, what happens instead of the roll-down menu opening and providing me with the above option is that the browser launches. Thus I still find myself unable to customise my desktop with my most frequently used icons in the top panel. Have I misunderstood you – and in that case, what am I doing wrong ?…


        1. AFAIK, Linux Mint 12 will be using Gnome 3.x, but with a customized desktop that mimic Gnome 2.x functionality. I think you will have better luck with Linux Mint than Ubuntu.

    3. Xfce is almost identical to GNOME2. You can quite easily add those icons, though you might have to go to the panel’s menu and add the icons through the Items tab.

      1. Thanks for your comment, kkjdroid. I tried xfce, but wasn’t happy with it (pace Linus !). After installing Mint developer Clement Lefebvre’s Cinnamon 1.3 desktop environment (which works very well with Ubuntu), however, I’m quite happy with Oneiric, which I’ve installed on all four of my computers. My only problem, which I’ve detailed on another thread, is the regression in boot times we been seeing in recent releases….


  5. I’m a windows user but i do know that Ubuntu was the king of Linux on desktops but now with unity the new king is Fedora.

    But really it is about time Linux developers put their heads together and do some marketing to dramatically improve Linux.

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