GNOME Shell Review: Minimal Desktop with Great Performance

Gnome Feature

If I had to guess, I would probably say that a huge majority of Linux users have used GNOME Shell in one way or another. It’s the default Desktop Environment on a huge number of very popular Linux distributions, including Ubuntu, Fedora, and Pop!_OS, and it’s an option for installation on even more. Covered in this GNOME Shell review are performance, user experience, and some notable features. I also make recommendations on who I think GNOME Shell is a good fit for.

First Impressions

The first thing that strikes me when I look at GNOME is how simple it is. The default interface has just a top bar with a simple system tray in the upper right and an “Activities” button in the top left. The desktop is incredibly clean and minimal, and would likely be a great fit for someone who’s always hated desktop shortcuts and folders. There’s nothing – it’s just clean and simple. 

Gnome Login Screen
Gnome Desktop
Gnome Lock Screen

The other thing that really strikes me is how smooth the animations are. I used macOS for a long time, and with the animations as smooth as they are there, what with 1:1 tracking for switching between virtual desktops and gradual fades in and out for opening the applications menu, I’m surprised at how similar it is to GNOME. Many Linux Desktop Environments have completely done away with animations, but it’s a nice-to-have for me.

User Experience

While the UI might not be quite as intuitive as something like KDE Plasma or MATE, the workflow on GNOME shell is great. The desktop is clean when you want it to be, but when you press the Super key (or click on “Activities” in the upper left), you’ll be greeted with a dash on the left and a workspace picker on the right.

The dash holds your favorite applications, with an option to bring up the applications menu as well. The default number of workspaces is one, but GNOME Shell has an awesome dynamic workspace management feature that means you’ll always have one more workspace than you do with applications open. 

Gnome Shell Overview

GNOME Shell Extensions

The GNOME Shell Extensions are a great way to add a little spice to your GNOME Desktop. By going to the extensions website, you’ll be able to get access to a huge number of little applets and extensions to make your GNOME desktop work the way you want it to. We have a great article on some extensions to modernize your GNOME desktop. There are so many to choose from that it’s impossible to list them all here. 

Gnome Shell Extensions

GNOME Core Applications

One of the things that I really appreciate about GNOME is that some (not all) of the built-in apps are really great. I personally love GNOME Terminal because it’s a really simple terminal emulator that doesn’t give me a bunch to do. It just opens and does its job. That’s the theme of GNOME Core Applications and GNOME Shell in general – simple and to the point. 

Another great Core App is Gedit. It’s not the most feature-rich text editor in the world, but it has some great functions you may want in your first Linux Desktop. Find and replace, syntax highlighting, and a clean user interface make Gedit a solid first editor. 

Gnome Shell Gedit

GNOME Human Interface Guidelines

While some may consider GNOME’s interface to be un-intuitive, they’ve actually done a lot of work to make it usable for a wide range of people. The GNOME Project’s Human Interface Guidelines dictate that everything should have a consistent GUI style and should be based on physical and cognitive ergonomics. They’ve been around long enough that they’re able to specifically focus their efforts on making it as usable as possible. If you’re an application developer wondering how GNOME apps can all look the same, you should look at the GNOME HIG. 

Accessibility

Part of the GNOME HIGs is accessibility for people with disabilities. Many of their design principles are focused on it, and they also create specific software on top of GNOME Shell to allow for greater accessibility. Screen readers, magnifying features, and virtual on-screen keyboards are just some of the great features that people with disabilities may consider using on GNOME Shell. 

Gnome Shell Accessibility

Performance

While the excellent performance of GNOME Shell 3.36 is undeniable, so is the system resource usage. A fresh boot of stock Fedora 32 Workstation uses just under 1 GB of RAM and around 1% CPU. Relative to something like Enlightenment, that’s quite a lot. 

Gnome Shell Htop

However, that system resource usage is a sacrifice that someone may make for a rock-solid Desktop Environment for a mission-critical system. I have battle-tested GNOME Shell personally, and I can say that no matter what I throw at it, it always comes through for me in the end. On top of the reliability, the animations are smooth, applications open quickly, windows snap well, and it’s overall a really nice experience using GNOME. 

The Cons of GNOME Shell

Earlier, I said that some, but not all, of the GNOME Core Apps are good. This is because there’s so much that ships with GNOME Shell that it’s mediocre at best. Totem, the video player, supports so few video codecs that its purpose on my system is to remind me how great VLC is. Plus, GNOME Software is one of the heavier applications on the desktop, regularly eating up a huge chunk of my system RAM and bringing GNOME to a halt on systems with limited RAM. Thankfully, there are members of the community who have taken the liberty of creating automated ways to create minimal installs of distros running GNOME.

Where to Experience GNOME

Fedora is arguably the best distro to experience vanilla GNOME at its finest. It gives a more updated Adwaita icon theme than many other GNOME Shell implementations, and it’s a very clean, modern, and simple implementation of GNOME. They spend a lot of time working to tightly integrate with GNOME, and it shows in the polish of the final product. Plus, with Fedora 32 Workstation using the newest GNOME 3.36, the performance is excellent and the styling is beautiful.

Gnome Shell Neofetch

Who Should Use GNOME?

It all depends on your use case. If you have a system with very limited memory (less than 4 GiB RAM), I don’t know if I’d recommend GNOME Shell without some kind of out-of-memory killer. Fedora 32 has EarlyOOM enabled by default, which will help you manage your limited memory better than the built-in out of memory manager in the Linux Kernel. 

If you have a laptop, I cannot recommend GNOME enough. The adoption of Wayland on GNOME makes touchpad gestures much easier to manage with extensions, and it makes Linux feel like a first-class citizen on a laptop for what feels like the first time ever.

GNOME is also a great place to mess around with the experimental feature of fractional scaling. Check out this guide to enable experimental fractional scaling in GNOME.

If you enjoyed this GNOME Shell Review, make sure to check out some of our other Linux Desktop Environment Reviews, like XFCE, LXDE, LXQt, Pantheon, Budgie, and Deepin, and some of our other GNOME content, like this one on GNOME Shell keyboard shortcuts.

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John Perkins John Perkins

John is a young technical professional with a passion for educating users on the best ways to use their technology. He holds technical certifications covering topics ranging from computer hardware to cybersecurity to Linux system administration.

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