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/had 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. This GNOME Shell review will cover performance, user experience, and recommendations on who will find GNOME Shell to be a good fit.

First Impressions

When you first log in to GNOME Shell, you are greeted with a very simple, clean interface that lets you focus on your work. It’s sleek, minimalist, and easy to work with. Additionally, once you get to some icons, many newer versions of GNOME have a very sleek icon pack and a simple but beautiful theme in Adwaita that makes for a nice, modern desktop.

Gnome Login Screen
Gnome Desktop
Gnome Lock Screen
GNOME has a very clean and simple design that gets out of your way

User Experience

GNOME has a bit of an unusual workflow. At first glance, it’s not immediately apparent how to navigate the system. There’s only the top bar, which houses everything you need in order to navigate GNOME. The Activities Overview, the Notifications Area, and the System Tray are all in that top bar.

In order to get to a dash with your applications and an app drawer with all the installed applications, you have to go to the upper-left corner and click “Activities.” Once you do, you’ll be greeted with an overview similar to the one below. In addition, as you start opening applications, you’ll see all your availble open windows, and you can choose to move to a different workspace that will give you a clean desktop again.

Gnome Overview
The Activities Overview on GNOME shows you your open windows, the dash with an app picker, and a workspace picker on the right

In the upper0right corner, you have your system tray. This will show you your sound and networking settings (including Wi-Fi, if applicable) and also give you options to change users, log off, or reboot/shut down your system. In the center of the top bar, there’s a clock that, when clicked, shows the notification panel and a calendar where you’ll get events synced straight to your desktop if you connect an online account.

GNOME Shell Extensions are the natural way to add in little applets or features you want in your desktop. Extensions do many things, like change the ways GNOME works, or add new features to improve your productivity. With the release of GNOME Shell 3.36, extensions are a first-class citizen. There’s an Extensions app available that allows you to manage your GNOME Shell Extensions, and while there’s a warning that use of extensions can cause system instability, I have personally never had any issues with extensions bringing down my system.

Performance

The GNOME Project makes performance as optimal as possible, especially on GNOME Shell 3.36. You may notice that things are quite smooth on your particular system. Mutter and Wayland make great use of hardware acceleration and integrate tightly with GNOME, and that makes for a great desktop experience.

A fresh boot of stock Fedora 32 Workstation uses just under 1 GB of RAM. That is absolutely more than many other Linux desktop dnvironments, which doesn’t make it suitable for old computers with little RAM. Other than that, GNOME Shell is a very reliable and performant desktop environment. I have never had one single issue with components of GNOME giving out on me, throwing errors, or struggling to handle my intense multitasking with multiple applications open across seven or eight workspaces.

Gnome Htop
Fedora 32 Workstation idle RAM usage on a fresh boot

The Cons of GNOME Shell

While GNOME has some great features, there are certainly some limitations and downsides. For some, GNOME is not customizable enough. While there are many extensions, it is just not the same. To do any kind of customization to GNOME, you have to download Gnome Tweaks and the new Extensions app and accept responsibility for potential system instability. That is not at all the same as a Desktop Environment like KDE, which has a huge amount of customization available right out of the box with no threat of system instability.

Additionally, the system resource usage can simply be too much. There are absolutely ways to minimize the GNOME system usage, but with a Desktop like KDE or XFCE, the resource usage is a fraction of that seen on GNOME without any special modifications. And, there are some like Enlightenment that use 1/10 of the system resources. That is about 100 MB of RAM. If you only have 1 or 2 GB RAM, every MB RAM is critical, and GNOME is absolutely not the right choice for that machine.

Where to Experience GNOME

There are two main Linux distributions I’d recommend to experience GNOME. One of them gives a very polished and refined version of vanilla GNOME Shell, and one gives a more customized experience that may be slightly more usable right out of the box. 

Fedora is an excellent distro to experience vanilla GNOME at its finest. It gives an updated Adwaita icon theme, 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 beautiful.

Gnome Fedora Desktop

Ubuntu has a great version of GNOME that, in addition to similarly beautiful styling and excellent performance to Fedora, puts into place one of the main customizations that makes GNOME more usable out of the box: the Ubuntu dash. It gives you a similar effect to the “Dash to Panel” extension, taking the default GNOME dash and making it visible from the desktop without going into the Activities Overview. The Yaru theme on Ubuntu 20.04 LTS is a great theme that makes the desktop feel like a signature product, and GNOME 3.36 is another great benefit to Ubuntu in this release.

Gnome Ubuntu Desktop

Who Should Use GNOME?

It depends on your use case. If you have a system with limited memory (less than 4 GiB RAM), I wouldn’t necessarily recommend GNOME Shell without an out-of-memory killer.

If you have a laptop, I cannot recommend GNOME enough. The adoption of Wayland on GNOME makes touchpad gestures easy to manage with extensions, and it finally makes Linux feel like a first-class citizen on a laptop.

GNOME is also a great place to get the experimental feature of fractional scaling. I have tested it and it works in GNOME 3.36, so if your desktop has a tendency to look too small or too large, you can enable fractional scaling in GNOME.

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5 comments

  1. Gnome is a must have on my Surface Pro 3. Without the hold for right click extension the device would be useless without it’s keyboard.

  2. I have a different experience with Gnome, moving from KDE based distros (Mandrake, Mandriva) to Ubuntu Hardy in 2008 and staying with Ubuntu till now (I wasn’t using Unity, it was mostly Gnome Flashback or Gnome). Ubuntu 20.04 is a nightmare for me, to configure anything is a pain. If you like it as the developers made it – it is fine, but I don’t and a lot of Gnome effort is going into making any changes as difficult as possible. So now I am evaluating KDE Neon, Kubuntu and Manjaro (KDE). Budgie and deepin also look beautiful but configuration options are somewhat limited so no for now. I tend to stay with long term releases after they are configured to my liking so it is important to make right choice at the beginning.

  3. Gnome 3.* still failing to get any significant traction after all these years. No wonder: nobody ordered it, nobody wanted it.

  4. My problem with using Gnome is that the number of additional usually unnecessary packages
    is stunning. The philosophy behind things like Tracker are that you are going to have no matter
    how much you don’t want it. In previous versions, disabling was pretty easy but the developers
    didn’t want to allow that. Wiki says “heavily integrate into Gnome Shell” . Customization is not
    difficult, it is often impossible.

    I don’t have any machines with 1 Gig. Sorry, this product is built for a need that doesn’t really exist

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