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Making Ubuntu Gnome 13.10 feel at home for Unity users

Keeping things upstream (as much as possible) is a tough job especially when your distribution is based on Ubuntu, which is doing things in it’s own way to keep the “just works” title going on. Also if you take into consideration the fact that Gnome Ubuntu developers are a much more small team than any other major distro out there, I think you will have an idea on how hard and how tremendous work they have done to bring a stable, upstream and “just works” experience to our pleasure.

The hard part is to convince Unity users to try out an alternative to the 2 years old and established Unity environment. Unity users have some usage patterns that they are used to and the default Gnome Shell is in no way easily accepted by them. But if we make some minor tweaks to the default Gnome Shell, it will feel like home to them. I will be presenting some tips that helped me to get used to the Gnome Shell Environment.

Ubuntu Unity

Ubuntu’s Desktop Environment, as we all know is Unity 7 (Unity 8 is still in heavy dev and it is nothing like 7). Unity desktop environment is built on top of Gnome 3 libraries and it is consisted of:

  • a desktop
  • a launcher (left side)
  • a dash (all-in-one search area)
  • a menu bar (holds the global menu of apps)
  • a system indicators (top right)

Gnome Shell

Having things separated like this, we can start modifying things in terms of functions so that a “Unity Desktop” user can adapt more easily on Gnome Shell Environment.

  1. For the desktop we can launch Gnome Tweak Tool –> Desktop –> Have File manager… and enable it so that we have the classic desktop, with our messy files on it :)
  2. For the launcher we can install the “Dash to dock” extension and the from its settings enable the “Show applications button on top” to have almost the same launcher experience as Unity’s (except minimize to dock )
  3. To move the window buttons to the left, on gnome tweak we can go to org –> gnome –> shell –> overrides and change the “:close” to “close,minimize,maximize:“. If you keep the minimize option, you should install also the “Minimized Windows List” extension, so that you do not forget for minimized windows.
  4. For the system indicators you can install some useful extensions to make it more unity like. TopIcons adds app icons (like transmission) on top. Messaging Menu adds all Email and Chat apps in one Place.
  5. For the menu bar I couldn’t find a functional Global menu but instead I installed the Remove Panel Menu extension that removes the App Menu from the Panel so that the menu and options are in the window it self.
  6. You can also enable the Places Menu from the gnome tweak tool to add the classic quick access to folders.


Gnome Shell is more configurable that Unity. Thus it can be easily modified to create a more Unity like experience and make the transition from Unity more easy. I did not mentioned anything about themes and icons as these are more of personal aesthetics and not functional changes.

Did I miss something ? Any suggestions ? Please leave a comment on the matter.


P.S. : Here is a screenshot of my current desktop as I made the modifications.

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  • dehen

    Tell us if you ever find a hack that lets you search menus, unity-style. It’d be super useful in menu-heavy programs like gimp/inkscape/libreoffice. It’s the only feature from Unity that I really want as a Shell user.

    Love this site though. Keep up the good work.

    • Salih Emin

      Thank dehen for your kind words. I also miss the “Hud”

      Unfortunately I haven’t found anything to add the same functionality to Gnome Shell

      • alex285

        Someone was building it for Gnome, as an extension a year ago. It seems quite doable. +1 for Gnome HUD

        • Cristobal Tapia

          Yes, that is an extension I have been waiting for. It would be nice to have it.

  • Andreas Tsourouflis

    I don’t think it is a matter of appearance but of functionality. I personally prefer the looks of Gnome Shell but I use Unity because I cannot find its features in Gnome Shell.

    One cannot search through recent items in the Activities Overview, while the related extension does not work. I miss this feature from version 3.2. Moreover, the use of Documents for searching documents does not suit me, since I need to open documents for editing and not simply for viewing and then, in a next step, for editing.

    All in all, Gnome Shell may be more configurable than Unity, but Unity is more flexible to accomodate the users’ various needs and ways of working.

    • Salih Emin

      I agree. Eventhough, personally I have swiched over GS, I have been a Unity user since the beginigs and it is more consumer ready than GS. In other words, I install Ubuntu with Unity to my customers and they are happy with it, but I don’t dare installing GS as to many thing are not complete and are constantly changing. Until it is stable, in terms of core functions and default experience I can not install it on customer PC’s

    • Remjg

      Completely agree with you about the missing search provider from GNOME Shell 3.2… I use the “Search Recently Used Files” extension now, but it’s not that good (slower and doesn’t include some of my documents like LibreOffice ones):

      I really never got use to Documents. It feels like it’s an useless layer that complicates everything. But it’s pretty ;-)

  • Andrei Petcu

    I switched form Unity to Gnome Shell. I miss the grid layout of the workspaces, GS has only one column. I miss Super + number to start applications from the dash. And I miss HUD. Also Alt+Control+NumPadNumber to fake a tiled layout.

  • Dread Knight

    The alt-tab is also more like super+tab, very annoying.
    I definitely recommend the Alternate Tab extension