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A Beginners’ Guide for Learning Your Way Around the GNOME Desktop Environment

The Gnome desktop is an excellent choice for new users, although it offers a user experience that’s a little different than the traditional desktop experience. This guide will demystify Gnome, which is essentially an easy-to-use desktop.

Linux. Ah, Linux. The operating system I’ve called “home” since 1997. Over the years, I’ve tried just about every distribution possible and every conceivable desktop environment. My life with Linux desktops began with Fvwm95 and then traversed a course of AfterStep, Enlightenment, Blackbox, KDE, Unity, Pantheon, and everything in between.

Eventually, I landed on Gnome and never looked back. I’ve tried to return to other desktops but always found them either too little or too much. Gnome fits right there in the middle, like the ideal desktop for Goldilocks.

Ever since 2011, when the Gnome team migrated from version 2 to 3 (often referred to as Gnome Shell 3), the Linux community has been divided. This division is part fear of change and the realization that the developers took a dramatic departure from the traditional desktop metaphor.

You see, Gnome isn’t exactly standard operating procedure for the desktop. It’s modern and minimal, but very effective. The idea of Gnome is to get out of the way of your work and, to that end, it does so brilliantly.

Which of these Linux Desktop Environments and Window Managers would you most prefer to use?

  • Xfce (35%, 131 Votes)
  • KDE Plasma (27%, 103 Votes)
  • Gnome (17%, 64 Votes)
  • Cinnamon (11%, 43 Votes)
  • i3 (2%, 9 Votes)
  • Mate (2%, 8 Votes)
  • Cosmic (2%, 7 Votes)
  • Pantheon (2%, 6 Votes)
  • OpenBox (1%, 3 Votes)
  • LXQT (0%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 375

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The way I like to look at Gnome is that it’s the least amount of desktop to get the most amount of productivity out of a user. If that sounds like a desktop you might want to try, read on.

What is Gnome?

Gnome was originally an acronym for GNU Object Modeling Environment. These days, it’s just Gnome. As you’ve probably already figured out, Gnome is a desktop environment for the Linux operating system. There are a number of Linux distributions that use Gnome, including Fedora, Rocky Linux, Debian, Gentoo, Arch Linux, Manjaro Gnome Edition, openSUSE, Pop!_OS, and Zorin OS. Some of those distributions, such as Pop!_OS, add custom elements to Gnome and one of the most popular Linux distributions, Ubuntu, uses Gnome but creates a different layout with various extensions.

Gnome makes use of a minimal amount of features to make it easy for users to interact with the desktop. The features found in Gnome include the following:

Activities Overview

The Activities Overview is where you access your favorite applications via the Dash, the search feature (which can search for applications, files, and more), and the virtual desktops feature.

Screenshot of Gnome's activities dash.
The Dash is the dock at the bottom of the window. Click image for larger view.

To access the Activities Overview, click Activities in the upper left corner or click the Super (aka Windows) key on your keyboard. If you have any open apps, they will appear in the Activities Overview).

Gnome's Activities Overview.
In the Activities Overview, users click on any of the open apps to start using them. Click image for larger view.

Application Menu

On the Dash, you’ll see a box consisting of nine dots. Click that box to open the Application Menu, which is an overlay that displays all of your installed applications, the Dash, the Search box, and your virtual desktops.

The Gnome Application Menu in action
The Gnome Application Menu in action. Click image for larger view.

Click any of the installed applications to open it. You can also drag a launcher to another to create a folder, which makes it much easier to locate and organize your applications.

Clock & Calendar

In the center of the top bar, you’ll see the date and time. Click that to reveal the Clock/Calendar/Notification popup, where you can view your notifications, check the weather, view upcoming events, enable Do Not Disturb, and check your calendar.

Screenshot of Gnome clock/calendaring
The Gnome Calendar/Clock/Notification feature is very handy for keeping up with your plans. Click image for larger view.

System Menu

The System Menu (sometimes called the System Tray) is where you access things like the power menu, network configurations, power modes, dark mode, volume control, and more. The latest versions of Gnome have redesigned the feature to somewhat resemble the Android Quick Tiles feature, making it easy to access things. For example, click on the Network “pill” to reveal access to the network settings feature.

Screenshot of Gnome System Menu
The System Menu is what you need when it’s time to reboot or configure the system. Click image for larger view.

Window List

Unlike many desktops, Gnome gives you access to your running applications in two different ways. You can open the Activities Overview and click the application you want to use, or you can make use of the Window List. To access the Window List app, click [Alt]+[Tab] to see a list of your open applications. Continue to hit the tab key until the application you want is selected and release the keys.

Screenshot of Window List in Gnome
Using the Window List to select the running application you want to use. Click image for larger view.

Who Is Gnome For?

This is a question I get asked a lot. The simple answer is that Gnome is a great desktop for those who prefer a minimal interface that offers a maximum amount of productivity. Although Gnome is a big departure from the traditional desktop, once you are familiar with the workflow, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to use.

For those who do prefer a more traditional desktop, you can always make use of Gnome extensions to create exactly the desktop you want. For example, just by adding the Dash To Dock Gnome extension, you add a Dock to the desktop that gives you quick access to your favorite applications. So, with the addition of a simple extension your Gnome desktop should be more familiar to you.

Gnome screenshot using the the Dash To Dock extension
Gnome looks a bit more familiar now. Click image for larger view.

I’ve been using Gnome since the early 2000s. In fact, I was privileged enough to use the beta version of Gnome before it was first released. From those early days to now, I’ve always felt Gnome feels like home to me. Not only is it simple to use, it does a great job of getting out of my way so I can concentrate on my work. Not many desktops can stake such a claim.

So, if you like the idea of a minimal desktop that doesn’t skimp on features, bump Gnome up to the top of your list. If you’re still in doubt, you can always take it for a test drive by running a live instance of any Linux distribution that ships with Gnome as the default desktop. I would recommend Fedora as your go-to for testing Gnome, as it’s rock solid and offers a very stock Gnome experience.


  1. Percy the Penguin Percy the Penguin February 13, 2023

    As someone who frequently checks out new (or updated) distros, I’ve also spent time with Gnome since the early days. I ALWAYS return to KDE eventually because I just can’t get used to constantly jumping around workspaces looking for my many open programs. The fact that I can’t get a visual confirmation that Dropbox and Telegram are working (without extensions) is a deal-killer for me.

    That said, I agree with many of the points here, especially that Gnome is very good at getting out of your way when you want to focus on one task. There are many small details that Gnome excels at – polished appearance, understated/classy default system sounds, etc – that keep me interested in trying it from time to time. A version of modern Gnome’s design ethos with KDE’s usefulness would be the best of both worlds for me.

  2. John John February 20, 2023

    Another Gnome fan here, also tried other DEs but keep coming back to Gnome. It just gets out of your way. IMO, other DEs try to resemble Windows too much (looking at you KDE!).

  3. Onan the Barbarian Onan the Barbarian February 21, 2023

    What I like the most about Gnome is what many others hate: it hasn’t desktop icons.

    I’ve always thought desktop icons are a horrible concept. The desktop is the worst possible place where to put things, because it’s always going to be hidden beneath whatever you’re doing at any time.

    Having to deal with that has created the need for workarounds that people see as features, like the minimize button. Why do you want to minimize a window? Only because you want to get to something that’s hidden under it. Same for the show desktop button. Why would you want to show the desktop? Only because you want to get to desktop icons. Get rid of desktop icons and you don’t need a show desktop button.

    Gnome provides an efficient way to access all your open windows and application launchers, so you don’t need to minimize windows at all. Well, unless mom shows up while you’re watching YouPorn…

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