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My Journey with Ubuntu Contd – Switching Desktop

Last time, I posted about upgrading to Ubuntu 12.04, Precise Pangolin. It has a user interface (desktop) called Unity. It looked different from Gnome desktop I got used to in ver 10.x. It was an adjustment, but it was easy to get used to. One problem I had though was that it kept freezing up at random. I believe this is a bug in the interface, judging by the bug reports opened for the issue.

Installing a new Desktop

While researching the issue, I found out that I could replace my desktop interface easily with Gnome desktop I used to like!! This blew my mind!! What? Replacing desktop? You mean re-installing complete OS, right? At least, that’s what I am used in the MS-Windows environment. No, not with Linux. Here is a link I used in getting the new desktop installed. This put Gnome right beside Unity. All I had to was switch to Gnome when I logged in (See Fig. 1). So far, it’s working fine. Apart from this, my applications and settings are still there. It connected to network and printer right away, so I didn’t miss anything. (Note: While logging in I had to use Gnome (No effects), to get the same desktop look I had in 10.x.).

Gnome in Pangolin

Fig 1. Gnome in Pangolin

(Note: to get to this list, click on the ubuntu icon while on the login screen. This is like pressing F8 to get to Safe/Normal mode in MS Windows).

Coming from MS Windows environment, I didn’t think this was possible*. Not that I am a Micorsoft basher or anything. I’ve worked on MS Windows, most of my working career. I believe, MS-Windows is part of the evolution process a lot of us went through in the Software industry. Even so, I couldn’t avoid being disappointed with MS-Windows. First of all, there is no such option with MS-Windows. With windows, if you wanted a different desktop, you would have to reinstall different version of OS. Remember Vista? When it came out it was buggy. Microsoft  offered that you could “downgrade” to XP one time. But then, you lost the shiny new OS called Vista. On top of that, when I switch to a new OS like that, I am sure to face an issue or 2 to get it to work with the set-up I have. No, this was not supposed to be possible.

(Note *: There were some custom desktops available from 3rd party, but nothing fitted in smoothly, as Gnome did here! Further, they typically ran on top of the existing windows desktop, so they were slower).

Secret lies in Linux Architecture

So, I researched this a bit more. Apparently, Ubuntu (actually any linux and Unix)  OS is built in a modular way. One layer can be easily replaced without disturbing another. As you know, underneath it all, there is kernel, the core shell in the OS. Then there is command line interface which is what we were used to, if you were using Unix. Add to that, a windowing layer, you got a Desktop. So far, this is the same way in Windows. (At least it used to be through Windows 98). But there ends the similarity. Fig 1, shows the building blocks of a Linux OS.

Linux Archirecture

Linux Architecture – Courtesy Paul Cooper (pgc) on Flikr

So, when I installed Gnome, I basically added to the desktop layer at the very top. The underlying layers (including Window Manager and X-Windows) were unaffected. This is why, my set-up was unaffected. Wow, truly modular programming! Similarly, I could actually replace a hardware and Linux would simply find appropriate drivers (or you can install it) and everything is working again! I couldn’t help compare this to MS-Windows, if I changed hardware (even as simple as moving the hard drive with the OS to a new machine), it will be a nightmare to get it working again. Kudos to Linux community.

I really hope they fix the bug(s) in Unity, so I can get back to it in the future. But, I am not exactly missing anything here. Because, Gnome is actively developed in the community. Further, my desktop is definitely running faster than with Unity. (Another complaint about Unity on the web).

P.S: If you are wondering how I got the screen capture of the logon page, that’s another strength of Linux (Again, you couldn’t do this in windows). There is a whole slew of things to read up on X-windows. I will post more on this later. For now, refer to the link in the references below.


  1. Gnome Desktop
  2. Unity Desktop
  3. Ubuntu
  4. How to add Gnome Desktop to Ubuntu 12.04
  5. Another site about installing Gnome Desktop
  6. How to get screen capture of the Login page

Now I can proudly say, my PC is

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