Canonical not too long ago announced that Unity, the default interface for Ubuntu, was getting the boot in favor of GNOME, the interface that the OS was originally built on. It’s going to be a little while yet before we see this move — Canonical says the switch over will officially happen in the Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, which isn’t out yet. Version 17.04 is out, but not in a Long Term Support (LTS) format.
So, if you’re wanting to dive into the GNOME interface a little early and don’t want to wait, there’s still an unofficial way you can do it in the current LTS version — Ubuntu 16.04. Follow along below and we’ll show you how.
GNOME versus Unity
So, what’s the big difference between GNOME and Unity? Well, the Unity Desktop Environment uses a lot of things from the GNOME Desktop Environment (DE) with a few changes. However, in going back to GNOME users are going to see GNOME Shell instead of Unity as well as a few other back-end tools/libraries.
But, a large part of the differences between the two is purely aesthetic. That said, when Ubuntu 18.04 LTS is out, you’re going to see a somewhat familiar, but different user interface. Basically, what you’re going to get with that update is what you see over on the GNOME Project website.
Installing GNOME 3
The absolute easiest way to get GNOME on Ubuntu is to simply download Ubuntu GNOME on your system — it’s the GNOME Desktop Environment built from the Ubuntu repositories. However, if you’re already using Ubuntu Unity, you can still get GNOME on your desktop.
It’s worth noting that this is not an official upgrade and does have the potential to break your system — it can really be a hit or miss, which is why just downloading the Ubuntu GNOME distribution is your best bet. That said, you’ll want to continue at your own risk.
You’ll need to open Terminal and add the following GNOME 3 PPAs (Personal Package Archives): sudo add-apt-repository ppa:gnome3-team/gnome3-staging and sudo add-apt-repository ppa:gnome3-team/gnome3.
Once that’s done, we’ll need to refresh the Software Sources. You’ll need to use this command in Terminal to do that: sudo apt update. If you have GNOME-Shell installed already, you can then use this command: sudo apt dist-upgrade. Or, you can just go ahead and install it: sudo apt install gnome gnome-shell.
During this process, you’ll be asked what Display Manager or Login Screen you want. If you’re wanting to use GNOME exclusively, using just the GDM will work out great. But, if you plan on switching between Desktop Environments, the Ubuntu community recommends LightDM — LightDM seems to be a bit more stable, too.
Once you’ve gone through all of this, you’ll need to reboot your system. This is where many people start seeing a lot of problems. If you decide you just don’t want to go through with it, you can return things to normal by opening up Terminal and typing in sudo apt-get install ppa-purge and ppa-purge ppa:gnome3-team/gnome3-staging immediately after.
But, if you want to continue with it, if you chose GDM, some problems can be fixed by simply moving over to LightDM, which can be done by opening Terminal and typing sudo dpkg-reconfigure lightdm. This will open a new screen where you’ll need to select LightDM.
Sometimes there’s also some graphical problems, where you can’t get to Terminal to reconfigure LightDM. So, you’ll have to boot into recovery mode. Heading into GRUB > Ubuntu Advanced Setup and selecting Recovery Mode for your graphics will at least let you boot into your desktop and use the above command for re-configuring LightDM.
And that’s all there is to it! Like we said, this is an unofficial way to get the GNOME 3 rolling on Ubuntu 16.04 LTS; however, if you really want a GNOME flavor of Ubuntu, using the aforementioned Ubuntu GNOME distribution is your best bet.
If this ends up breaking something and you need help troubleshooting, be sure to leave a comment in the comments section below.