A walk around the GNOME desktop

Jack Wallen
Sep 26, 2010
Updated • Dec 2, 2012

Recently I had a reader request a bit of a "how to" on the GNOME desktop. After giving it some thought, and at first wondering why anyone would need a walk around for the GNOME desktop, I realized that some users simply don't have the ability to look at the computer desktop from the same vantage point as those of us who "get it". With that thought in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to give a sort of walk through of the GNOME desktop from the perspective of the new user.

For many of you this walk around might be pointless. But for those of you who need a basic introduction to a different desktop environment, this could be your first step in migrating to the Linux desktop. Read on!

What is GNOME?

Figure 1

First off, GNOME is a desktop environment. What this means is that all of the GNOME applications are aware of one another. Everything is integrated. That means you can open your file manager and drag and drop files into, say, Rhythmbox (a music player similar to iTunes).

GNOME has been around for quite some time and you will it to be the default desktop environment for many of the different Linux distributions.

Figure 1 shows the GNOME desktop in action. You will notice it has all of the typical elements of just about any desktop you have used. Let's take a look at the more important, basic, elements one at a time.


A panel is a taskbar is a tray is a shelf. In GNOME you have two basic panels. The upper panel (at the top edge of the desktop) holds the Main Menus, Notification Area (aka System Tray),  Application Launchers, Clock, and User menu. The lower panel (at the lower edge of the desktop) holds the Winlist (where applications are minimized), the Pager (the tool that allows you to switch workspaces), and the Recycle Bin.

You can add various types of items to the panels by right-clicking a panel and selecting "Add to panel...".


What is different about GNOME, versus WIndows, is that you do not have a single "Start" menu. Instead you have three main menus. These menus are:

  • Applications: This is where you can launch all of your applications.
  • Places: This is a menu that holds shortcuts for the various important folder locations (such as Home, Pictures, Music, Downloads, etc). When you click on one of these entries Nautilus (the file manager) will open to that particular directory.
  • System: This menu is where you configure your system. The System menu has two very important sub-menus: Preferences (where you set all of your user preferences) and Administration (where you can open up tools for administrative purposes - such as Printers).

When you install a new application that new application will add its menu entry to the Applications menu.

Mouse menu

There is another menu that you should know about. If you right-click on the desktop you will see a menu that allows you to create Folders, Launchers, and Documents (you have to create new templates for this - a more advanced feature). From this menu you can also select to Change Desktop Background. This action is exactly what it sounds like.


I'm not talking Microsoft here. The windows I am speaking of are the actual windows that contain the applications you use. These windows interact in the same manner you have grown accustomed to. In the upper right hand corner (or upper left if you are using Ubuntu >= 10.04) are three buttons that allow you to minimize a window, maximize a window, or close a window. Sound familiar?

Now, if you right click the titlebar (that is the bar that runs across the top of your application window) you will notice a new menu. From this menu you can also send the window to a different workspace, set the window to always be on top, and more.

Run dialog

Let's say you want to start an application but don't know where it is in the menu hierarchy. You do, however, know the command to start the application. For this you can use the Run Dialog. Open the run dialog by clicking Alt-F2 together. This will open up a small window where you can enter your command.

GNOME Control Center

This tool is the heart of the GNOME configuration. You can open it up by opening up the Run Dialog and entering gnome-control-center in this window (see Figure 2) you will find every configuration option you can imagine for the GNOME desktop.

NOTE: You may not see every item in your control center that you see in Figure 2. This particular control center is from a Fedora 13 installation that has a number of applications installed.

Final thoughts

Although a very cursory glance at the GNOME desktop, I hope this has helped those of you who feel lost when trying to use the Linux desktop to become more familiar. My ultimate goal, of course, is to get those of you who are unsure to migrate from your current OS to Linux.


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  1. joe hulanmann said on September 27, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    gnome sucks no matter how you walk through it.

    sucks even worse in ubumtu

  2. Trinae said on September 27, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    While I am just getting into KDE (a walk around for that would be awesome) I love the simplicity and minimalist approach that is GNOME. (Not sure I can say that when GNOME Shell drops.) The desktop integration with apps like Evolution, Gwibber, etc, is second to none.

  3. KenP said on September 27, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    I struggled with that concept too … however, after using KDE 4.x since it was first released, i have no doubt that 4.x is flexible and innovative. It just take a short while to get used to.

    I tried KDE 3.5 again lately and i must say, it appears too static …. er much like GNOME. (Sorry, this is my personal view, not a flame-bait!)

  4. Embedded said on September 27, 2010 at 3:51 am

    I use KDE3 on openSUSE. While I appreciate everything in KDE4.5 is a widget I believe that there is confusion in more than just my mind about the differences with between KDE3.5 and KDE4.5 especially for “just getting things done”.

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