GNOME 2 is the Linux desktop environment that refuses to die. Three years after its last release, GNOME 2—or, to be precise, its successors—are collectively as popular as uncustomized GNOME 3. The GNOME 2 successors scored 18 percent to GNOME 3's 13 percent in the 2012 LinuxQuestion's Member's Choice poll, and 15 percent to GNOME 3's 21 percent in the Linux Journal Readers' Choice poll. Despite the half dozen desktops available today, GNOME 2's successors remain leading choices.
This persistent popularity is both a measure of the initial user dissatisfaction with the GNOME 3 release series and a triumph of branding. Initially, dissatisfaction with GNOME 3.0 caused many users to turn to Xfce. A long-time distant third to GNOME and KDE, Xfce closely resembles GNOME 2 but is generally lighter and faster.
However, the differences are just enough to put off some users, and a lack of utilities means that Xfce is best used with some combination of GNOME and KDE applications. Although Xfce continues to benefit from the early reactions to the GNOME 3 release series to some extent, the interest has died down, and many users who originally found refuge with Xfce are eventually returning to a GNOME 2 successor.
Observers might puzzle over this choice. After all, GNOME 2 was a decent enough desktop in its day, but no more so than KDE 3, which survives in a little-used desktop known as TDE. Yet its reputation today is probably stronger than when it was still being developed.
But the GNOME brand remains a strong one, and there is no refuting success. Today, those who want the GNOME 2 experience can choose between Linux Mint's Cinnamon, which reconstructs GNOME 2 on top of GNOME 3; Mate, Linux Mint's fork of GNOME 2; or a selection of GNOME Shell extensions, possibly starting with GNOME Classic.
However, none of these alternatives is a clone of GNOME 2, and choosing one is very much a case of understanding what you require and what you can do without. If you are looking for a GNOME 2 replacement, you should consider carefully how each fits into your circumstances and preferences.
Linux Mint's Cinnamon has been cleaned up considerably in the last release. It seems more stable than previous releases, and the number of configuration tools has been reduced, making features much easier to find as you set up an installation.
In many ways, Cinnamon is what GNOME 2 might have become if it had continued to be developed. For one thing, the interface is changed, with the classical menu being replaced by a single window one, and the system settings changed from a top level menu to a dialog—two trends that are almost universal on the Linux desktop today.
Just as importantly, the conventions are updated. Where GNOME 2 and its fork Mate (see below) are text-oriented, Cinnamon favors icons only, leaving users unable to parse the icons to wait for mouseovers and legends. Similarly, like GNOME 3, Cinnamon favors toggle switches to turn features on and off.
In addition, Cinnamon includes a modern set of applets, hot corners that enable workspace and file views, and in the latest release, desklets, which are the equivalent of KDE's desktop widgets. Although desklets are limited in number right now, they could become a major tool for customization in later releases.
The fact that Cinnamon uses GNOME 3 code means that, unlike Mate, its developers have little worry about obsolescence (see below). However, Cinnamon does require hardware acceleration to work well, which might make you want to avoid it if you lack the latest hardware or prefer to use free-licensed video drivers. Cinnamon will run without hardware acceleration, but much more slowly and with the occasional glitch during screen redraws.
Mate is Linux Mint's fork of GNOME 2. As a fork, in many ways it is the natural alternative for users wanting the GNOME 2 experience with desktop icons, a configurable panel, and customizable icons. It is faster than any of the other successors and does not require 3D hardware acceleration for maximum performance.
Moreover, contrary to what you might expect, Linux Mint has not treated Mate as second best to Cinnamon. If you compare releases, you will find that Mate is just as likely to receive a new feature first as Cinnamon. Far from being a fallback mode, Mate seems to be developed on a roughly equal footing.
However, Mate's interface also differs from GNOME 2's in several ways that may or may not be important to users. In particular, Mate's menu is not a classic menu with sub-menus opening across the desktop. Instead, the menu is confined to a single window and can often appear cramped.