|Main Screen + Calendar + Notification Area|
There are some pretty big changes in store for GNOME 3, much of which can be seen in the front-end. Because many major distributions are planning to upgrade to GNOME 3 once that gets released (in a few weeks, apparently), it's important that users try GNOME 3 beforehand both to get accustomed to it as well as to find and report lingering bugs. Happily, the good people at Fedora and openSUSE have put together live CD ISO files with vanilla GNOME 3 on them, just for the purpose of trying out GNOME 3. I downloaded both files and intended to make a multiboot live setup using MultiSystem, but unfortunately MultiSystem reacted with error messages to both ISOs. Knowing that openSUSE doesn't play well with UnetBootin, I decided to just try out the Fedora version on a live USB through UnetBootin. Follow the jump to see how it goes.
|Evince PDF Reader + Volume Indicator Applet|
The desktop does look a good deal different from GNOME 2. Sure, there's a wallpaper and a top panel, but that's about where the similarities end. There are no desktop icons, which contrasts with most distribution developers' practice of putting icons on the desktop in the GNOME (2) releases. There's no right-click menu of any sort on the main desktop. The top panel is completely redesigned, and, as far as I can tell, not customizable at all, at least via any GUI program. On the left side of the panel is a button labeled "Activities". Next to that comes space for displaying a button representing the active window. In the center is a clock applet with an associated calendar applet. To the right of that comes a system tray (which, as I will explain later, is now distinct from the notification area) containing applets for the network, accessibility, volume, power, and current user. When clicking on one of these system tray applets, I was able to access the others simply by moving the cursor without having to click again on the desired applet; this is similar to Ubuntu's Indicator Applet functionality, and it's nice that the GNOME developers upstream have implemented similar functionality here. Also similar to Ubuntu's User Indicator Applet is the current user system tray applet, which features options to set up and manage accounts and mail/chat windows in Empathy and Evolution as well as options to exit the session or shut down/restart/et cetera. That's pretty nice as well. At the bottom of the screen lies a shaded notification area-like thing (confirmed on the GNOME 3 website to be a notification area) with icons to access certain applications that would traditionally be docked there, like Rhythmbox, Brasero, CD/DVD Creator, and the update manager, among others. However, this is not always visible; it is only accessible by moving the cursor to the bottom-right corner of the screen.
Right off the bat, without even fully delving into the Activities (probably the main highlight of the GNOME 3 release), there are a couple things I think are cool and a few things that I don't really like. As I said earlier, I like the concept of the system tray indicator applets and how I only have to move the cursor to go from one applet to another. I also like how when windows load, instead of showing a separate dummy window button labeled "Loading Application XX" as before, the application's window button itself appears, but only through a progress spinner that moves to the right to gradually uncover the window's icon and text. It's a pretty neat animation. In addition, the new notifications look a lot slicker when they do appear, and they hide away out of sight when they aren't needed, which is cool. However, as I mentioned a little earlier, there are a few things I don't like. For one, only the active window is shown on the panel, and there's no other immediately visible window switcher. The GNOME 3 website claims that the point of GNOME 3 is to help people get stuff done, and showing only the active window helps people stay concentrated on the current task and reduces the temptation to switch to other open tasks. I guess I could believe that, considering that occasionally I face the same problem. That said, having been weaned on Microsoft Windows and later Linux Mint with the main menu on the bottom left and a window switcher to the right of that, I'll need to take a bit of time to get used to it. Of course, the ALT+TAB window switcher is always present, and it looks a lot nicer than it did in GNOME 2. Another issue I have is the placement of the clock at the center of the panel. I think it draws more attention than it really should; I think it should be placed in the right side of the panel, where it usually is anyway. This would also allow the calendar to be an indicator-style applet, so the user could click on the calendar and then seamlessly move to the volume control or other applet without having to click again. Then again, I don't really know what would take its place in the middle. And that brings me to my next point: as I said earlier, the panel doesn't seem to be configurable at all, at least not via any GUI program I saw. Isn't the point of Linux to promote choice? This seems to go against that. Finally, the notification area on the bottom always has a button labeled "main.py". This apparently deals with input methods from the keyboard and mouse (IBus), but it could certainly be named better or removed altogether; I feel like this would just confuse new users.
|Mozilla Firefox + Nautilus in "Windows" Activites|
Activities can be accessed either by clicking on the button on the left side of the panel labeled "Activities" or by simply moving the cursor to the top-left corner of the screen. I prefer the latter method because it involves less clicking and it also invokes a neat ripple animation emanating from that corner.
There are a couple components present on all the Activities screens (but not on the main desktop screen). Firstly, the panel is present everywhere, even on the main desktop, as mentioned earlier. Next, in Activities, there's always a dock-like application launcher with some favorite applications as well as open windows (which is another way to switch windows) present. It's possible through right-clicking the icon in the launcher dock to remove it from the favorites list. This functionality worked fine when I tried it. Also, by clicking and dragging an icon in the launcher, it's possible to rearrange the icon order as well; this worked for me too. If an instance of an application (favorite or not) is already open, the icon becomes subtly highlighted, and more options appear, including the ability to go to the open instance of that application, among other things. For example, Mozilla Firefox (which, incidentally, is on this live CD at version 4 beta 10), in addition to being able to go to the current window and removing it from the favorites list, allows for opening a new window as well. That's pretty cool. Next, below the panel come buttons for "Windows" and "Applications", and to the far right of "Applications" is a search bar. I'm guessing it either searches for files or applications on the computer, but in any case, it unfortunately didn't work at all for me. Finally, at the bottom, the shaded notification area becomes visible even without moving the cursor to that bottom area.
The main Activities screen is "Windows" which shows all the open windows, and this is probably the way most users will be switching windows. It gives nice previews of each window as well, and if the cursor hovers over a particular window preview, a small "X" button appears on the top-right corner of that window preview to close that window. That's pretty cool. Left-clicking on the window preview of course brings it up as the current active window. To the right of the window preview list is a tool allowing the user to add or remove virtual desktops. By default, in Fedora's implementation of GNOME 3, only one is provided, but more can be added. This can be done by moving the cursor in the "Windows" screen to the far right of the screen, bringing up giant buttons self-explanatorily labeled "+" and "-". If more than one virtual desktop is present, a row of colored boxes representing each virtual desktop appears directly under the list of windows in the current virtual desktop; virtual desktops can be switched by clicking on one of the other boxes or by using CTRL+ALT+[LEFT or RIGHT], which brings up a nice sliding animation as well.
|Adding favorites in "Applications" Activities|
Finally, exiting Activities works the same way as entering, and moving the cursor to the top-left corner produces the same ripple animation as before.
Aesthetically, GNOME 3 looks quite nice. The icon theme is the same gray one introduced a couple point releases ago, and it certainly looks worlds better than the Tango icon theme. The GTK+ theme seems to be fairly standard Clearlooks, which has also been the GNOME standard for the last several point releases. The window border theme looks a lot nicer with the gray part of the window border blending in much better with the gray of the main menu. The window control buttons also look a bit better. Of course, several distributions (e.g. Ubuntu, Linux Mint, PCLinuxOS) have made GNOME look a lot nicer, so GNOME doesn't really have any excuse to stick to what is still a relatively ugly default look. Speaking of integration, the Mozilla Firefox 4 compact menu button looks a lot better-integrated with GNOME 3 than with KDE 4. It doesn't stick out like a sore thumb. Finally, the notifications, indicator applets, animations, and shadow effects make the desktop look a whole lot more slick and modern than before.
As I found out through Nautilus, this Fedora build is actually of the unstable and rolling-release Fedora Rawhide, which is similar to Debian's sid. That could explain why initially, a couple applications crashed, as well as why when I was writing the last part of the previous paragraph, the desktop, panel, and all the applications crashed without a word of any kind. That said, it may not just be a Fedora Rawhide instability issue; it could be an issue with GNOME 3, which would be a cause for concern considering GNOME 3 is slated to be released in just a few weeks.
There's another big lingering issue that I have with GNOME 3, and that is Compiz: Compiz won't work with GNOME 3. The GNOME 3 developers promised in the past that they will try to make it work with Compiz, but so far those promises have been broken because of GNOME's new tight integration with Mutter, the WM that replaces Metacity. KDE still occasionally has problems working with Compiz, but that's been solved because KWin now has all of Compiz's functionality. Furthermore, KDE seems to work OK with other WMs like Openbox. Unfortunately, GNOME users will be tied to Mutter, which is a bad move in terms of giving users choice. Plus, it doesn't look like Mutter will be getting Compiz's cool features (e.g. desktop cube effect) anytime soon. Worse still, I went onto the GNOME 3 website and it talked about enabling some extra effects in the GNOME control panel, but I couldn't find it anywhere; that said, that could be an issue with Fedora's particular implementation, not GNOME 3 itself.
So what's the deal? GNOME seems to be out to revolutionize (kind of) the desktop paradigm with version 3. The focus is more on getting the task at hand done and minimizing distractions. But what this means is that on the whole, it takes more clicks to do everything: switch windows, switch desktops, bring up an application category, et cetera. Plus, some key functionality, like the search bar, still isn't there yet; I'll give GNOME the benefit of the doubt given that GNOME 3 hasn't officially been released yet, but that release date sure is creeping up. In addition, it seems to be pretty tightly locked down, with the panel, main desktop, and WM giving no choices to the user at all. Given all this, I still have high hopes for this new major release, and I think many people will start using it, but frankly, I don't think I'll be one of them. That's helped in a way by the fact that Linux Mint will in the next few releases stick with a traditional GNOME desktop (i.e. neither GNOME 3/Mutter nor Ubuntu's new GNOME/Unity setup). I'm just too used to the traditional desktop paradigm, and I can't see myself getting accustomed to a relatively tablet/smartphone-like interface on a desktop or laptop.