Preview: GNOME 3

Main Screen + Calendar + Notification Area
Usually, when I review desktop environments, I review KDE, specifically version 4. Why? It's constantly evolving and improving, and it's nice to be able to see such changes occurring on all fronts so quickly. By contrast, GNOME and Xfce (not to mention other WMs like Openbox) have remained relatively the same over the past few releases. Sure, Nautilus got tabbed browsing in version 2.22 (I think) and split-pane viewing in version 2.30. Sure, there may have been a couple other back-end changes. But generally speaking, where KDE 4 has changed pretty noticeably between point releases, GNOME has been quite stable. That's all going to change, because GNOME is about to be released under a whole new number: 3. That's right: the number preceding the decimal point in a GNOME release will no longer be '2'.
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
Unfortunately, I initially had a bit of booting trouble when I selected the default boot menu option. The OS hung halfway through booting, so I forced a cold restart. I then selected the "Boot" option instead of either "Default" or "desktop_[stuff]" (the name of the ISO file) and that seemed to work fine — I even got to see the lovely Fedora boot splash screen (the Fedora logo "filling up"). After the boot process came the login screen. I guess GDM hasn't changed a whole lot since GNOME 2.30, though for some reason the GTK+ theming looked really ugly. Upon seeing it, I hoped it was just an issue with GDM and not the whole GNOME desktop theming ability, and thankfully, as I found out shortly thereafter, I was right. I then proceeded to the desktop.
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
Now that I've seen the main screen of the desktop, it's time to move on to the biggest selling point of the new GNOME 3 release: Activities. As has become evident in my article on Activities in KDE 4 and GNOME 3, suffice it to say that the Activities concept in KDE 4 is nothing like Activities in GNOME 3. But today I'm not here to talk about KDE 4 — I'm here to talk about GNOME 3. So let's get started.
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
Next to "Windows" is "Applications". The default view is of all installed applications, with all their icons and labels showing, as in an iPad. That said, it is possible to view applications in specific categories at a time; the problem is that simply hovering over the application category as in a traditional menu is not enough — it is necessary to click on the category to bring it up. That kind of gets annoying and isn't a great move design-wise. The other annoying thing is that labels get cut off after one line, and there isn't any obvious way to tell the full name of an application without opening it, which is a waste. For example, I saw a program labeled "Operating..." with the icon as a generic "reload" icon; that wasn't very helpful or descriptive. Next, as in the favorites launcher, if a particular application has an instance open, its icon is subtly highlighted. Also, it is possible in the "Applications" screen to add applications to the favorites launcher by right-clicking and then clicking on that button.
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.


  1. Thanks for the post, do you have any other similar related posts?

  2. @snatur: Thanks for the support! Um, what exactly do you have in mind when you're looking for related posts? I have archives and labels available as separate pages for you browse at your pleasure and leisure. I've done a whole bunch of other Linux distribution reviews as well as reviews of KDE 4.3-4.6. Please do read them and tell me what you think. I hope that helps!

  3. Although I really dislike Gnome in it's current incarnation, Gnome 3 does look interesting, and I look forward to giving it a try.

  4. I appreciate the review. I for one am glad we have options in the Linux world. I for one may try this but probably won't. I do not like what KDE has done either so am using openbox now and probably will continue using this or enlightenment as I do not need all the bells and whistles that other desktops are trying to add and also the bloat that goes along with it.

  5. Probably best to have someone more experienced with Linux and Gnome review. The "wow factor" for this reviewer are all tools which are readily available in Gnome2.x, just using different mods/apps such as AWN. All gnome seems to have done is taken existing ideas from elsewhere and just hardcoded them into gnome. It's nice as it has everything there rather than you having to remember all your favourite downloads and setting up each time you install Linux somewhere.

    By the way, please stop saying "as I said earlier"... we read the article, we know you said it earlier!

    Englightenment > Gnome > Xfce > KDE

  6. I could barely get rawhide with gnome 3 to run without constantly crashing, however after trying it out sorta, I might as well just stay with ubuntu's unity. Gnome 3 seems pretty similar and I don't believe I care for either 2 much. I might have to switch to xfce desktop. We will see.

  7. I came to Gnome via KDE, and I love it. Not as it is, but think Linux Mint Debian Edition. I did download and try Gnome 3 out, I like it. With a bit of tweaking I could be very usable. Think it's a move in the right direction...

  8. @mrtdr: It certainly wouldn't hurt, especially if you try one of the live CDs.
    @United against: Openbox and Enlightenment are great WMs to be sure, but have you considered Linux Mint? I know it's a distribution, not a DE, but it plans to retain GNOME 2 and the current look/feel while other distributions move to GNOME 3, or in Ubuntu's case, Unity.
    @Anonymous 1: I realize that it shouldn't be too hard to create a GNOME 3-esque desktop using tools in GNOME 2, but it's nice to see the focus that was present in creating a tightly-knit DE. Plus, most of the new and highly-touted features in GNOME 3 left me with slightly positive to somewhat negative reactions, especially with regard to GNOME 3's inflexibility. Also, what's wrong with using "as I said earlier as a figure of speech"? Just wondering. :)
    @Anonymous 2: Xfce 4.8 does seem pretty nice, though admittedly I haven't tried it out for myself yet. Also, of the recent reviews of Unity (which I also haven't tried yet and don't particularly intend to), almost all are negative and rate its stability worse than that of GNOME 3, so out of curiosity, how have you managed to have what I presume are good experiences with Unity but not with GNOME 3? I'd love to know.
    @Bob Nobody: Well, Linux Mint is neither moving to GNOME 3 nor Unity; for the next couple releases at least, it's sticking with its current traditional setup. Also, with regard to tweaking, one of the unfortunate things about GNOME 3 as I tried it is that it isn't very customizable at all. It's sort of like an opposite cause compared to KDE 4 that leads to the same effect: KDE 4 is extraordinarily customizable yet it looks (stability is another matter) so good out-of-the-box that few distributions change it from its vanilla settings, while GNOME 3 is so inflexible that it necessitates remaining vanilla in distributions that provide it. I mean, I can't change the panel (or add another panel), the desktop, the notification area, desktop settings, or the whole Activities thing.
    Thanks for the comments!

  9. 1) Having read a bunch of reviews of people mad that KDE4 takes more clicks to do stuff than KDE3, I think people are going to have similar problems with Gnome3 vice Gnome2.

    2) I'm glad they finally listened to users and have the ability to sort programs by category. I think it doesn't work on highlight because there's no way to hover on a tablet. It's click or nothing.

    3) I'll poke around in Gnome 3 when it comes out on Fedora 15, but as of now I think I'm sticking with KDE4

  10. Removing the task switcher is a horribly bad idea. I mean it all looks really neat, in a picture!!! When I first tried it I found all the animation was actually getting in the way of me doing anything. I mean when was the last time anybody got anything done with only one window? It might work if that window is a web browser with multiple tabs but then you technically have a task switcher in the browser.

    Aza Raskin has a very good presentation called "Don't Make Me Click" but sadly I think Gnome 3 interpreted it too literally. The presentation was actually about reducing interactions, not about doing stuff without clicking.

  11. I tried Linux Mint the other day and did not like it. I do not like how they have Gnome set up. OpenSuse does the same thing with the start bar I will call it. I do not like the way that it is sorted. I am using archbang which is based off of arch linux which I really like. I was never a big fan of Gnome and liked KDE but do not feel the need to use it any more. It is not intuitive any more and the older I get the less I need so going back to basics.

  12. I started to read this than gave up because the formatting. It's just one huge mass of text. Try putting a little bit of spacing between your paragraphs.

  13. @Eric Mesa: Yeah, I sometimes feel the same way about KDE 4, and it's something I definitely noticed during my time with GNOME 3. Also, I didn't know that GNOME was also designing its interface based on the possibility of porting it to tablets -- I thought that was just KDE.
    @sorin7486: ALT+TAB still works, as usual, but most people I know of would probably look for a visual task switcher and give up after not finding one right away. I think what the developers meant by "focusing on the task at hand" is that if you have instances of Mozilla Firefox and AbiWord open and are writing a serious paper in AbiWord, you're probably going to get distracted at some point and click on Mozilla Firefox and start watching videos or something like that, severely hindering your productivity. I find that to be a problem for myself, but I think this setup takes the solution too far, and to add insult to injury, there's no way to customize it to work traditionally.
    @United against: I was going to say that it's quite easy to get GNOME in Linux Mint reconfigured to its traditional default settings, but you said you were never a big fan of GNOME to begin with, so that's fair enough. Have you ever tried #!, by any chance?
    @Anonymous: Sorry about that; it's probably a relic of my school days when teachers specifically asked us not to add extra line breaks between paragraphs. From now on I'll definitely try to space paragraphs better and use headings as well.
    Thanks for the comments!

  14. I have not used #!. I have read a lot about it but have never used it. I keep going back to arch after trying out others. I did the same during my debian days as I would try others and keep going back to debian. One thing I like about arch linux is the rolling release and that I do not have to wait long for updates. I tried out the Debian Mint version but the Kernel was a very old one. I do not really need such recent kernels but since they seem to be getting faster each time I want to be more up to date. I never really stick to openbox for very long but do not really like any desktop but have not tried many. I will probably just play around with some until I find one I like and stick to it for a while. I just do not like the new one's with all the bloat they bring to the table.

  15. @United against: Well, as with Arch, Debian can also be a rolling-release distribution, so long as you enable either the "testing" or "unstable" repositories and I guess just exercise common sense when upgrading packages. #! is based on Debian, and there have been numerous forum posts of #! users successfully switching from Debian 6.0 "Squeeze" repositories to "testing"/"unstable" without any major problems. Thanks for the comment!

  16. I did see the Linux Mint was based off of the Debian testing line but even when I used Sid I found that a lot of software was just not as up to date as on Arch but did not look around all that much. I did look at some of the software such as guncash and it was the old version that had not been updated to version 2.4 or now 2.4.2. Arch linux has this software in testing. I want to see if I can get my mother comfortable using the computer so may stick with openbox but may change the desktop some what to make it more user friendly.

  17. @United against: Fair enough. Thanks for the comment!

  18. article needs livening up, it's just a monoblock can't be intresting to read

  19. @Anonymous: I know because others have said the same thing. Sorry about that. If you look at other articles I've written more recently though, they are spaced out better and aren't just a single long block of text. Thanks for the comment!

  20. I like the look and feel of Gnome 3. It's polished. Overall I give it +1 and will try to adapt to it. However, I do agree that it does lead to more clicks. Not so much from the absence of open application tabs that you could see in Gnome 2 - I think alt-tab, clicking the Windows button, or moving the pointer to the top left corner to reveal open applications or workspaces is a pretty decent replacement - but for the now missing simplicity of just clicking on favorite applications that I used to have on the top panel. That adds clicks as you now have to access it via the Activities section. That is a bummer and probably will/should be reviewed in the next iteration.

    Other that that, it's great and beautiful too.

  21. @Junkers: It's certainly beautiful and I'm sure plenty of people will be able to take to it immediately, and that's great, but for me mouse clicks are certainly important. Thanks for the comment!

  22. alt+f2 is your friend in gnome 3. no clicking.