Review: GNOME 3

Shell Main Screen
About 2 months ago, I previewed GNOME 3. At that time, it was many weeks away from the final release, so there were still many things to be done. Since then, many things have changed, and a few days ago, GNOME 3 was finally released for the whole world to see.

The biggest change in GNOME 3 is of course the GNOME 3 Shell. This has gotten several changes, updates, and other revisions through its development. Since then, however, a GNOME 3 fallback mode has also been added. One of the common complaints about GNOME 3 has been that the new Mutter WM requires 3D effects to work correctly, and not all computers have this, especially older ones. This is where GNOME 3 fallback mode comes in, so in addition to trying out GNOME 3 Shell, I have also tried GNOME 3 fallback mode.

Fallback Main Screen +
Calendar Applet +
User Profile Menu Applet
I did all this thanks to the efforts of the Fedora developers in building the latest live ISO image of GNOME 3; I made a live USB of it using UnetBootin. Follow the jump to see how much has changed in two months.

Shell Epiphany + Gedit + ALT+TAB Switcher
After changing the BIOS and booting, I was greeted by the same desktop as before, with an unclickable desktop and the same unmodifiable panel with the same layout as before. I will say that the panel looks a little thinner and hence more efficient with vertical space, and that the panel fonts look a little nicer than before. However, as there is a whole lot of unused space in both the panel and the left side of window titlebars, I would like to see the top panel turn into something like Elementary OS's WingPanel, with the panel horizontally shrunken to the minimum and allowed to cover the unused titlebar space in maximized windows. The full-width notification area is still present at the bottom. There are a couple improvements, though: the calendar applet (accessed by clicking on the clock) is more fully-featured, and the notification area no longer has random strange applets running. One bad thing about the user profile menu on the right side of the panel is that it seems like it is no longer possible to directly shut the system down without first logging out. I'm not really sure why this is.

Shell Activities Windows Screen
One of the big functional changes to the windows in GNOME 3 is the removal of the buttons to maximize and minimize windows. I'll admit that when I first heard about this decision, I was outraged. Why would the developers be so boneheaded and remove window controls that have become standard over the last two decades? Now, however, I understand why the decision was made: with the concept of Activities and the removal of the always-available task manager in the panel, it doesn't make sense to "minimize" a window anywhere anymore. Maximizing still makes sense, though, so to deal with that, the developers have made windows dragged to the left or right side of the screen respectively take up the left or right half of the screen and those dragged to the top of the screen take up the full screen (except for the top panel, which is always present). This behavior is much like it is in Microsoft Windows 7, and it works well. I also think it'll be much more effective at preventing users from accidentally closing applications that they really want to maximize or restore.

Shell Activities Applications Search +
User Profile Menu Applet

Despite the fact that the buttons to minimize and maximize windows have been removed, the titlebars are still as thick as ever. Why? I realize that GNOME 3 was designed to be highly usable on touchscreen interfaces, meaning thick titlebars would make it easy to manipulate windows, but on netbooks, which GNOME 3 is also targeting, this is a huge waste of precious vertical space, along with the separate vertical space for the menubar. I've included a picture [include] of what might make it better. In addition, the navigation bar and scrollbars are quite thick and thus take up too much space as well.
One nice aesthetic change is that of the tab design: in applications like Nautilus, Gedit, and Epiphany, the tabs have nice slanted designs, akin to how tabs look in Chromium. It's a nice change from bland rectangular tabs, but that may just be me.

Shell Nautilus + Workspace Switcher Animation
Activites have remained essentially the same, as have all the animations, so if you want to read more about those, please refer to my earlier preview post. One nice change is that unlike last time, search worked; in addition to searching for applications, I could also successfully search for favorite places as listed in Nautilus, and I could even search for random stuff on Google and Wikipedia which is similar in functionality to the Linux Mint Menu, and that would bring up an instance of Epiphany, the default web browser. Switching windows in either Activities or ALT+TAB is exactly the same as before.
Speaking of other applications, Nautilus seems to have included one improvement from the Elementary mod, and that is the reorganization of the side pane, which is a welcome improvement. Epiphany seems a lot more stable and fast than before, which is good. Cheese Webcam Booth seems to have improved as well with enough effects to make it Apple PhotoBooth's equal. Unfortunately, it crashed every time I tried to take a picture; that's not good.

The Control Center, now known as System Settings, has been reorganized and revamped and now looks a lot like a simpler version of the KDE 4 System Settings program, which is not a bad thing. This is also how I switched into fallback mode.

Shell: What Titlebars and Menubars Should Look Like
After logging out and logging back in, I found myself in an environment much more like that of GNOME 2.X. There are two panels again, one on top and one on bottom. It still isn't possible to right-click either the desktop or panels to modify them, but it feels a lot more familiar, in any case. On the left side of the top panel is a menu with two items: "Applications" and "Places". For those of you familiar with the traditional GNOME layout, "System" has now been incorporated as a separate submenu in "Applications". The rest of the panel is very similar to that of GNOME 3 Shell, except that the notification area applets function more like old GNOME 2.X notification area applets as opposed to the new unified menu-like indicator applets. The clock is present in the middle of the top panel, but its calendar applet is much more like that of GNOME 2.X. One good thing about the user profile menu applet in fallback mode is that the option to directly shut down is back. Yay! The bottom panel has a simple task manager to the left and a workspace switcher to the right.
In terms of other aesthetics, the menus are now all plain white instead of black and shiny to better accommodate older graphics cards. Similarly, the ALT+TAB switcher looks like it did in GNOME 2.X instead of the shiny new theme in GNOME 3 Shell. Also, as the traditional desktop paradigm is present, so are the window buttons to maximize and minimize windows. Otherwise, the fallback desktop does a good job of accommodating older computers while preserving many of the improvements in GNOME 3.
One issue that occurred when switching to fallback mode is that when I tried opening Gedit, it crashed. Thankfully, that was the only time that happened.

Fallback Main Menu + Nautilus + Gedit
Well, that's where my time ended with GNOME 3. GNOME 3 Shell seems a lot more mature and usable than it did two months ago, while GNOME 3 fallback mode presents a compelling traditional alternative to GNOME 3 Shell. My issue that GNOME 3 Shell seems like it was designed solely for touchscreen interfaces remains, though, so while GNOME 3 Shell seems great for netbooks and tablet computers, I would like to see GNOME 3 fallback mode as the default for larger laptops and desktops. Furthermore, I would like to see the desktop log in automatically log into GNOME 3 fallback mode if an older graphics card is detected, and only log into GNOME 3 Shell otherwise. I realize and support that the GNOME developers want to push forward the cool new interface instead of the older just-in-case one, but I'd rather not see people turned off by GNOME just because their older computer got logged into GNOME 3 Shell by default. Personally, I will be waiting for when the Linux Mint developers release version 11 "Katya" with GNOME 3 in a traditional Linux Mint layout, but I think that new users will take well to GNOME 3 Shell, while veterans who refuse to use GNOME 3 Shell will take well to GNOME 3 fallback mode.


  1. "it seems like it is no longer possible to directly shut the system down without first logging out"

    You get that option if you hold down the alt key after selecting the profile menu. Can't begin to guess the thought process that went into that design decision.

  2. I don't agree with your idea that GNOME is for netbooks - I have a 24" monitor and enjoy the experience...

    You don't understand that the design principle behind banning unnecessary information, like panel-applets, is to reduce distraction from the task at hand and improve focus. It is about information management, not about saving space.

    I don't want to have to 'figure out' my netbook's homescreen like it was the dashboard of an airplane; that's what ANDROID 3 does, and it's horrible. I just want to get stuff done, and GNOME 3 is brilliant for that.

    -- Chris

  3. "It is about information management, not about saving space."

    +1 I really like Gnome 3 with my dual screen setup (and the 40" HDTV when used).
    A well designed command-line interface minimizes how much information you need to recall/process for common tasks.
    A well designed GUI interface minimizes how much information you need to recognise/process for common tasks.

  4. @Anonymous 1: Oh yeah, I forgot about that. The problem is that even that isn't immediately evident in any way.
    @Anonymous 2: If you read my previous preview of GNOME 3, you'll see that I do recognize that GNOME 3 is meant to reduce distraction and maintain focus on the task at hand. I recognize it, but although I find it interesting that you like it a lot on your large desktop monitor, I still don't necessarily agree that it's the best thing for a traditional desktop, and I personally don't think it's right for my workflow.
    @Anonymous 3: That's certainly true as well.
    Thanks for the comments!

  5. I like Gnome 2 better. Far better.

    I almost feel like everything they did goes against everything I loved about Gnome 2. I like the option of making the top panel moved to the bottom, the time in the right-hand corner, menu driven not icon driven, adding launchers to the panel for the top 7 applications I use (kicker, nautilus, firefox, chrome, thunderbird, software updates, VLC) It is like a one click application launch, no need for any extra movements. I don't like the whole name/system menu thing. I know what my name is, I want to have to click on it for options. I would rather have that whole thing under the main applications button (or application launcher).

    I also don't have the option to add a "lock computer" button in the panel, for those times you need to jump up quickly to answer a call or get some documents from a printer that is at the other side of the room. I place this in the far right corner beside the time so that it is available to me with one click. Fast, Functional... not like Gnome 3, which claims to be forward thinking. Obviously they weren't thinking about office use much.

    Gnome 3 is nothing but a frustrating experience. The only way I can see myself liking Gnome 3 is if they make it more like Gnome 2... or just continue supporting Gnome 2 and Gnome 3 will become unnecessary.

  6. @Anonymous: Well, GNOME 3 fallback mode may have something better for you than GNOME 3 Shell; it acts a lot more like the GNOME 2.X to which you are accustomed, though there will still be a few things missing here and there. Also, you use Kicker in GNOME? That's a little...odd, if you ask me, but hey, I guess it's whatever floats your boat. Thanks for the comment!

  7. I think that this is a pretty reasonable and nice review. Personally i like GNOME 3 is very much and i am pleasantly surprised by how stable it is. For those who prefer the GNOME 2 way of doing things, the fallback mode can actually be configured to resemble the older GNOME interface pretty well. Once you install gnome-tweak-tool and dconf-editor a lot of hidden options appear - like for example the ability to make nautilus draw the desktop (in a GNOME 2 style), the options to configure fonts and the titlebars buttons. I am also sure that the colour of the panels can be changed to the default GNOME 2 white colour. Right now i am pretty much using a GNOME 2 in the default configuration - i have only changed the icon theme and have added several launchers on the top panel - I already like GNOME 3 but should i decide i can pretty much recreate my old desktop in the GNOME 3 fallback mode - you can put launchers on the panels, make nautilus draw the desktop and configure the fallback mode to more or less appear like a standart GNOME 2 desktop.

  8. @Anonymous: That's all good and fine, but my beef is why these tools weren't included in GNOME in the first place. I mean, it still is a free software DE, so it has got to be at least as customizable as its predecessor. Thanks for the comment!

  9. I actually think that those tools are included in GNOME. At least they appear to be official GNOME projects. Perhaps it depends on the distributor whether to include them in their standard desktop or not. The important thing is that such tools exist and with the release of new versions of GNOME each six months more such tools with more options will most likely appear. Compared to KDE 4.0 or what i've read about GNOME 2.0 this seems to be a really solid release.

  10. @Anonymous: Well, from the reviews I've read elsewhere, while the customization tools may be official GNOME projects, they aren't included by default in GNOME 3, so you'll have to fetch them yourself. At the moment, the only truly official way to customize GNOME 3 is through GConf-Editor. Also, what you say about the comparison to KDE 4.0 is very true — when that was released, people were legitimately concerned about its total lack of stability and it missing whole bunches of features despite it being the maximalist DE; GNOME 3 is obviously trying to be minimalist, so the only complaints I and others have are that it's just too different from GNOME 2.X, but otherwise it's quite usable and stable. I think it's good that the GNOME developers didn't release GNOME 3 prematurely. Thanks for the comment!

  11. @anonymous: Ctrl+Alt+L to lock screen...
    I have used Gnome 3 for over a week now, and I must admit its well thought out.You quickly get used to the new interface...plus if you know few shortcut keys (like windows/Super key to show activities) you'll never regret the change.Wish all a better experience with Gnome 3

  12. @neeraj: I suppose if you're already a keyboard person, GNOME 3 is actually better than GNOME 2 in that sense. Unfortunately, I am not; I use a few shortcuts here and there in specific applications, but by and large I am a mouse person. Thanks for the comment!

  13. @PV - GNOME is trying to preserve a visual identity. You'll note that it is not that easy to change everything in Windows and OSX and it is still acceptable to 90% of the people. When you have a permanent visual identity it's easy to design applications and integrate better. But if people change everything constantly then it's difficult to make a single consistent look.

    That is why the tools are hard to come by and tweaking is discouraged for the most part. I mean you can still do it, it's open source, but if you want to have stab at getting market share, more app developers then this is some of the things you have to pursue.

  14. @sri: Au contraire, good sir (I had to check your profile to ensure I was correct about that last part). I present you KDE 4. It is incredibly customizable, down to every last pixel; it may not be that intuitive, but it is certainly doable. Yet, KDE somehow manages to present a unified look and feel. If you haven't noticed, Kubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE, PCLinuxOS, Arch, Sabayon, MEPIS, Kororaa, Xange, aptosid, et cetera all use the default Oxygen icon theme and pretty much the standard KDE layout, with a standard Plasma panel almost always (with a few exceptions) with a standard KDE 4 Kickoff menu on the bottom and either a desktop containment or folder view widget for the main desktop. Sure, they may vary in a couple extra widgets and some Plasma themes, but by and large they look pretty much the same. I would say the only major KDE 4 distributions that looks pretty different are Mandriva and Pardus, and even Pardus now uses standard Oxygen icon, Qt, and KWin themes. I would love to hear your response, and thanks for the comment!

  15. No wonder why Ubuntu switched to Unity.
    Gnome's impression about users is that they think we are idiots like Windows users.
    Gnome 3 supposed to help the user but instead it confuses him, with a hard to understand interface and with some unusual graphic models.
    What I'm trying to say is that lets hope that Linux Mint will provide us with a better graphic interface.
    Gnome 3 has a lot of bugs, even if it shows itself to be stable, has a lot of glitches and after a few days it will start to be bloated.

  16. @>>Cpt. Ender: Although I haven't actually tried out Unity for myself, I'm not sure that it's really that much better than GNOME 3, considering it has a similar type of application launcher and was similarly made for touchscreen interfaces (and the irony is that for either one to actually work on a touchscreen device, a lot of extra work needs to be done). And yes, Linux Mint is supposed to use GNOME 3 and all the good things in it but discard the bad parts of the interface for an interface that should be almost identical to the GNOME 2.X setup in Linux Mint 10 "Julia". Thanks for the comment!

  17. Unity isn't better than Gnome Shell, Actually it's worse and even more confusing in my opinion, but that is for now.. I'm fairly sure that Unity will evolve to something real nice in the future, there are already a few new lenses being developed that will make computing even easier.. Anyway as of right now I prefer gnome shell

  18. @Anonymous: It's great that GNOME 3 Shell is working well for you. If you read my recent review of Edubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal" on this blog, you'll see why I prefer Unity over GNOME 3 Shell, though that preference is just marginal and I could never see myself using either on a regular basis. Thanks for the comment!

  19. Ugh. I just tried playing around with gnome 3. It's absolutely horrid. I suppose if my desktop was a cell phone or tablet, it would be great. But required functionality has been stripped out or hidden all in favor of this "eye candy". I love it when people sacrifice useful things so that it looks pretty. It's enough to make a person want to go back to Windows. It may crash a lot, but required functionality is there. Seriously, how are large motions completely across screen, scrolling through menus (supposedly "no menus".. whatever) faster, easier or whatever than some of your old school methods? This layout makes absolutely no sense. I completely agree that a change needs to happen to make things more user friendly. And yes, we need to challenge the way we've been doing things.... but seriously... this is the challenge? I really hate this phrase, but here it goes... i'm going to use it: FAIL!! 10000% FAIL. I hate gnome 3 and unity with a passion.

  20. @Ryan: It's an issue I have with GNOME 3 as well. I understand that it's been done so that people associate it with the interfaces they are now used to (i.e. iOS, Android), but seriously, the desktop computer isn't a smartphone/tablet. Thanks for the comment!

  21. Anonymous, you can actually get the power off button to show without holding down alt by installing gnome-shell-extensions-alternate-status-menu.

  22. @Anonymous: What annoys me is that a second-partyish extension is required at all to add back what should be standard functionality that has regressed from version 2 to 3. I understand (though don't agree with the idea) that GNOME 3 wants to minimize distractions, but is the ability to turn the computer off a distraction now or what? Thanks for the tip, though!