a week-and-a-half with GNOME 3

I’m as surprised as anyone to admit it, but I’ve spent the last using GNOME 3, and it hasn’t been too painful — in fact, I’ve had no trouble remaining productive in it. I’ve definitely missed some of GNOME 2’s features, but it’s definitely been a more pleasant and productive experience than my time with Ubuntu’s Unity desktop after the 11.04 release.

A lot of people have reacted poorly to GNOME 3, and I can understand their frustrations. I’m not sure why I haven’t had the same experience, but perhaps my time with Mac OS X has something to do with it — I’m already used to using the Expose-style overview in the GNOME Shell, and to having Alt-Tab work on an application-level. There’s a new key combo for switching between the windows of an individual application; it defaults to Alt and whatever key sits above the Tab key in your locale (Alt-` in my case). It still took a bit of adjustment, but I was soon zipping between windows and launching applications without any dramas.

GNOME Shell's overview provides quick access to your applications and windows

The GNOME Shell cheat sheet covers a lot of the less obvious functionality built in to the Shell. I do find some of the hidden functionality a bit silly — having to hold Alt to reveal the “Power Off” menu item, for instance — but it still doesn’t take long to come up to speed.

I will add one caveat to my comments: I’ve been using GNOME 3 on my laptop, where (as I remarked a couple of posts back) I spend most of my time using Firefox, Chrome, Thunderbird, terminal windows, and a text editor. I haven’t used it with JACK and my regular assortment of music tools yet, so I’m still not sure how it’ll handle that workflow, or if its greater use of video hardware is going to cause any latency issues.

A quick reality check, nine years in the making

One thing I can’t help but feel in the release of GNOME 3.0 is a sense of history repeating; after all, it’s not the first major release of GNOME to slash away at the desktop’s feature set and remodel the remains based on design principles put together by a core team of developers.

Red Hat Linux 8, with the then-new GNOME 2.0. I'd forgotten how much like a browser Nautilus looked

GNOME 2.0 had substantially less functionality and configurability than the 1.4 release that preceded it, and it imposed a set of Human Interface Guidelines that described how user interfaces should be designed. I think you’d have a hard time finding someone today who’d claim that those changes weren’t for the best in the long run, but at the time, the streamlining was considered too extreme, and the HIG was controversial.

I think we forget just how much was missing in GNOME 2.0, partly because it’s been so long, but mostly because all of the really important features have found their way back in. To remind myself, I took a look back in time: I installed Red Hat Linux 8 in a VM and fired up its default GNOME 2.0 desktop.

The configuration dialogs in GNOME 2.0 did actually cover some options that are currently missing in GNOME 3, such as font and theme settings, and its panels had greater flexibility than the GNOME Shell’s single top panel, thanks to the bundled selection of applets. However, there were surprisingly few applets that provided functionality that hasn’t been incorporated in to GNOME 3 in some way.

Even this minimal window settings dialog from Red Hat 8 wasn't an official part of GNOME 2.0. A complete window settings dialog was added in the next release, GNOME 2.2

Leafing through the release notes for the subsequent GNOME 2 releases showed how quickly some of its missing functionality came back, and just how much the desktop has been polished over the years. While GNOME 3 throws away the visible desktop components, there’s a lot of GNOME 2 still in there, from the power, disk, sound, and networking management infrastructure through to its many tools and utilities.

GNOME 3.0 is a little different from GNOME 2.0 in that it changes the basics of navigating your desktop, and the developers have so far resisted requests to relax those changes. I’m still sure that it’s going to improve rapidly, though, and I do think that its developers will take the various criticisms on board. I don’t expect any dramatic design reversals, but I do expect improvements and refinements that will make GNOME 3 a viable option for many of the users that find it frustrating today.

2011 macbook air linux update

As I mentioned previously, I’ve been playing with Ubuntu on my 2011 Macbook Air, and I’m happy to report that it’s now much more usable than when I first installed it. There’s a kernel module hack that fixes the display issues, allowing the Intel driver to run at the panel’s full 1440×900.

Having the Intel driver running instead of the fbdev driver means that OpenGL and visual effects (and Unity, if you’re in to that sort of thing) work, as does brightness adjustment, and I suspect it’s the reason that suspend and resume now work, too. Patching the kernel manually would be a pain, but the (updated) setup script from the Ubuntu forums now takes care of this for you, along with the keyboard and trackpad driver patches.

Ubuntu 11.04 on the Macbook Air, with all the important stuff working

I also had a chance to test the Ubuntu 11.10 beta. I haven’t tested it with the video fix above (though it is supposed to work), but I did notice that the my 5Ghz 802.11n network worked with it, so it seems like the 5Ghz issues I’m having with 11.04 have been fixed.

All of the important stuff is working, then, at least for my needs. There are some minor keyboard niggles — I haven’t been able to adjust the keyboard backlight brightness, and the volume keys are incorrectly mapped — but the biggest issue is with the trackpad. It works, including two-finger scrolling and two- and three-finger taps and clicks, but it doesn’t feel quite right, particularly when scrolling.

It seems like a minor thing, but the trackpad is central to the user experience, and when basics like button presses and scrolling rely to a degree on gesture recognition, it matters a lot that they’re detected reliably and respond appropriately. The multitouch driver is under active development, though, so I have no doubt it’ll improve.

I really enjoying benchmarking this thing, just to see how much power has been crammed in to it. Compiling Ardour 3 from SVN seemed like a good test of overall system performance: it managed it in 14 minutes and 50 seconds, just under two minutes faster than my 3Ghz Core 2 Duo desktop. It’s definitely no slouch!