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.

4 thoughts on “a week-and-a-half with GNOME 3

  1. A sensible look at G3. The 1.4->2.0 vs. 2.x->3.0 perspective you propose is interesting. You’re right: we didn’t lose so much, we gained in simplicity and overall “sense”, and the few missing cherries will be back on the cake soon.

    Out of curiosity, which distro do you use / are you planning to use?
    – I find it harder and harder to use Ubuntu, because their deep Unity-focused modifications to -uh- everything end up impacting/cluttering the GNOME3 experience.
    – I’d rather use a vanilla Fedora for example, but Fedora sucks in some aspects at least for me: lots of crashes, packages missing (compared to Ubuntu), hardware issues …
    – … while Ubuntu’s HW support and PPA system are brilliant

  2. Thanks for your comments! I’ve been using Ubuntu for a long time now, and on my laptop currently I’m running Ubuntu 11.04 along with the unofficial GNOME 3 PPA that’s available here:


    I’ll be curious to see just what happens to GNOME 3 in Ubuntu 11.10 — it should be in the repositories and just not installed by default, so hopefully it’ll be easy enough to install a few packages and bring up a complete GNOME 3 desktop. If that becomes more difficult as Unity becomes more ingrained in the Ubuntu experience, though, then I too might be looking for a new distribution.

  3. Like you, I have been using Gnome 3 for about 2 weeks, and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised.

    I’ve found it an excellent laptop distro, and the big buttons and keyboard accessible views and menus suit how I use my laptop very well.

    I have also installed it on my 3yo netbook, and it has worked well on that too, despite the machine having minimal hardware resources.

    There are some niggles, and the option to configure basic things easily is a PITA, like setting file associations within the ‘open with’ dialogue, not being able to remove the accessibility button, not being able to auto-hide the task bar, and auto-login settings being ignored.

    Overall though it works well, especially for a *.0 release, and I must say that it looks really, really good!

  4. I think you may have hit the nail on the head, actually — I too think it’s an excellent desktop for laptop users, and I wonder if that might be part of the reason why reviews of it have been so mixed. I’ve yet to try it on my dual-monitor desktop PC, but I’m starting to think that it would fare less well there. I’m sticking with Ubuntu 10.10 on my desktop for now anyway, because I know it works for me, but hopefully by the time I’m ready to move on from that, GNOME 3 will have matured enough to be very usable on desktop systems, too.

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