Gnome 3 is said to be a major milestone in the development of the Gnome environment. It’s latest generation brings in a lot of changes and several new features, including a global new design. We already had a nice preview of what it would be with earlier versions of Gnome Shell. Undoubtedly, Gnome 3 appears to be more modern than it’s predecessor, Gnome 2, that has never changed much since several years now. Rebuilding the bases, offering new features, is good. But since several years the Gnome project has decided to design their GUI in order to make it more “simple”. Now this is essentially the issue I will be talking about here because, even though I no longer use it that often. I used to appreciate Gnome 2, customize it a little, and found it quite comfortable (I currently use KDE 4.6, and still use Gnome 2 at work from time to time).
I am absolutely sure that the Gnome developers wanted to offer their users a new experience and offer a singular environment, making it better, more comfortable, and as nice as intuitive. But did they have to design Gnome 3 that much simplistically? I sincerely think not, but they still did.
A new layout
Gnome 3 has a new, yet interesting layout. There is now only one bar at the top of the screen, with three distinct parts : the Activities button allowing to switch between windows, run applications and switch between virtual desktops, here called activities as well. At the center is located the clock, that can also display the date and give access to the calendar and agenda system managed by Evolution. Finally on the right, are located the “system” notifications and the user menu.
The first thing you will notice if that you cannot modify anything of this layout : elements position, applets, panel background… nothing can be configured. In short, you have to put up with the elements as they are placed by design.
When clicking on Activities (or simply placing your cursor in the top let of the screen), a full screen menu appears, with your favorite applications placed on the left, the visualization as in spaces of the opened windows, and the list of active “virtual desktops” on the right. A button offers to list all the applications in full screen as well, with a category list on the right and a search bar on top.
Gnome 3 is nice, all right. But the fact that you have to always have to go to the extreme upper corner to open an application, click on applications to list it if it is not pinned, and then use the applications after three clicks and long distance mouse moves is tiering. Always the same many moves to do without the possibility to optimize them, as it is not possible to pin the most used applications on the top panel. This, in fact, may generates some frustration (at least for me). Why was the menu designed that big? This useless huge size is useless and makes it’s use more uncomfortable. I would like to change it, but I can’t.
I said previously that there was now only one top panel. But in reality, there is a hidden panel at the bottom, that contains the “Application” notifications, distinct from the “System” notifications. You can access them either by placing the pointer in the lower right corner of the screen or by opening the “Activities”. Why is there now a separation and why the application icons are hidden in this place? I have no idea, but I do not feel this as practical. This makes me do once again more mouse moves, as well as being counter-intuitive (it took me a little more than ten minutes to find them and understand the working). There are notification or status icons to notify the user. There should be no reason to separate system ones from application ones, and at least, no reason to hide them either.
To shutdown your computer, you have to log out first and then select shut down in the upper left corner in GDM.
The user menu offers access to several possibilities : user account management, preferences, and… status. Even if there is no instant messaging application configured, it seems like you can “always be connected” by selecting either “available” or “busy”. However, with the full Gnome 3 desktop, you cannot turn off your computer. You can only reboot, log out or put it in stand-by. To shutdown your computer, you have to log out first and then select shut down in the upper left corner in GDM. This “feature” is (in my opinion) like going back in 2004 when you had to log out and select “halt” on the user list screen. I fail to see the point as Linux operating systems tend to make their boot and shutdown process quicker and more efficient.
Thankfully, it is possible to shut down directly the computer when using the economic mode of Gnome 3, supposed to be used in the case of unsupported graphic cards.
What I call the “economic” mode of Gnome 3 is in fact a mode for “graphic cards that are not supported by Gnome 3″ and is hidden in the “System Information”. This mode allows the user to return to a sort of Gnome 2.xx appearance, with the same top and lower panels. However, because this is Gnome 3 as well, you no longer cannot change anything to them. Only can you finally shut down properly the computer, change some clock settings, access the classic application menu and see all the notifications at the same place. At least it seems more quick and easy to use, although many features have been lost between the shift from Gnome 2.32 to 3.0.
In this mode, the buttons for expanding or reducing the windows finally come back. The developers probably thought it was a feature that was too difficult to use in full mode.
A look of déjà vu
Is it me, or is the general theme and GUI greatly inspired by a certain environment and theme from Apple? In Gnome 3, the majority of the details seem to have been taken from Cupertino’s world, aside of the major changes to make the whole look totally different, from the question/information dialogs appear from the top in a very similar way to the slider button that used to be found only in iOS. Some of the settings panels have an impressive similarity with the ones available in Mac OS X Snow Leopard, but with much less features…
I know it is wrong to judge an environment on such details, the same thing could be said of KDE with it’s default setting of placing a taskbar at the bottom with an application menu in the lower left corner. But the resemblance stops here. KDE assumes it’s desktop configuration but has it’s very own way of organizing it’s settings and features differently from Redmond’s interface. The user also has all the possibilities to change the entire layout. For Gnome 3, I see an environment where it has been attempted make things different in order to offer a new and better experience (which is not really the case, at least for me), but copying several appearance/gadget stuff without trying to add or change anything because it seems cool. This would not have been annoying if the Gnome developers decided to not imprison us in their environment, depleted of all sorts of basic functionalities such as having a normal desktop where I have my icons on it, or change the system theme easily, or change the way menus are placed or appeared.
Gnome 3 is not an environment good for productivity. It is good for those who want a nice desktop with many nice animations and who do not mind the unusual and unoptimized (and unoptimizable) layout. I used to like having Kwin or Compiz effects without enabling too much animations, just for having a more smooth desktop. But Gnome 3 is far too much. Gnome 3 wants us to launch one activity with three times more mouse distance, three times more clicks, and three times more animations than any other environment, apart of the “run” dialog that helps running a task more quickly.
This is sad because I feel like I am always criticizing. I have to say the notification system seems good, I do love the possibility to answer someone in IM through the notification bubble. But all the other issues and the fact I am extremely limited in terms of possibility of customization overcomes the good points I am attempting to spot.Gnome 3 has reproduced one of the major errors KDE did for 4.0 and 4.1 : deleting too important features (including the desktop icons) in order to push a brand new concept to which not everyone is ready and/or has not yet found the use. KDE had to reintroduce the classic desktop concept, still massively used, had to reimplement quickly several features that were missing from KDE 3.5, and started developing by the way it’s own netbook interface. Gnome 3 also looks too much orientated like Unity : particularly good for netbooks and, in the case of Gnome 3, for touch-screens. But not for the classic screen/keyboard/mouse(or touchpad) interface.
I’ll stick to KDE, but track the changes for Gnome 3. I think the current alternative for a productive environment that can be an equivalent to Gnome is Xfce currently. It can be compatible with several gnome components and applets (I am working on an Xfce LiveCD that would integrate some few features that are originally designed for Gnome 2). And I guess that between Xfce and Gnome 3, Xfce might no longer be as much a castrated sibling of Gnome as it used to be since it’s latest milestone does not leave any freedom of customization and control. There are Tweaking tools that came out, but you should not have to rely on such programs.
I know evolution is necessary. Evolution and changes are required to correspond to new needs and habits. Gnome 3 is stable, far more stable than KDE 4.0 and 4.1. The inly bug I have is due to the graphic card support (nVidia driver is usually required) in OpenSuse or Gnome 3. But there are so many regressions and usability issues to me that this is no way a good solution. It has nothing to do with habits, it has to do with both functionalities, freedom of changing things easily in the environment, and having a good ergonomic for the one who has a keyboard and a mouse, or a touch pad.
The true revolution for a modern desktop is the velvet revolution type that supposes smooth and progressive changes, although important and offering a new concept that could develop and progress through time, but still keeping the bases of the previous ones, and not forcing a brand new concept that is too young and deleting the previous one (or seriously harm it). I fail to see to what new need Gnome 3 is supposed to offer an answer; except on the netbook and touchscreen markets. I think they could have only improved the way the application menus were designed and the way the windows were listed, it would have been better. But currently, I won’t ever use Gnome 3 on any of my computers… except my eeePC eventually.
This is my personal opinion, and it is certainly very subjective and biased by the fact I like an environment that is both cute and simple, while offering a good quantity of settings. I am usually using KDE, XFCE and learn to configure thoroughly Openbox. They do not have the same aims, but all leave quite a great freedom and can be eye candy if you want to without affecting the user experience. But I would like to have other people’s opinion if they do not agree with one or more points I have attempted to explain.