9 Features To Make You Reconsider GNOME

Tuesday Sep 10th 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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Two and a half years after GNOME 3 appeared, it's overdue for a second look.

If you've moved away from GNOME because of the third release series, you might want to celebrate the upcoming 3.10 release by having another look.

The default setup is still the same as it was in 3.0 with a main screen and an overview. But in the last thirty months, GNOME has regained many of the customization options the third release series initially lacked.

Similarly, while GNOME still inclines towards minimalism, extensive design efforts and usability testing are starting to make that minimalism efficient rather than lacking. Now, anyone with an open mind and a willingness to tweak has a better chance of being satisfied with GNOME than in any previous time in the last two and a half years.

The quickest way to see for yourself is to install Ubuntu GNOME, then:

  1. Use sudo add-apt-repository to add ppa:ricotz/testing, ppa:gnome3-team/gnome3, and ppa:gnome3-team/gnome3-staging to the repositories. Each source must added with a separate command
  2. Run the command sudo apt-get update.
  3. Install the beta with sudo apt-get install gnome-shell gnome-shell-extensions.
  4. Update your entire system with sudo apt-get dist-upgrade.

Meanwhile, here some of the features, both large and small and new and old, that show the care that has gone into recent versions of GNOME. Once you get over the fact that some choices are new or different, you might be surprised how well some of GNOME's alterations actually work:

9. GNOME Tweak Tool

Almost from the start of the third release series, GNOME Tweak Tool has been included in most distributions to give users the choices they want. Basically, it is the next step when you have exhausted the choices in the Settings dialog.

Themes, title bar icons, font choices, widgets on the desktop, typing options -- all these are more become customizable thanks to GNOME Tweak Tool, making it one of the first applications you want to run immediately after installation. The half hour or so it will take you to go through the options can make all the difference to how satisfied you are with GNOME.

8. Consistent System Settings

Free desktops are traditionally more concerned with functionality than appearance. Consequently, even in the same desktop environment, setting dialogs rarely have any consistency, a tendency that makes them harder than necessary to use.

However, the upcoming 3.10 release includes efforts to redesign windows, making them both simple and similar to each other. Some settings, such as Device Color Profiles and Sounds still remain less than intuitive (and may not be capable of being simplified much). But gradually the setting dialogs are all starting to resemble each other and to become quicker to user.

7. The Revised System Status Menu

Located on the far right of the panel, until now the System Status menu has always been a list of features in no particular order. However, in GNOME 3.10, the features have been organized and given a button or illustration where useful. The result is a menu much easier to use.

6. Refining Scroll Bars

For decades, the scroll bars on windows have had arrows at each end for moving through the window -- and for decades, users have been ignoring them in favor of dragging the sliders directly.

GNOME has chosen to eliminate the arrows, and to minimize the width of the track for the sliders. At the same time, sliders change colors to indicate that they are active. The result is a small increase efficiency that can loom large when you are sorting through long documents.

5. A Search Field Replacing the Menu

Instead of a classic menu, GNOME opts for a search field in the overview that uses the entire screen to display results. However, the results do not include just applications. By default, they also display sub-dialogs, contacts and documents in the results, which helps users to learn the locations of settings.

Just as importantly, unlike Ubuntu's Unity, GNOME avoids mixing online results with local ones, thereby eliminating what is a distraction at best and a major privacy concern at worst.

4. Header Bars Replacing Title Bars

In many desktop environments, replacing title bars with something simpler wouldn't work. However, GNOME eliminates the need for each window to have a menu for repositioning windows on virtual work spaces, and minimizes by keystroke and resizes by clicking -- leaving very little reason left for a title bar. Instead, the default is only a button to close the window.

Admittedly, the change is disconcerting until you learn the alternative ways to minimize and resize. However, once you do, you may not miss the title bar as much as you imagine -- especially if you used GNOME Tweak Tool to add minimize and maximize buttons to the far right corner.

3. Toggle Switches

Like a light switch, a toggle turns a feature on or off depending on its position. It does nothing that a check-box or a drop-down selection list doesn't, but it conveys very clearly that customization is simply a matter of an either-or choice. Moreover, a toggle gives this impression using a metaphor that anyone using a computer is likely to recognize. Just by using a toggle switch, the designers can greatly reduce the amount of dialog and help needed in a window.

2. Application-Specific Notifications

Most free desktop environments have been struggling in the last couple of years to develop notification systems that are useful without distracting readers, and GNOME is no exception.

One of GNOME's most useful efforts to control notifications is the ability to turn off the display of notifications for specific GNOME utilities, such as Empathy, Evolution, Archive Manager or Brasero. In theory, this feature might seem chancy, but in practice it helps to reduce the amount of unnecessary information thrown out to users.

After all, do you really need a notification to tell you that Rhythm Box isn't working? You can tell by the fact that you aren't hearing music. In many cases, the chances are that the notification won't help you when you settle down to trouble-shoot anyway, so any risk seems minimal.

1. GNOME Shell Extensions

Shell Extensions are by far the single most important reason for reconsidering GNOME 3. GNOME may have started supporting them because they were easier to maintain than the separate code for fallback mode, but, whatever the reason for the decision, the practical effect was to open a tsunami of customization choices.

Now, whether you want to recreate the GNOME 2 environment, reduce or eliminate your need for the overview mode, or simply to have more choices, extensions make GNOME one of the most versatile desktop environments available. Best of all, the web-based interface for installing and disabling extensions couldn't be easier to use.

Officially, GNOME only supports a handful of extensions -- which is sensible, because you can never tell how one extension may conflict with another. But conflicts are surprisingly few, and generally you can experiment with different combinations without difficulty. All in all, the choice to encourage extensions may be the smartest decision in the whole third release series.

Time for a Second Look

Some design choices in GNOME continue to irk, particularly the use of two screens when a single one is all that a workstation or laptop requires. But, unlike in the early days of the release series, users are no longer restricted to the choices that designers have made for them.

Now, you can customize as much -- or perhaps even more -- than you could in GNOME 2. This freedom can allow you to appreciate how well and how often GNOME's minimalist design philosophy works in other ways.

In fact, once you get over the mere fact that features have changed, you might even appreciate the elegance of some of GNOME's innovations.

Even at the height of the user revolt, GNOME's technology remained popular, underlying such popular alternatives as Cinnamon and Unity. But now that GNOME has given users the customization that was so obviously missing from GNOME 3.0, most of us are overdue to re-evaluate the GNOME Shell as well. You might be surprised by what you find.

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