Giving GNOME 3 a GNOME 2 Look

Tuesday Jul 9th 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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It all comes down to choosing the right combination of extensions.

GNOME Shell Extensions have done more than any other set of features to make GNOME 3 usable. Nearly 270 in number, they provide a degree of customization that was missing in the first GNOME 3 releases. In fact, if you choose, you can use the extensions to go far beyond Classic GNOME and re-create almost exactly the look and feel of GNOME 2 while taking advantage of the latest GNOME 3 code.

The GNOME Shell Extensions site is more than a listing of options. It is also an interface for enabling and disabling extensions. To download and install an extension, go to its page and toggle on the switch in the upper left corner. In most cases, the extension is enabled without any need to reboot or to restart the X server. To disable an extension, toggle off the same switch.

If you forget which extensions you have installed—something that is easy to do—click Installed extensions in the main menu for a complete list, each with its toggle switch.

Many of the extensions are marked as beta, but most of these install without difficulty. The few that fail to work can be toggled off without crashing your desktop. The only ones you might want to avoid altogether are the handful marked as obsolete or unmaintained. You can further minimize your chances of problems by setting the list so that only the extensions compatible with the current release display.

Few features could be simpler. If you are trying to re-create GNOME 2, you can follow these steps, focusing on choosing between the available alternatives rather than the mechanism you are using to transform your desktop.

Step 1: Restoring General GNOME 2 Behavior

Alternate Tab is one of the extensions officially supported in Classic GNOME, so in a recent release, it may already be enabled. If it is not, toggling it on will let you cycle through open windows by repeatedly pressing Alt+Tab.

Next, if you want icons on your desktop, enable Desktop Icon Switch. This extension adds a Desktop Icon option in the user menu on the far right of the panel. When the option is toggled on, you can right-click on the desktop to add a new folder or document.

Unfortunately, the extension does not add application icons to the context menu, but you used the file manager to add a copy or softlink of an application to the Desktop or its folders (Hint: many will be in /usr/bin).

Another popular choice is Window Buttons. Once this extension is enabled, instead of using keyboard shortcuts, you will be able to minimize and maximize windows using the traditional title bar buttons. Windows opened before you enable Window Buttons will not have the icons until you close and re-open them.

Many distributions defaulted to a top and bottom panel in GNOME 2. The Frippery Bottom Panel adds a bottom panel with a taskbar and a virtual workspace switcher, adding several GNOME 2 features with one extension. However, it requires the installation of Frippery Static Workspaces to display more than the default two workspaces.

Step 2: Restoring the Menu

GNOME 3 replaces the menu with the Activities link to the overview mode, which includes tools for searching for applications and launching them. For those who prefer a single screen for their desktop, the extension site includes several replacement menus:

  • Axe Menu: A large menu in a window, with Places, Bookmarks, and System Settings down the left side, and favorites in the middle and right column. Click the All Applications button to replace the list of favorites.
  • Applications Menu: Part of Classic GNOME, Applications Menu is described as "a gnome 2x style" menu. In fact, it isn't quite—instead of sub-menus spilling out across the desktop, they open below the top menu items in a rather narrow window. The result saves space, but quickly eats up vertical space on small screens.
  • Bolt Menu: Instead of re-creating the GNOME 2 menu, this extension effectively places many of the features on the overview onto the workspace. To Ubuntu users, it resembles the Unity dash without the online search capability. Before enabling it, you must install Zeitgeist, or it won't work.
  • Frippery Applications Menu: This extension resembles the Application menu (see above), except that its link is entitled Applications. Those who like the GNOME 2 top level menus of Applications, Places and System might consider adding the Places Status Indicator next to it (The Systems menu has been replaced in GNOME 3 by the System Settings dialog window).

Except for the Applications Menu, each of these extensions replaces the Activities link to the overview with its own menu. However, if you add a few more extensions (see next page), you can easily ignore the overview altogether.

Step 3: Adding GNOME 2 Panel Features

If you want to do without the overview, you need a workplace switcher on the panel. The Frippery Bottom Panel provides one choice. Other choices include the Workspace Indicator, which lists workspaces in a drop-down menu, and the Workspace Grid or Workspacebar. To any of these, you might want to add Workspace Monitor, which lists the windows open on the current workspace.

In theory, any of these workspace extensions can also be enhanced by Workspace Labels and Labeled Spaces. But in practice, neither is working as I write, although that might change by the time you experiment.

Besides the taskbar in Analog Clock on the Frippery Bottom Panel, you can install the icon-oriented Taskbar. Other items you might install include either the Message Notifier or Bigger Message Tray Center, and a variety of clocks similar to those available in GNOME 2, ranging from an Analog Clock and a Full Clock (that includes the date and week day) to Binary and Fuzzy clocks.

Step 4: Choosing Applets and Indicators

Many of the applets you used in GNOME 2 are available as extensions in GNOME 3. Battery Percentage Indicator, Removable Drive Menu, Trash, Window List—all these and more provide comparable, if not exact functionality to what GNOME 2 offered.

However, what GNOME Shell extensions do not provide is the same degree of functionality. With many panel indicators, you have no choice where they are placed on the panel. With others, you need to install another extension in order to move a specific indicator.

Even then, you may have only limited control over how far or which direction you can move the indicator. If you install Frippery Bottom Panel, you may not even have a say in which panel an indicator is placed. Such shortcomings are the most serious that you will encounter as you try to re-create GNOME 2.

With a Little Help

Resurrecting GNOME 2 on top of GNOME 3 can be a time-consuming task. Not only do you have a choice of extensions for most features, but you may have to install additional extensions to make your choice work properly. Nor is there any guarantee that each of your choices will be compatible with the others if you stray outside the core extensions used in GNOME Classic.

Still, chances are that you will only need to make the effort once. In the end, you should be able to mimic at least 90 percent of GNOME 2's functionality. If the percentage is less, the reason could be that you have found an alternative you prefer over one of GNOME 2's features, such as the menu. That is one of the benefits of GNOME's series of extensions—you can configure in far more detail than you can with tools like GNOME TweakTool, coming as close or as far from GNOME 2 as you choose.

Once you are finished, download to the Installed extensions page of the extension and save it as part of your regular backup. A record of your choices will save you considerable time the next you set up a GNOME installation. Just because re-creating GNOME 2 is possible doesn't meant that you want to do it from scratch a second time.

In the end, one thing is clear: if you have shied away from GNOME because you preferred the second release series to the third, you no longer have any technical reason to do so.

Possibly, you may still nurse a grudge because of GNOME 3. However, by a careful selection of extensions, you can now make GNOME 3 comparable to Linux Mint's Cinnamon, combining your favorite style of interface with the latest GNOME code.

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