Monday Mar 19th 2012 by Bruce Byfield

Is GNOME 3 really an improvement over GNOME 2?

Users who choose between GNOME 2 and GNOME 3 are rarely making that decision on a purely rational basis. In my experience, users of GNOME 2 are often choosing what they know, while users of GNOME 3 are technophiles who enjoy anything that is new.

Neither is likely to go over the two generations of GNOME feature by feature. In many cases, the choice seems made before login.

But what happens when the two desktop environments are compared in general features? I'm a fan of neither GNOME 2 nor GNOME 3, but I decided to find out.

I spent the day with the two desktop environments open side by side, looked at the desktop components in both, and tried to pick a winner in each basic category based on efficiency, ease of use, and the availability of choices for users.

The effort wasn't always easy. Neither being new nor being traditional was enough in many cases. Frankly, the switch from GNOME 2 to GNOME 3 often looked like an exchange of one set of shortcomings for another.

Still, the results highlight the strengths and weakness of both desktop environments -- even if you disagree with some of the conclusions.

Menus in a Muddle

So far as menus goes, choosing between GNOME versions is a matter of which inconveniences you prefer. Do you want your workspace blocked by submenus spilling across the desktop, as with GNOME 2's classical menu, or do you want to leave your workspace for a full-screen menu, as with GNOME 3?

One of GNOME 2's trademark is the Applications / Places / System set of top-level menus. The Places menu is of limited use, but the System menu has the advantage of making configuration and administration tools easy to find. In most implementations, it has no favorites menu, although you can easily create one using the Drawer applet or a launcher like the Avant Windows Navigator (AWN) on the desktop.

By contrast, GNOME 3's menu appears in the overview, not the main workspace. The overview installs with a launcher for favorites, and divides the menu into Windows and Applications. Configuration and administration tools are part of the general menu. However, you can use the System Tools filter to find them quickly.

In GNOME 3, reaching the menu requires two clicks: one to reach the overview, and a second to switch the menu from the default Windows to Applications. After that, both require two clicks, one on a sub-menu, and one on the application to launch anything. GNOME 3's filters are no advantage, since GNOME 2's sub-menus give much the same functionality.

Verdict: If not inconveniently placed on the overview, GNOME 3's menus would be the winner. After all, if using the menu is going to disturb your work anyway, the menu might as well give you a clear, full-screen view. As things are, both versions of GNOME have enough shortcomings that I have to declare a tie. However, I suspect that many users would prefer GNOME 2 just because it's more familiar.

Panels: From Functional to Cosmetic

Under GNOME 2, panels are an essential part of customizing the desktop. Besides basics such as the menu, notification tray, and clock, the panel was the place for applets, small utilities that could be added and positioned as suited you. About forty applets were available, about half of what KDE now offers, but enough to give users a choice.

The panel was so useful that many distributions shipped GNOME 2 with top and bottom panels, reserving the bottom one mainly for a windows list, so that it had enough room that users could easily keep track of applications that were minimized or running in the background.

GNOME 3 threw away the idea of the panel as an element for configuration. Only a few basic tools such as the clock and calendar and the system sound indicator remain. The panel still does duty as a window list, but shows only the currently active window, and not other open windows.

As for applets, forget them. Such applets that survive, such as Tomboy Notes, are lumped into the general application menu, where they are much less handy. Nor can you reposition the panel or its contents. Even a useful panel feature like notifications is switched to the bottom of the overview, where it is less obtrusive -- but so much so that you can easily miss events on the system altogether.

Verdict: GNOME 2. While GNOME 3's panel is less cluttered, it is also vastly less useful. For many, the inability to add a second panel is also a major handicap.

Desktops and Window Juggling

GNOME 2's desktop has such a long tradition that little needs to be said about it. Its desktop was a place where you could add launchers for applications, files, or locations. Its windows could be minimized or maximized, and opened somewhere between these two extremes. The main problem was the non-intelligent placement of new windows, which required a Show Desktop applet on the panel as a panic button.

For better or worse, GNOME 3 is a complete rethinking of the desktop. By default, no launchers of any sort are allowed on it. Except for apps like Empathy, whose windows require very little space, everything is open maximized, with no indicator like the windows list to suggest what other else might be buried beneath the active application.

If you are a user with the least tendency to multi-task, this arrangement quickly leads to chaos on the desktop. GNOME 3's solution? A depiction of the open applications on the overview that has no connection to how the windows are actually arranged, and no power to change the arrangement.

Moreover, as GNOME 3 is installed, configuration is confined to choosing the wallpaper, unless you add a tool like GNOME Tweak that allows you to change items such as the fonts used on the desktop. By contrast, GNOME 2 offers a full set of personalization tools.

Verdict: GNOME 2. Its concept of the desktop includes the possibility of a setup like GNOME 3's, while GNOME 3's doesn't include the unaided recreation of GNOME 2. Also, while GNOME 2's window placement could use some improvement, its positioning and handling of windows is far less awkward than GNOME 3's.

Virtual Workspaces

GNOME 3 creates virtual workspaces automatically. This feature has the advantage of introducing users to the concept, but the disadvantage of frustrating those already familiar with the concept. Unlike in GNOME 2, you can control neither the number of virtual workspaces, nor which applications are placed on which workspaces. Since many users divide applications by workspaces -- for example, opening all apps for editing graphics on one page, and all apps for music on another -- this is a major shortcoming.

But it gets worse. While the display of virtual workspaces is well designed, you have to switch to the overview to see it, instead of just clicking on a panel app as in GNOME 2. Other features of GNOME 2 are also missing, including the ability to choose the number of virtual workspaces (which can affect available memory), and to name them. Nor can you decide how or if the task switcher displays the contents of workspaces.

Verdict: GNOME 2. Full credit to GNOME 3 for bringing virtual workspaces into users' work flow, but the rest of its implementation is lackluster. Anyway, as much as virtual workspaces are important to me, users should have the choice whether to use them.

Preferences and Administration

Years ago, GNOME 2's designers decided to avoid a centralized configuration and administration window of the sort favored by KDE. The result was the Systems menu, divided -- sometimes confusingly -- into Preferences and Administration menus. In many distributions, both Preferences and Administration had close up to two dozen items apiece, and finding a particular item could be difficult, especially if its name happened to be poorly chosen.

This increasingly clumsy system is replaced in GNOME 3 by a Systems Setting window. By dividing tools into categories, with no more than a dozen tools in each, GNOME 3 makes configuration and administration tools much easier to find than they were in late GNOME 2 releases -- at least in theory. In practice, distributions using GNOME 3 often display network and package management utilities and other tools separately from Systems Settings, recreating the problem of GNOME 2.

Just as importantly, accessibility to System Settings is four clicks down from the desktop in GNOME 3, as opposed to the two required by GNOME 3. In addition, controls like the choice of apps to start when you login are also missing from GNOME 3 installations.

Verdict: Tie. GNOME 3's system settings should be an improvement over GNOME 2's hodgepodge, but mostly it isn't.

The Final Tally

By my count, GNOME 2 emerged as a clear victor, winning in three categories and tying in two. In comparison, GNOME 3 tied twice, and won no category.

However, the point is not simply to declare GNOME 2 the better desktop. Instead, the results also suggest why GNOME 2 refuses to disappear and GNOME 3 is still strongly resisted.

The two desktop environments tied in their menus and configuration tools. In the other categories, which concerned the tools for everyday computing, GNOME 2 included its share of shortcomings. Yet, even with those shortcomings, GNOME 2 was consistently quicker and easier to use and offered more choices for users.

The fact that GNOME 3 often looks better can't hide that, functionally, it tends to be needlessly complex and awkward, with less toleration for different work flows than the desktop environment it is supposed to replace.

With an increasing number of GNOME Shell Extensions becoming available, GNOME 3 is improving rapidly. Ironically, though, most of these extensions tend to recreate GNOME 2. After a close examination, I can better understand why.

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