Selecting a GNOME 2 Successor Desktop

Tuesday Jul 16th 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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GNOME 2 is dead. Long live GNOME 2.

GNOME 2 is the Linux desktop environment that refuses to die. Three years after its last release, GNOME 2—or, to be precise, its successors—are collectively as popular as uncustomized GNOME 3. The GNOME 2 successors scored 18 percent to GNOME 3's 13 percent in the 2012 LinuxQuestion's Member's Choice poll, and 15 percent to GNOME 3's 21 percent in the Linux Journal Readers' Choice poll. Despite the half dozen desktops available today, GNOME 2's successors remain leading choices.

This persistent popularity is both a measure of the initial user dissatisfaction with the GNOME 3 release series and a triumph of branding. Initially, dissatisfaction with GNOME 3.0 caused many users to turn to Xfce. A long-time distant third to GNOME and KDE, Xfce closely resembles GNOME 2 but is generally lighter and faster.

However, the differences are just enough to put off some users, and a lack of utilities means that Xfce is best used with some combination of GNOME and KDE applications. Although Xfce continues to benefit from the early reactions to the GNOME 3 release series to some extent, the interest has died down, and many users who originally found refuge with Xfce are eventually returning to a GNOME 2 successor.

Observers might puzzle over this choice. After all, GNOME 2 was a decent enough desktop in its day, but no more so than KDE 3, which survives in a little-used desktop known as TDE. Yet its reputation today is probably stronger than when it was still being developed.

But the GNOME brand remains a strong one, and there is no refuting success. Today, those who want the GNOME 2 experience can choose between Linux Mint's Cinnamon, which reconstructs GNOME 2 on top of GNOME 3; Mate, Linux Mint's fork of GNOME 2; or a selection of GNOME Shell extensions, possibly starting with GNOME Classic.

However, none of these alternatives is a clone of GNOME 2, and choosing one is very much a case of understanding what you require and what you can do without. If you are looking for a GNOME 2 replacement, you should consider carefully how each fits into your circumstances and preferences.

Re-creating GNOME 2 with Cinnamon

Linux Mint's Cinnamon has been cleaned up considerably in the last release. It seems more stable than previous releases, and the number of configuration tools has been reduced, making features much easier to find as you set up an installation.

In many ways, Cinnamon is what GNOME 2 might have become if it had continued to be developed. For one thing, the interface is changed, with the classical menu being replaced by a single window one, and the system settings changed from a top level menu to a dialog—two trends that are almost universal on the Linux desktop today.

Just as importantly, the conventions are updated. Where GNOME 2 and its fork Mate (see below) are text-oriented, Cinnamon favors icons only, leaving users unable to parse the icons to wait for mouseovers and legends. Similarly, like GNOME 3, Cinnamon favors toggle switches to turn features on and off.

In addition, Cinnamon includes a modern set of applets, hot corners that enable workspace and file views, and in the latest release, desklets, which are the equivalent of KDE's desktop widgets. Although desklets are limited in number right now, they could become a major tool for customization in later releases.

The fact that Cinnamon uses GNOME 3 code means that, unlike Mate, its developers have little worry about obsolescence (see below). However, Cinnamon does require hardware acceleration to work well, which might make you want to avoid it if you lack the latest hardware or prefer to use free-licensed video drivers. Cinnamon will run without hardware acceleration, but much more slowly and with the occasional glitch during screen redraws.

Forking GNOME 2 with Mate

Mate is Linux Mint's fork of GNOME 2. As a fork, in many ways it is the natural alternative for users wanting the GNOME 2 experience with desktop icons, a configurable panel, and customizable icons. It is faster than any of the other successors and does not require 3D hardware acceleration for maximum performance.

Moreover, contrary to what you might expect, Linux Mint has not treated Mate as second best to Cinnamon. If you compare releases, you will find that Mate is just as likely to receive a new feature first as Cinnamon. Far from being a fallback mode, Mate seems to be developed on a roughly equal footing.

However, Mate's interface also differs from GNOME 2's in several ways that may or may not be important to users. In particular, Mate's menu is not a classic menu with sub-menus opening across the desktop. Instead, the menu is confined to a single window and can often appear cramped.

Nor does Mate use the traditional top-level menus of Applications, Places and System. System settings are placed in their own dialog divided into five categories, one of which is simply marked Other and appears a dumping ground for options that fail to fit comfortably into the others. Places is even more unsatisfactory, being crammed into the upper third of a thin panel on the left of the menu window.

Another difference that takes some adjustment is that Mate renames features. The Nautilus file maker, for example, is called Caja, and the document viewer Evince, Atril. This policy appears designed to allow Mate to be installed alongside other GNOME environments without any conflicts, but at first it can be annoying—after all, the last thing anyone wants is more jargon to learn.

Potential users might also want to investigate Mate's plans to replace the GTK toolkit with GTK3. This change will soon become unavoidable if Mate is to continue to run the latest GNOME applications, but so far Mate's developers appear to have only vague plans to make the switch at some point in the near future. Admittedly, Mate seems to be going about updating obsolete libraries in a systematic way, but at this point, users can only hope that Mate's developers are not underestimating the difficulty of updating the toolkit.

GNOME Classic and Beyond

GNOME Classic is an alternative maintained by the GNOME project for systems that are unable to run GNOME—often because they lack video drivers with hardware acceleration.

GNOME Classic consists of a core group of GNOME-Shell Extensions that are actively maintained by the project—in contrast to most of the available extensions, whose currency depends on the interest and time that their developers have to maintain them. This core provides GNOME 2-like behavior, as well as a selection of applets that allow users to mostly ignore the overview screen in GNOME 3.

For the record, the extensions used by GNOME Classic are: Alternate Tab, Alternate Status Menu, Applications Menu, Auto-Move Windows, Launch new instance, Native Window Placement, Places Status Menu, Removable Drive Menu, System Monitor, User Themes, Window List, windowNavigator and Workspace Indicator—all of whose names should adequately explain their functions.

Many of these extensions, especially those that are panel applets, are turned off by default. To turn them on, go to the Installed extensions page on the GNOME-Shell Extensions page, and toggle them on.

The result is an interface that uses a single-window menu and requires dragging application icons from the file manager if you want to place them on a desktop, which is a serious inconvenience, to say the least, although GNOME shares it with Ubuntu's Unity.

But otherwise, the re-creation of GNOME 2 (although developers are careful to deny that is what it is) is as close as that offered by Cinnamon or Mate. So far as configurability, it is even better, because you can pick and choose which GNOME 2 features to toggle off or on.

In fact, GNOME Classic is considerably better than it was in pre-releases of GNOME 3.8, the latest version.

However, if you choose, there is no need to stop with GNOME Classic. Working with either standard GNOME or GNOME Classic, users can choose between 270 extensions, ranging from a selection of menus and dashes, panels, and other options.

By ranging outside of the core extensions found in GNOME Classic, you do risk the possibility of unstable combinations and features that are abandoned beyond releases. Yet if you are interested in recreating GNOME 2, this risk may be acceptable to you.

Tastes will differ, but I suggest that anyone interested in re-creating GNOME 2 more closely begin with the GNOME Classic extensions, then consider Desktop Icon Switch, Frippery Bottom Panel, Message Notifier, Trash, Window Buttons and Workspace Labels. Scanning the available extensions, you will undoubtedly find others to try as well.

Making a choice

The question of which successor desktop you should choose has no absolute answer. It depends on what criteria you have.

If your video card lacks hardware acceleration, then Mate is probably the best answer, at least for the next eighteen months—by which time we should know how well Mate developers can deliver the necessary updates.

Otherwise, you might prefer Cinnamon as the best out of the box solution. Of all the three possibilities, it seems to have the best combination of a GNOME 2 experience with just enough innovation to keep it current.

As a third-alternative, outfitting GNOME 3 with extensions is a way to get exactly what you want, allowing you to choose slightly different visions of what the desktop should be. Admittedly, working with extensions is not a fresh-from-the-install solution, but it might be the most satisfying solution of them all—and, after all, with a bit of luck you will only have to make a selection once.

Like the Neandertals, GNOME 2 no longer exists as a separate species. You might say, though, that its DNA—as well as its spirit—remains well-represented in its descendants.

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