The Incremental GNOME 3.8: Doing What the Project Does Best

Tuesday Mar 26th 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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GNOME 3 isn't for everyone. But for those who like it, the latest release is the most usable yet.

If you dislike the GNOME 3 release series, the new 3.8 version of the popular desktop environment won't change your mind. However, if you do use GNOME 3, you'll appreciate the enhancements. Essentially, 3.8 is an incremental release, in which the project does what it has always done best — making dozens of tweaks that affect the user experience (generally for the better) without making any major changes to how it works.

GNOME 3.8 should be making its way to the package repositories of major distributions later this week. Those who want to satisfy their curiosity sooner can download the release candidate image. Alternatively, they can download the still-in-development Ubuntu 13.04, add the repositories ppa:gnome3-team/gnome3 and ppa:gnome3-team/gnome3-staging as sources, and then enter apt-get install gnome-shell gnome-shell-extensions. Release notes are available so that you know what to look for.

Like most software releases, GNOME 3.8 is full of changes that aren't likely to be visible to most users. In GNOME 3.8, these invisible changes include modifications of key libraries such as GLib, GTK+ and Clutter, as well as Python bindings and a new help interface in the GNOME 3 style.

However, the features that most users are likely to notice are the replacement of fallback mode with GNOME Classic, the changes to the main screen and the overview screen, and the addition of new top-level headings in the Settings dialog.

GNOME Classic Replaces Fallout Mode

During the last six months of development, the major announcement was that the unsatisfactory fallback mode would be replaced with a set of core extensions to provide a GNOME 2-like experience. This decision freed GNOME from the need to maintain two separate code bases while seeming to offer a solution for those who prefer not to use GNOME 3.

The GNOME extensions exist to convert GNOME 3 into something very much like GNOME 2. However, GNOME opted to make what it calls "GNOME Classic" default to an interface that is as unsatisfactory as fallback mode was.

With a few more extensions, GNOME Classic could eliminate any need for the overview, allowing manual management of workspaces and adding a number of useful applets to the panel. As things are, users hoping to re-create the GNOME 2 experience will need to spend some time browsing the GNOME extensions site — and even then, they still won't have desktop icons.

How many users need GNOME Classic — as oppose to want it — is open to question. Over the last few releases, GNOME has steadily increased support for different video drivers, and in the latest release, a majority of users can probably run the standard release.

Still, after all the discussion, some users are likely to be disappointed to find GNOME has replaced fallback mode with something whose default is no better for users. Instead of drawing users back to GNOME, GNOME Classic as installed is more likely to continue sending users to Linux Mint's Mate or Cinnamon, both of which provide a much better experience.

On the Desktop

The best thing users can do is bypass GNOME Classic altogether and go directly to GNOME 3 proper. If its changes are less dramatic than GNOME Classic's, they are also more clearly improvements.

To start, GNOME 3.8 is more connected than early releases. Perhaps in answer to Ubuntu Unity's support for Ubuntu One's cloud storage, GNOME now supports the use of OpenCloud. Similarly, virtual machines now have built-in USB support, which means they can use external devices. In addition, they can exchange information with the host operating system via the clipboard.

In addition, desktop search has been improved in a number of ways. Users can now search within applications, including, for example, personal contacts within address books. A further enhancement is keyword search, which allows users to search by concept rather than file or application name. For example, search for "graphics" on the overview, and the results include Image Viewer, xdiagnose, LibreOffice Draw and the settings panel of Wacom Tablets. Together, these tools make navigating the desktop in GNOME 3.8 just a little easier than it is in earlier releases.

The release also addresses documentation. The help function features prominent pages entitled "Introduction to GNOME," "Start applications," and "Useful keyboard shortcuts." Below this introductory selection is a link to "Logout," "power off" and "switch users," along with half a dozen different categories of tasks. Following these links leads to tightly task-organized information that I can only criticize because it was not available or else not as well-organized in earlier releases.

Improved Configuration

GNOME 3 is still tweaking its Settings dialog, but the 3.8 release takes the process a few steps further. The layout of the top-level dialog has a few micro-changes, such as the replacement of a Back icon more suitable for a mobile device with a left-pointing arrow, while the layout of sub-dialogs, such as Power and Network, have been rearranged to conform to the emerging GNOME 3 design standards.

These standards make for a very spare screen with toggle switches for activating or deactivating options and only three or four options in each window. The look is generally pleasing, but fails to make clear that there is usually another dialog with additional options. Also, toggles and their captions are at opposite ends of lines that are long enough that at times it can be hard to tell which caption accompanies which toggle.

Even more importantly, several new panels are added in the 3.8 release. The first of these is the Sharing dialog. It provides a field for changing the current computer's names, as well settings for sharing files and the screen.

Sharing is joined by the Notification panel, which for the first time gives GNOME 3 users the ability to toggle individual notifications and popup messages off and on. Still another new configuration tools give uses a few Privacy options.

However, probably the most important new panel is Searching. From this dialog, you can toggle whether to include contacts from address books and files in desktop searches. I suspect these controls might be more convenient if they were placed by the search field, where they could be easily changed for specific concerns, yet no matter where they are placed, they are a marked contrast to Unity's new habit of mixing online and local searches.

Almost certainly, these are not the final form of GNOME configuration tools and their interfaces. Notifications, Privacy, and Search are all likely to have features added in subsequent releases. Nor have users necessarily seen the final window layout.

All the same, the settings available in 3.8 have come a long way from those in GNOME 2, which were always sparse compared to those offered by KDE. In fact, settings are one area in which GNOME 3 is surpassing earlier releases. The interfaces and tools are by no means complete in 3.8, but the general trend is obvious.

Taken on Its Own Terms

Two years after the first release, GNOME 3 is clearly not to everyone's taste. However, no matter what you think of its underlying structure and design, it is equally clear that GNOME 3 is gaining maturity with each release. Although a consistent layout for dialogs and utilities has not been reached, each release progresses a little closer to that goal, and the 3.8 release is no exception.

Admittedly, GNOME 3.8 is not the definitive word on anything. But it does bring both GNOME's desktop search and configuration tools closer to KDE's than any earlier release in the series, while its online help is a solid accomplishment.

Take GNOME 3.8 on its own terms, rather than condemning it for what it is not or what it fails to offers — in particular, a GNOME 2 clone — and you can see it as a solid release. You won't find any killer apps, but you will find a small but steady stream of improvements that makes it the most usable release of GNOME 3 yet.

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