GNOME 3: Seven Pros and Cons

Tuesday Apr 26th 2011 by Bruce Byfield

The GNOME Linux desktop has major pluses and drawbacks, making the decision to adopt it a tough one.

Switching to GNOME 3 is both an opportunity and a distraction. On the one hand, it is the opportunity to put aside some annoying behaviors in earlier GNOME releases. On the other hand, GNOME 3 is a distraction because its changes can get in the way of long-established work methods.

As a result, you need to weigh GNOME 3's pros and cons carefully before deciding to make the new desktop part of your everyday computing -- unless, of course, you are the sort who automatically rejects or embraces change simply because it is new.

GNOME 3 contains many changes that average users are unlikely to notice unless they are pointed out. For example, not many are likely to notice that improved hardware interaction means that GNOME 3 offers a Suspend option only on a machine that supports that option. Nor are many going to care much that typing completion in the Activities screen's Search field allows you to launch an application by pressing the Enter key. Such enhancements are easy to overlook, and -- despite their convenience -- too minor to create a large part of anybody's reaction to GNOME 3.

So what factors are likely to influence your decision whether to use GNOME 3? Here are seven pros and several cons of the new desktop that might be important to you:


The GNOME 3 site lists one of the advantages of the new release as "distraction-free computing." Presumably, this term is a reference to the stripping down of workspaces to the bare essentials. However, one person's distraction is another person's necessity. Instead, I suspect that other considerations are more likely to impress potential users (although opinions might vary about these features, too):

1) A common interface: Earlier GNOME releases were designed with the workstation and perhaps the laptop in mind. In this age of netbooks, tablets, and mobile devices, that is no longer realistic. For that reason, GNOME 3 is designed for all these interfaces. For users, that means that, in the future, aside from customizations, few adjustments will be needed when you change between devices.

2) Reorganized System Settings: In the GNOME 2 series of releases, system settings were a menu of alphabetized items, divided into Personal and Administration sub-menus. Too often, you could scan down one sub-menu only to discover that what you were looking for was arbitrarily placed in the other. GNOME 3 reduces this inefficiency with a window of settings organized by category that is much easier and quicker to scan.

3) The End of the Classic Menu: GNOME 3 replaces the main menu with a list of applications on the Activities overview screen. This change not only allows larger icons, but eliminates the problem of editing the menu to keep it short at the risk of effectively hiding items from users who don't know enough to search for them. Just as importantly, it means that sub-menus no longer flap across the desktop like a broken window blind, obscuring open applications.

4) Messaging without changing window focus: In recognition of the growing importance of messaging, GNOME 3 allows you to move to a messaging window without switching the focus to it. Because of this feature, you can answer a message and return to what you were doing more easily.

GNOME 3, 7 Pros (continued)

5) Less Obtrusive Notifications: One of the most annoying aspects of many modern desktops, both proprietary and free, is the seemingly endless parade of notifications demanding your attention. KDE at least lets you control which notifications display, but in many cases they are either irrelevant or an interruption your work that does not need immediate attention. GNOME 3 appears to have no fewer notifications than the norm, but they sit quietly at the bottom of the workspace, where they are unlikely to be obscured by open windows, and can be read or dealt with later as you prefer.

6) Improved Display of Virtual Workspaces: On the right of the Activities overview is a visual display of all open workspaces that shows the applications running in each. This is a marked improvement over earlier GNOME releases, in which workspaces were visible only as a small cluster of rectangles in the panel, and the listing of panel contents was restricted to a text list.

7) Increased Emphasis on Advanced Features: This is both the greatest advantage of GNOME 3 and the one most likely to be resisted. However, GNOME 3 makes several advanced features more obvious and easier to use. The Dash on the Activities overview displays Favorites more prominently, while the switching between screens encourages the learning of keyboard shortcuts.

Like the use of styles in a word processor, these features make GNOME 3 slightly harder to learn, but, once you learn them, lets you work more efficiently. By contrast, those who have the hardest time with GNOME 3, I suspect, are those who rely entirely on the mouse for switching between screens and workspaces.

GNOME 3: 7 Cons

Like any major change, GNOME 3 risks being rejected simply because it is different. Perhaps it will turn out not to be suitable for your work habits, but that is a decision that you should take several days, if not weeks, to decide. If you do decide against using it, here are some of the possible reasons:

1) The Need for Hardware Acceleration: Adam Williamson informs me that testing convinced GNOME developers that the time had come for a desktop that required basic 3-D video support.

However, for some users, that is still only possible with proprietary drivers, which they either choose not to use or else cannot easily find because their distribution's repositories do not carry them. In such cases, the fallback mode is available. But, since that is a stripped down version of the GNOME 2 series' desktop, there is not much incentive to use it except through necessity. Many users may prefer to look for alternative desktops.

2) No Icons on the Desktop: Depending on the distribution, GNOME 3 may not allow icons on the desktop. For maybe half of users, that will be irrelevant, but for the other half, this limitation will be a deal-breaker. Unless they can learn to edit Gconf -- and, so far, I haven't found any instructions on the web -- they will either have to learn to live without icons or else hunt for a new distribution.

3) Apps Only Open One at a Time: To open applications, you have to switch to the Activities screen. Selecting an application immediately switches you to the workspace, which means that you have to switch back to the Activities page to open any application that you want to run at the same time as the first. This limitation also exists in the classic menu of the GNOME 2 series, but it requires far more mouse clicks (and therefore delay) in GNOME 3.

4) Lack of Continuity Between Overview and Workspace Window Placement: One of the best features of the Activities Overview is that it displays the windows open in a workspace so that you can see all of them. Unfortunately, if you zoom in to the workspace, that view is not maintained, and the windows are in whatever order you left them in. This is both disconcerting and inconvenient. I suspect that many users would appreciate the option for the arrangement of windows in the overview to be carried over to the workspace.

GNOME 3, 7 Cons (continued)

5) Insufficient Distinction on the Dash: The dash in the overview carries two kinds of icons: favorites, and open applications. However, the only visual distinction between the two is that open applications are lit from beneath -- a difference so small that it is easy to miss even when you are expecting it. You can remove all favorites from the dash, but that seems a drastic curtailment of functionality to correct a distinction that should be obvious in the first place.

6) No Panel Applets: In the GNOME 2 series, applets were small utilities that were placed on the panel so you could open them quickly. In GNOME 3, however, the panel no longer supports applets. Rather, they are -- or will be, since conversion appears to be ongoing -- lumped into the general list of applications, where they are far less accessible. While some discussions among GNOME developers suggests that panel applets might eventually return, there is no guarantee that all or any of them will.

7) No View of Open Apps in Workspaces: In the overview, you can see open applications in the dash and the workspace pane. By contrast, in a workspace, for the most part you can't see which applications are open in other workspaces -- nor even the others running in the current workspace, if enough windows are open.

The sole exceptions are a few applications like the Rhythmbox music player, which displays a tiny icon in the lower right of all workspaces while running, presumably on the grounds that you might want to access it from anywhere. Otherwise, you must either switch workspaces or return to the overview to see everything that is running on the system.

Tallying the Pros and Cons

GNOME 3 is in its first release, and should see many improvements in the next few releases as developers learn to take advantage of its new opportunities. But, for now, it seems a combination of innovation and sometimes overly rigid application of design principles.

Under these conditions, I suspect that, for most people, the decision whether to use GNOME 3 or to look for alternatives will not be an easy one. Except in rare cases, the decision will probably not be made out of a burst of unqualified enthusiasm or disappointment. To the contrary, many people's decision is likely to be a qualified one, a weighing of features they like against features they dislike.

That is a sensible way to make such a decision at any time. But, in GNOME 3's case, its mixed nature makes such an approach almost unavoidable, at least for now.

ALSO SEE: Top 20 Apps for GNOME Fans

AND: Seven Alternatives to GNOME 3

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