Linux

GNOME 3.10 has resurrected what was once the darling of the Linux desktop

Jack Wallen examines the state of the GNOME 3.10 desktop. His conclusion might surprise you.

Gnome

In light of the release of GNOME 3.12 (March 26, 2014), I've decided to dive back into the world of GNOME (in this case, the stable 3.10 release) and see what's become of this Linux desktop. Anyone who has followed me long enough knows that I've pretty much run the gamut of desktop environments and window managers. This list includes:

  • AfterStep
  • Blackbox
  • CDE
  • XFCE
  • twm
  • Enlightenment
  • KDE
  • Fvwm95
  • Metacity
  • Sawfish
  • Unity
  • GNOME

Each of the above have graced my desktop, for either a brief or an extended period of time. Back in the day, desktops environments and window managers were a badge of honor. You were proud of your desktop and you happily displayed it for all to see. Time and tide have changed the landscape of the Linux desktop. The battle for the crown has allowed just a handful of serious contenders to win out:

  • Unity
  • KDE
  • GNOME
  • Mate
  • Cinamon
  • Enlightenment*

* Enlightenment lives on the fringe but still has a very strong following (thanks to Bodhi Linux).

Of these environments, two bring about derision and scorn, and it's amazing that they haven't folded under the pressure. I'm talking about Unity and GNOME. Why is this? Simple -- they changed. They evolved to be something unique and modern. I fell into the Unity camp fairly early on. I have yet to run into a moment that threatened to sway me away from Ubuntu's default desktop. GNOME, on the other hand, has left me feeling a bit empty at times. It's been an up and down road less and less traveled. With that in mind, I wanted to give it another try and see how it panned out. To do that, I opted to install Ubuntu GNOME 14.04 and see just what the latest iteration of GNOME had to offer.

I'm not going to do the standard listing of the updates and new features. I want to share the experience of GNOME 3.10 as a whole, not in pieces. To that end, I installed and immediately ran apt-get update and apt-get upgrade. I also opted to manually install the GNOME Music, Maps, and Weather (just to get an idea of where the GNOME team is going with the whole of the desktop).

First impressions

My initial impression of GNOME 3.10 is what I'd imagine Ubuntu Unity would be if Canonical opened up the floodgates of configuration and allowed users to make Unity exactly how they wanted. That, in and of itself, creates a sort of causality loop for me. Why? Let me try to explain:

  • The biggest complaints about Unity is the inability to remove or move the Launcher and the inclusion of the online search
  • GNOME 3.10's Launcher is completely out of the way (it can even be configured, with the help of an extension, as a dock) and desktop search is isolated to local results only
  • Users complain about GNOME that it isn't user-friendly enough (although it easily resolves the issues most have with Unity)

So Desktop A solves the issues people have with Desktop B, yet users still dislike Desktop B -- one that offers a significant amount configuration options (and desktops extensions) to make the desktop exactly what the user wants. Could it be the GNOME Shell/Ubuntu Unity issue really only boils down to the whole of the Linux crowd fearing change as much as the Windows crowd?

Back to GNOME

The difference between earlier releases of GNOME Shell and 3.10 (actually 3.9.90) are pretty amazing. Prior to 3.10, the whole of GNOME felt disjointed, like two or three desktops were at war with one another. The battle has ended and GNOME now enjoys a clear cohesiveness. This is (almost) from top to bottom. With the new GTK Client-side decorations, the headerbars, new System menu, the global theme (and much more), GNOME has developed its cleanest look yet. The only caveat to that is the Global Dark Theme (Figure A) does not apply to applications like LibreOffice and Firefox. This, of course, is picking at nits, considering most users would never apply a dark theme to their word processor.

Figure A

Figure A

The GNOME Global Dark theme at work.

Nearly every aspect of GNOME has been polished and improved. The end result is a desktop that should appeal to any type of user with any level of experience. With the help of the Dash and search, you can work less with the mouse, which equates to a bit more efficiency from the desktop. Is it the most efficient desktop you will ever work with? Probably not -- but then efficiency is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I prefer the Unity HUD over the various types of menus used in GNOME. To understand what I mean, open up LibreOffice, Files (the GNOME file manager), and Empathy. With these three apps open, you see three different types of interactive menus (Figure B).

Figure B

Figure B

The various types of menus in GNOME 3.10.
  • LibreOffice -- standard app menus
  • Empathy -- Top Bar application menu
  • Files -- headerbar menu

I think this element might get a bit confusing to users. A far better solution would be a combination of Top Bar and headerbar menus, while dropping the standard application menu. Not only would this make things cleaner, it would be more cohesive.

Headerbars

Speaking of headerbars, they're actually a bit of an inconsistent enigma. At first look, they resemble bits and pieces from the Window menu along with a few added features -- all of which are dependent on the app you are using. The one app that makes the most use of the headerbars is Files (Figure C). With this app open, the headerbar includes:

  • Search
  • View (as list or grid)
  • View options
  • Settings

Figure C

Figure C

The Files headerbar.

You'll also noticed a Top Bar menu for Files (Figure D). In this Top Bar menu, you can:

  • Open a new window
  • Connect to a server
  • Enter location
  • Manage bookmarks
  • Open the Preferences window
  • See the About Files information
  • Get help with Files
  • Quit Files

Figure D

Figure D

The Top Bar menu for Files.

This is where GNOME does sort of drift a bit. Why these two pieces aren't combined into a more efficient single menu, I have no idea.

The issue with the menu is truly the only problem I can find with GNOME 3.10. This desktop has really come a long way. It's smooth, clean, cohesive (minus the menus), and something Linux users should give a second chance.

Color me impressed on this one. So much so, I might feel so inclined to slip away from Unity for a while and use GNOME 3.10 as my default desktop. If you're looking to give a look at an even fresher release of GNOME, download the 3.12 ISO and have a go. I think you'll be equally impressed.

What do you think? Has GNOME finally reached the point where it's worthy again of default desktop status? Or do you hate the new style of desktops so much that you refuse to use anything but Classic GNOME, Mate, or some other iteration of the old school desktop? Share your thoughts in the discussion below.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

18 comments
r1berto
r1berto

I got turned on to Linux by the guys at the orchard's Genius Bar.

Wound up there after Windows 95, then W98 came out.

I dabbled in Red Hat, Mandrake, SuSE, Kubuntu and even FreeBSD while still using OSX.

Then, I gave away all my iStuff to some happy, broke students and was DONE with the fruit.

Five years ago I discovered Debian-testing and have been using the Gnome desktop ever since.

I use it mostly for work, it is tweaked for my specific wants and needs and it gets the job done.


My only issue in the last five years was when a client, during a sales presentation saw my desktop projected on a big screen and asked "what did you do to Windows?"


Gnome 3.10, clean, neat, stable.  You gotta love it!

dfarquharson
dfarquharson

I work in the IT department of a school that uses Linux in it's high school computer lab and also in a portable elementary computer lab using older netbooks. So I really don't have a 'favorite'. I've used Windows since version 2 back in the later 1980's and ALL of my business customers used windows (except for a few Novell networks). About a year and a half ago I was checking out Windows 8 when it first came out and having difficulty. One morning I doing some work on a desktop with Gnome 3 installed and suddenly noticed something - Gnome 3 and Windows 8 were essentially keystroke compatible. I then took a netbook that I was testing with Gnome 3, my notebook with Windows 8 and the desktop with a different version of linux and Gnome 3 and found I could go to any of them, hit the exact same sequence of keys and run any program on each one.


That set met up. My notebooks since then have been Windows 8 touch screen - 2/3 of the staff use Windows, the other 1/3 use Mac OS/X - but my work place desktop uses Mint Debian with Gnome 3. Unfortunately neither of these will run on the older netbooks (if they install at all they crawl) so I've settled on an LXDE version for the coming year.

giambattista-ilnuova
giambattista-ilnuova

Mr. Wallen, apparently you and I are the only fans of Unity (I'm also in the minority who loves Windows 8 sans start button FWIW).  I'll admit that I found Unity in Ubuntu 12.04 to be off-putting, which led to me using Cinnamon; but I've got to say, Unity has been improved quite a bit, and the most recent iteration of Unity has won me over. It's sleek and polished, and seems more stable/less buggy. 

And they finally added some features like the ability to switch-off global menus (i.e. allow menus in windows), the ability to set launcher icons to a smaller size, and display scaling. These improvements should assuage the concerns of 2/3 of those who found Unity too jarring and inefficient (if they'd allow customizing the launcher location, which I like as is, they probably could win back many former users---minus the "too-cool-for-mainstream" contrarians).

Personally, I'd like to see Gnome move more in the direction of Unity. Yes, it's less customizable, but there is a point at which customization gets overwhelming, which is why I hate KDE.

As for Gnome 3.xx, I agree that it gets sharper with each release, but it's still missing some very basic features. I could never use it as my default desktop: the GUI is way too inefficient; I'm always getting lost in menus, forgetting apps that I've got running while "multi-tasking"; and, as you've pointed out, it looks a bit stitched together (and long in the tooth to me)).

For me, Unity retains some of the better features of the old desktop-paradigm with a modern twist. I switched to Linux from Windows 2 years ago and have never looked back. From that perspective alone, I can't see Gnome winning over any Windows users. Unity at least provides a somewhat-recognizable DE for new users.

I had my mom using XFCE (I've got her using MATE now because she prefers the look andshe seems to think it's faster for her). Those are the only 2 Linux desktops that I could get her using without spending the rest of my of my life devoted to tech support (she's musing a PC too old to run Cinnamon or Compiz, otherwise, Cinnamon would be on that list).

It's really hard to convince people to switch to Linux when the GUI is radically different from what they're used to. My best friend won't switch because "Linux is for nerds," because to him, it's (incorrectly) dependent on vast knowledge of the CLI. The same case could be made for Gnome 3 (i.e. it's so different that it's not workable for them/not worth the time invested in learning). And most Windows users have got no idea what a DE is, let alone that they can switch to a different desktop. To me, Gnome 3 as the default is at odds with the goal of increasing the Linux user base.


rockon999
rockon999

I started out a devout OS X fan (as my family and school have always used Macs), but I decided to try Linux. I don't do much gaming, and I'm a Java and Web developer so everything I do day to day was fairly compatible. I chose Ubuntu because I had dabbled in earlier versions (with Gnome 2), and felt it had the most support and compatibility. I really needed this support, because my main laptop is a Macbook Pro. So after installing Ubuntu and (finally) getting my WiFi to function I started using Unity. I used Unity for a few months and enjoyed it, but I felt it lacked easy customization. It was easy to use coming from an OS X system.. I guess. That all changed when I found Gnome. I started experimenting with Gnome 3.2, and I was instantly captures by its modern... yet customizable UI. 3.2 was buggy and had numerous issues, but I kept using it. I loved and still do love its simplicity and functionality. I just go to extensions.gnome.org and I can easily change my system. I have seen Gnome progress from a shaky, risky, buggy, and modern desktop environment to its current state. It now rarely crashes (and if it does it just reloads itself quicky) and works with amazing speed. I have loved Gnome 3 from its beginning, and am really glad Gnome left its outdated Gnome 2 style. Gnome 3, in my opinion, takes the right amount of OS X and mixes it up with a beautiful Modern UI and Linux flare. And the menus... well I rarely use them. I have quicklists in my dock (I have that extension) so its a simple right click to open a new window (or a simple Command-N), so App Menus serve no purpose in my installation. Plus to make it more efficient I moved all of my exit buttons to the left (where everything is already situated) :)

TG2
TG2

I'm sorry.. but except in a situation where you have the application full screened, having menus disconnected from the active window you are working in ... ie having file/help menus in the top bar is just wrong.


The whole point of having those menus (File -> Help) with the window they were operating in, is their relation to what program you are operating in.  Additionally cutting out having to mouse all over F*king creation ... app opened and window is moved to the far right  .... having to mouse all the way back left and up top, is not *not* efficient.

aflynnhpg
aflynnhpg

I switched to Deepin and love it (except for the extremely slow updates).  As for Gnome 3.10, you will know for sure it's good when you see Microsoft copy it's ideas in its next iteration of Windows.   

janitorman
janitorman

"dropping the standard application menu." Uh, NO. THAT is what we object to. You don't need anything else if you have that. I don't want some confusing little icon that looks just like some other icon in order to do a bunch of different things. 

How about just leaving the 'modern look' out of it, and using traditional menus? Most programs are menu driven, does it make sense to move that to where the user cannnot discover it? It's why XFCE is on everyone's favorite list but Jacks, now.

jos
jos

Also for me it's Xfce and I am only willing to try an other desktop on the coming Linux-cellphone! 

blastradius
blastradius

I was a happy Ubuntu user then along came Unity, I was also fond of Gnome and then along came 3, exasperated I tried XFCE and guess what?  Never looked back :-)


mitchloftus
mitchloftus

Here's the thing.... change CAN be good, but only IF it is useful. Changing a desktop menu system so that it would be convenient if your desktop had a touch screen is NOT useful (Win7 vs Win8 for example) - changing something that many employees are accustomed to using, and are proficient with, to something that is no more efficient, yet requires a complete do-over learning curve is definitely not useful. In fact, it is counter-productive. People don't necessarily FEAR change, but they often wonder what benefit, exactly, the change will bring. Cosmetics (i.e. "modern looking") is only beneficial if it doesn't screw up the functionality.

Extremelydangerous
Extremelydangerous

I still like the gnome 2.32, I have build a "distribution"  for myself based on arch linux.. and use gnome 2.32 in FreeBSD also. I am very happy with.

Knighthawk5193@Yahoo.com
Knighthawk5193@Yahoo.com

I have been using Gnome since Fedora Linux version 10....and I've lived through all the changes it's made, and I can say....ever since making the switch from Windows to Linux.....it's been my default desktop on my Fedora machine. I see nothing wrong with it, it does what I tell it to...I can find everything I need without having to hunt it down, and it runs smooth on my "early 2000's
 Gateway laptop with only 3GB's of RAM....its smooth and for me it's the best desktop I've ever used. I've tried Ubuntu's Unity....I actually have another machine running Ubuntu so I'm a dual-user, but my "main" machine is Fedora and Gnome is my favorite DE out there. For those who complain about it....yes....there might be one or two things that might not sit well with you at first....but given time...you'll find that it really IS a great desktop to use for daily work,....for entertainment.....and any other usage you can think of. Thank you Sir, for finally posting an article about a desktop that gets mud-slinged daily!

BGunnells
BGunnells

Been using XFCE on Ubuntu for a few years now. I have customized the XFCE UI to look and behave like Gnome 2. My Saucy is still very Hardy...

scionicspectre
scionicspectre

I can answer some of your questions. First of all, I prepared the original GTK 2 port of Adwaita (the default theme), and the reason you don't have a global dark theme for programs that rely on the GTK 2 theme (Firefox, LibreOffice) is because it isn't a built-in option in GTK 2. Only GTK 3 applications can decide, on the fly, to use a dark variant of the theme. Even if we did put in the work to create a dark GTK 2 theme, it would only be useful as a global option, essentially making it a different theme altogether. Since I expected people would adopt GTK 3 for their applications pretty quickly, it wasn't a massive concern.

However, with QGtkStyle still relying on GTK 2 theme files for the foreseeable future and some developers and users resisting GTK 3 for various reasons, the situation isn't so clear cut. I'm not as closely involved with GNOME today, but I think I might have to complete the dark theme myself to convince anyone it's worth maintaining upstream for a niche usecase. :\

So far as your concerns about the menu, there is a logical element and a social element. First of all, the window menu in the top bar is for 'global' settings for the application. The gear menu in the application window is for 'local' settings, respective of the individual window you're using.

Of course, the original GNOME 3 designs were built with the hope that only the top bar menu would be needed, and that the more flexible, straightforward contextual layouts of applications would accomodate the rest of the menubar options. This way, applications would present functionality more clearly to the user instead of hiding it, and applications that truly needed menus (like LibreOffice or GIMP) would keep them.

However, the gear menu came about because of the social element- the fact that many of the GNOME applications are being redesigned from the previous defaults rather than making entirely new applications. This is harder to do for programs like Nautilus, so it's something of a small miracle it made the transition so gracefully. It requires a great deal of cooperation from everyone involved.
 

In fact, I'd say that goes for the project as a whole- it's been very difficult to bring everyone along to the new design guidelines, so you see this unfortunate blend of old an new. I point to elementary as an example of how quickly and well a project can execute a new design. I think it's clear that the wider Linux community's resistance to do something new and different from GNOME 2 has made progress difficult in comparison to a new project like elementary where everyone's on board with the design vision.

I apologize for the length of my comment, but I like to be thorough. ;)

tmsbrdrs
tmsbrdrs

I've been using gnome shell for a while and there are still a few little nit picky things but it does keep getting better with each iteration. 

giambattista-ilnuova
giambattista-ilnuova

@janitorman "How about just leaving the 'modern look' out of it, and using traditional menus ... It's why XFCE is on everyone's favorite list but Jacks, now."


That's fine on a Desktop, butt that's clearly not the direction that the computer market is heading. I guess I could accept MATE if I had a gun to my head. It at least looks like it was developed inn this century.

And who is everyone? Sorry, but XFCE is dated and beyond "old" looking. I feel like I need an AARP card to log on to the XCFE desktop. You're making Mr. Wallen's argument for him.

I've got an i7 processor and a fairly powerful nVidia GPU; I like a desktop that can take advantage of those resources.

giambattista-ilnuova
giambattista-ilnuova

@scionicspectre  I actually appreciate the thoroughness of your comment. It explains why Gnome 3 looks more hastily stitched together than a patchwork quilt to me. And:

"I think it's clear that the wider Linux community's resistance to do something new and different from GNOME 2"

^^^This is the big elephant in the room. Thank you for saying that; at least I don't feel like the only one who's noticed that :)

And as for elementaryOS, I was checking out sceenshots of their PANTHEON DE, and I kind of like it. It's more likely to win over more Windows and OS X users (although reading through comments here and elsewhere on the internet, I'm starting to think that increasing the user base is NOT a goal for Linux users :(