Open Source

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.

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