While on vacation, I took my laptop that has the best battery life. It was running Fedora 15, and we all know Fedora 15 is complete with GNOME 3. I have been very much up and down with the whole GNOME 3/Unity issue. At times, I've really loved the idea and execution — and at times, I have loathed it. So spending a week with no other desktop than GNOME 3 was going to be an interesting experiment. I have to say, I was really surprised at the result.
Yes, I have some issues Fedora. But those are mostly a lack of specific packages I have grown used to on Ubuntu. So I wanted to look at this from a desktop-only perspective. In particular... GNOME 3. It took me only a week, but I grew quite fond of the new desktop metaphor from the GNOME development team. So much so, that I can now see how that desktop could, with a few tweaks, be far superior than anything we have. Here are some things about this new desktop I really loved.
I have always been a minimalist. No icons, no widgets, no nothing. I want a clean desktop, and GNOME 3 offers about as clean a desktop as you can get without running E16. The only object on the desktop is the panel — until you reveal the launcher. But just because GNOME 3 takes a minimalist approach doesn't mean it's not easy to use. In fact, once you get used to it, it's one of the easiest to use desktops you will come across.
Most times, the pager is seen as a widget or panel object that adds clutter and can be accidentally clicked, sending you away from your work. Now I am a big fan of the Linux pager — I frequently use workspaces, so when a desktop monkeys around with this feature I always get nervous. What GNOME 3 has done makes perfect sense. When you reveal the launcher, you reveal the single, default extra workspace. (There is always at least one extra workspace in GNOME 3.) To add a new workspace, simply reveal the launcher (upper-left hotspot) and then drag a window into the Pager panel that resides on the right side of the screen. Just make sure you don't drag it to an existing workspace.
Both GNOME 3 and Ubuntu Unity deal with favorites in the same way — on the Dash (or Launcher, in Unity parlance). The big difference is that Unity's Dash is ever-present and in the way. Favorites are launchers you want more immediate access to and always live on the Dash. To add an application as a favorite, all you have to do is find the application launcher, right-click the icon, and select Add To Favorites. Now that icon will live in the Launcher as a favorite. A favorite can be removed by right-clicking the launcher and selecting Remove From Favorites. This is clean. I like clean.
If you like clean, you will love the way GNOME 3 presents menus, alerts, and the calendar. Each of these is built in, with a uniform look and presentation. They are all unobtrusive and easy to read/use. And because GNOME 3 takes a minimalist approach to these features, they rarely get in the way of your work. That is outstanding design in play.
5: Window manipulation
I've never been a big fan of window tiling — until GNOME 3. To maximize a window, drag it to the top. To tile windows side by side, drag them to the left or right of the screen. This works flawlessly and allows lightning-fast manipulation of window sizing. Once done with a maximized window, either double-click the taskbar or just drag the window down. The only feature I miss is window shading. And I never thought I'd be able to work without window shading, but GNOME 3 has changed that.
6: Keyboard shortcuts
Many desktops try to make keyboard shortcuts that make life easier for the end user. No more moving back and forth between mouse and keyboard. But GNOME 3 has given serious consideration to the keyboard shortcut issue. There are quite a few shortcuts, but one pair of shortcuts, in particular, I have really grown to like. If you hit Alt-Tab, you cycle between open applications (regardless of workspace). That's fairly standard. But if you hit Alt-` (that's Alt plus the key above the Tab button), you can switch between open windows of the same application. Say you have multiple Firefox windows open. If you hit Alt-` you will see previews of each window.
The compositing of GNOME 3 is elegant and far from overstated. Instead of going the Compiz route, GNOME 3 opts for subtle use of transparency and a few simple, clean effects that highlight how a compositor can actually improve the efficiency of a desktop. Transitioning between windows or in and out of the Dash is about as graceful a transition as can be had on a computer desktop. Best of all, the compositor on GNOME 3 does not, in any way, take a hit on the performance of the machine. GNOME 3 compositing is so much in the background, you will hardly notice it doing its thing.
8: Window zooming
This is a feature some will appreciate and some will not. When you have multiple windows open and you reveal the Dash, the windows are all in thumbnail mode. You can do a neat trick by using a vertical scroll (drag a finger up and down on a laptop trackpad). When you do this, the thumbnail window will zoom in so you can actually see what's happening with that thumbnail image.
9: Built-in screencast recording
Many Linux users will love this feature. If you hit the keyboard combination Ctrl-Alt-Shift-R your desktop actions will be recorded. To stop the recording, hit the same combination. There is no additional software needed for installation — it just works out of the box.
10: Application system tray
This feature hasn't gotten much attention, but I find to be quite handy. Certain applications (such as Empathy and Dropbox) can be minimized to the system tray — only you won't find them in the GNOME 3 panel anywhere. Instead, you'll find them in a small notification area at the bottom-right corner of your screen. When those applications are running, simply hover your mouse over that area and the application icons will be revealed. Click on a particular icon to open up the application. What I like about this is that it keeps the Panel from getting cluttered but still allows quick access to the applications.
GNOME 3 is quickly becoming one of my favorite desktops. Is it perfect? No... but it's as close as any other desktop that isn't stuck in the 90s. I believe any level of user can enjoy the latest take on the desktop from the GNOME developers. What about you? Have you given GNOME 3 enough of a try to let it all sink in and become familiar? If so, what's your take? Has GNOME 3 finally grown on you?
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.