10 things I've grown to love about GNOME 3

Jack Wallen to GNOME 3: You had me at 'pager.' See how the new desktop captured his reluctant heart.

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.

1: Minimalism

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.

2: Pager

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.

3: Favorites

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.

4: Menus/Alerts/Calendar

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.

7: Compositing

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.

Your thoughts?

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?

By Jack Wallen

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 jackwallen.com.