Gnome Shell 3.6. Thoughts, findings, comments.


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After my big splash on KDE 4.10 I decided to test out a few other desktop environments. While this is largely about Gnome Shell, I threw in some comparatives to KDE and Unity as well.

Gnome Shell was one that came on the radar rather quickly since it's one I have admittedly not used too extensively in recent weeks. Each time a new GS update came out it looked more and more attractive to me. As a precursor to this conversation, I tested Gnome Shell when it was in the early early alpha stages. If I spoke to any given Linux user, even in the Gnome IRC chat, they would almost definitely not know what I was talking about at the time. I had quite a few frustrations with Gnome Shell. It was clunky, slow, and while it was an intuitive interface it was riddled with shortcomings. For example, I ran into one scenario where I couldn't even add a printer via IP unless it was discovered by the system through its network scan. Problem is, my printer was not picked up by the network scan. Now what? To localhost:631 I went. This enraged me like no other, as GS aimed to be simple to use while it stripped away enough features to require users to go through a set of loops in order to accomplish a simple task - like add a network printer via IP. Even though the newer Gnome Shell I'm using seems to not allow me to add LPD entries, it picked up both of my network printers with their "search by address" feature. Worked both times.

I fired up Gnome Shell with some sort of kid-in-candy-store type of excitement. I knew how beautiful Gnome Shell was prior, and I know a co-worker of mine uses it on Arch and loves it. I just always had this anti bias against it as Gnome developers have traditionally been a little difficult to deal with. However, one could argue that ANY developer is difficult to deal with, which is a reality I am continually reminded of as I submit more and more bug reports on any desktop environment, from KDE to Unity to etc etc. But hey, give those guys credit, they work hard and it's appreciated.

The first thing I noticed is I liked how Gnome Shell could be PPA'd to newer versions. For example, with Unity on 12.04, I couldn't upgrade it (based on what I was told plus what Google searches were suggesting) because of its vast array of system-level dependencies that vary wildly between 12.04, 12.10, etc. This was disappointing simply because I wanted to experience the newer Unity versions without updating my entire system.

To pick on Unity a little bit (please note, I love Unity), I've always been frustrated by its manual search mechanism for applications. I feel as though interfaces need to have a balance between mouse and keyboard intuitiveness, not favor one or the other. With Unity, you first click the dash icon. Then you click the application dash at the bottom. Then you have to click on "more applications" to see your full list. I don't care to see what applications are available from software center. I also don't care about my recent applications. I don't see the point of recent applications being here when they're already under the first menu prior to clicking the applications lens to begin with. I have tolerated these shortcomings since I have always been a big fan of the super key + type-to-find-application combo. While I will say that Unity in the 13.04 beta is very fast, Gnome Shell's current implementation is absolutely faster than Unity in 12.04. I also like the simplified look of Gnome Shell. It seems to offer a ton of flexibility with the use of extensions while keeping a simple, streamlined interface. I found an array of extensions I swear by. Currently I have my sent/receive network traffic being continuously displayed in the upper bar. I also have a media player extension which allows me to switch tracks without even opening Clementine. Sure, Unity has this, but Gnome Shell's layout just feels cleaner and more streamlined. I'm also a big fan of the "dash to dock" extension, which presents the left bar found in the activities menu to be present all of the time without having to hot corner. There's also a "dock" extension, which is the same thing but looks slightly slightly different and is justified on the right side of the screen. Both of them very usable if you don't like having to hot corner to see your bar of application icons. There's also no denying that Gnome Shell's dash menu is exponentially simpler to use, however I do like how Unity's dash can search for individual files. That came in handy at times, however having to continuously hit "show more" was irritating. I guess the show files thing in Unity is like a +1 with a deducation of .5 all at once.

While I have my frustrations with Gnome Shell (only listing suspend in the menu unless you hold ALT to see restart/shutdown - really guys?), I do like how it's consistent with each version. Each and every time I can see exactly what I need and bam - I know where it's at. With Unity, each version reorganizes things a little bit. I remember going into 13.04 and seeing a different selection of options within the upper-right menu. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I would prefer to see a select set of options last instead of seeing them get rearranged with each 6 month release.

If I had to boil down my last remaining thoughts surrounding the "big 3" desktop environments, namely Gnome Shell, KDE, and Unity, this would be my overall synopsis.

Unity - Out of the box it's rather easy to use. It's an environment grandma could get used to, but after some degree of tinkering as the dash menu can offer too much information in too little space. I like Unity because from the get-go it doesn't feel as though it needs a solid amount of tinkering to get off the ground. That said, tinkering in general with Unity is a bit of a lost cause right now, but I'm sure Canonical will change that in the future. An add-on tool I found (the name slips my mind) for 13.04 offered a considerable amount of flexibility, however it just manipulates the way Unity looks/feels, whereas Gnome Shell offers extensions that can wildly change or alter the behavior of the entire system. THIS is the type of customizability I think Unity needs to go for. Tools that help change the icons and colors of the Unity bar only go so far.

KDE - Out of the box, KDE is rather boring to me. I will admit I'm not a huge fan of the bottom-justified panel oriented environments. Even on Windows, I found myself moving the bar to the left or top side of the panel. It just felt more natural to me. KDE often feels like a guard dog that will get distracted by a simple tennis ball. That's not to slam KDE, I find KDE to be beautiful and amazing, and quite honestly it's been my main desktop environment lately, but sometimes I wonder why certain things are organized the way they are. That said, I do acknowledge they have a monumental amount of configurable options, easily the highest number of configurable options of any desktop environment I've used, so cataloging features and settings is far from easy. Despite the magnitude of customizability KDE brings to the table, there are certain things that I would like to see them dig deeper with. KDE is something that would be relatively usable by grandma out of the box, but not quite as easy to use as Unity or Gnome Shell, in my opinion. It's something I can see a power user using, or simply a user who's super headstrong about having 100% control with every element of their desktop environment. KDE 4.10 is fast, highly configurable, and undoubtedly kind of customization.

Gnome Shell - I was a one time hater, but now that it's matured a little but I'm really liking what I'm seeing as a whole. I still have minor frustrations with it. For example, why keep shut down and restart out of the menu... why? Maybe I don't want to suspend... ever think of that? Ironically enough I always, always suspend my machines, so it's really not a bother... I guess I'm just being vocal for other users who would prefer to have them visible. Also, I really like the idea of having the dock seen in the activities overlay as being available all of the time without needing to hot corner. Oh, wait! We're talking about Gnome Shell here! These things can be fixed by extensions! Annnnd that brings me to my next point. Gnome Shell offers a vast degree of customizable options via extensions (which by the way are super easy to install from their extensions home page found here - while providing you with a super simple yet super powerful easy to use desktop. It's fast, flows nicely, offers some degree of eye candy that is pleasing, and the dash menu just makes sense. I don't need to click 6 times to find an application via mouse. I can hot corner, click once on applications, and scroll to what I need. That... makes sense.

In closing, all desktop environments have pros and cons. In the world of open source software, we are spoiled with endless options. Instead of participating in what seems to be never ending squabbles about which one is better, I think it's important to embrace the benefits of all desktop environments. These options do not exist in the Microsoft or Apple world. We are fortunate to have such flexibility. YOU are in control of your system. Nobody else. After all, when you order a lager and your buddy orders a light beer, do you squabble over that, or do you toast together for a good time? Bazinga.
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Thanks for the detailed information there, Jayce.
As a note I am a "Windows style" panel at the bottom of the screen guy, not sure why, probably just habit by now. If KDE is so customisable, surely it is not a problem that the default panel position is at the bottom?
Thanks for the detailed information there, Jayce.
As a note I am a "Windows style" panel at the bottom of the screen guy, not sure why, probably just habit by now. If KDE is so customisable, surely it is not a problem that the default panel position is at the bottom?

Oh it's absolutely not a problem at all. KDE's customizability allows for a "one side fits all" type of desktop environment for the most part. My point behind highlighting that is if you look at KDE and pass it up for whatever reason, it's important to note that you can make it your own very easily. in the KDE post I made I had some screenshots of a very Unity-esque type of layout.

I am admittedly struggling a little bit with what desktop environment to use full time, though. Based entirely on my own personal preferences here, I find that KDE's customizability and default look (which I am admittedly not a fan of) I feel like I am continuously editing something about it. No matter how much I edit it, sometimes I'm just not sure if I'm hitting the spot. The problem is I don't care for KDE's menu launcher at all, while I am a huge fan of Unity and an even bigger fan of Gnome Shell's. So far, Gnome Shell and KDE have been better performing on my machines (with the exception of Ubuntu 13.04 beta with Unity, which is on par in terms of speed). Gnome Shell has a few shortcomings that irritate me, but are easily fixed by extensions. Unity is nice but Ubuntu only, which is sometimes a turn off since I'd prefer a DE I can hop onto with any distro. That said, Ubuntu tends to hit the spot in most areas, hence why I've always ended up using it.

Real world problems for a Linux user over here. Too many choices. Perhaps I should start using another operating system with less choices? :p

EDIT - The more I mess with KDE the more it does click with me. I found that there's a widget (menuapp I believe) which lets you have a global menu in your panel. Since I like my panel at the top of the screen it gave me a rather Unity-esque feeling in that regard. There's two things that currently frustrate me with KDE that I'm currently dealing with. I like having two panels. One up top, one on the left side. Here's my headache...

1 - If I have the left panel set to auto hide, that's all well and good, but any time I get a notification from an instant message etc. the panel pops up on the screen. Since I already have the notification system coming up with the IM, this is a bit much. I'd like to turn off the panel appearing for notifications like that. OR... just have the single icon from that application bounce a single time. That way I'm seeing the need for attention without it presenting the whole panel to me.

2 - If I have the left panel set to always visible, I can't have my 2nd monitor on the left. Seriously, I can't. If I put the monitor on the left, the windows don't abide by the edge of the panel. Meaning if I have a monitor on the left (making my laptop essentially on the right) and maximize a window on my laptop screen, it seems to forget that the left panel is there, as it goes underneath the panel entirely. This makes the combination of left extended monitor + always visible left-justified-on-right-screen combination not work whatsoever. (Bug Reported).

If one of these two would be fixed, I'd be a happy camper. But instead the way I want to customize KDE is currently working against me. Supposedly 4.11 will fix #2, but I'm still somewhat convinced #1 is buried somewhere in system settings...
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I know I've been going back and forth lately with desktop environments, but I can't help but to relay my findings here since there's a chance other users might be able to gain some insight from it. Yet again I began flirting with Gnome on a deeper level this past week. I had an in depth discussion with what seemed to be a rather unbiased Linux user the other day which inspired me to revisit Gnome Shell. This was also partially instigated after I ran into a series of rather simple problems in KDE, such as being unable to select which microphone I wanted to record from, whereas Ubuntu Unity/Ubuntu Gnome did this without the slightest issue. This, coupled with a few other "...really?" headaches that I ran into ended up running parallel to this discussion I had with this other user. All in all it was enough for me to revisit Gnome 3 with an even more open mind than before.

Originally I used Gnome Shell with the mindset of "Gnome developers hate us and that's why there's so little features." Then I would look at some extensions as life savers for Gnome 3, thereby suggesting I wouldn't be able to survive using it full time without those specific extensions. The reality is, Gnome 3 was built to be modular and benefit from countless extensions. This basically leaves you with the basics to boot, but with far more functionality and accessibility by simply enabling some extensions from their web site. This was starting to click with me a little better than before. Truth be told, after being on KDE for a while, I felt the continual need to adjust everything. I just couldn't get a lot of things looking as polished as I wanted so I found myself continually fighting with them. From the get go, Gnome Shell is beautiful, and it retains those aesthetics indefinitely - all that changes with the extensions is added functionality. I dig that.

I fired up Gnome Shell 3.6.2 on a fresh install of Ubuntu 12.10 and was pleasantly surprised by a few things. The notification bar at the bottom right had taken on a new identity, as it spans the entire way across the screen and reveals itself after 1 second of parking your mouse cursor along the bottom edge. Evidently this is something that is going to change in Gnome 3.8 with 3.7 being a test base, at least according to what I read, as the 1 second wait, while a decent buffer, is a little on the slower side. On top of that, I noticed Power Off is now the default option in the shut down menu, with Suspend being available when holding "ALT". While some might say "very nice!", others may say "about time..." Either way, it's done.

Moving along, I ran on Gnome Shell without extensions for a few days just to get a feel for the vanilla state of Gnome 3. While it was certainly usable and I could see the benefit of having a simplistic yet elegant interface from the get-go, I decided to revisit the extensions page to see what kind of trouble I could get into. Already there were more extensions (and good ones too) that surfaced since I last used Gnome 3, which really wasn't that long ago. I tried to make good use of my space in the upper taskbar by loading in extensions that provided me with relevant information and/or functionality. I felt as though I struck a sweet balance between having the information and functionality I want while keeping the overall interface attractive looking.

The left-justified dock that's visible all of the time is actually the same Gnome Shell dock that's visible in the activities menu. If I continually re-enable the activities menu, nothing whatsoever changes visually with the left dock, which makes for a super smooth transition. By using the "dash to dock" extension it simply allows the dock to be on your desktop as well. By default it acts in a window-dodge fashion, so if I full screen a window it'll require me mousing over to the left side to reveal it. It can also be set to auto hide (so it's always hidden until you hit the left edge), which is done via the tweak tool.

It is pretty remarkable to consider where Linux has come in terms of polish in the last few years. There was a time where Unity was as much of a train wreck as Vista, KDE 4 was less stable than most pre-alpha software, and Gnome Shell was a poor joke. Now these desktop environments are maturing to a point where they are really becoming quite awesome.

I've grown accustomed to using Gnome Shell on my work laptop in a rather short time. Utilizing the activities overlay, workspace manager, and a small array of extensions has really proven to raise the multitasking bar. While I still rate KDE 4.10 to be nothing short of fantastic, there is a degree of "just getting my work done while looking damn good" that comes with the Gnome 3 territory... and I like that.
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