posted by Howard Fosdick on Fri 23rd May 2014 21:51 UTC
IconRemember back when GNOME and KDE dominated Linux desktops? Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? Yet it was only three years ago, in April 2011, that GNOME 3 was released. Its radically redesigned interface shook up everyone. Some eagerly adopted it. Others left GNOME.

In this brief review I take a fresh look at GNOME today, as it's currently distributed in several popular Linux distributions.

My Trip to GNOME:  A 3.10 Review

Whether or not you like the GNOME's Version 3 desktop, there's no denying that it hurt the product's popularity. Big changes occurred back when it was released:

  • Linux distros split on whether to adopt GNOME 3. For example, Fedora went GNOME 3 in May 2011. Red Hat 7 defaults to GNOME 3's Classic Mode, while CentOS stuck with GNOME 2.
  • The new MATE interface forked from GNOME 2 to offer an updated version of the traditional GNOME 2 experience. MATE was well-received and is available in a dozen distros' repositories.
  • Ubuntu dropped GNOME in favor of its new Unity desktop in their April 2011 release.
  • Linux Mint gained popularity with many who rejected GNOME 3 and Unity. Mint offers several desktops, but it's best known for MATE, and for Cinnamon, another menuing desktop that also began as a GNOME fork.
  • Xfce also won some fans among GNOME 3 and Unity refugees.
  • GNOME 3 embarked upon a long journey to a menu-driven "compatibility desktop." In March 2013, GNOME Version 3.8 unveiled Classic Mode, a full-featured GNOME-2 style interface built upon current software. You install it, then specify whether to use the GNOME 3 shell or Classic Mode when you log in.


GNOME 3 stumbled for several reasons. The design team decided to reinvent the user interface. They altered the basic ways in which users do their work. This is risky without lots of carefully planned user testing and feedback cycles.

The GNOME 3 user interface shows the influence of handheld designs. Like Windows 8 and Unity -- UI's designed to support both handhelds and laptops/desktops --  GNOME 3 couldn't easily reconcile the differences between the two device types. Consider how stark those differences are. Is the device "always on"? Is touch fundamental to using it, or altogether absent? Is the display huge or tiny? Are menus practical? How about windowing and workspaces? Can the user right-click? Can he swipe the screen? How does the desktop user make a "pressure gesture"?

Many GNOME 3 improvements over the past three years (such as Classic Mode), recognize that most personal computer users don't want a mobile device interface. Perhaps someday they will, but not yet. It's worth noting that both Apple and Google avoided the interface controversy that engulfed GNOME 3, Unity, and Windows 8. They offer distinct handheld and laptop/desktop operating systems. (Apple sells iOS for handhelds and its Mac OS for PC's. Google supports Android on handhelds and Chrome OS for traditional computers.)

And Today?

I was one of the many who rejected GNOME 3 and Unity when they came out in 2011. Recall that, at that time, not only did these GUI's abandon the proven menu interface, but neither had gone through the three years of intense improvement we've witnessed since.

I decided to give GNOME another try. What's it like today? I evaluated the product from the viewpoint of a laptop or desktop user (not handhelds). The goal was to find out:
  • How quickly can one use GNOME 3 productively?
  • Is it suitable for neophytes? How about sophisticated users?
  • Is its workflow as productive as a traditional menu interface?
I tried GNOME 3 by way of three leading distros: openSUSE 13, Fedora 20, and Mageia 4. All support GNOME 3.10. Version 3.12 came out a couple months ago but hasn't yet been adopted by most distros. You can read about its improvements here.

Learning GNOME 3

The desktop starts in the Activities Overview. The Overview is for launching new applications, switching windows, and moving windows between workspaces. Your desktop switches between the Activities Overview and the specific tasks you perform. Exit the Overview by selecting an app, window, or workspace.

Activities Overview
The Activities Overview

The vertical dashboard or Dash on the left side of the screen lists your favorite and running applications. Single-click an icon to run its app.

It's easy to add or remove apps to the Dash. Those who like to cover their desktops with quick-launch icons will appreciate this flexibility. To add a favorite, just start the program, and it appears in the Dash. Right-click its icon and select Add to Favorites. To delete a favorite, just right-click its icon and select Remove from Favorites.

To run an app not in your favorites, either find the program by the search bar at the top of the screen, or select the bottom icon in the favorites list (called Show Applications). The search bar is always in focus whenever you see it. No need to click the mouse cursor at it. Just start typing and your query appears. As you type, possible answers display immediately below.

Search only succeeds if you know the right keyword or characters with which to search. For example, what if you're used to Windows and want to watch your computer's performance? You might enter "task manager". That won't retrieve the Linux System Monitor. Nor will "performance manager" or "performance monitor"(*). "System" or "monitor" or some starting substring of these two keywords is what you need to enter. The search box is not intelligent like a Google or Bing search.

The search bar can also find contacts, documents, files, notes, and passwords. You can enable or disable each searchable category at will. A single click sends your search to the Internet.

If you click on the Show Applications icon, icons for all installed apps cover your desktop. You may have to page a few times to view them all. What you see varies by what you have installed. In the three distros I tested, beyond simple alphabetization, there didn't appear to be any organizing principle. Applications were mixed right in with tools and folders. (In openSUSE, 17 utilities were collected under a Utilities folder, but 16 games were individually strewn across the Show Applications display. Go figure.)

Show Applications
Show Applications

Here's the good news. If the Show Applications view isn't well organized, it hardly matters. The GNOME 3 desktop runs at in-memory speeds. An extra click or two won't slow you down. Paging the apps is incredibly fast. Or, just type a keyword into the search bar. Once you know what search strings to use, you'll get instant gratification.

Workspaces are useful in managing a cluttered desktop. They allow you to group windows together. GNOME 3 makes it quick and simple to use them. Just access the Workspace Switcher at the right side of the Activities Overview screen. You can drag windows from the Activities Overview to the Workspace Switcher to create new workspaces or to add to existing ones. To focus on a workspace, just click on it.

Workspaces Viewing One of Two Workspaces

Let's wrap up this micro-tour by mentioning three underlying principles to GNOME 3. First, the interface is fast. If ever you have to make an extra mouse click or two, or page your apps in Show Applications, it doesn't matter. And this was on my seven-year-old test boxes, early dual-core computers that each have only 2GB of memory and 256MB of video memory!

The interface contains dozens of shortcuts. For example, the Super key -- down in the left hand side of your keyboard, with the Windows logo on it -- switches you between the Activities Overview and your tasks. Tap that key and you instantly toggle in and out of the Overview. You can do the same by moving your mouse cursor over the invisible hot spot in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. Toggle between apps by hitting Alt+Tab. Double-click on an app's title bar to toggle whether its window is maximized. Click on your user id to expose the hidden Logoff button.

You get the idea. To become productive with GNOME 3, you master its many simple timesavers. Familiarity counts with this interface.

Shortcuts make GNOME 3 incredibly powerful, and quick and easy to use. But they are not intuitive. This interface is easy for veterans to use but may not be for neophytes. The same may be said of GNOME's quest for simplicity and its "less is more" philosophy. GNOME's few widgets and clean lines provide a simple look but may not be so simple for beginners to figure out. A couple hours of formal training solves this. Or, just spend a day or two exploring the product and you'll become quite proficient with it.

GNOME 3.10 has become one of the most customizable Linux desktops, with its dozens of interface extensions. For example, the GNOME Tweak Tool puts many desktop behaviors under your control, including maximize and minimize buttons. You can even add a rollover menu to the top panel if you miss GNOME 2! The Tweak Tool is bundled in 3.10 and you can toggle all its features -- like the applications menu -- on or off. See this website for many other extensions.

Tweak Tool Applications Menu
The Applications Menu Provided by the GNOME Tweak Tool

The Bottom Line

GNOME 3 has come a long way since its introduction. Release 3.10 came out in September 2013, representing three years of solid work on version 3. The effort shows. It's obvious that much thought has gone into the small tweaks that distinguish this responsive desktop.

Whether you'll like GNOME 3 depends on whether you capitalize on its workflow paradigm. Though it initially puts some people off, the bimodal Activities Overview / Specific Task model empowers others.

Another factor is whether you'll take the time required to familiarize yourself with GNOME's many hidden features. Often, those who succeed with GNOME enjoy exploring their desktop and learning new techniques, while those who reject it don't like spending time learning what they see as the "tricks" of a new interface. GNOME's shortcuts underlie its effectiveness. Combined with the in-memory speeds at which the interface responds, they'll make you a power user. You'll probably want to customize your desktop by extensions, too.

Who should use GNOME 3? The product pleases those who use their computer daily -- office professionals, administrators, frequent users, managers, computer professionals, and hobbyists. They'll leverage the workflow model, enter the first few letters of applications into the search bar, and enjoy the powerful timesavers.

Unsophisticated end users will adapt more quickly to a traditional menu-driven interface. (Of course, just a few mouse clicks adds a menu to the desktop via the GNOME Tweak Tool.) Those who infrequently use their computers might not remember GNOME's hidden power features. And some will feel that the bimodal interface simply doesn't fit their work habits or how they use their computer.

For myself, I didn't find a compelling reason to switch my current systems to GNOME 3.10. Yet I enjoyed working with it. This desktop helps you be highly productive once you become proficient. If I were to contract tomorrow at a firm where using the GNOME 3 shell was required, I'd look forward to it.

To see GNOME 3.10 in action, watch the Youtube reviews here and here. This article summarizes all 3.10's new features.

Howard Fosdick is a database and systems administrator who works as an independent consultant. He frequently writes technical articles and has an M.S. in Computer Science.

*Under openSUSE 13, you won't find the System Monitor by entering "performance manager" or "performance monitor" into the search bar. However, if you enter the single letter "p" -- and no more -- you will locate the System Monitor.
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