Remember 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:
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
GNOME 3 and Unity. Mint offers several desktops, but it’s best known
MATE, and for Cinnamon, another
menuing desktop that also began as a GNOME fork.
- Xfce also won
fans among GNOME 3 and Unity refugees.
- GNOME 3 embarked upon a long
to a menu-driven “compatibility desktop.” In March 2013,
GNOME Version 3.8 unveiled Classic
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
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
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.)
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
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.
The Activities Overview
The vertical dashboard or Dash on
the left side of the screen lists your favorite and running
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
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
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
Search only succeeds if you know the right keyword or
characters with which to search. For example, what if you’re used to
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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”
few widgets and clean lines provide a simple look but may not be so
for beginners to figure out. A couple hours of formal training solves
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
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
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
in September 2013, representing three years of solid work on version 3.
shows. It’s obvious that much thought has
into the small tweaks that distinguish this responsive desktop.
Whether you’ll like GNOME 3 depends on whether you capitalize on its
paradigm. Though it initially puts some people off, the bimodal
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
model, enter the first few letters of applications into the search bar,
and enjoy the powerful timesavers.
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
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
I’d look forward to it.
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.