Why I Like GNOME 3 Shell

Friday night at the c-base pre-registration party Karen Sandler asked me what I thought of GNOME 3, and in particular, the GNOME 3 Shell.  Although I’m generally impressed with it and enjoy using it daily, I couldn’t enumerate for her solid, tangible reasons.  (It probably had something to do with the bottle of Berliner I was holding.)  She asked me if I would blog my thoughts.

Here they are, for whatever they’re worth.

Stability – Considering this is an initial release, I’ve found the Shell to be remarkably stable.  I’ve had no freezes or crashes.  While that seems like a low bar to overcome, this is essentially an 0.1 release.  Not much 0.1 code can make the claim that it’s stable.  Most 0.1 code is just happy it compiles.

Performance – When I heard in Gran Canaria that Javascript was a key technology behind the Shell, my thoughts immediately went to scalability — both in terms of performance (the common use of the term) and of code manageability (which is how I use that term some times).  I can’t speak to the latter point because I’ve not dived into the Shell source, but in terms of the former, I find the Shell to be speedy and brisk.  The only stalls I’ve experienced were when the machine was under load.

Productivity – I should list this first, but I decided to save the best for last.  My productivity has jumped since I switched to GNOME 3 Shell.  This might be a highly subjective evaluation.  I suspect I’m not alone.

I suffer from a common malady, Easily Distracted Syndrome (EDS).  Flashy lights, running gauges, televisions tuned to static — anything blinking or back-lit steals my attention away from what’s in front of me.  GNOME 3 Shell’s minimal and colorless chrome keeps me focused on the work at hand.  This is a good thing.  Windows is by far the worst offender, but all desktops are culpable.  Jeffrey McIntyre at Slate wrote about this problem in 2008, noting that “Our desktops are now a thick impasto of tabbed windows, pull-down menus, dashboard widgets, and application alerts. No possible distraction gets left behind, no link, feed, IM, twitter, or poke unheeded.”  Since computers are supposed to help productivity, changing this state of affairs should be a high priority for any desktop designer.

I like that GNOME 3 Shell doesn’t have a lot of widgets to play with.  The Tweak Tool is about is far as it goes, and I’m happy with that decision.  With GNOME 2 Shell, whenever I created an account on a new machine, I was in for at least an hour’s worth of work rearranging the desktop to my liking.  When I sit down to a GNOME 3 desktop, there really isn’t much to do — but I do twiddle with it.  The following are changes I wish would be made to the out-of-box experience:

(Note: I’m sure all of these have been debated ad infinitum in chat rooms and on mailing lists.  I’m still going to list them.  Think of these as a kind of late vote — open-source hanging chad):

Power Off… – I understand the impulse to stay as minimal as possible, but requiring me to log out in order to power off the machine is frustrating.  I use a GNOME Shell extension to add Power Off… and Suspend to the system menu (it also adds Hibernate, which I could live without).  I can’t believe I’m the only one grumbling about having to find and install this extension.  One of the big guffaws over UNIX’s predecessor Multics was that you had to log in in order to log out.  (The myth came about because of a feature that could lock the console, much like screensavers today.)  Unlike this bit of Multics lore, make no mistake: with out-of-the-box GNOME 3, you have to log out in order to turn off the machine.

Weather indicator – This is the one distraction from the GNOME 2 Shell I wish was moved to GNOME 3.  Yes, there’s a couple of weather indicator extensions out there (here’s the one I’m using), but they’re rough around the edges, hard to configure, and have to be installed separately.  If the new Shell can support calendaring in the clock drop-down, certainly it’s not a stretch to have a weather indicator in the top bar as well.

Desktop – Some people never use ~/Desktop for anything.  Others store their entire lives in it.  I more or less fall in the former camp, but I do keep a few documents on my desktop now and then.  Beyond my personal habits, it’s an odd state of affairs that to the user the entire desktop background is an inactive, inaccessible void.  Fortunately the GNOME Tweak Tool allows for Nautilus to manage the desktop much as it did in the past.  That was the first switch I threw to ON when I ran the tool.

None of this is particularly damning, and in all I think the GNOME 3 Shell designers have done a great job.  Certainly I wouldn’t call it an “unholy mess” and then demand that the designers add features back, as though the way to clean a room is to toss more stuff on the rug.  With a few careful additions here and there, the experience would be just right.

I keep going back to the productivity gains I mentioned earlier.  Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can pay to the group: Your creation stays out of my way, which is exactly what I want.

19 thoughts on “Why I Like GNOME 3 Shell”

  1. For the power off issue, I think you can hold shift (or control or alt) and it will switch “Suspend” to “Power Off”. Not really user friendly, but that worked for me once I knew that it was available.

    I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Gnome 3 as well, but I agree with you. It is a great desktop that really helps productivity in my opinion.

    I wish I could minimize windows in some way still. I guess I could move it to a new workspace, but that’s a lot of keystrokes.

  2. There is a way to change what happens when you press the power button. I have set it to power off the machine instead of what it was originally. Works quite well.

  3. I quite agree almost entirely with the appraisal. The Gnome Shell really just needs some nice high quality extensions in order to make the experience just great. I wouldn’t mind gnome 3 adding at least a simple dialog to change the theme/fonts though.

    As much as KDE is fantastic and configurable it ends up feeling slow, cluttered, confusing and distracting in day to day use. The Gnome Shell is much better in that regard.

    I am waiting on Debian 7 which probably will have a rockin implementation of Gnome 3, though I might skip on to testing a bit early. 🙂

  4. I mostly agree with your comment. Although, I still find gnome 3’s philosophy of organizing windows based on application highly short sighted. It seems they noticed that window based organizing was a bit misguided. The alt-tab behavior is probably the first thing I change, along with fixing the issue that Linus observes with respect to Terminal. My fear is that they won’t, and rather gnome 3 will move more toward the mac like design, which, I have many issues with.

  5. > The Gnome Shell really just needs some nice high quality extensions in order to make the experience just great.

    Samuel, just that Gnome Shell was not designed and implemented with extensions in mind. Just that Gnome Shell core hackers see extensions as something evil they cannot prevent. Just that an useful extension mechanism needs a reasonable extension API with strict API promises, which I don’t see to happen. Current way of implementing Gnome Shell extensions is to copy the existing code, modify and dump it. No automatic way to migrate bugfixes to the original code to the patched code. Quite some horror, IMHO. Not worth to spend much time on writing Gnome Shell extensions.

  6. You’re not the only one complaining about the hidden “Power off” — actually, that’s the most common complaint I hear about GNOME Shell. I wonder why the designers don’t add this option back — it seems to go so much against the “made of easy” philosophy, as it hides vital functionality behind a hardly discoverable shortcut key.

  7. My feelings are quite similar: I really do like Gnome3 better than Gnome2; haven’t wanted to go back yet. Workspaces are slick. 0-distraction works for me.

    I’ve used it on a laptop and on a dual-screen desktop. I do believe there’s some laptop bias in Gnome Shell.

    The whole “no-poweroff” issue is extremely grating on my desktop – because when I accidentally press the suspend menu choice (by slipping off the ALT modifier), my desktop dies on me – suspend isn’t working on the Desktop, so it effectively crashes. (I’ve tried this on a number of machines, only the laptops suspend reliably).

    The ‘click on icon focuses on open windows rather than creating another instance’ is also mostly annoying. I do use browsers and terminals a lot. And unintentionally flipping to another workspace is annoying too.

    The notification area keeps on hiding the bottom line of my fullscreen terminals.

    I’ve found alt-tabbing to be broken – after several months of daily usage I still can’t get used to it. It always seems to do the wrong thing for me.

    And having windows on both screens, it’s sometimes difficult to see (after alt tabbing or focusing through other means) that I’ve focused on the right window/screen. Very often I will alt-tab, close a window, and realize I closed a window on the wrong screen.

    If these issues sound bad, just imagine how good Gnome3 must be for me to continue using it in spite of the issues I have with it ;-). I’m looking forward to Gnome3.2 – hoping at least some of these annoyances will be gone then.

  8. I tried Gnome 3 for about a week – thought it was too… I dunno, gimicky (for want of a better word), went back to Gnome 2 for a few days and missed it terribly, now a happy Gnome 3 user – although the Alt-Tab behaviour is ruining it: if I’m using Alt-Tab then the window I select should get focus, drives me potty having to use a mouse to focus windows.

  9. I’m a long time Windows user, with occasional mac use prior to OSX, I’ve tried GNU/Linux desktops a every couple of years since RedHat 5.2 but they’ve never been able to fulfil all my needs until now.

    Early this year I took one of my laptops and installed Fedora 14 on it, to use along side my other Windows laptop and desktop. Over the course of a few months I found myself able to do everything I needed to on this laptop and started planning how to migrate all my existing data to use the new applications. Shotwell was one of the key applications in my decision, overall I preferred it to PhotoShop Elements Organiser.

    When Fedora 15 was released I upgraded to the new version with Gnome 3, initially I wasn’t that impressed but I thought I’d give it a try, I gave it more than 3 months of almost daily use but I’m sad to say I just couldn’t live with it and I’ve now gone back to using Windows.

    1. And why not KDE, XFCE, LXDE or something else?

      I mean, Windows is one of the worst Desktop Environments i ever seen and GNOME 3 is maybe not the best desktop, but a Linux System is not just the Desktop Environment.

      There are a lot of Desktop Environments and there is no use to switch to Windows in case of you dont like GNOME3.

      1. One feature I absolutely love in the Windows 7 desktop is the Search programs and files search box at the bottom of the start menu. Type a word or two and it will (very quickly) find and display all matching programs and files. It will even search the content of text and doc files for any words that match.

        Extremely useful when you have about 200 programs installed and don’t want to browse through the entire Programs list (or clutter your desktop with shortcuts). And sometimes when I forget the filename of a document I’m looking for, I can recall and type in a few words from the document, and it will bring it up.

  10. I loved to much gnome 2.9 but now I’m frustrated by the big change in the desktop. Gnome is unproductive with useless effects and no customizable. Gnome 3 decrese the life spam of the video card.

  11. I loved to much gnome 2.9 but now I’m frustrated by the big change in the desktop. Gnome is unproductive with useless effects and no customizable. Gnome 3 decreses the lifespan of the video card.

  12. are you on drugs?? I switched back to Windows because of the Unity and Gnome 3 shells — well I’m using Open Suse with kde 4.x but my primary Desktop is now Windows 7 “$200.00 bucks later” I don’t have the words to express my disappointment with Gnome 3. I like writing programs using the gtk api and gtk was my main api “pygtk, gtk#”; now I’m writing programs in windows for windows (c#, java, wxpython). Gnome 3 pushes away new and old users for one reason- its NOT a DESKTOP SHELL and its not productive. I wanted to like it believe me I wanted to but it’s like closing your eyes and kissing a pig. You can put lip-stick on that pig BUT once you close your eye and try — it just does not feel good — it feels like your kissing a pig :< Gnome 3 is my pig sorry it sucks and I think you know that. In closing and I don't want to sound mean but — Please find internet banner money with a good blog post and stop blog trolling.

  13. I was very tired of making high-accuracy mouse movements for doing stuff on my desktop, leading me to painful wrists from time to time. In that sense Gnome 3 has really improved my experience and my productivity!! I am very happy, I used to work on Windows more than on Linux, but now, when using a desktop other than Gnome 3, I really miss it. First time I used Gnome 3, I really hated it, switched back to gnome 2 with docky, but I eventually came back and liked it so much. Switching to “activities” with just a simple mouse movement is simply brilliant. I don’t need anymore to search for small minimize buttons, small start button, small desktop switch panels, small application button at the windows bar when there are lots of applications opened -it made sense they were small, as they were sharing the space with the rest of the desktop, but I find the new system massively more comfortable and much much faster in productivity!

  14. I agree that the hidden power off button is confusing. One thing I haven’t figured out is how to enable window transparency for Gnome 3.

  15. I like the new look but feel this is another move toward getting Windows users at the lose of old time Linux users. The removal of the panel, add-ons and other distractions is horrible! Its like bubble-wrapping all the sharp objects in our house so the new neigbors don’t get hurt on them. They were a choice that had to be made, needed to be made in some cases. This weather add-on errored out on me, “Makefile:439: *** missing separator. Stop.”! So where is the improvement?

    Why is evetytime they try to make something easier for the noobs they do it at the cost of something that worked so well!?

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