On GNOME Shell

So I started using the GNOME Desktop last millennium, and over the last more than a decade have overall been quite impressed with the level of polish. It made a nice change in some ways from Enlightenment, and CDE, which were my previous desktop environments, and I coul live with the RAM footprint (after all, enlightenment is using 1.3GB of RAM now).

The last few years in particular have seen a growing trend to be more (but not quite) Mac-like, with lots of advanced features being buried over time, and over-simplification (for example, with sound controls). These are minor frustrations, but they can typically be worked around without much hassle and the experience remains overall quite good on GNOME 2.0. Things that used to be a hassle – like notifications, events, etc. and lot of plumbing have been worked out nicely by now. I love the work David Zeuthen and co. have done in particular, but many others have done good things.

Fast forward to today. I recently bought a new Netbook computer (an ASUS Eee PC 1015PEM – yea, I know, it’s not heavy on the OpenGL, but I don’t care enough about that) to run Fedora’s rawhide distribution fulltime as a desktop, and decided to try GNOME Shell. I had heard things and seen screenshots, but hadn’t really used it. Switching to GNOME Shell is easy enough on Fedora, simply using the “gnome-effects” application, which is in the menu. This switches the session from using a panel with metacity to gnome-shell with mutter, etc. But the mechanics are hidden behind a single button. That’s a nice touch, and anyone reading this who cares can easily try it out for themselves.

The GNONE Shell takes your current desktop and tries to simplify it down into something akin to the other Web-ish UIs we’ve seen in recent times. It uses a modified metacity window manager (which apparently will eventually be merged into the shell itself) and has some nicities, like built-in Javascript. You also get typical stuff like shortcut keys to run commands. It’s heavy on the gloss, but light on the complexity, prefering to present a “clean” interface to the user. The problem is that in this attempt to be so “clean”, it’s extremely off-putting to those of us who don’t want to use our computers like we might use a TV interface.

Overall, I am very unimpressed with the GNOME Shell experience. In an effort to target the UI at simplistic netbook users, it removes a lot of the features that I previously enjoyed, while being very Apple-like in prescribing how I will and will not use the UI. It has an “Activities” button that I need to click to do anything – akin to Microsoft deciding the Windows “start” button was a good idea to drive everything – while simultaneously removing panels, applets, and even doing away with Nautilus driving the desktop icons :( Now, it might be that things will improve, and I know they postponed the release once already, but I really feel this is still missing a lot of functionality I want in a desktop, and if it truly is to deprecate everything else will be a reason I migrate to XFCE, KDE, or cling onto somehow still running GNOME2 for a few years.

For now, my advice is to run “desktop-effects” and switch back to regular panels, then fire up gconf-editor and make sure nautilus is displaying desktop icons by manually creating the boolean “show_desktop” property under /apps/nautilus/preferences. I’m sorry I can’t be more enthusiastic about GNOME Shell. I don’t mean to be offensive, but I just think it’s gone too far this time.


15 Responses to “On GNOME Shell”

  1. Derek P. Moore says:

    They have focused on the new thus far, which is fine as proving grounds for their new & superior technology stack. But if they don’t focus on the old also they risk becoming an irrelevant dead end. gnome-panel would rock ported to GNOME Shell’s stack…

  2. leftystrat says:

    Thanks for the info.
    A word of advice: I run XFCE for the most part. I would continue to except for the fact that many programs, including important ones, do not show up in the menus (which require a PhD to edit). It behaves fine if you don’t want anything non-standard. Given my choice, I’d stay with XFCE. But sometimes I need things to behave, which is when I use Gnome.

  3. This is a great example of useless feedback.

    What would help the GNOME team a lot more would be feedback of the format:

    With GNOME Shell I cannot achieve [Specific Task A], because of [missing / badly designed feature B]. Probably, in the form of a bug report.

    Instead of thinking ‘oh noes, panels are gone’, think ‘what do I do with panels that I can’t currently do with GNOME Shell?’, and write about that; it’s more useful. Also consider asking the Shell folks if your assumption that they’re intentionally removing things permanently is actually correct, or if it’s simply that they aren’t done yet; remember, the GNOME Shell in F14 is an early alpha, it is not the finished product.

  4. nicu says:

    So far each time i tried the Shell, I couldn’t stand it more than 10 minutes and reverted back to the classic panel. Probably the design philosophy behind it is targeting a class of users from which I am not part of.

  5. fabiand says:

    I am feeling abit like nicu about the shell, belonging to a class of users which is not targeted by the design philosophy – and I am also using GNOME for over a decade. So I really kept wondering what I will do, if Fedora is switching to the shell. . .

  6. MaW says:

    For the time being at least, GNOME 3 will ship with the panel.

    Personally I like GNOME Shell’s interaction model, but the use of a different toolkit for its UI makes me uncomfortable, especially since there doesn’t seem to be much effort in the direction of theme integration and it’s kind of ugly. I’d also like to see it support some sort of applets.

    I have a feeling GNOME 3.0 is not going to be the release that converts the world to the joys of Shell. Maybe 3.4. Not exactly unprecedented of course.

  7. Tomasz says:

    Well, gnome-shell has some interesting mechanisms which got me quite addicted fast. But at the same time feels stagnant. Alt Tab seems broken terminally. It either requires using both hands (one alt tab, second arrow keys) or keyboard mouse to switch windows, both of which are antithesis of alt tab. And even using mouse sub-taskbar appear and disappear randomly – something broken wrt focus-follow-mouse?
    Nb, you don’t have to click Activities. Moving your mouse pointer into upper-left corner is enough to activate.

  8. mariusz says:

    for me gnome-shell is not a desktop, which can mess up. Lack of intuitive and imaginative, no compiz effects, which in the gnome-shell is not supported. E17 currently operate and to be honest, how would such a gnome merged with the desktop, something that was far gnome3.
    Such is my opinion, because I’m surprised that so much time is created gnome-shell and the novelty and innovation can not see.

  9. eggdeng says:

    Agreed. As a long time Gnome user, first on Fedora, now mostly on Ubuntu, I also hit a brick wall with the Gnome Shell. It seems to be change for change’s sake with no more rationale than trying to make the desktop resemble an iPhone as much as possible. Worst of all, the fact that it is incompatible with Compiz is going to be a dealbreaker for many users.

  10. korbe says:

    Gnome Shell is very inspired by Maemo 5.

    As I said before on the Gnome-Shell Mailing list, Gnome-Shell (without its left panel) is very very good to replace the present-day Expo plugin of Compiz, but it don’t add enough good news features to become the main UI for Gnome.

    The present-day main UI of Gnome still better in many point.

    If we can use Gnome-Shell to replace the present-day Expo plugin of Compiz and keep the present-day Gnome 2.XX main UI (Gnome-Panels, 3 menus (Applications, Shortcuts, System), list of Windows open, etc.) for Gnome 3.XX, it would be great. We can also keep the design of Gnome-Shell for the Gnome 2.XX main UI.

    Ex: Use this mockup: http://jimmac.musichall.cz/images/blog/shell-system-indicators.png for make the “3 menus” of top Gnome-panel

    I have add a little proposition to my mail on Gnome-Shell mailing list: http://mail.gnome.org/archives/gnome-shell-list/2010-October/msg00009.html

    What do you think?

    Do not hesitate to come and support me.

  11. Thub says:

    I personally like where it’s going and would support any kind of creative departure from the Windows 95 and MacOS 7 mimicry that has been the basis of so many “user friendly” desktop environments until very recently, but I concede that it likely isn’t for everyone. In fact I’m glad that, at least for the forseeable future (through the F15 timeframe), the “classic” Gnome desktop will be available in Fedora, but I don’t expect that this desktop will be supported in the long term.
    As for gnome-shell itself, I hear a lot of gripes about the interface that aren’t exactly true. Things like, “there are too many clicks to switch windows.” Well, certainly you have to either Alt Tab or enter the shell mode, or application mode, or whatever it’s called, to click on another window, but you can just move the cursor into the upper-left corner; technically not another click. That’s still a switch that has to take place that didn’t before though, with all the windows on the switcher at the bottom of the screen.
    The other thing that I think is woefully under-advertised is that the gnome-shell in Fedora 13 is, by all accounts, extremely out of date and makes for a very poor indication of how the whole workflow will actually work. However, the last time I tried to test the latest version (http://live.gnome.org/GnomeShell#Building) it failed to build, so I can’t really say it’s improved either. :-/
    I just wish this was a little more widespread information because I would hate for everyone to write off gnome-shell with such a poor example of its implimentation. Personally, I will reserve judgement until F15, but I’m keeping my eyes open for other desktop options in the meantime.

  12. Fabian says:

    Somewhat I feel a bit like nicu – being part of an audience that is not targeted by gnome-shell. But I really wonder where I will land, when the shell becomes GNOMEs main UI.
    I haven’t got any really suggestions or details what i dislike, as I also never spent much time with the shell …

  13. jcm says:

    @Adam: Actually, it’s totally valid for me to say “the panel is gone and I wanted it”. It’s a fault of the Open Source community to think we always know better than users, or that a specific design philosophy will win just because it seems better. I as a user want my panel, I’m used to it and it works for how I use a desktop computer. And I’m not alone in thinking this, given how most other desktops behave today, even the latest shiny stuff from Apple. I’m aware it’s not the final version yet, but realistically can it change a lot more before it is? I’m talking about pretty fundamental stuff in the design that I really dislike quite strongly :)

    It bothers me because I want to keep up with GNOME as the default desktop in Fedora. But if the future is GNOME Shell (as it stands), I’ll have to have a second test login or switch sessions to see how things would look under the shell rather than than actually use it. I started looking at alternatives – including KDE – though nothing is quite what I want (GNOME 2).

  14. nq6 says:

    The influence of Unity on the Gnome Shell

    The Gnome developers know that 14 million to 16 million will be using the Unity.Eles will not want your users lost in Unity. Then copied the layout. Below is a screen that shows this.


    Today we can see the force of the decisions of the developers of Ubuntu. What we have with the new Gnome Shell, a replica of the Unity. It seems Unity with a new theme.

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