Surveying changes coming in GNOME 3.10

GNOME 3.10 came out last month but it took until its inclusion into the Arch and Antergos repositories for me to see it in the flesh. Apart from the risk of instability, this is the sort of thing at which rolling distributions excel. They can give you a chance to see the latest software before it is included anywhere else. For the GNOME desktop environment, it might have meant awaiting the next release of Fedora in order to glimpse what is coming. This is not always a bad thing because Ubuntu GNOME seems to be sticking with using a release behind the latest version. With many GNOME Shell extension writers not updating their extensions until Fedora has caught up with the latest release of GNOME for a stable release, this is no bad thing and it means that a version of the desktop environment has been well bedded in by the time it reaches the world of Ubuntu too. Debian takes this even further by using a stable version from a few years ago and there is an argument in favour of that from a solidity perspective.

Being in the habit of kitting out GNOME Shell with extensions, I have a special interest in seeing which ones still work or could work with a little tweaking and those which have fallen from favour. In the top panel, the major change has been to replace the sound and user menus with a single aggregate menu. The user menu in particular has been in receipt of the attentions of extension writers and their efforts either need re-work or dropping after the latest development. The GNOME project seems to have picked up an annoying habit from WordPress in that the GNOME Shell API keeps changing and breaking extensions (plugins in the case of WordPress). There is one habit from the WordPress that needs copying though and that is with documentation, especially of that API for it is hardly anywhere to be found.

GNOME Shell theme developers don’t escape and a large border appeared around the panel when I used Elementary Luna 3.4 so I turned to XGnome Enhanced (found via GNOME-Look.org) instead. The former no longer is being maintained since the developer no longer uses GNOME Shell and has not got the same itch to scratch; maybe someone else could take it over because it worked well enough until 3.8? So far, the new theme works for me so that will be an option should there a move to GNOME 3.10 on one of my PC’s at some point in the future.

Returning to the subject of extensions, I had a go at seeing how the included Applications Menu extension works now since it wasn’t the most stable of items before. That has improved and it looks very usable too so I am not awaiting the updating of the Frippery equivalent. That the GNOME Shell backstage view has not moved on that much from how it was in 3.8 could be seen as a disappointed but the workaround will do just fine. Aside from the Frippery Applications Menu, there are other extensions that I use heavily that have yet to be updated for GNOME Shell 3.10. After a spot of success ahead of a possible upgrade to Ubuntu GNOME 13.10 and GNOME Shell 3.8 (though I remain with version 13.04 for now), I decided to see I could port a number of these to the latest version of the user interface. Below, you’ll find the results of my labours so feel free to make use of these updated items if you need them before they are update on the GNOME Shell Extensions website:

Frippery Bottom Panel

Frippery Move Clock

Remove App Menu

Show Desktop

There have been more changes coming in GNOME 3.10 than GNOME Shell, which essentially is a JavaScript construction. The consolidation of application title bars in GNOME applications continues but a big exit button has appeared in the affected applications that wasn’t there before. Also there remains the possibility of applying the previously shared modifications to Nautilus (also known as Files) and a number of these usefully extend themselves to other applications such as Gedit too. Speaking of Gedit, this gains a very useful x of y numbering for the string searching functionality with x being the actual number of the occurrence of a certain piece of text in a file and y being its total number of occurrences.GNOME Tweak Tool has got an overhaul too and lost the setting that makes a folder path box appear in Nautilus instead of a location part, opening Dconf-Editor and going to org > gnome > nautilus > preferences and completing the tick box for always-use-location-entry will do the needful.

Essentially, the GNOME project is continuing along the path on which it set a few years ago. Though I would rather that GNOME Shell would be more mature, invasive changes are coming still and it leaves me wondering if or when this might stop. Maybe that was the consequence of mounting a controversial experiment when users were happy with what was there in GNOME 2. The arrival of Fedora 20 should bring with it an increase in the number of GNOME shell extensions that have been updated. So long as it remains stable Antergos is good have a look at the latest version of GNOME for now and Cinnamon fans may be pleased the Cinnamon 2.0 is another desktop option for the Arch-based distribution. An opportunity to say more about that may arrive yet once the Antergos installer stops failing at a troublesome package download; a separate VM is being set aside for a look at Cinnamon because it destabilised GNOME during a previous look.

A need to update graphics hardware

Not being a gaming enthusiast, having to upgrade graphics cards in PC’s is not something that I do very often or even rate as a priority. However, two PC’s in my possession have had that very piece of hardware upgraded on them and it’s not because anything was broken either. My backup machine has seen quite a few Linux distros on there since I built it nearly four years ago. The motherboard is an ASRock K10N78 that sourced from MicroDirect and it has onboard an NVIDIA graphics chip that has performed well if not spectacularly. One glitch that always existed was a less than optimal text rendering in web browsers but that never was enough to get me to add a graphics card to the machine.

More recently, I ran into trouble with Sabayon 13.04 with only the 2D variant of the Cinnamon desktop environment working on it and things getting totally non-functional when a full re-installation of the GNOME edition was attempted. Everything went fine until I added the latest updates to the system when a reboot revealed that it was impossible to boot into a desktop environment. Some will relish this as a challenge but I need to admit that I am not one of those. In fact, I tried out two Arch-based distros on the same PC and got the same results following a system update on each. So, my explorations of Antergos and Manjaro have to continue in virtual machines instead.

To get a working system, I gave Linux Mint 15 Cinnamon a go and that worked a treat. However, I couldn’t ignore that the cutting edge distros that I tried before it all took exception to the onboard NVIDIA graphics. systemd has been implemented in all of these and it seems reasonable to think that it is coming to Linux Mint at some stage in the future so I went about getting a graphics card to add into the machine. Having had good experiences with ATi’s Radeon in the past, I stuck with it even though it now is in the hands of AMD. Not being that fussed so long there was Linux driver support, I picked up a Radeon HD 6450 card from PC World. Adding it into the PC was a simpler of switching off the machine, slotting in the card, closing it up and powering it on again. Only later on did I set the BIOS to look for PCI Express graphics before anything else and I could have got away without doing that. Then, I made use of the Linux Mint Additional Driver applet in its setting panel to add in the proprietary driver before restarting the machine to see if there were any visual benefits. To sort out the web browser font rendering, I used the Fonts applet in the same settings panel and selected full RGBA hinting. The improvement was unmissable if not still like the appearance of fonts on my main machine. Overall, there had been an improvement and a spot of future proofing too.

That tinkering with the standby machine got me wondering about what I had on my main PC. As well as onboard Radeon graphics, it also gained a Radeon 4650 card for which 3D support wasn’t being made available by Ubuntu GNOME 12.10 or 13.04 to VMware Player and it wasn’t happy about this when a virtual machine was set to have 3D support. Adding the latest fglrx driver only ensured that I got a command line instead of a graphical interface. Issuing one of the following commands and rebooting was the only remedy:

sudo apt-get remove fglrx

sudo apt-get remove fglrx-updates

Looking at the AMD website revealed that they no longer support 2000, 3000 or 4000 series Radeon cards with their latest Catalyst driver the last version that did not install on my machine since it was built for version 3.4.x of the Linux kernel. A new graphics card then was in order if I wanted 3D graphics in VWware VM’s and both GNOME and Cinnamon appear to need this capability. Another ASUS card, a Radeon HD 6670, duly was acquired and installed in a manner similar to the Radeon HD 6450 on the standby PC. Apart from not needing to alter the font rendering (there is a Font tab on Gnome Tweak Tool where this can be set), the only real exception was to add the Jockey software to my main PC for installation of the proprietary Radeon driver. The following command does this:

sudo apt-get install jockey-kde

When that was done I issue the jockey-kde command and selected the first entry on the list. The machine worked as it should on restarting apart from an AMD message at the bottom right hand corner bemoaning unrecognised hardware. There had been two entries on that Jockey list with exactly the same name so it was time to select the second of these and see how it went. On restarting, the incompatibility message had gone and all was well. VMware even started virtual machines with 3D support without any messages so the upgrade did the needful there.

Hearing of someone doing two PC graphics card upgrades in a weekend may make you see them as an enthusiast but my disinterest in computer gaming belies this. Maybe it highlights that Linux operating systems need 3D more than might be expected. The Cinnamon desktop environment now issues messages if it is operating in 2D mode with software 3D rendering and GNOME always had the tendency to fall back to classic mode, as it had been doing when Sabayon was installed on my standby PC. However, there remain cases where Linux can rejuvenate older hardware and I installed Lubuntu onto a machine with 10 year old technology on there (an 1100 MHz Athlon CPU, 1GB of RAM and 60GB of hard drive space in case dating from 1998) and it works surprisingly well too.

It seems that having fancier desktop environments like GNOME Shell and Cinnamon means having the hardware on which it could run. For a while, I have been tempted by the possibility of a new PC since even my main machine is not far from four years old either. However, I also spied a CPU, motherboard and RAM bundle featuring an Intel Core i5-4670 CPU, 8GB of Corsair Vengence Pro Blue memory and a Gigabyte Z87-HD3 ATX motherboard included as part of a pre-built bundle (with a heatsink and fan for the CPU) for around £420. Even for someone who has used AMD CPU’s since 1998, that does look tempting but I’ll hold off before making any such upgrade decisions. Apart from exercising sensible spending restraint, waiting for Linux UEFI support to mature a little more may be no bad idea either.

Update 2013-06-23: The new graphics card in my main machine is working as it should and has reduced the number of system error report messages turning up too; maybe Ubuntu GNOME 13.04 didn’t fancy the old graphics card all that much. A rogue .fonts.conf file was found in my home area on the standby machine and removing it has improved how fonts are displayed on there immeasurably. If you find one on your system, it’s worth doing the same or renaming it to see if it helps. Otherwise, tinkering with the font rendering settings is another beneficial act and it even helps on Debian 6 too and that uses GNOME 2! Seeing what happens on Debian 7.1 could be something that I go testing sometime.