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 look at Ubuntu GNOME 13.10

With its final release being near at hand, I decided to have a look at the beta release of Ubuntu GNOME 13.10 to get a sense of what might be coming. A misstep along the way had me inadvertently download and install the 64-bit edition of 13.04 into a VirtualBox virtual machine. The intention to update that to its soon to be released successor was scuppered by instability so I never did get to try out an in situ upgrade to 13.10. What I had in mind was to issue the following command:

gksu update-manager -d

However, I found another one when considering how Ubuntu Server might be upgraded without the GUI application that is the Update Manager. To update to a development version, the following command is what you need:

sudo do-release-upgrade -d

To upgrade to a final release of of a new version of Ubuntu, drop the -d switch from the above to use the following:

sudo do-release-upgrade

There is one further option that isn’t recommended for moving between Ubuntu versions but I use it to get updates such as new kernel subversions that are released:

sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

Rather than trying out the above, I downloaded the latest ISO image for the beta release of Ubuntu GNOME 13.10 and installed onto a VM that instead. Though it is the 32 bit version of the distro that is installed on my main home PC, it has been the 64 bit version that I have been trying. So far, that seems to be behaving itself even if it feels a little sluggish but that could be down to the four year old PC that hosts the virtual machine. For a while, I have been playing with the possibility of an upgrade involving an Intel Core i5 4670K CPU and 16 GB of RAM (useful for running multiple virtual machines at a time) along with any motherboard that supports those so looking at a 64 bit operating system has its uses.

The Linux kernel may be 3.11 but that is not my biggest concern. Neither is the fact that LibreOffice 4.1.2.3 was included and GIMP wasn’t, especially when that could be added easily anyway and it is version 2.8.6 that you get. The move to GNOME Shell 3.8 was what drew me to seeing what was coming because I have been depending on a number extensions. As with WordPress and plugins, GNOME Shell seems to have a tempestuous relationship with some of its extensions and I wanted to see which ones still worked. There also has been a change to the backstage application view in that you either get all installed applications displayed when you browse them or you have to start typing the name of the one you want to select it. Losing the categorical view that has been there until GNOME Shell 3.6 is a step backwards and I hope that version 3.10 has seen some sort of a reinstatement. There is a way to add these categories and the result is not as it once was either; also, it shouldn’t be necessary for anyone to dive into a systems innards to address things like this. With all the constant change, it is little wonder that Cinnamon has become a standalone entity with the release of its version 2.0 and that Debian’s toyed with not going with GNOME for its latest version (7.1 at the time of writing and it picked a good GNOME Shell version in 3.4).

Having had a look at other distribution that already have GNOME Shell 3.8, I knew that a few of my extensions worked with it. The list includes Frippery Bottom Panel, Frippery Move Clock, Places Status Indicator, Removable Drive Menu, Remove Rounded Corners (not really needed with the GNOME Shell theme that I use, Elementary Luna 3.4, but I retain it anyway), Show Desktop Button, User Themes and Ignore_Request_Hide_Titlebar. Because of the changes to the backstage view, I added Frippery Applications Menu in preference to Applications Menu because I have found that to be unstable. Useful new discoveries have included Curtains Up and GNOME Shell Open Terminal while Shell Restart User Menu Entry has made a return and found a use this time around too.

There have been some extensions that were not updated to work with GNOME Shell 3.8 that I have got working. In some cases, it was as simple as updating the metadata.json file for an extension with new version numbers of 3.8 and 3.84 to the list associated with the shell version property. All extensions are to be found in the .local/share/gnome-shell/extensions location in your home directory and each has a dedicated file containing the aforementioned file.

With others, it was a matter of looking in the Looking Glass (execute lg in the box that ALT + F2 brings up on your screen to access this) and seeing what error messages were to be found in there before attempting to correct these in either the extensions’ extension.js files or whatever JavaScript (*.js) file was causing the problem. With either or both of these remedies, I managed to port the four extensions below to GNOME Shell 3.8. In fact, you can download these zip files and install them yourself to see how you get on with them.

Advanced Settings in User Menu

Antisocial Menu

Remove App Menu

Restart Shell Entry

There is a Remove Panel App Menu that works with GNOME Shell 3.8 but I found that it got rid of the Places menu instead of the panel’s App Menu so I tried porting the older extension to see if it behaved itself and it does. With these in place, I have bent Ubuntu GNOME 13.10 to my will ahead of its final release next week and that includes customising Nautilus too. Other than a new version of GNOME Shell, it looks as if it will come with less in the way of drama and a breather like that is no bad thing given that personal computing continues to remain in a state of flux these days.

Customising Nautilus (or Files) in Ubuntu GNOME 13.04

The changes made to Nautilus, otherwise known as Files, in GNOME Shell 3.6 were contentious and the response of the Linux Mint was to create their own variant called Nemo from the previous version of the application. On the Cinnamon or MATE desktop environments, the then latest version of GNOME’s file manager would have looked like a fish out of water without its application menu in the top panel on the GNOME Shell desktop. It is possible to make a few modifications that help Nautilus to look more at home on those Linux Mint desktops and I have collected them here because they are useful for GNOME Shell users too. Here they are in turn.

Adding Application Menu entries to Location Options Menu

The Location Options menu is what you get on clicking the button with the a cog icon on the right hand side of the application’s location bar. Using Gsettings, it is possible to make that menu include the sort of entries that are in the application menu in the GNOME Shell panel at the top of the screen. These include an entry for closing the while application as well as setting its preferences (or options). Running the following command does just that (if it does not work as it should, try changing the single and double quotes to those understood by a command shell):

gsettings set org.gnome.settings-daemon.plugins.xsettings overrides ‘@a{sv} {“Gtk/ShellShowsAppMenu”: <int32 0>}’

Adding in the Remove App Menu GNOME Shell extension will clean up the GNOME Shell a little by removing the application menu altogether. If for some reason you wish to restore the default behaviour, then the following command does the required reset:

gsettings set org.gnome.settings-daemon.plugins.xsettings overrides ‘@a{sv} {}’

Stopping Hiding of the Application Title Bar When Maximised

By default, GNOME Shell can hide the application title bars of GNOME applications such as Nautilus on window maximisation and this is Nautilus now works by default. Changing the behaviour so that the title bar is kept on maximised windows can be as simple as adding in the ignore_request_hide_titlebar extension. The trouble with GNOME Shell extensions is that they can stop working when a new version of GNOME Shell is used so there’s another option: editing metacity-theme-3.xml but /usr/share/themes/Adwaita/metacity-1. The file can be opened using superuser privileges using the following command:

gksudo gedit /usr/share/themes/Adwaita/metacity-1/metacity-theme-3.xml

With the file open, it is a matter of replacing instances of ‘ has_title=”false” ‘ with ‘ has_title=”true” ‘, saving it and reloading GNOME Shell. This may persevere across different versions of GNOME Shell should the extension not do so.

Disabling Recursive Search

This discovery is what led me to bundle these customisations in an entry on here in the first place. In Nemo and older versions of Nautilus, just typing with the application open would lead you down a list towards the file that you wanted. This behaviour was replaced by an automatic recursive search from GNOME Shell 3.6 where the search functionality was extended beyond the folder that was open in the file manager to its subdirectories. To change that to subsetting within the open folder or directory, you need to install a patch version of Nautilus using the following commands:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:dr3mro/personal
sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade

The first of these adds a new repository with the patched version of Nautilus while the second combination installs the patched version. With that done, it is time to issue the following command:

gsettings set org.gnome.nautilus.preferences enable-recursive-search false

That sets the new enable-recursive-search option to false to search within an open directory. It also can be found using Dconf-Editor in the following hierarchy: org > gnome > nautilus > preferences. The obsession of the GNOME project team with minimalism is robbing user of some options and this would be a good one to have by default too. Maybe the others should be treated in the same way even if you need to use Gsettings or Dconf-Editor to change them so as to avoid clutter. Having GNOME Tweak Tool able to set them all would be even better.

Dealing with the Lack of Categories in the Application Overview Screen for GNOME Shell 3.8

One thing that I like to do is peruse the installed applications on any computer system. In most cases, this is simple enough to do but there are some who appear to believe in doing away with that in favour of text box searching. It also seems that the GNOME have fallen into that trap with version 3.8 of GNOME Shell. You could add the Applications Menu extension that is formally part of the GNOME Shell Classic interface and I have done this too. However, that has been known to freeze the desktop session so I am not that big a big fan of it.

However, there is a setting that brings back those application categories in the overview screen and it can be set using dconf-editor. After opening up the application, navigate to org > gnome > shell using the tree in the left hand panel of the tool. Editing the app-folder-categories entry in the right hand panel is what adds the categories back for you. The default is [‘Utilities’, ‘Sundry’] and this needs to be changed to [‘Utilities’, ‘Games’, ‘Sundry’, ‘Office’, ‘Network’, ‘Internet’, ‘Graphics’, ‘Multimedia’, ‘System’, ‘Development’, ‘Accessories’, ‘System Settings’, ‘Other’].

Once the above has been completed, a change is noticeable in that you get a list of categories in the application overview screen and a split of application icons in the middle and categories down the right hand side. Clicking on a category brings up a new panel that contains the application within it and this can be closed again. Cycling through the categories is a process of opening and closing the different panels. The behaviour may be changed but the functionality remains and I have heard that this will be polished further in release 3.10 of GNOME Shell.

For those wanting to to exit all of this and get something like the old GNOME 2, it is possible to add the Classic Session. In Fedora 19, it’s a matter of issuing something like the following command:

sudo yum -y install gnome-classic-session

In reality, this is a case of adding a number of extensions and changing the panel colour from black to grey but it works without needing the category tweak that I described above. The Application Menu extension does need more stability hardening before I’d trust it completely though. There’s no point having a nicer interface if it’s going to freeze up on you too often.

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.