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.

A little look at Debian 7.0

Having a virtual machine with Debian 6 on there, I was interested to hear that Debian 7.0 is out. In another VM, I decided to give it a go. Installing it on there using the Net Install CD image took a little while but proved fairly standard with my choice of the GUI-based option. GNOME was the desktop environment with which I went and all started up without any real fuss after the installation was complete; it even disconnnected the CD image from the VM before rebooting, a common failing in many Linux operating installations that lands into the installation cycle again unless you kill the virtual machine.

Though the GNOME desktop looked familiar, a certain amount of conservatism reigned too since the version was 3.4.2. That was no bad thing since raiding the GNOME Extension site for a set of mature extensions was made all the more easy. In fact, a certain number of these was included in the standard installation anyway and the omission of a power off entry on the user menu was corrected as a matter of course without needing any intervention from this user. Adding to what already was there made for a more friendly desktop experience in a short period of time.

Debian’s variant of Firefox , Iceweasel, is version 10 so a bit of tweaking is needed to get the latest version. LibreOffice is there now too and it’s version 3.5 rather than 4. Shotwell too is the older 0.12 and not the 0.14 that is found in the likes of Ubuntu 13.04. As it happens, GIMP is about the only software with a current version and that is 2.8; a slower release cycle may be the cause of that though. All in all, the general sense is that older versions of current software are being included for the sake of stability and that is sensible too so I am not complaining very much about this at all.

The reason for not complaining is that the very reason for having a virtual machine with Debian 6 on there is to have Zinio and Dropbox available too. Adobe’s curtailment of support for Linux means that any application needing Adobe Air may not work on a more current Linux distribution. That affects Zinio so I’ll be retaining a Debian 6 instance for a while yet unless a bout of testing reveals that a move to the newer version is possible. As for Dropbox, I am sure that I can recall why I moved it onto Debian but it’s working well on there so I am in no hurry to move it over either. There are times when slower software development cycles are better…

Changing to web fonts

While you can add Windows fonts to Linux installations, I have found that their display can be flaky to say the least. Linux Mint and Ubuntu display them as sharp as I’d like but I have struggled to get the same sort of results from Arch Linux while I am not so sure about Fedora or openSUSE either.

That has caused me to look at web fonts for my websites with Google Web Fonts doing what I need with both Open Sans and Arimo doing what I need so far. There have been others with which I have dallied, such as Droid Sans, but these are the ones on which I have settled for now. Both are in use on this website now and I added calls for them to the web page headers using the following code (lines are wrapping due to space constraints):

<link href=”http://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Open+Sans:300italic,400italic,600italic,700italic,400,300,600,700” rel=”stylesheet” type=”text/css“>
<link href=’http://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Arimo:400,400italic,700,700italic‘ rel=’stylesheet‘ type=’text/css‘>

With those lines in place, it then is a matter of updating font-family and font declarations in CSS style sheets with “Open Sans” or “Arimo” as needed while keeping alternatives defined in case the Google font service goes down for whatever reason. A look at a development release of the WordPress Twenty Twelve theme caused me to come across Open Sans and I like it for its clean lines and Arimo, which was found by looking through the growing Google Web Fonts catalogue, is not far behind. Looking through that catalogue now causes for me a round of indecision since there is so much choice. For that reason, I think it better to be open to the recommendations of others.

Widely differing approaches

The computer on which I am writing these words is running Linux Mint with the Cinnamon desktop environment, a fork of GNOME Shell. This looks as if it is going to be the default face of GNOME 3 in the next version of Linux Mint with the MGSE dressing up of GNOME Shell looking more and more like an interim measure until something more consistent was available. Some complained that what was delivered in version 12 of the distribution was a sort of greatest hits selection but I reckon that bets were being hedged by the project team.

Impressions of what’s coming

By default, you get a single panel at the bottom of your screen with everything you need in there. However, it is possible to change the layout so that the panel is at the top or there are two panels, one at the top and the other at the bottom. So far, there is no means of configuring which panel applet goes where as was the case in Linux Mint 11 and its predecessors. However, the default placements are very sensible so I have no cause for complaint at this point.

Just because you cannot place applets doesn’t mean that there is no configurability though. Cinnamon is extensible and you can change the way that time is displayed in the clock as well as enabling additional applets. It also is possible to control visual effects such as the way new application windows pop up on a screen.

GNOME 3 is there underneath all of this though there’s no sign of the application dashboard of GNOME Shell. The continually expanding number of slots in the workspace launcher is one sign as is the enabling of a hotspot at the top right hand corner by default. This brings up an overview screen showing what application windows are open in a workspace. The new Mint menu even gets the ability to search through installed applications together with the ability to browser through what what’s available.

In summary, Cinnamon already looks good though a little polish and extra configuration options wouldn’t go amiss. An example of the former is the placement of desktop numbers in the workspace switcher and I already have discussed the latter.  It does appear that the Linux Mint approach to desktop environments is taking shape with a far more conventional feel that the likes of Unity or GNOME Shell. Just as Cinnamon has become available in openSUSE, I can see it gracing LMDE too whenever Debian gets to moving over to GNOME 3 as must be inevitable now unless they take another approach such as MATE.

In comparison with revolution

While Linux Mint are choosing convention and streamlining GNOME to their own designs, it seems that Ubuntu’s Unity is getting ever more experimental as the time when Ubuntu simply evolved from one release to the next becomes an increasingly more distant memory. The latest development is the announcement that application menus could get replaced by a heads up display (HUD) instead. That would be yet another change made by what increasingly looks like a top down leadership reminiscent of what exists at Apple. While it is good to have innovation, you have to ask where users fit in all of this but Linux Mint already has gained from what has been done so far and may gain more again. Still, seeing what happens to the Ubuntu sounds like an interesting pastime though I’m not sure that I’d be depending on the default spin of this distro as my sole operating system right now. Also, changing the interface every few months wouldn’t work in a corporate environment at all so you have to wonder where Mark Shuttleworth is driving all this though Microsoft is engaging in a bit of experimentation of its own. We are living in interesting times for the computer desktop and it’s just as well that there are safe havens like Linux Mint too. Watching from afar sounds safer.