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.

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 look at Windows 8.1

Last week, Microsoft released a preview of Windows 8.1 and some hailed the return of the Start button but the reality is not as simple as that. Being a Linux user, I am left wondering if ideas have been borrowed from GNOME Shell instead of putting back the Start Menu like it was in Windows 7. What we have got is a smoothing of the interface that is there for those who like to tweak settings and not available be default. GNOME Shell has been controversial too so borrowing from it is not an uncontentious move even if there are people like me who are at home in that kind of interface.

What you get now is more configuration options to go with the new Start button. Right clicking on the latter does get you a menu but this is no Start Menu like we had before. Instead, we get a settings menu with a “Shut down” entry. That’s better than before, which might be saying something about what was done in Windows 8, and it produces a sub-menu with options of shutting down or restarting your PC as well as putting it to sleep. Otherwise, it is place for accessing system configuration items and not your more usual software, not a bad thing but it’s best to be clear about these things. Holding down the Windows key and pressing X will pop up the same menu if you prefer keyboard shortcuts and I have a soft spot for them too.

New Windows 8.1 Options

The real power is to be discovered when you right click on the task bar and select the Properties entry from the pop-up menu. Within the dialogue box box that appears, there is the Navigation tab that contains a whole plethora of interesting options. Corner navigation can be scaled back to remove the options of switching between applications at the upper left corner or getting the charms menu from the upper right corner. Things are interesting in the Start Screen section. This where you tell Windows to boot to the desktop instead of the Start Screen and adjust what the Start button gives you. For instance, you can make it use your desktop background and display the Start Screen Apps View. Both of these make the new Start interface less intrusive and make the Apps View feel not unlike the way GNOME Shell overlays your screen when you hit the Activities button or hover over the upper left corner of the desktop.

It all seems rather more like a series of little concessions and not the restoration that some (many?) would prefer. Classic Shell still works for all those seeking an actual Start Menu and even replaces the restored Microsoft Start button too. So, if the new improvements aren’t enough for you, you still can take matters into your own hands until you start to take advantage of what’s new in 8.1.

Apart from the refusal to give us back a Windows 7 style desktop experience, we now have a touchscreen keyboard button added to the taskbar.So far, it always appears there even when I try turning it off. For me, that’s a bug and it’s something that I’d like to see fixed before the final release.

All in all, Windows 8.1 feels more polished than Windows 8 was and will be a free update when the production version is released. My explorations have taken place within a separate VMware virtual machine because updating a Windows 8 installation to the 8.1 preview is forcing a complete re-installation on yourself later on. There are talks about Windows 9 now but I am left wondering if going for point releases like 8.2, 8.3, etc. might be a better strategy for Microsoft. It still looks as if Windows 8 could do with continual polishing before it gets more acceptable to users. 8.1 is a step forward and more like it may be needed yet.

Piggybacking an Android Wi-Fi device off your Windows PC’s internet connection

One of the disadvantages of my Google/Asus Nexus 7 is that it needs a Wi-Fi connection to use. Most of the time this is not a problem since I also have a Huawei mobile WiFi hub from T-Mobile and this seems to work just about anywhere in the U.K. Away from the U.K. though, it won’t work because roaming is not switched on for it and that may be no bad thing with the fees that could introduce. My HTC Desire S could deputise but I need to watch costs with that too.

There’s also the factor of download caps and those apply both to the Huawei and to the HTC. Recently, I added Anquet‘s Outdoor Map Navigator (OMN) to my Nexus 7 through the Google Play store for a fee of £7 and that allows access to any walking maps that I have bought from Anquet. However, those are large downloads so the caps start to come into play. Frugality would help but I began to look at other possibilities that make use of a laptop’s Wi-Fi functionality.

Looking on the web, I found two options for this that work on Windows 7 (8 should be OK too): Connectify Hotspot and Virtual Router Manager. The first of these is commercial software but there is a Lite edition for those wanting to try it out; that it is not a time limited demo is not something that I can confirm though that did not seem to be the case since it looked as if only features were missing from it that you’d get if you paid for the Pro variant. The second option is an open source one and is free of charge apart from an invitation to donate to the project.

Though online tutorials show the usage of either of these to be straightforward, my experiences were not all that positive at the outset. In fact, there was something that I needed to do and that is why this post has come to exist at all. That happened even after the restart that Conectify Hotspot needed as part of its installation; it runs as a system service so that’s why the restart was needed. In fact, it was Virtual Router Manager that told me what the issue was and it needed no reboot. Neither did it cause network disconnection of a laptop like the Connectify offering did on me and that was the cause of its ejection from that system; limitations in favour of its paid addition aside, it may have the snazzier interface but I’ll take effective simplicity any day.

Using Virtual Router Manager turns out to be simple enough. It needs a network name (also known as an SSID), a password to restrict who accesses the network and the internet connection to be shared. In my case, the was Local Area Connection on the drop down list. With all the required information entered,  I was ready to start the router using the Start Network Router button. The text on this changes to Stop Network Router when the hub is operational or at least it should have done for me on the first time that I ran it. What I got instead was the following message:

The group or resource is not in the correct state to perform the requested operation.

The above may not say all that much but it becomes more than ample information if you enter it into the likes of Google. Behind the scenes, Virtual Router Manager is using native Windows functionality is create a WiFi hub from a PC and it appears to be the Microsoft Virtual Wi-Fi Miniport Adapter from what I have seen. When I tried setting up an adhoc Wi-Fi network from a laptop to the Nexus 7 using Windows’ own network set up capability via its Control Panel, it didn’t do what I needed so there might be something that third party software can do. So, the interesting thing about the solution to my Virtual Router Manager problem was that it needed me to delve into the innards of Windows a little.

Firstly, there’s running Command Prompt (All Programs > Accessories) from the Start Menu with Administrator privileges. It helps here if the account with which you log into Windows is in the Administrators group since all you have  to do then is right click on the Start Menu entry and choose Run as administrator entry in the pop-up context menu. With a command line window now open, you then need to issue the following command:

netsh wlan set hostednetwork mode=allow ssid=[network name] key=[password] keyUsage=persistent

When that had done its thing, Virtual Router Manager worked without a hitch though it did turn itself after a while and that may be no bad thing from the security standpoint. On the Android side, it was a matter of going in Settings > Wi-Fi and choose the new network that have been creating on the laptop. This sort of thing may apply to other types of tablet (Dare I mention iPads?) so you could connect anything to the hub without needing to do any more on the Windows side.

For those wanting to know what’s going on behind the scenes on Windows, there’s a useful tutorial on Instructables that shows what third party software is saving you from having to do. Even if I never go down the more DIY route, I probably have saved myself having to buy a mobile Wi-Fi hub for any trips to Éire. For now, the Irish 3G dongle that I already have should be enough.

Adding a Start Menu to Windows 8

For all the world, it looks like Microsoft has mined a concept from a not often recalled series of Windows: 3.x. Then, we had a Program Manager for starting all our applications with no sign of a Start Menu. That came with Windows 95 and I cannot anyone mourning the burying of the Program Manager interface either. It was there in Windows 95 if you knew where to look and I do remember starting an instance, possibly out of curiosity.

Every Windows user seems to have taken to the Start Menu regardless of how big they grow when you install a lot of software on your machine. It didn’t matter that Windows NT got it later than Windows 9x ones either; NT 3.51 has the Program Manager too and it was NT 4 that got the then new interface that has been developed and progressed in no less than four subsequent versions of Windows (2000, XP, Vista & 7). Maybe it was because computing was the preserve of fewer folk that the interchange brought little if any sign of a backlash. The zeitgeist of the age reflected the newness of desktop computing and its freshness probably brought an extra level of openness too.

Things are different now, though. You only have to hear of the complaints about changes to Linux desktop environments to realise how attached folk become to certain computer interfaces. Ironically, personal computing has just got exciting again after a fairly stale decade of stasis. Mobile computing devices are aplenty and it no longer is a matter of using a stationary desktop PC or laptop and those brought their own excitement in the 1990’s. In fact, reading a title like Computer Shopper reminds me of how things once were with its still sticking with PC reviews while others are not concentrating on them as much. Of course, the other gadgets get reviewed too so it is not stuck in any rut. Still, it is good to see the desktop PC getting a look in in an age when there is so much competition, especially from phones and tablets.

In this maelstrom, Microsoft has decided to do something dramatic with Windows 8. It has resurrected the Program Manager paradigm in the form of the Start screen and excised the Start Menu from the desktop altogether. For touch screen computing interfaces such as tablets, you can see the sense of this but it’s going to come as a major surprise to many. Removing what lies behind how many people interact with a PC is risky and you have to wonder how it’s going to work out for all concerned.

What reminded me of this was a piece on CNET by Mary Jo Foley. Interestingly, software is turning up that returns the Start Menu (or Button) to Windows 8. One of these is Classic Shell and I decided to give it a go on a Windows 8 Enterprise evaluation instance that I have. Installation is like any Windows program and I limited the options to the menu and updater. At the end of the operation, a button with a shell icon appeared on the desktop’s taskbar. You can make the resultant menu appear like that of Windows XP or Windows 7 if you want. There are other settings like what the Windows key does and what happens when you click on the button with a mouse. By default, both open the new Start Menu and holding down the Shift key when doing either brings up the Start screen. This is customisable so you can have things the other way around if you so desire. Another setting is to switch from the Start screen to the desktop after you log into Windows 8 (you may also have it log in for you automatically but it’s something that I believe anyone should be doing). The Start screen does flash up but things move along quickly; maybe having not appear at all would be better for many.

Classic Shell is free of charge and worked well for me apart from that small rough edge noted above. It also is open source and looks well maintained too. For that reason, it appeals to me more that Stardock’s Start8 (currently in beta release at the time of writing) or Pokki for Windows 8, which really is an App Store that adds a Start Menu. If you encounter Windows 8 on a new computer, then they might be worth trying should you want a Start Menu back. Being an open-minded type, I could get along with the standard Windows 8 interface but it’s always good to have choices too. Most of us want to own our computing experience, it seems, so these tools could have their uses for Windows 8 users.