GNOME 3 in Fedora 15: A Case of Acclimatisation and Configuration

When I gave the beta version of the now finally released Fedora 15 a try, GNOME 3 left me thinking that it was even more dramatic and less desirable a change than Ubuntu’s Unity desktop interface. In fact, I was left with serious questions about its actual usability, even for someone like me. It all felt as if everything was one click further away from me and thoughts of what this could mean for anyone seriously afflicted by RSI started to surface in my mind, especially with big screens like my 24″ Iiyama being commonplace these days. Another missing item was somewhere on the desktop interface for shutting down or restarting a PC; it seemed to be case of first logging off and then shutting down from the login screen. This was yet another case of adding to the number of steps for doing something between GNOME 2 and GNOME 3 with its GNOME Shell.

After that less than positive experience with a Live CD, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d be giving the GNOME edition of Fedora 15 a wide berth with the LXDE one being chosen in its place. Another alternative approach would have been to turn off GNOME Shell altogether by forcing the fallback mode to run all the time. The way to do this is start up the System Settings application and click on the System Info icon. Once in there, click on Graphics and turn on the Forced Fallback Mode option. With that done, closing down the application, logging off and then back on again will gain you an environment not dissimilar to the GNOME 2 of Fedora 14 and its forbears.

Even after considering the above easy way to get away from and maybe even avoid the world of GNOME Shell, I still decided to give it another go to see if I could make it work in a way that was less alien to me. After looking at the handy quickstart guide, I ventured into the world of GNOME Shell extensions and very useful these have come to be too. The first of these that I added was the Alternate Status Menu and I ran the following command to do so:

yum install gnome-shell-extensions-alternative-status-menu

The result was that the “me” menu gained the ever useful “Power Off…” entry that I was seeking once I refreshed the desktop by running the command r in the command entry box produced by the ALT + F2 keyboard combination. Next up was the Place Menu and the command used to add that is:

yum install gnome-shell-extensions-place-menu

Again, refreshing the desktop as described for the Alternate Status Menu added the new menu to the (top) panel. Not having an application dock on screen all the time was the next irritation that was obliterated and it helps to get around the lack of a workspace switcher for now too. The GNOME Shell approach to virtual desktops is to have a dynamic number of workspaces with there always being one more than what you are using. It’s an interesting way of working that doesn’t perturb more pragmatic users like me but there are those accustomed to tying applications to particular workspaces aren’t so impressed by the change. The other change to workspace handling is that keyboard shortcuts have changed to CTRL-ALT-[Up Arrow] and CTRL-ALT-[Down Arrow] from CTRL-ALT-[Left Arrow] and CTRL-ALT-[Right Arrow].

To add that application dock, I issued the command below and refreshed the desktop to get it showing. Though it stops application windows becoming fully maximised on the screen, that’s not a problem with my widescreen monitor. In fact, it even helps to switch between workspaces using the keyboard because that doesn’t seem to be working when you have fully maximised windows.

yum install gnome-shell-extensions-dock

After adding the application dock, I stopped adding extensions though there are more available such as Alternate Tab Behaviour (restores the ALT-TAB behaviour of GNOME 2), Auto Move Windows, Drive Menu, Native Window Placement, Theme Selector and Window Navigator. Here are the YUM commands for each of these in turn:

yum install gnome-shell-extensions-alternate-tab
yum install gnome-shell-extensions-auto-move-windows
yum install gnome-shell-extensions-drive-menu
yum install gnome-shell-extensions-native-window-placement
yum install gnome-shell-extensions-theme-selector
yum install gnome-shell-extensions-user-theme
yum install gnome-shell-extensions-windowsNavigator

One hope that I will retain is that more of these extensions will appear over time but Ranjith Siji seems to have a good round up of what is available. Other than these, I also have added the DCONF Editor and GNOME Tweaks Tool with the latter restoring buttons for minimising and maximising windows to their title bars for me. As ever, YUM was called to add them using the following commands:

yum install dconf-editor
yum install gnome-tweaks-tool

There are other things that can be done with these but I haven’t to explore them yet. All YUM commands were run as root and the ones that I used certainly have helped me to make myself at home in what once was a very unfamiliar desktop environment for me. In fact, I am beginning to like what has be done with GNOME 3 though I have doubts as to how attractive it would be to a user coming to Linux from the world of Windows. While everything is solidly crafted, the fact that I needed to make some customisations of my own raises questions about how suitable the default GNOME set-up in Fedora is for a new user though Fedora probably isn’t intended for that user group anyway. Things get more interesting when you consider distros favouring new and less technical users, both of whom need to be served anyway.

Ubuntu has gone its own way with Unity and, having spent time with GNOME 3, I can see why they might have done that. Unity does put a lot more near at hand on the desktop than is the case with GNOME 3 where you find yourself going to the Activities window a lot, either by using your mouse or by keystrokes like the “super” (or Windows) key or ALT-F1. Even so, there are common touches like searching for an application like you would search a web page in Firefox. In retrospect, it is a pity to see the divergence when something from both camps might have helped for a better user experience. Nevertheless, I am reaching the conclusion that the Unity approach feels like a compromise and that GNOME feels that little bit more polished. Saying that, an extra extension or two put more items nearer to hand in GNOME Shell would be desirable. If I hadn’t found a haven like Linux Mint where big interface changes are going to be avoided, maybe going with the new GNOME desktop mightn’t have been a bad thing to do after all.

Exploring the mobile web

With a change of job ahead of me, I decided to make my web usage a little more mobile. The result was the purchase of a Blackberry 8520 Curve on a T-Mobile pay-as-you-go tariff to complement my existing phone. Part of the attraction was having email on the move and a little web access too. On both accounts it hasn’t though GPRS isn’t the speediest for web browsing and you get to appreciating mobile versions of websites. It’s just as well that this website that you’re reading has a mobile version.

Hooking the Blackberry up to GMail was no problem once I had paid my dues and the necessary set up was done for me; it was only then that the required option was available through the set up screens. RIM’s own web browser may be no slouch when it comes to rendering websites but I put Opera Mini in place as well for those times when the default option could be bettered and they exist too. Speaking of RIM applications, there’s one for Twitter too though I added Übertwitter for sake of greater flexibility (it can handle more than one account at a time, for example). In addition, I have instated applications for WordPress and LinkedIn too and it was then that I stopped myself spending too much time in Blackberry App World. If I was of the Facebook persuasion, I might be interested in the default offering for that as well but I have learnt to contain myself.

Of course, there are limitations to the device’s capabilities with regards to email and web on the move. Long emails still need desktop access (messages can get truncated) and mobile unfriendly websites will take an age to load and explore; a small screen means much more finger work. After all, this is a small device so the observations aren’t really surprising; it’s just that I encounter the reality of life on a small screen now. Nevertheless, useful site like those from Google and the Met Office have a mobile variant though I’d like to see the latter including its rain radar as part of the package.

Speaking of life on a smaller scale, there’s the size of the keyboard to consider too. So far, I haven’t had much practice with it but I am unsure as how some craft longer blog entries with the the tiny keys. Then, there’s the ever-present threat of arm discomfort and RSI that you have to watch. For that reason, I’ll stick with use for an hour at a time rather than going mad altogether. Navigating around the screen using the tiny trackpad is something to which I am adjusting and it works well enough too so long as you’re not looking through long web pages or emails.

To bring this piece to a close, the new gadget has been finding uses and I don’t plan on leaving it idle after paying over £150 for it. Apart from acting as an expensive calculator, it has already travelled abroad with me with roaming not being a problem; I may have failed to get it to work with hotel broadband but there was EDGE availability to keep things connected together. All in all, the device is earning its keep and teaching me a few things about mobile handheld computing with my main website in process of being made more mobile compatible with the front page and the photo gallery gaining versions for handheld devices after the same was done for the outdoors blog earlier this year (might make the design look more like the rest of the site though). Without something on which to do some real testing, that idea may not have become reality like it is. It may be no desktop substitute but that’s never to say that these devices may never get near that situation. After all, there was a time when no one could imagine the same for laptop PC’s and we all know what has happened with them.