A place for GNOME?

There has been a lot of doom and gloom spoken about the GNOME desktop environment and the project behind it. These days it seems to be the fashionable thing to go constantly criticising it, especially after what Linus Torvalds said. KDE went through the same sort of experience a few years ago and seems to have got far enough beyond it that some are choosing it in preference to GNOME. For a good while, it was the other way around.

Since its inception, the GNOME Shell has attracted a lot of adverse comment. However, since my first encounter, it has grown on me to the point that I add it to Ubuntu and Linux Mint and use it as my default desktop environment instead of Unity, Mate or Cinnamon. The first of these may not be so surprising because of the unique approach has been taken. The use of lenses and an application launch bar are items to which I could adapt but its the merging of application menus and title bars with the top panel of the desktop that really puts me off it. Application window buttons can be moved to the right everywhere but on this global menu so I tend to view things from afar instead of using it everyday. There just is something about the experience that won’t grow on me. Strangely, that also applies to my impressions of KDE albeit in a different; there just is something less slick about the appearance of the bottom panel, the plasmoids and other items like them.

Given that Mate and Cinnamon continue the GNOME 2 approach to things that dominated my home computing for much of the last five years since I turned to Ubuntu, my decision to use GNOME Shell in preference to either come as a surprise. It isn’t that the environments aren’t slick enough but that I have come to prefer the way that GNOME Shell handles workspaces, spawning them as you need them. If that could be an option in Cinnamon, then it might become my desktop of choice but that seems to go against the philosophy of the project even if someone adds and extension for it.

For a time, I played with going with LXDE rather than either Unity or GNOME Shell; as it happened, my first impressions of the latter weren’t so positive until I spent a day with the GNOME variant of Fedora 15. Being not dissimilar to GNOME 2 in the way that it worked was the main attraction of LXDE and my initial use of it was with Lubuntu running on a netbook; the LXDE version of Linux Mint 12 now runs on it so there hasn’t been so much change on that machine.

Sometimes, the only way to deal with change is to take a look at it to see what’s coming and to decide what you need to do about it. In the case to GNOME Shell, my day with Fedora 15 on a backup PC changed my impressions and Linux Mint 11’s GNOME 2 desktop looked a bit old-fashioned afterwards. In fact, I popped GNOME 3 on there and have been using it as my main desktop environment ever since.

In computing, there always are some who expect things to just work and be the way that they want them. The need for extra configuration is a criticism that still can be levelled at GNOME Shell. Before going with Mate and Cinnamon, Linux Mint went the same way and I wonder what be done with such an approach. Will someone else pick up that baton and do the handiwork so that users don’t have to do it? Not yet, it seems. Since no one is following the lead of Linux Mint 12, there is a need for user tweaking and I have found which ones work for me and it no longer takes so to do them either.

The first place to begin is GNOME’s Extensions website and I raid a few extensions from there every time I do an operating system installation. The Alternative Status Menu extension is among the first to get added so that I have the shutdown option again on the user menu, a common criticism of the default set up. Since I always install the GNOME Tweak Tool from the distro repositories, I add the Advanced Setting in User Menu extension to get an entry in the status menu that grants quick access. Frippery Bottom Panel comes next on the list because of its workspace switcher and application window list. Others like Frippery Move Clock, Monitor Status Indicator, Places Status Indicator, Removable Drive Menu, Remove Accessibility, Shell Restart User Menu Entry and User Themes follow in some order and make things feel more pleasing, at least to my mind.

You aren’t stuck with the default theme either and I have chosen Elementary Luna from deviantART. For adding your own themes, the above listed User Themes extension is needed. Because I want Frippery Bottom Panel to match the top panel, I tweak its stylesheet and that’s where the Restart User Menu Entry extension comes in handy, though some care is needed not to crash the desktop with constant shell restarts.

Doing the above makes GNOME Shell really amenable to me and I wouldn’t like to lose that freedom to customise. Saying that, the continued controversial changes aren’t stopping yet. Those made to the Nautilus file manager in GNOME 3.6 have caused the Linux Mint project to create Nemo, a fork of the software, and Ubuntu is sticking with the previous version for now. Taking some action yourself instead of just complaining loudly sounds a more positive approach and it too makes its own statement. Many want the GNOME project team to listen to users and the new Nautilus appears not to be what they needed to see. Could the project go on like this? Only time can answer that one.

While it appears that many have changed from GNOME to other desktop environments, I haven’t come across any numbers. A reducing user base could be one way of sending a message and it makes use of a great feature of free software: there is plenty of choice. If the next version of Nautilus isn’t to my taste, there are plenty of alternatives out there. After all, Cinnamon started on Linux Mint and has gone from there to being available for other distros too; Fedora is one example. Nemo could follow suit.

Now that GNOME’s constituent applications are seeing changes, it may be that GNOME Shell is left to mature. Computer interfaces are undergoing a lot of change at the moment and Microsoft Windows 8 is bringing its own big leap. Though controversial at the time, change can be a good thing too and us technical folk always like seeing new things come along (today saw the launch of iPhone 5 and many folk queueing up for it; Google’s Nexus 7 ran out of stock in its first weeks on the market; there are more). That could be what got me using GNOME 3 in the first place and my plan is to stick with it for a while yet.

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.

Adding workspaces to Windows

One of the nice things about working with Linux/UNIX is that you can organise your open applications so that they are open in different workspaces or virtual desktops. When I return to working on Windows, having everything open on the same desktop is something that I find less tidy. However, there is an open source application that adds virtual desktops to Windows and very useful it is too.

It is called VirtuaWin and it adds an icon to the taskbar for switching between workspaces when it is running; there might be a bit of tweaking to be done for it to stay visible all of the time though. You can have it as a startup application in the same way that you have your security software and I have been using it smoothly on both Windows XP and Windows 7 running in VirtualBox virtual machines. Insofar as I have seen it, you can have as many workspaces as you want and switching from one to another is achievable using keyboard shortcuts. Using CTRL, ALT and one of the arrow keys does it for me but you can set up your own. All in all, it’s a small download that brings a little sense of Windows desktop computing.