Gnome is software. It is the component of some linux and unix systems that provides a graphical desktop environment. It is one of several possible choices for a desktop GUI. Version 3 is the latest version, and some demo CD isos were recently made available for testing it.
People use computers in different ways. For some, the visual experience is all important. Others use the computer for other kinds of tasks such as logging into remote systems, editing text files, maintaining blogs, etc. If you are the “visual experience” kind of user, then this review is not for you. That’s not my cup of tea, and I am not a good judge of what makes for a good visual experience. So this review will be concerned mainly with usability for those who want a computer for tasks where there is considerable use of text.
I have been using unix and linux systems for several decades. I used fvwm on linux as a desktop environment for several years. Then I started using CDE on solaris. I experimented with KDE on my laptop. In 2006, I started using gnome with opensuse on my desktop and laptop. Although gnome had more features than I needed, it served me well until summer of 2010. That’s when I installed opensuse 11.3. I actually installed it with gnome as the primary desktop GUI, but I also installed XFCE and KDE. I experimented with XFCE, and I rather liked that. Then I switched to gnome, because XFCE had only weak support for WiFi network connections, and I wanted to use the same GUI on my laptop as on my desktop computer. I didn’t like the way that gnome had changed. It was still usable, but it was harder to do things than it had been. That was when I decided to go with KDE.
So I have now tested and installed gnome 3. I downloaded the opensuse version of the live CD (the 32 bit version, because I had been thinking of trying it on my older laptop). But when I read about the reliance on graphic accelerators, I decided to test gnome 3 on a newer laptop and that is where I installed it. Once I found out how to do the kind of things I do, I was quickly reminded of why I had switched from gnome to KDE.
I was not much impressed. It took too many keyclicks just to open a simple xterm application, such as I might need for some of my remote logins and my editing tasks.
I then decided to try the live Gnome 3 disk on my older laptop, just to see what would happen when there is less support for fancy graphics. The live CD booted up just fine. However, as the Gnome 3 desktop loaded, a message popped up saying that it had failed to load because the computer did not have the needed graphic support. After I clicked on that popup message, it proceeded to load a “fallback” desktop. And, to my surprise, that fallback desktop is actually far more useful for me than is the full Gnome 3 graphic experience.
If you use a computer in the way that I do, and you don’t care that much about the visual experience, then I recommend that you avoid Gnome 3. If, however, you find that it is forced on you, there is an option. Click on your user login name on the top right. Select “System Settings” from the menu. Then click on the icon for “System Information”. Select “graphics” from the menu. It turns out that there is an option there to force the fallback desktop. You might find that more to your liking.
Even with that fallback environment, I am noticing the problems that persuaded me to switch to KDE. So, goodbye, Gnome. We had some good times together. But we have grown apart over the years. This final fling was fun, but there is no point in us ever trying to get together again.
Here are some specifics of what I did not like:
There is a panel at the top. I could get used to it being at the top rather than the bottom. However, I could not find any settings for the panel. In particular, I could not find a way of setting it for “auto-hide”. When browsing, I prefer to have the panel auto-hide, because that gives me more vertical space for the browser window. In fallback mode, this is worse – there is a bottom panel as well as a top panel, and I could not find a way of making either of them auto-hide.
Gnome 3 starts with an empty screen. I could not find a way of specifying some applications that startup automatically. If I start an xterm, then logout, the xterm is not remembered so does not start.
In order to start an application, say an xterm, I first click on “Activities” to the left of the panel. That exposes an icon-based menu of favorite applications (includes firefox). Two choices – “Windows” and “Applications” now appear on the screen, with “Windows” preselected. In order to open an xterm, I must click on “Applications”, which fills the screen with many icons, and a scroll bar. To the right of the scroll bar, I can now click on a selector, say “System Tools”. That gives me a smaller set of icons, and from there I can start an xterm. From there, I can actually drag the xterm icon to the favorites list to make it easier in future. However, there will always be applications that I don’t use enough to warrant moving them to the favorites menu. And finding an application from an array of icons is not anything that I want to regularly do. With fallback mode, instead of “Activities”, I see “Applications” on the left of the panel. Moving the mouse over that opens a list of submenus, and moving the mouse over a submenu gives a list of applications (by name, rather than icon). I find that far easier to use.
I could not find a way of configuring for “focus follows mouse.”
In fallback mode, there is a workspace switcher on the bottom panel. Initially, it shows only one workspace, but could easily be configured for more. In gnome 3 mode, there is a vertical workspace switcher that shows up after clicking “Activities.” It initially has only one workspace. But after opening an application (such as an xterm), there were two workspaces. It seems that a new workspace is added, as needed, so that there is always an empty workspace available. Well, that’s not bad. It is different from what I am used to, but I could easily adapt.
To test the new workspace arrangement, I opened an xterm in the top workspace. Then I switched to the lower workspace, and opened a file manager there. And I could also switch between them with the keyboard Ctrl-Alt-UpDown. While in the second workspace (with file manager), I tried to open an xterm. But, instead, that just switched me back to the first workspace. That seems crazy. While in the first workspace (the one with xterm), I tried to open a second xterm. But that merely moved the focus to the first xterm. Apparently, I am not allowed to have two xterms for logging onto two different remote systems. Likewise, apparently I cannot have two file manager windows positioned at two different directories.
I tried setting up a WiFi connection to my home network. NetworkManager is running to handle that. When I attempted to setup the connection, it requested the root password. The WiFi connection works fine. It was setup as a system connection, shared with all users. There does not seem to be a way of defining a personal connection for just one user. In fallback mode, however, I see the normal nm-applet (the gnome NetworkManager client), with all of the usual options for defining a connection. Back to gnome 3 mode, I tried connecting to a hidden network. The WiFi icon disappeared. It seems that the NetworkManager server process crashed. Presumably that’s a bug, rather than a designed feature. So now, I am not sure whether the inability to define a personal connection is a bug or a design feature.
Whether in gnome 3 mode, or fallback mode, gnome uses its own replacement for ssh-agent. And I do not like the way it works. When I login, that fake agent pretends to have all of my public keys, though it actually has none of them. It prompts for a key when I first use ssh to login to a site that uses one of the keys. However, I use ssh a lot, and I like to setup my keys at the beginning of my session, instead of waiting until I actually try to login.