Gnome 3 – a review

by Neil Rickert

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.


25 Responses to “Gnome 3 – a review”

  1. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for taking the time to share your experience. I myself have never been much of a Gnome fan to start off, principally for the same reasons as you have just mentioned.
    Ordinary configuration options being either absent or very ordinary, screen real estate use and the lack of a quick yet intuitive user interface to name but a few issues I had with it… (and applications that are just not in the same class to me in general as that of KDE)
    However, in my quest to always see/understand a different opinion (and not necessarily troll the Microsofts etc in life)… I have always found myself trying to play with as many diverse technologies as possible.

    With that in mind, and the effort that Shuttleworth with Unbuntu has put into Gnome… do you think now that they (and us as the users) may have been better off supporting KDE rather than GNome; and keeping on that – have you tried Unity – and what do you think of it.

    I say this in the light that, after seeing GNome 3… their changes are so radical that it is not a case of subtle change and expand anymore… and being something that you get used to and just live with. It seems so radically different in that (A) GNome, unless they hit the sweetspot for a much larger audience than I expect – they might be loosing users for life and (B) how do guys like GNome, if needed, go ‘back’ after something like this.



  2. As best I can tell, Gnome 3 is aimed at mobile devices (netbooks, iphones, etc).

    When I first used gnome, around 5 years ago, the difference between gnome and KDE didn’t seem that great. However, as I upgraded to newer versions, it seemed increasing harder to configure gnome the way I wanted it. Evidently, the gnome developers have a different vision of computing than I have, and they want to pressure me to accept their vision. And their vision seems to be in the direction of more glitz.

    The KDE developers seem to be oriented more toward usability and choice.

    As for Ubuntu efforts – I’m no real judge of that. I’ve played with ubuntu, but it has never been my main choice. They have aimed it at the people who are transitioning from Windows into linux. And I suppose there’s some of that in gnome, particularly gnome 3.

    Will current gnome users be turned off by gnome 3? Some will, and some won’t. For those who don’t like gnome 3, the easiest path is probably to switch to XFCE or KDE.


  3. Just got around to trying to do some real work with Gnome 3 — and for the most part it got in the way of things. Not being able to have two Xterm sessions at the same time basically ties my hands — and that’s just one major issue. I really want to like Gnome 3 — but man, it’s getting on my nerves right now.


    • You actually can have two xterms.

      If you click on the xterm icon, that opens one xterm. If you click on it again, that just selects the already open xterm. However, if you middle-click (with mouse wheel) on the xterm icon, that opens a second xterm. Unfortunately, it also creates a new workspace for the new xterm, so you only see one at a time.

      If you now go to the second xterm, right click on the window header, and select “move to workspace up” you can then have them on the same workspace. But, unfortunately, you only see one at a time. Gnome 3 seems to think that there should be one thing at the center of your attention.

      There’s another option. In that first xterm window, you can type the command:
      xterm &
      and then you will have two xterms visible at the same time.

      I agree that gnome 3 seems to get in the way. But, if it were forced on me, I think I could find ways of using it satisfactorily. Otherwise, I prefer to switch to KDE or XFCE.


  4. There are easier ways to deal with Gnome 3. It’s more keyboard-driven than it would seem from first glance.

    The “Activities” corner of the screen really can be safely ignored. Just hit the “Super” (or “Windows” button, depending on your keyboard) and start typing the application’s name. It’s the same functionality as Gnome Do, Kupfer, Krunner, or any other keyboard launchers.


  5. Thank you very much for the review.
    I can be very short, if this is how Gnome is adapting to small screens I think I switch to KDE or Xfce for instance. Problem is I’m not over-happy with KDE either.
    I like to do the things with a normal desktop, normal Gnome panels (mostly tree), lists of applets and as much as possible with one or two clicks on icons on the desktop or in the panels. The menu’s I used for searching, edit and placing icons on the desktop. Automatic start of application can be a must.
    I did try Fedora. And I was very sad. Gnome3 is by no means sufficient yet. I go for the ‘fallback mode’ as long as it will exist.
    I don’t like ‘the force’.


  6. I don’t think the developers can completely eliminate fallback mode. And there’s always the possibility that they will decide to enhance it, and perhaps call it “desktop” or “classic” mode.


  7. Well they certainly can, but the real question is whether or not they should. Personally I think they should not.

    It seems the current issues with GNOME 3 point to what I would call a philosophical flaw on the part of the design team. Even though the product is open source and GNOME is a solution fulfilled by thousands of man-hours of very much appreciated contribution, it is still a PRODUCT and should thus follow the rules of good product design.

    One of the general rulse of good software product design is that you don’t deprecate features. You may migrate them but never deprecate them. The GNOME team has turned an apple into orange… but the orange is much smaller than the apple it came from and it tastes funny.

    If you want to lock the panels to keep icons outside of the panels thats not so bad because there is a workaround for placing them on the desktop, but the panels should have the option of being auto hidden. Precious screen real estate gets eaten by these panels, and on a netbook, for example, sometimes important features of the window are completely inaccessible.


    • Thanks for the comments.

      The inability to auto-hide panels was one of the things that I didn’t like, and you have explained the reason well. However, it is hard to tell whether that’s temporary because they haven’t yet gotten around to coding an auto-hide feature.


  8. I really like Gnome 3. I tried the unity desktop, and I found if very cumbersome, and the apps. panel was lacking to me.

    When Fedora 15 was released with Gnome 3 I installed it and after about 6 hours and a little googling I found that using it is pretty quick. If you have a terminal open, you just right click it and select open new terminal. Using the windows button or simply putting your mouse in the right hand corner opens the “applications window”. You can add favorites to the “applications toolbar” Moving your mouse to the bottom right hand corner shows running many running apps that can be shutdown, opened just like a traditional panel. It is just pre-hidden. I have found that I don’t click nearly as much with it, and I like it.

    It is not as menu driven, and besides the loss of desktop links I think it is actually faster for me. Sure there was a learning curve, but it was a fun curve to explore.


    • If you have a terminal open, you just right click it and select open new terminal.

      I tried that with xterm, which I prefer over gnome-terminal, but it didn’t work. So I tried right clicking on the xterm icon in the menus (actually in my favorites). And that did have an option to open a new instance.

      So now I have: click on the icon, and it selects the current one; middle click and it opens a new one in a new workspace; right click and I can open a second one in the same workspace.

      That’s getting better.

      I’m pretty sure that I could get used to gnome3 rather quickly if I were using it every day. Actually, I’m pretty adaptable to a variety of desktops. But KDE4 has one killer feature that makes me prefer it – I can set it (on my laptop) to automatically disable the touchpad if a usb or bluetooth mouse is connected.


  9. There was one other thing that annoyed me about the Gnome 3 desktop changes. The “Shutdown” ability is hidden by default. If you click on the system menu and then press “Alt,” the “Suspend” item becomes “Shutdown.”

    Overall, I like the Gnome 3 changes. There are fewer mouse clicks involved in what I do and it minimizes distractions.


    • I have seen a number of people complaining about that.

      It’s not a big deal to use the Alt key. But, until you have heard about it, you might not guess that. The designers seem to be emphasizing a glitzy appearance over functionality.

      I am currently testing an early pre-release version of opensuse-12.1 (final release is planned for November). Gnome 2 is gone, with gnome 3 as the only gnome version. I have that and KDE installed. Gnome 3 is still looking about the same as the earlier version, though perhaps a bit better organized.


  10. Where my applications goes after minimize? If all changes from one to another application (several hundreds per day) needs push three controls and screen must blink, loop, rotate, flash and something more, my head is going to exploit.


    • I’m not sure whether I ever tried that. I’ll experiment when I have time later today.

      Typically, when you open a new application, it opens in a new virtual desktop. So there isn’t much need to minimize. You might try using CTRL-ALT-UpArrow and CTRL-ALT-DownArrow to move through the virtual desktops, and see if you can find that missing window.


  11. Minimized programs go to your left sidebar and are still accessible via alt+tab. It takes some getting used to but for the most part I like it. The lack of minimized (and tray) icons to flash at me allows more attention for the code I am writing.


    • I logged into gnome 3 to check, and indeed a minimized windows shows up in the favorites bar on the left. I notice that there is no minimize button, so I think the gnome developers would prefer that you don’t use minimize. But you can still right click on the top margin and minimize that way.

      I no longer have gnome 3.0 installed, though I could boot from the live CD. I checked with opensuse 12.1 rc2, which is using gnome 3.2. Maybe I will soon have to update this review to cover the newer release. If I do, I will post the update to my newer blog, which I am using for computer and related posts.


  12. We could explain to our clients and users that they must remember to push ALT key to see the shutdown menu entry. We could explain where is the minimize option or restore the buttons. We could explain them what is and where are the virtual desktops. But it is impossible to explain them, in Gnome3, how to open two folders or applications and copy&paste or drag from one to the other. Always, the second application is not in the screen, hidden, closed, … . They can not remember ALT usage combined with panels and mouse. A total nightmare. Gnome3 seems more a experiment than an evolution. I’m sorry, but I must say bye to gnome.


    • It looks as if they may have solved this problem with gnome 3.2 . If I open two applications, they appear side by side so that drag and drop between them should be easier. I didn’t actually test a drag and drop.

      You might also want to watch the Mate desktop environment project. It is a fork of gnome-2, intended for those who want gnome 2 to continue. Only time will tell whether this turns out to be a successful fork.


  13. There are configuration tweaks that you can set to give you back “Shutdown” as well as minimize/maximize buttons. The latter requires gconf-editor and I haven’t bothered with the former yet. I intend to when time permits.

    To get your window buttons back, take a look at this article:


  14. If I didn’t know any better, I would assume that Gnome 3 is an attempt on the part of Microsoft and Apple to sabotage Linux so that it never emerges as a viable desktop operating system for average folks.

    As it happens, Gnome 3 is actually an example of what happens when programmers deceive themselves into thinking that they are usability experts.

    Open source development works great when programmers create code for people like themselves. Compilers, libraries, kernels, drivers, etc, etc, etc, these all come out amazingly well because the people creating them are the people who use the them and they know exactly what it is that they want.

    But when programmers try to create products for other kinds of people, the results are generally sub-par. This is especially true when the programmers take it upon themselves to make something that they think will be “easy.” The results are what you have with Gnome 3, an atrocity that breaks all the standard desktop environment rules and attempts to replace them with a half-assed clone of a smartphone interface.

    The fundamental thing a Linux desktop environment needs to do is copy the ergonomic behavior of Windows. If it does that, and does it well, then it will be usable and people will be happy with it. Any improvements in look and feel must be made starting from that template. Violate those behaviorial rules, and people will avoid or abandon that desktop environment and find something else.

    Why? Because the ergonomic behavior of Windows is the standard way that desktop environments work, and has been for almost two decades now.

    Imagine that you were going down to buy a new car, only to discover that all of the standard controls were rearranged into a new configuration that had nothing to do with any of the other cars on the road. You are told that it is “better” and that you must “get used to it” because grand experts on car design said that you had to. Attempting to drive that car proved fruitless because not only were the changes incompatible with your training and experience with driving a car, but they simply didn’t work.

    Would you buy that car?

    One of the most wonderful things about free markets is that they punish hubris like nobody’s business.

    The Gnome 3 developers are going to learn the error of their ways as users abandon them and/or external developers begin creating code to bypass their nonsense:

    Whether they will then actually begin producing a product that people want to use is another question. If they don’t, someone else will.


    • As it happens, Gnome 3 is actually an example of what happens when programmers deceive themselves into thinking that they are usability experts.

      I doubt that is the problem. I suspect it is more a case of the programmers thinking about some sort of ideal, and designing Gnome 3 according to that ideal.

      The thing with open source software, is that the programmers have their own motivations and build to those motivations. If what the programmers want doesn’t suit me, then I probably won’t want their software. On the other hand, and again an aspect of open source, is that if you don’t like one choice of desktop there are others that you can try. Or you can do as the cinnamon developers are doing, and add “enhancements” to Gnome 3 to make it more to your liking.

      Some people seem to really love Gnome 3. Others don’t like it at all. It probably depends on how one uses the computer.



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