My Little Blog

March 16, 2011

Short Review of GNOME Shell

Filed under: Uncategorized — kmi @ 13:47

It feels a bit weird to be part of KDE land and be a bit of the conservative guy these days. We had our first Plasma Desktop release three years ago and the first fully user-targeted 4.2 release two years ago. Since then things improved on a steady but not revolutionary pace. Well, that’s not entirely true for our back-ends as I feel that eg. QML is a very revolutionary move for developers but the desktop experience from a user’s POV stayed largely the same.

As I have an open mind, I of course gave GNOME and lately GNOME Shell a try and today I upgraded my GNOME installation to 3.0 beta 2.

Startup

What I noticed immediately was the lack of a splash screen. Since I upgraded from an older release and the settings were kept, I stared at a entirely black screen for a few seconds because in the meantime I deleted the wallpaper I had selected before. I honestly didn’t know at that time what if anything went wrong. While some say progress bars are evil from a usability standpoint, I at least like it when something is moving to ensure me that nothing is hanging. With clean settings you stare at blue stripes for a while but you still can’t be 100% sure anything is loading at all. I find our smoothly fading Plasma splash screen way better.

Launching Applications

Starting applications is a bit weird. First you have to open the Activities screen (so far OK). Then you can either run them from the Dock-like bar on the left side which in my case only held Firefox and Nautilus or (and this is the weird part) switch from the current ‘Windows’ view to the ‘Applications’ view. Initially I didn’t even understand that the two Windows and Applications “buttons” are clickable. They follow no convention known to me to indicate that they are clickable instead of being mere titles of some sort.

And even if they indicated that: As the default ‘Windows’ view shows a Exposé-like view of all open windows (in the current Activity), I’d expect the ‘Applications’ view to show all running applications regardless how many windows are open. (Yeah, I know. Knowing about applications and which windows they spawn is considered geeky these days.)

Alt-F2 also works but it’s a simple command prompt. IMO the Shell crew should adopt something akin to our Runner for a future release.

Maximize and Minimize

There is quite a big fuss going on about the decision to drop Maximize and Minimize buttons by default. I don’t think it’s much of an issue. The new concept behind GNOME Shell is clear: Less window management but instead Activities management.

Switching between maximized and windowed state all the time seems so 1990s to me. These days you either have a rather high resolution screen with which running maximized windows makes no sense at all or you have a portable device like a netbook or small laptop where windows should open maximized by default anyway. Windows nevertheless can still be maximized or windowed by double-clicking the title bar or via Aero Snap-like gestures (dragging the window to the top of the screen – other Aero Snap gestures are also available).

The missing Minimize button is another story. While it’s clear that Minimize is no longer needed, provided that good activity management is in place, it currently is not.

Neither do new windows spawn in new Activities by default (which IMO would make sense given the paradigm), nor is moving windows between Activities easily accessible just as the Activity switcher is not.

Better Activity accessibility is something likely to be in line for 3.2 in fall.

The Little Things

It’s little but I fell in love with it: The way startup feedback of applications work. Here in KDE land we have the jumping cursor which I also love. In GNOME Shell a roundish progress writes the title of the application into the task bar.

One aspect I found a but weird was Firefox: For some reason under GNOME Shell placing the mouse cursor somewhere inside the Firefox window makes it completely change its appearance. In FF the cursor is back with white outline while outside of FF it has inverted colours. WTF? It can’t be Firefox’ fault because under Plasma the cursor doesn’t change to something completely different.

A rather big usability fuckup is the introduction of a new switch widget to replace checkboxes. I have the same on my touchscreen phone where they work because I have to use my thick fingers to activate options but on cursor-driven GUIs they just look clumsy.

The “Is that a clickable button?” question also hit me when fiddling in GNOME Control Center. The “Back to All Settings” button doesn’t look like a button at all.

The title bars of windows are a bit too big. I don’t mind them to be bigger than before (after all the average screen resolution increased) but in 3.0 it’s a bit too much.

Conclusion

The most important question is: Is it good? And yes, it is. There are quirks here and there but it’s just a dot-0 release. In time they’ll be ironed out. I’m sure.

Is GNOME Shell something to imitate for Plasma? No. Like often there is no objectively right way to approach users. There are a few concepts that can be adapted however. The application startup notification may be worth trying out adopting in an alternative task bar Plasma widget but my guess it that it won’t look good in a cramped task bar.

Shell’s Acitvity approach is IMO also no something that works well with the existing Plasma Desktop but I think something along Shell’s lines would work well for Plasma Netbook and Plasma Mobile.

Will I switch? No, definitely not. GNOME Shell is good but from my point of view it’s also fundamentally flawed.

  1. Shell is a plugin to the Mutter window manager. Crashing the window manager means crashing everything. While typing this review I switched back and forth from my other session and at some point I had just a back screen with a mouse cursor and locked input – meaning I couldn’t even switch back to my main session running Plasma. I had to forcefully turn off my PC (luckily Blogilo saves automatically every few minutes).
    Not only that but being a window manager plugin also means I can’t choose to use a different WM with Shell. KWin allows me to on the fly turn off compositing. It’s nice because my GPU is too old to handle compositing and GPU-accelerated HD video decoding at the same time. Mutter does not and KWin can’t be used with Shell.
  2. It’s still GNOME. By default GNOME shows only a handful of options in GUIs. GNOME has many hidden settings but it’s my opinion that settings should be organized well instead of being hidden. While it’s true that our own past releases tended to have options simply thrown together, we changed our approach since 4.0 and the results are great, usable, configurable but not crippled applications like Gwenview, Dolphin, Marble, etc.
    In GNOME 3.0 I couldn’t even find a way to change Shell, Mutter, and GTK themes. Maybe I am missing some pref pane package but so far it looks like everything moved into hidden settings.

Rating: B+

17 Comments

  1. The loadup splash screen in KDE is great because I have a clear idea of when it’s ready to go and be used. A lot of weird decisions. It’ll be interesting to see what changes in 3.2

    Comment by Eric Mesa — March 16, 2011 @ 14:39

  2. Screenshots would be nice since I don’t expect to play with Gnome Shell much in the very near future, but I’d still like to know what you’re talking about.

    Comment by lefty.crupps — March 16, 2011 @ 15:09

    • I tried making some but KSnapshot is 100% incompatible with Shell. The shots are showing only some garbage.

      Comment by Markus — March 16, 2011 @ 16:20

  3. I have tried gnome 3.0 beta 1 and loved the look of the shell!
    I am really thinking about switching from KDE to Gnome. Well, it will be my 5th try to change but until now i switched back each time.

    What I like about Gnome:
    + Nice and clean looking shell: less “flicker” than KDE and more consistent
    + Less options to configure: I spent too much time to play around with KDE options and settings. Gnome forces me to use it as it is. That good!
    + Gnome application are simpler to use and less complex (Brasero, shotwell, …)
    + About some good applications
    + Brasero can print audio CD covers
    + Banshee has Amazon-MP3 support and can burn audio CDs with brasero (amarok needs a script)

    What I don’t like about Gnome:
    – Most of the gnome application do not follow the nice look of gnome: They look “old-school”!
    – Many applications are less functional than the KDE alternatives like Digikam, Kate, Amarok
    – About some applications that I don’t like
    – Evolution is ugly, especially the adressbook
    – Shotwell can not edit photos and write the changes to the disc (rotation etc.)
    – F-Spot is not an option!

    Comment by Bert Speckels — March 16, 2011 @ 15:28

    • Just use the applications that work better for you, no matter which desktop environment you use.
      I, for example, use GNOME’s NetworkManager Applet instead of the Plasma applet because the GNOME one works better with VPNs.

      I used Brasero for a while but it’s impossible to set the used file system manually. In almost any case UDF is the best option (even for CDs because longer file names are allowed). In K3b that’s possible.

      Comment by Markus — March 16, 2011 @ 16:25

      • It feels that nm-applet is at some things better than knetworkmanager. Like configuring a VPN and Ad-Hoc network. Or to choose what network is going to be connected (no need to use “Show More” button).

        Brasero is not so easy as K3b, as you can set K3b to be just very simple burn application without any menus or toolbars. Just with drag’n’drop and you can burn. Even burning the music CD is easy, as user can just drag’n’drop music from amarok to it.

        Comment by Fri13 — March 16, 2011 @ 18:37

    • What’s more consistent in gnome? KDE applications follow some guidelines (settings are in the same place etc.), so they look nearly the same and fit quite nice to overall environment. Gnome’s also inconsistent from programming side – gnome uses a huge mix of many languages (and this makes it bloated) unlike KDE which uses mainly Qt.

      Comment by Pawlo — March 16, 2011 @ 18:10

  4. @ lefty.crupps:

    you said you like that gnome has no way to change options and then complain about missing functionality? thats a contradiction in itself. More features mean more options, no way to avoid that.

    Comment by Rasmus Steinke — March 16, 2011 @ 15:45

    • No. Functionality does not necessarily mean more options.

      Comment by clg — March 16, 2011 @ 18:42

  5. I was talking about gnome applications and about not the gnome desktop/shell when complaining about missing functionality.

    And by the way: Features must not increase the amount of configuration options … I think what you mean is the contradiction of features richness and simplicity.

    Comment by Bert Speckels — March 16, 2011 @ 15:52

  6. “Alt-F2 also works but it’s a simple command prompt. IMO the Shell crew should adopt something akin to our Runner for a future release.”

    Try just going to the overview and typing, and you’ll see what happens.

    “Neither do new windows spawn in new Activities by default (which IMO would make sense given the paradigm), nor is moving windows between Activities easily accessible just as the Activity switcher is not.”

    I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to as ‘Activities’ here – workspaces? If so, there’s a workspace switcher at the right hand side of the overview, and you can drag and drop apps between workspaces using that. BTW, minimize *functionality* is not gone, only the button. You can right-click the window title or use alt-f9 to minimize.

    “A rather big usability fuckup is the introduction of a new switch widget to replace checkboxes. I have the same on my touchscreen phone where they work because I have to use my thick fingers to activate options but on cursor-driven GUIs they just look clumsy.”

    Note that GNOME 3 is not necessarily a ‘cursor driven UI’; it has been designed for tablet use cases as well, AIUI. Having said that, there’s a blog post about excessive use of the new switch widget (it’s not really intended to replace checkboxes, but to complement them) – http://jeff.ecchi.ca/blog/2011/03/13/on-gtkswitch/ – which has gained quite a bit of momentum, it looks like the use of the widget will be clarified and restricted.

    “Not only that but being a window manager plugin also means I can’t choose to use a different WM with Shell. KWin allows me to on the fly turn off compositing. It’s nice because my GPU is too old to handle compositing and GPU-accelerated HD video decoding at the same time. Mutter does not and KWin can’t be used with Shell.”

    In recent Shell builds there’s an option in gnome-control-center to force use of the ‘fallback’ mode, which uses metacity / gnome-panel.

    “The title bars of windows are a bit too big. I don’t mind them to be bigger than before (after all the average screen resolution increased) but in 3.0 it’s a bit too much.”

    Some people thought this at first then realized it just looked that way to them because, in active windows, the window title and menu bar are (intentionally) the same color, making them look like one big block. If you just look at the size of the window title itself, it’s not very different from GNOME 2. You can also make it smaller by reducing the size of the window title font, if you like.

    Comment by Adam Williamson — March 16, 2011 @ 17:20

    • “Try just going to the overview and typing, and you’ll see what happens.”

      I did that after second time and I found it nice, but as it needs to open the activities first, it some way loose it functionality, especially because results are all shown at one big area.

      So far I have found even the zeitgeist better than shell version. But hey… 3.0 release! So maybe after a year (I dont trust so much as we are talking about GNOME here).

      “I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to as ‘Activities’ here – workspaces? If so, there’s a workspace switcher at the right hand side of the overview, and you can drag and drop apps between workspaces using that.”

      I find the activities (workspaces?) good and bad. The good thing is that it is very easy to start and stop a new activity and change between them from right side of the screen. But actually managing applications on them is hard. I find same hard use from activities on KDE SC. It just does not feel right either of them.

      “BTW, minimize *functionality* is not gone, only the button. You can right-click the window title or use alt-f9 to minimize.”

      I think the minimize button has always been bad on window decoration. I have removed all the buttons from KWin since KDE SC 4.6 release, and since 4.2 release I have used only “Close” button on right corner.
      As it is more natural to minimize and un-minimize window from taskbar as there it goes when it gets minimized and from there it need to summon if wanted back. So click taskbar to minimize window and show it. Very intuitive in the end.
      For Maximizing I use screen edges, to get fullscreen, half-screen or quarter-screen. Very intuitive and natural way (better than Aero snapping on Windows 7).
      And since KDE SC 4.6 release, they added the “Close” function to window decoration when double clicking it. So now I can close window easily double clicking decoration or middle clicking it on taskbar.

      So I can have full control on 24-30″ screens with great windowmanager but on netbooks I can get automatic (full screens every application) as it should be without need to manage windows myself. And on touchscreens I can enjoy about big buttons everywhere if wanted.

      “Note that GNOME 3 is not necessarily a ‘cursor driven UI’; it has been designed for tablet use cases as well, AIUI.”

      Neither has KDE SC since early KDE 3.x series. It actually have supported very well touch screens, not just by default. It has needed some configuration tweaking (window decoration button sizes, kicker (now plasma) resizing and KWin rules configuring.
      But in the end, touchscreen use is just very pleasant with it. Especially when it is possible to hide drop-down menus from application with Ctrl+M and set toolbar icons bigger (32-64px), choose what buttons on toolbar has text side of them and what are just icons and move toolbars to wanted position on application (KDE SC 4.x) and so on.

      The current actual problem with KDE SC is that there is no easy way to have KWin effects binded to touchscreens. Like having a “Present window” or “Desktop Grid” as buttons on panel. User need to make a own shortcuts to them using a D-Bus and then add them to panel. But then they are there as nicely as the virtual keyboard is so it really is great when application windows are at fullscreen.

      Touchscreen use with “Present window” and “Desktop Grid” effects is just amazing. It really is easy to move windows between virtual desktops to organize them to own “activities” (on that point of view, I feel the virtual desktops are currently better activities than what activities are really), close and open windows trough it. Were screen small or huge…

      GNOME 2.x that was impossible but with Shell it seems to get better direction but not just right there.

      “In recent Shell builds there’s an option in gnome-control-center to force use of the ‘fallback’ mode, which uses metacity / gnome-panel.”

      Well, hopefully that gets changed as I have read it is that “fallback” mode throws user totally back to GNOME 2.x series and there is no way to have a non-compositing version of the Shell for slower computers or change just the window manager (without adding panels or anything else). Modularity is very nice thing and GNOME has always feeled to lack it😦 “It is my way or a high way”…

      “You can also make it smaller by reducing the size of the window title font, if you like.”

      I like the themes where window decoration blends with the menubar and toolbar. And I really liked the feature for KDE SC 4.6 that you can drag or resize window from any empty space. It is very great feature for touch screens.

      GNOME developers need to understand that next 1-2 years they need to be prepared to make big changed to whole shell functionality to get it correct. But I am afraid that they will again bury their heads to sand and force every user to follow their mantra as it would be the only the best one. Those who do not know what they want or what they need and kneels under other influence, the GNOME will be great. (It is always easy to do what others say than think what really would be needed to do).

      Comment by Fri13 — March 16, 2011 @ 19:00

    • Try just going to the overview and typing, and you’ll see what happens.

      I saw what happens but that doesn’t change my opinion, that Alt-F2 should behave more KRunner-like.😉

      I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to as ‘Activities’ here – workspaces?

      I guess they are the same. In my GS installation those are referred to as Activities which is why I chose the phrase.

      there’s a workspace switcher at the right hand side of the overview, and you can drag and drop apps between workspaces using that.

      I know. I still think that using the new paradigm, new windows should spawn in new Activities/workspaces by default and that the switcher bar should be easier accessible. In its current state I find it neither very discoverable, nor easy to reach.

      minimize *functionality* is not gone, only the button. You can right-click the window title or use alt-f9 to minimize.

      I know. The button is gone to encourage the use of the new paradigm which is a reasonable approach IMO.

      Note that GNOME 3 is not necessarily a ‘cursor driven UI’; it has been designed for tablet use cases as well

      One does not fit all. KDE isn’t developing Plasma as framework and Plasma Desktop, Plasma Netbook, and Plasma Mobile GUIs just for fun.
      While it makes sense to develop common technology, the resulting GUI should be different in certain cases.

      said that, there’s a blog post about excessive use of the new switch widget (it’s not really intended to replace checkboxes, but to complement them) – http://jeff.ecchi.ca/blog/2011/03/13/on-gtkswitch/ – which has gained quite a bit of momentum, it looks like the use of the widget will be clarified and restricted.

      I already linked to that post.

      In recent Shell builds there’s an option in gnome-control-center to force use of the ‘fallback’ mode, which uses metacity / gnome-panel.

      That doesn’t solve anything. GS shouldn’t been developed as Mutter plugin in the first place. What is gained by that approach that Plasma + KWin can’t do? Nothing.

      You can also make it smaller by reducing the size of the window title font, if you like.

      I know what I can and what I can’t but I was merely writing my opinion about the defaults. I thin the title bars are too big no matter whether GNOME 2.x had the same size or not.

      Comment by Markus — March 16, 2011 @ 23:16

    • “Note that GNOME 3 is not necessarily a ‘cursor driven UI’; it has been designed for tablet use cases as well, AIUI”

      But unfortunatelly not very well designed for tablets. I tried it as I’m still looking for something that could drive it (and no, pre-installed Windows 7 are everything but usable on it;-) – and no. For example no kinetic scrolling is no way for tablets. Plasma Netbook is not a bad UI but it’s really netbook UI. MeeGo Tablet UX feels like a winner for me (now, even it’s really pre-alpha).

      Comment by Rezza — March 17, 2011 @ 10:10

  7. You’re right about the cursors in FF. But I had the same problem since I used Gnome (2.24 or something), now I don’t have that trouble ’cause I’m using KDE😀 It’s very irresponsible that things like these doesn’t have a solution with a new major release.

    Apart of a integration between all applications to make all GNOME a consistent desktop environment (rules that developers should guide to make an application ‘GNOME’, doing just minimalistic applications is not the main matter), this is the main issue of GNOME: Their closed mind and their long-live bugs.

    Comment by Blablabla — March 16, 2011 @ 18:56

  8. I actually experienced the “firefox having a different cursor” issue while in KDE. It turned out the issue was that GTK2 had it’s own cursor set. Once I went into systemsettings and changed it to me KDE cursor everything was fine. Maybe, since GNOME 3 uses GTK3, your GTK2 settings still specify a non-matching cursor and so it isn’t really a bug or glitch, but an unfortunate consequence of needing to use two similar but different widget systems (much like the KDE3 -> KDE4 switchover).

    Comment by JoshBA — March 16, 2011 @ 21:46

    • The cursor theme should get exported as an XSetting, then things will just work.

      In GNOME, this is supposed to be handled by the gnome-settings-daemon. So when testing GNOME 3, make sure you have the cursor theme set in the GNOME control center.

      For KDE, I wrote this patch which handles the XSetting in xsettings-kde: xsettings-kde-0.12-cursor-theme.patch. I just spoke to upstream (dmorgan from Mageia) on IRC, the patch will get merged upstream.

      Comment by Kevin Kofler — March 17, 2011 @ 17:39


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