Ubuntu and the Gnome

Ubuntu 11.10 went live on Friday. Perhaps foolishly, I hit the upgrade button without looking too closely into what had changed. Since then, what’s occupied my attention most is the changes in GNOME 3, the desktop environment.

It is, in short, so radically different from GNOME 2 that I have difficulty thinking of them as part of a progression in development. One of the things I liked so much about GNOME 2 is it followed in the footsteps of the Macintosh OS: a menu bar at the top, with everything accessible through some sensibly labeled menus, plus an intriguing new fellow, Places, which I learned to use with some facility. Toss in Docky for some action at the bottom of the screen in place of the default Windows-like panel and I was pretty happy.

But that all changed with GNOME 3’s Gnome Shell. Instead of the Application, Places and System menus, they created this odd Activities view that blends a dock-like favorites bar, window overview and searchable list of applications. In short, it’s suddenly become much more difficult to find and run an application.

In GNOME 2, I can click a menu and mouse all over its options without another click. In Gnome Shell, I click on Activities or push the mouse into the hotspot in that corner of the screen, then either choose from the Favorites bar that appears or type its name the search box to click on the resulting icon or click on Applications, then scroll down through the myriad icons, including control panels, then click on it.

In short, there’s a hell of a lot more clicking and mousing involved in running an application in this Gnome Shell. And then there are all the control panels that don’t appear in the new System Settings window that’s suddenly accessible only from the user menu way off in the right top corner. How is a new user supposed to find the control panels for those new installations that don’t fit in the Systems Settings window?

At first, trying to do anything in Gnome Shell was unspeakably frustrating. It’s all click, click, click, click, interspersed with interminable mousing. I even experimented a bit with Unity, but that was even worse, quite frankly. In the past day, I found a number of extensions that replace a lot of what I’m missing, but there are a few glaring exceptions. There’s still more clicking involved in running an application: click Application, click the subheading, then the application icon — excepting those listed in Docky, an accessory app I’m still using because it’s handy, damnit.

Perhaps the worst offender in the myriad bizzarrities of Gnome Shell is the way it handles instant messages. When an IM arrives, a slick little pop-up appears at the bottom of the screen. It disappears after a second or so. And then you have absolutely no idea there’s a new message waiting for your attention unless you think to swing the mouse over in the lower left corner hotspot to see what’s going on. That is horrendous.

It’s been enough to send me off looking for a whole replacement for GNOME. I tried KDE, but that is way too Windows-like by default. It’s sufficiently customizable that I could probably make it act like GNOME 2, but I’d go nuts in the process. Right now, I’m eying XFCE, but I’m wary. I had largely frustrating results with that environment on a Dell notebook. I’ll give it a go, though. Psychocats has a series of helpful walkthroughs of installing the various big names in desktop environments. It helped me through trying out KDE.

I’ll find something that suffices, but what bothers me about all this is the sensation of the rug being pulled out from under oneself. GNOME 2 and 3 are so radically different, that dropping 3 in an unsuspecting user’s lap and expecting them to make sense of it without an uncharacteristic abiding sense of curiosity and implacable determination is spectacularly unreasonable.

The sad part is Gnome Shell has some great new ideas. I particularly like the way that Alt-Tabbing among applications works now: Alt-Tab shows only applications. The individual windows of applications are accessible by Alt-Accenting — or whatever the key above Tab on your keyboard is. That’s a great way to cut down on the clutter of the Alt-Tab view. I love it.

But not enough to put up with the rest of the nonsense going on in Gnome Shell. Ugh.

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About Tyler

In the wilds of Vermont.
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2 Responses to Ubuntu and the Gnome

  1. Tyler says:

    A more extreme measure I’m considering is rolling back to 10.04 LTS. That distribution uses GNOME 2 and will keep being updated for a while yet.

    I don’t know if there’s an easy way to roll that far back, or if I’ll have to make a fresh install. The latter is off-putting, but if I don’t get used to XFCE — and I think I could, but I’m already missing the built-in FTP access in the Thunar file manager — then it seems like the only option available for me to be able to get an interface with which I feel comfortable.

  2. Tyler says:

    After an evening of XFCE, I’ve decided it wasn’t doing it for me. That comes down to pure aesthetics, for the most part. I prefer the way GNOME 2 looks. Thunar’s seeming inability to mount network connections as drives is a major negative as well, though.

    With all my files backed up, I’m prepared to make a fresh installation of 10.04 LTS. That’ll keep me until mid-2013. By then I hope things have settled down and someone’s done the sensible thing of making a traditional shell for the GNOME 3 environment.

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