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Gnome 3.8 review: it’s almost there

The much awaited evolutionary release of Gnome — 3.8 — arrived last week. After playing with it for a while I opine that Gnome 3.8 is much closer to what Gnome team was aiming for as the ‘next’ version of this desktop environment – the successor of the 2.x branch. It’s polished (as usual), fast, responsive and a bit more mature.

How to play with Gnome 3.8?

I was looking forward to this release but it was disappointing to see that there were no test images to play with. But since I use Arch on my main machine (along with openSUSE) I knew that I would get Gnome 3.8 before anyone else.

Just add the [unstable-gnome] repo to pacman.conf and install Gnome 3.8 (if you are already running Gnome, just upgarde it with pacman -Syu)

Gnome 3.8 Review

First impression

3.8 is an evolutionary release which brings more features and maturity to Gnome. There is quite a lot to talk about this release. The first interaction with Gnome is the Application Launcher view which can be invoked by either clicking on the top left corner or hitting the Super key. The application launcher view now also offers a tab called “Frequent” which lists the frequently used applications for quick access (well you can always add them to the favorite bar).

Gnome 3.8 Review

Secure search

Ok, so I can access applications from this launcher, but what about files and folders? Just like KDE’s Nepomuk, Gnome has made it extremely easy to index and search your files, documents (online) and contacts. By default only ‘Document’ folder is indexed, but you can easily configure which folders or partitions you want to be indexed by Gnome. It’s different from the way Ubuntu Unity handles search as it indexes all the ‘mounted’ folders by default instead of allowing users to chose the ones they want to be indexed.

In order to configure search in Gnome, visit the ‘Search’ option and select files and then hit the gear option. Now you can add the folders/partitions you want to be indexed.

It’s very important to note that running a search in Gnome won’t send your keystrokes or search terms to any company, the way Ubuntu Unity does. So this search, just like KDE, is extremely secure and respects your privacy.

Privacy in Gnome

Privacy has always been one of the main priorities of the Gnome project (as it is for KDE or any other free and open source project). With 3.8, Gnome includes some privacy and sharing settings. Though there are only four options under privacy settings as you can see above and these settings mostly deal with the display of information on the local machine and network. This, once again, contrasts with Ubuntu Unity where privacy has become a major issue and most users don’t even know how and what data is being sent to Ubuntu servers. It really makes me nervous how Ubuntu sends all my Dash search queries to Canonical servers and not only stores them but also shares with partners like Facebook. I would very much want such a feature be disabled by deafult.

Online accounts

Gnome 3.8 comes with quite a lot of new features and applications. The Online Accounts allows you to connect to cloud and social networking services such as ownCloud or Google Drive. You can very easily access data from such services and manage them from within Gnome apps.

Gnome Documents

Gnome team has been working hard on better integration with cloud storage and data syncing services like ownCloud or Google Drive. You can connect such online services with Gnome Documents and access your files easily. I was able to connect my Google Drive account with Gnome and was able to access my Google Docs from within Gnome.

One notable improvement is the ability to edit Google Docs from within the Documents app.

Gnome Clocks

3.8 brings yet another core Gnome app called ‘Clocks’. It’s more than just a clock – it has four tabs where you can set clocks from different time zones, set alarm, use it as a stopwatch and a timer.

Gnome goes classic

One of the biggest complaints of Gnome users was the lack of the good old ‘panels’. Projects like MATE and Cinnamon were created to address this demand. Gnome project listened to its user’s complaints and introduced what they call the Classic mode which offers a Gnome 2 like UI. So you can now have the good old application and places menu as well as the bottom panel. So you can now have a Gnome 2 like experience, which can be further enhanced through extensions, using the latest Gnome 3 technologies.

That brings us to the state of ‘extensions’.

State of Extensions

Extensions are like peripherals and extensions for Gnome users. These extensions make Gnome more usable (not that the default Gnome Shell can’t be used). There are few extensions I can’t live without and the most notable being the bottom panel. I installed the gnome-shell-extensions package from the gnome-unstable repository and got most of what wanted.

Once you install the gnome-shell-extensions (I don’t know if these are available only for Arch or other distros as well), you can also get the the windows list (or bottom panel) which makes it easier to see the currently running applications and switch between them. However, unlike the good old Gnome panel (or KDE’s bottom panel) there is not much you can do by right-clicking on it.

If you install the Applications extensions, you will get an enhanced ‘start menu’ (something similar to Linux Mint or KDE). It also shows the apps that you added to the favorite panel.

If you enable these two extensions, along with places, you won’t have to visit the holy left corner.

However, not everything about extensions is great. When I visit the extensions.gnome.org, the experience is still as bad as it always was. Some of the extensions that I was using with Gnome 3.6 did not show up on the page (it detected the version of Gnome I am running). I was using Cover Flow and it’s no more available for 3.8 including many from Flippery which have completely disappeared for Gnome 3.8.

You can’t be rest assured that the extensions your workflow depends on will be available for the next release of Gnome. However, from what I know post 3.8, Gnome will be handling extensions in a better way and will bring an end to this fragmentation.

Inevitable comparison with KDE

As I stated before I had been a Gnome user since the early days and was using it happily until Unity happened (I was an Ubuntu user). Then I started looking for alternatives, something that would keep my PC a computer instead of turning it into a TV set with an ATM machine like UI, and I found KDE. I have been using KDE since 2011 with openSUSE and I am quite content.

openSUSE enabled me to install Gnome along side KDE (which I think you can’t do under Ubuntu as Unity also uses Gnome so even if you try to install Gnome Shell along side Unity you won’t get the entire latest stack of Gnome and will have a mix of old and new packages, please correct me if I am wrong). So I often test Gnome to see how it is progressing. Being a KDE user, when I played with Gnome 3.8 I realized there are some areas where Gnome has an edge over KDE.

Gnome vs KDE

Both KDE and Gnome are excellent desktop environments in their own rights. While Gnome is known for offering a simple interface, KDE hold the reputation of being the most ‘powerful’ and customizable desktop environments. If you look at your PC as a ‘computer’ then KDE seems to offer the technologies you need to get the most out of your machine.


Kde offers better experience when dealing with multi-media files

However, there are certain things in KDE that I wish were as good as Gnome. Kate, unlike Gedit, doesn’t offer word count which is bad for a writer like me. Dolphin while allows me to do quite a lot of things, misses some basic yet important functions expected from a file manager. Dolphin doesn’t do a very elegant job when handling external devices like DSLR cameras or Android phones and tablets which use MTP.

When I connect my DSLR or Android devices to Gnome, Files shows the devices in the side panel and I can easily manage my data. Whereas under Dolphin my DSLR won’t appear on the side panel – it can be accessed only from the ‘device notification’ option. Accessing the Nikon DSLR from Dolphin can be excruciating at times which leaves an avid photographers like me craving for more. Same goes for other MTP devices like Android tablets and smartphones. KDE developers are doing a great job, but the way Dolphin handles these devices need to be improved.

Which one is faster?

Since I use SSDs I really can’t talk about speed any more. Both Gnome and KDE boots within a few seconds, apps open instantly and there is really not much to complain or compare.

Gnome Shell vs Unity

When Ubuntu dropped the upcoming Gnome Shell and instead created its own Unity, I actually embraced it for a whole cycle as I always want to try new things and am an early adopter.

However, Unity poses some very serious privacy risks and unless Canonical makes the online search opt-in and also give an option to run local searches without sending data to its servers, I can’t use or recommend it to users. It’s safer to use and recommend something where ‘respecting privacy’ is the default.

That said, Ubuntu (without online search) is a great operating system which is easy to use. There is a great community behind Ubuntu which has made it popular and more usable. Hundreds of independent developers and users have contributed uncountable man-hours in writing applications, packages, documentation and many other areas.

Luckily there is now a Gnome flavor of Ubuntu so users can use that version without worrying about giving their data to a company. That makes Gnome 3.8 even more important for such users as they can benefit from the base of Ubuntu with ease of use and privacy of Gnome on top.

Gnome 3.8 Image Gallery

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Conclusion

Gnome 3.8, in my opinion, is quite polished, mature and delivers what the ‘typical’ Gnome user would expect. While I still prefer KDE due to its power-packed performance and complete customization, Gnome 3.8 looks appealing. It is undoubtedly ahead of Ubuntu’s Unity when it comes to extending features, customization and most importantly respecting a user’s privacy.

Once you accept the fact that it’s no more Gnome 2.x and that’s how it is going to evolve, you will start to like Gnome. And since I can have both KDE and Gnome side-by-side on my Arch and openSUSE boxes, I can take advantage of both.

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Swapnil Bhartiya

A free software fund-a-mental-ist and Charles Bukowski fan, Swapnil also writes fiction and tries to find cracks in the paper armours of proprietary companies. Swapnil has been covering Linux and Free Software/Open Source since 2005.

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