Gnome 3.4 was released released yesterday. It brings a lot of new features and improvements, and some changes that may not be as well received. I downloaded a Live Image of Gnome 3.4 for this review, but if you are running openSUSE 12.2 Milestone 2 or Ubuntu 12.04, you will notice most of these new features.
A less known and used feature of Gnome is the ability to gain access to your online data from Google and Windows Live using Gnome Online Account tool. You can access Gmail contacts, Google docs and much more right from your Gnome desktop. All you need to do is create a Gnome Online Account and connect it to the service you want (Google or Windows Live). As far as documents are concerned you can view your Google docs locally, but can't edit them.
Windows Live Promotion?
I don't understand why Windows Live appear on the top of the list or by default when you try to add a new account? Even if we go alphabetically Facebook should come first. I don't know how many GNU/Linux users use Windows Live, but keeping Google at the bottom and Windows Live at top works like a brand recall. Someone like me who stays away from Windows was made to think of creating a Windows account. I am keen to know why Gnome developers did that.
Gnome Shell Gets Smarter
The Gnome Shell has become one stop shop for everything. Once you connect your online account to the Gnome Online Account, you can search contacts, Google Docs, apps and much more from within the Shell. It will be a nice enhancement if future version of the Shell gives the the option of searching music or movies or to restrict search to only particular content tye such as documents, images, movies or movies.
Stay Connected: Contact
I confess, I never used Gnome Contacts under Ubuntu and then I switched to KDE. When I looked at it today, I found it extremely useful. If you connected your Gmail account with Gnome Online Account you can now see all your Gmail contacts in Gnome. If you want to find a contact just search for it in Dash and it will show you the contacts. One feature which I found missing in the contact app was 'search' capability. It's not possible to search the name of the person from within the 'Contact' Window. A search option will make it even more useful.
Gnome Disk Utility Renamed
Gnome Disk Utility has also gone through massive make-overs. It has been renamed to Disks and has a completely new UI. The new design is simple and less cluttered as compared to the previous design. Now, instead of a long list of 'Peripheral Devices' all you see is Disk Drives and then a neat list of devices attached to the computer.
While it brings some new features, it also takes away some old useful features. The developer says, “... the old interface was quickly becoming a mess and it certainly wasn't very GNOME3-ish neither in the way it looks nor the simplicity you'd expect. If there is one mantra that has driven this effort, it may very well be "don't try to expose everything in a desktop user interface" and I think this is something that extends to the greater GNOME 3 effort as well.”
While the left pane which lists all device is cleaner and clutter-free, the right pane is bit cluttered and needs more polishing. There are three 'TINY' buttons to manage your devices. There is no explanation on these tools and you have to hover the mouse over these buttons to see what they do.
The buttons are so close that you can hit the wrong one by mistake and delete the entire partition. Then there is one more 'gear' on the top (against the name of the device) which gives you options to manage your device. The option to run 'SmartTest' is available only in the icon on the top and not the one at the bottom. What is the need of having two buttons which do more or less the same thing? Why all the options are not available with both buttons?
I don't think this UI gels with the new design paradigm that Gnome is following. If Gnome is targeting devices with touch-interface, those tiny buttons can't be pressed from fat fingers. Developers need some help from designers to make those buttons bigger and have some info with them that what each button does. Either way there is a lot of 'white' space below the 'bar' of the connected hard-drive which can be used properly. Also, I don't see the need of two buttons. Either remove a button or give the same options with both buttons. Apart from this minor design glitch I think Disks is a nice evolution. It is simple and easy to use. Nice job.
Nautilus also gets minor upgrade
Now there is 'undo' feature in Nautilus which means you can undo if you deleted any file or folder by mistake. Luckily Nautilus has not gone crazy and adopted the stupid Global Menu concept. I do remember closing Nautilus windows under Unity which I was working on as every window share the same 'holy' spot on the top bar. Besides the undo function, there is not much to talk about in Nautilus.
Epiphany: The New Web
Another major upgrade is re-branding of Epiphany web browser as 'Web'. The UI of the browser has gone through a massive makeover and now looks like Google Chrome or the browsers found in tablets or smartphones. The UI of the browser looks impressive, it is simple and doesn't get in your way. The traditional menus have disappeared as it now uses a 'new' Application menu which is something similar to Unity's 'Global Menus'.
Contact app is also using the 'Application menu' which in my opinion doesn't make much sense as there is already a 'new' button within the window of the app and moving the only three options this app has to the ‘Application menu’ won't reclaim much real estate. If you are using a bigger monitor or a multi-monitor setup, it is going to be a pain in the neck. You have to take your mouse to the holy top corner to access it. One of the reasons I switched away from Unity to Gnome 3/KDE was Global Menu. If Gnome 3 is also heading in the same direction, I think the road is only going to be tougher for Gnome.
Why are Gnome developers making the same mistakes that Ubuntu made? While Ubuntu is working on fixing it, Gnome is introducing them. Doesn't look good at all.
Another major problem that I see with Application Menu is that there is no way minimise the window of app which use Application Menu. I wanted to take a screen shot of an app with desktop in the background, I minimised all the apps so I can get clear view of my desktop as the background but Epiphany/Web just won't go. The only option I had was to close/quit the window. This I believe is counter-productive. Even Unity's Global Menu gives the option of minimising the windows.
Multi-monitor and Gnome 3.4
According to a press statement Gnome 3.4 brings "better handling of docking stations and external monitors, so that a laptop will now stay running (and not suspend) when it is connected to an external monitor, even if the lid is closed."
In my experience Gnome's new Application menus are not ready for multi-monitor set-up. If I am running an app such as Web or Contact, which uses Application Menu, and move it to the second or the third monitor, I will have to go back to the primary monitor to access the Application menu and come back again. Unity, on the contrary, shows the Global Menu for that app on the monitor where the app is. So, I think this is yet another area where Gnome developer needs to make applications aware of the monitor.
There is no option of showing the 'Favourite' bar or the top panel on all the monitors or the monitor of your choice like Unity or KDE. KDE in my opinion is the best DE for multi-monitor set-up. Looking at the current Gnome UI, I found Unity to be more usable on a multi-monitor set-up than Gnome 3 Shell. So this is an area where Gnome developers need to focus on and make it smarter.
Burnt by Gnome's Application Menu
I was worrying about Application menu and something terrible happened. I was working on this review on LibreOffice and had 'Web' opened. The LibreOffice was on second monitor and Web on the first monitor. I wanted to close 'Web' and since the menus have been integrated with the top bar I went for the top bar of the first monitor and hit the close button. Oops it closed my LibreOffice. Both icons look identical in the top bar so it was hard to see which app I was closing. And I don't want to take my eyes off what I was doing just to close the window. I think Global/Application Menu doesn't make life easier. On the contrary it needs more attention. I hope Gnome developers will not make the same mistakes and make it harder for user to use Linux.
If Application menus is the future of Gnome, how are they going to move massive menus of applications like KATE/GIMP/LibreOffice in Application Menu? If these applications will continue to have traditional menus then what is the goal behind Application Menus? These applications won't be able to save any pixel. With different applications using different menu styles the overall Gnome experience will not be as pleasant as was unde Gnome 2. Every app looked and behaved same. Now some apps use Application Menu (which is a controversial move) and some applications also use traditional menus.
How to do Application Menu right
Ubuntu has already burnt its fingers with Global Menus and eventually resorted to giving an option of disabling Global Menus. Gnome 3 Shell developers should have looked at the backlash Ubuntu faced and avoided such a mistake.
While you can disable Global Menu in Ubuntu (by removing App Menu), I don't know if there will be any option to disable it in Gnome. When I visit the extensions.gnome.org, the extension to disable App Menu is not active any more, so I fear if there won't be a way to disable super menus of Gnome.
In my opinion Global Menus are great for small screen devices like netbooks. They are nothing more than pain in the neck on bigger or dual monitors where you use multiple windows and want access to the menus immediately. If Gnome does want to to keep Global Menu, it should make them smarter:
- There should be option to disable Application Menus with ease
- If an App is maximized it should show Application Menu as either way you are dealing with one app at a time. But when an app is minimized the menus should appear with the window of the application and not on the top bar.
- On Multi-monitor setup the 'Application Menu' must appear on the monitor where the instance of the app is open and not on the primary monitor only.
- Option to minimise the window should be there in the Super Menus.
What gives Gnome 3 Shell an edge over Unity is customisation through community driven extensions. Look at Linux Mint and you can see the power of these extensions. Unfortunately, there is no tool in Gnome to manage these extensions. Yes, you can disable extensions from Gnome Tweak Tools, but you can't search, install or remove extensions from it. There must be a tool to manage extensions without having to open a web-browser. Gnome also needs a more advanced approach for managing multi-monitor set-up.
Gnome 3.4 brings impressive design improvements. It looks beautiful. Scroll bars are thinner and sleeker. The default font Cantrall and the default theme Advita doesn't look as graceful as Gnome 3 is. I always change the font to Droid Sans in openSUSE. The thick top bar of the theme wastes too much space. Gnome team should consider a different font and theme which gels with the entire system.
Complaints aside, Gnome 3.4 is a great improvement. The evolution shows that developers are looking for new ideas and new design. Yes, there are some rough edges, but all this work is not being done by some mega corporation with billions of revenues to be made from it. The great work that we see is done by a community of developers. They don't get a dime from their users. Users don't even know names of these unsung heroes. So kudos to those hard working developers who are making this world a better place by developing free software.
If we look at KDE, there were so many rough edges around 4.1. Same is the case with Gnome 3.x. There are some controversial design decisions which need to be addressed (Application menu is one). If Gnome 3 can steer clear of such controversial designs I think its only a matter of time that the critics of Gnome 3 will start appreciating it. I have been a big fan of Gnome and I still am, but things like Application Menus can break my heart and make Gnome unusable for me. I do trust Gnome developers that they will keep all the options open instead of forcing users to choose from 'my way or highway'.
I am extremely impressed with Gnome 3 Shell. The new features have make computing more enjoyable. And I think it's just the beginning.
Editor's Note: Special thanks to Brett Legree for peer reviewing the review and suggesting changes.