First impressions: Fedora 15, GNOME 3

Screenshot of my GNOME 3 desktopFor many years, GNOME has been the default desktop for most Linux users — it’s developed a reputation for almost boring stability, and generally stayed out of the way and didn’t offer too much in the way of “bling” effects which sapped processor power. For a while, it had KDE as a major competitor, and that positioned itself as a power user’s desktop, while GNOME cut back on options and prided itself on simplicity. Then KDE brought out version 4, which for the first several versions was hideously unstable and hardly usable, which gave GNOME the advantage not only of simplicity but also stability. This past year, however, the era of GNOME as the stable, conservative Linux desktop seems to have come to a juddering end as GNOME itself moved onto version 3 while Ubuntu, the best-known distribution of Linux, has started using its own desktop “shell”, called Unity, on the old version. (You can see the full version of that screenshot here.)

Fedora 15 was the first official distribution release to actually come with GNOME 3 as standard and not GNOME 2, as all other releases this year have. I downloaded the live CD and proceeded to run it, and found it impressive to begin with. GNOME 2 provided configurable menus and panels, and you could have as many panels as you liked and put the menus, clock, system tray, window switcher and various other gadgets wherever you like. GNOME 3, or at least the GNOME Shell which is currently the only way to run it, streamlines everything, with a single panel at the top containing a clock, a “message tray” containing a volume control, a network monitor, an accessibility control and the user menu (which lets you log out or open the settings box).

Everything else is hidden, and if you move the mouse to the top left-hand corner or click where it says “Activities” in the top-left corner, GNOME will shrink down all your open windows so you can see everything, show you the Mac-like dock, the menu you can use to launch new programs, the bit of the system tray that showed application icons and the virtual desktop switcher (similar to the Mac’s Spaces). As on the Mac, you can add programs to the dock that you use all the time or remove what you don’t. Also like on the Mac, it seems to be possible to add a menu to the dock icon (or to the application icon when it appears in the top panel), but most applications do not support this at the moment. In addition, they do not interact well with applications that are based off the system tray; if you choose the option that says “Exit this app”, it will just close the window, not the program.

The problem is that the new desktop is so limited. GNOME seem to have taken the opposite line from KDE when it launched KDE 4.0, which included desktop applets, whole new frameworks for searching and personal information management and hardware interaction, a brand new theme and a lot of use of transparency. In short, everything was brand new and untested. GNOME seemed to have taken the line of removing features and then adding them back as requested (one hopes). The trouble is, so much has disappeared, including, for example, the desktop preferences window, so you cannot alter the fonts or change the window stylings. The standard user menu also does not let you shut the machine down, which you can do from every other desktop on Linux or any other operating system. There is also no obvious way of setting how many virtual desktops there are, something that was easy in GNOME 2 and remains so in KDE 4.

A further annoyance is that activities mode only lasts until you do one thing, like launch a program. If you want to launch two, you have to go back into activities mode, and again if you want to launch another. With the old panel system, you could drag an application icon from a menu to the panel, so that you could launch it with one click. It would be useful to have some way of keeping activities mode on until you choose to turn it off. Also annoying is the way the system tray disappears into an obscure pop-up at the bottom right; you have to move the mouse to the bottom right to see the icons. It appears that someone, somewhere has decided that system tray icons are a bad thing, but neither GNOME 3 nor Ubuntu have implemented a satisfactory alternative. As a Qt developer, I can easily set the dock icon menu to be the system tray icon menu and not display the latter on the Mac, but there is no obvious way to do this on GNOME 3 (or Unity). Until it’s that easy, making the system tray this obscure is a bad idea.

As it happens, a number of extensions are already available to put back some of the functionality that is missing in GNOME 3. Fedora, however, has played along by removing some of its own graphical configuration tools, like the one that you could use to set the SELinux security level. SELinux (Security Enhanced Linux) is the security monitor which comes with Fedora and can block actions it deems a threat to your system’s security, but any time I have run Fedora with SELinux enabled, it has produced alert after alert for things that no other version of Linux noticed, and I ended up disabling it. There always was a graphical tool to do this; there is none in Fedora 15, which has regularly resulted in the web browser, Chrome, crashing. I ended up changing this by manually editing the SELinux configuration file.

For all this, however, GNOME 3 is quite usable. It’s stylish and what is there works very well. I have not had it crash on me once (the Chrome problem excepted, and that was just that one program). However, it’s stripped very bare and generally, early adopters tend to be adventurous users, not those who want a very basic and simplified desktop experience. If you want to install Fedora 15, it’s either this or KDE 4, and I recommend the latter. Otherwise, it is not worth going to extra hassle (such as by enabling unofficial repositories) to get GNOME 3 now if your distribution offers the latest version of GNOME 2. It’s probably better to wait until some of the old functionality has been restored.

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