GNOME 3 Beta – Welcome To Your New Linux Desktop

Tim Brookes 17-03-2011

gnome 3 reviewRecently a beta version of the new GNOME desktop environment was released for testing, before the final scheduled release some time in April. As GNOME is the preferred graphical user interface for a considerable amount of Linux distributions, it’s only right that we check it out.


Many Linux users will already be using GNOME 2 which made its way into Ubuntu, the most popular desktop Linux distribution. GNOME’s main counterpart is KDE, often preferred for its look and customizability. The next version of Ubuntu (11.04) should be using GNOME 3, albeit with its own custom “Unity” shell and not the GNOME-Shell featured here.

Evolution Or Revolution?

The desktop has evolved – or so say the many bloggers and pundits who have laid their hands on the latest GNOME 3 beta. The desktop environment takes on a new shape, and one that probably won’t come as second nature the first time you use it.

So there’s a learning curve – your familiar desktop with its taskbar, window buttons and application menu is about to be blown out of the water in favour of a radical overhaul, partly written in JavaScript.

gnome 3 review


You’ve still got your multiple desktops (this is Linux we’re talking about) and you can still switch between them with Ctrl+Alt and the arrow keys (up and down now, not left and right). The familiar system tray area is also present, though the system clock has been shifted to the middle of the bar.

what is gnome 3

This bar, which is the closest thing GNOME 3 has to a Windows (or even GNOME 2) taskbar only ever displays the focused application, though without the Mac OS X-style extended menu. Contrary to what I have read on a blog or two, I was still able to Alt+Tab between windows.

GNOME 3 Beta - Welcome To Your New Linux Desktop topbar


Notifications have been moved to the bottom of the screen, and upon booting, I was presented with a smart-looking pop-up prompting me to connect to a wireless network. The desktop is an attractive affair, and feels like it was designed with your applications in mind; with plenty of space to get work done.

what is gnome 3

Before continuing it’s worth mentioning that GNOME 3 has support for all existing GNOME applications, so all your old apps will work without an update. What won’t work however is Compiz Linux Eye-Candy Read More , or any other compositing or window manager. These are gone in favour of Mutter, which delivers much less impressive results and actually lagged considerably on my machine (you can turn it off). For me a good-looking desktop is important, and animations less so – so I’ll let it slide till the final release.

The Activities Window

You’ll be forgiven at first for scratching your head when it comes to launching an application. GNOME 3 uses its Activities window in the top left of the screen for this task, and with a simple hover (or click) of the mouse your desktop disappears and you’re presented with a neat looking interface.


what is gnome 3

There’s a few options on this screen, the first is your current desktop’s active windows and the second is a list of applications. On the left there is a quick launch favourites area where apps and locations can be pinned for quick access (and your active apps will also appear here) and on the right there’s a Find box which you can use to locate folders, documents and launch applications.

GNOME 3 Beta - Welcome To Your New Linux Desktop 2favourites

Right click an application and you’ll be invited to add it to your favourites, but search for a folder and this option is not present – something that might bother a lot of users who rely on quick access to a specific folder.


gnome 3 desktop

In the (latest) live version I tried, I couldn’t find any way of simply browsing my drives within the Activities window. Instead I could search for a folder and open it in a file manager on the desktop. Whilst this is slightly bothersome, the Find box works well and the absence of too many panels and options delivers a clean, minimalistic feel.

Look & Feel

You’re either going to love it or hate it, but once you’re up to speed all it takes is a simple flick of the mouse to bring up the panel. Flick again and it’s gone. Keyboard dependants will be pleased to know the “Super” key (Windows key) will also launch this feature, and the Esc key will cancel it.

The placement of the Activities trigger (top left) contrasts nicely with the network manager (bottom right), whilst the other two corners of your screen remain inactive.

gnome 3 desktop

Re-arranging your windows and desktops is a fairly easy, drag and drop affair. Clicking a desktop will display all open windows within the centre of the Activities window, in a nice tiled view for easy perusal.

gnome 3 desktop

Rather interestingly GNOME 3 does not include minimize or maximize buttons on its windows, mainly as there is nowhere to minimize to. The lack of a maximize button is excused by the fantastic inclusion of a Windows 7-style Aero Snap How To Get Aero Shake, Aero Peek & Aero Snap Features In Vista & XP Read More feature. Simply drag the window to the left or right to snap in place, or to the top of the screen to maximize the window.

gnome 3 review

When I first switched from Windows 7 I really found myself missing this feature within Linux. It’s nice to see it finally implemented, even if the GNOME team didn’t come up with it themselves.


It’s certainly different, and it might even speed up your workflow but its going to take some getting used to. As this is only the beta release I’m going to wait for the final version sometime in April before casting a more concrete judgement. For now though, it’s a very attractive and cunning take on the modern desktop.

You can make up your own minds regarding GNOME 3 by downloading a live USB image and following the instructions over at the GNOME 3 homepage.

What do you think of the new GNOME desktop environment? Maybe you prefer KDE? Any reasons why? Let us know in the comments.

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  1. bill vasilis
    May 15, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    No minimize button meens no minimize at all!!!!!!!
    Seems bad!!!

  2. Rainer Koschnick
    May 11, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Been using it for the last week and there's some stuff which really annoys me.

    The whole desktop is pretty static, you can't--for example--disable the Universal Access menu without hacking a Javascript file. The Favorites bar on the left doesn't have any options either. The IM integration shouldn't be visible when Empathy is not running, what's the point? The top bar allocates space which can't be used by applications. On a 16:9 monitor screen height is precious, at least let me auto-hide it.

    Application dialogs aren't movable, they always appear centered beneath the title bar of the application. If you have stacked dialogs it's not possible to move the top one out of the way to look at data which might be in the dialog beneath it. WTF?

    The whole thing just feels unpolished, "Every part has been carefully crafted to give it a harmonious, beautiful, look and to make it simple and easy-to-use.". :/

  3. kmb42vt
    April 24, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Ubuntu 11.04 will not be using Gnome 3 as a base DE but will be using Gnome 2.32 instead along with the Unity interface (Unity is a Compiz plugin, btw). Gnome 3 and Unity are not compatible. And just for info's sake, Linux Mint "Katya" (released sometime in May, based on 11.04) will be using Gnome 3 without 'gnome-shell'. It will use a standard "classic" Gnome desktop according the lead developer.

  4. Crichey1937
    April 24, 2011 at 5:56 am

    I like the look and some of the features but sorely miss a true desktop. When writing a paper I usually use the desktop as a real desktop. I have my draft paper, folders, illustrations, and photos scattered about. I copy and paste whatever I need into the draft paper. I have not been able to replicate this in Gnome 3. I would like to see at least one activities window that acts as a real desktop. Even better if it could scroll horizontally to provide an even larger desktop space.

  5. Bill White
    April 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    I find this to be the worst desktop I have used including windows 7!!!!!

  6. Joseph Riad
    April 1, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Great review. I can't wait for the April 6 release!
    I'm a GNOME user but I've always regretted that it doesn't look as good as KDE. It seems that GNOME 3 will change this...

  7. reader
    March 29, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    Nice review. I guess we have to explain to newbies the difference between "Windows" and "Applications". Unfortuntely many of the concepts are far from self-explanatory.

  8. Muhammed Furkan Ak?nc?
    March 29, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    The font type is beatiful also its remind me meego linux isn't it

  9. Masyhury
    March 21, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Awesome.. I use Ubuntu 10.10 and enjoy this tutorial.
    Thx.. :D

  10. Aibek
    March 20, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    thanks for the feedback. We need a day or two before we can get to it
    and see if it's going to go or stays.

  11. Alex_dh
    March 20, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    I absolutely agree with that!

    <--------------- REMOVE THIS PLEASE!

  12. dvdhldn
    March 19, 2011 at 11:19 am

    <----------- This sliding share box is annoying as heck.

    • Alex_dh
      March 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm

      I absolutely agree with that!

      <--------------- REMOVE THIS PLEASE!

      • Aibek
        March 20, 2011 at 4:13 pm

        thanks for the feedback. We need a day or two before we can get to it
        and see if it's going to go or stays.

    • Aibek
      March 29, 2011 at 9:03 am

      thanks for the feedback guys, the sliding box been was removed

      • Ga_hayes
        April 2, 2011 at 7:42 am

        Thank you.

  13. Miami Landscaping
    March 18, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    yah i would like to see how it compares to unity as well.

  14. Linuxrocks
    March 18, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Unity will have the same if not more features in the long run.

    Please post a comparison on both.

    • DexterP17
      March 23, 2011 at 8:04 pm

      I would love to see that too when both are released.

  15. Linuxrocks
    March 18, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Unity will have the same if not more features in the long run.

    Please post a comparison on both.