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Recently 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.