Monday, September 12, 2011

Gnome 3 First Impressions

Last week, I decided to pull the trigger and install Gnome 3 on my Ubuntu laptop.  I made an attempt to embrace Unity when it was first released — that didn't last long.  Aside from a few configuration disturbances, my first impression is that Gnome 3 rocks.

Time for change
So why change at all?  I've been using a Gnome 2 desktop environment for years.  It looks good, it works as you'd expect a desktop to work, and it's open source — all good enough reasons to stick with Gnome 2.

However, things change.  Sometimes a radical departure from the norm is necessary to spearhead innovations.  This is true of any discipline — not restricted to desktop environments, nor information technology in general.  Every field occasionally partakes in a drastic shakeup.  Otherwise, be become too complacent and nothing ever happens.

Ubuntu recognized the potential user experience improvements — improvements in how users engage the operating system.  Not minor tweaks, not smoothing out rough edges, but an exorbitant change in the fundamental workflow.  Ubuntu introduced Unity as an enhanced desktop experience.  Not a new desktop environment, but a guise for the traditional Gnome 2 environment.

I was intrigued by this idea and was looking forward to what Unity would look like and how it would change my daily routine — hopefully for the better.

The failed experiment
Once the shock wore off — the shock of my desktop being transformed into something completely foreign — I started to familiarize myself with Unity.  At first, it seemed like it had potential.  While I was still acquainting myself with the new Ubuntu, I started to listening to some of the frustrations voiced by the Ubuntu user community.  The unanimous question about Unity seemed to be how do I turn it off?

Hearing almost nothing good about this new environment, aimed at making life easier for users, I found it difficult to ignore.  Granted, many complaints about Unity I was taking in were a little nit-picky and couldn't relate to.  So I carried on, determined to change how my desktop worked for the better.

I must say, I admire the ambition behind the project — Unity definitely had potential but there were just too many minor issues.  Aside from the bugs, Unity just didn't mesh well — didn't feel like part of the desktop.  So more than just subtle bugs — Unity was a failed experiment in desktop experience.  Once I switched back to Gnome 2, in it's traditional form, I felt home again.  It was like I had gone on a vacation and had everything go wrong.  Switching to Gnome 3 felt like a permanent vacation.

Almost, getting there...
I used the traditional Gnome 2 environment happily for about four months after turning Unity off.  Then my restlessness desire for change kicked in again.  I knew Gnome 3 had been released, why couldn't I try it out?  It seemed like the logical evolution for my desktop environment.  Luckily, I found a guide that helped me get Gnome 3 going in about an hour.

This was last week, so I'm still a new citizen here.  Gnome 3 has a semblance to Unity only it doesn't feel like an addition to the desktop.  The enhancements in Gnome 3 truly feel like part of the whole experience.

One common goal both Unity and Gnome 3 have is to better utilize the screen space.  This means that you don't have a static task bar that shows the user all their currently open windows.  The idea instead is to only show the currently running applications when it really matters.  Like when I want to switch windows.  In Gnome 3, I just click activities in the top left of my screen.  This gives me a nice preview of what I have open at the moment.

Let's say I want to launch a new application.  I can click activities again to see my favorites pane where I've added my commonly used applications.  However, there is also the application menu, beside my currently open windows.  I can click here to browse applications by category.  This is handy if I don't know off hand the name of the application I want to run.  Alternatively, when you click activities, you can just start typing the name of the application — this will bring up matches for you automatically.  I've found this to be an incredibly powerful feature.  I hardly ever use the favorites pane in favor of just typing a few characters and hitting enter to launch something.

In this era of streamlined desktop environments — one where space is of virtue, it's sometimes difficult to find your way around.  I don't think these radical changes brought on by Unity and Gnome 3 are workflow defects, just something new and different.  We've been using the standardized desktop layout for a really long time.  So even if this is the sub-optimal approach to desktop computing, it's what we're used to.  We've grown attached to the way we do things in our local environments, I know I have.  Change is difficult, but Gnome 3 makes it a little less painful.  It isn't perfect, but I truly believe it is a step in the right direction.