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Gnome Gnome Gnome

19/03/2013

I’ve been having a good run lately, hadn’t managed to break any of my installations in a few months. Well, that was until last week and I swear I hadn’t been tinkering. One of my laptops running my favourite Rosa Linux updated as normal, then crapped out trying to log into the desktop.

Some strange error about not being able to “login to  home with /”

I think it was a systemd or KDM error, and I’m sure it was just a line in some config file somewhere, but I just couldn’t track it down at all. So once again I found myself having to reinstall. Rosa Linux is a KDE distro, based on Mandriva and mighty fine it is too. nice to look at, nice to run, has some little extras you don’t find in other distributions and overall, I really really like it.

Recently though, they released a Gnome version instead of KDE. So it felt like a good time to revisit my second most disliked Desktop Environment.  I have had serious misgivings about Gnome 3 since I saw a video highlighting all the great features, the first of which being. “whatever application you want to run, just type in the first few letters …” and immediately my heart sank. Whilst that is exactly how I, personally run applications, maybe you too. Average Joe does not.  From an HCI point of view it’s awful as it demands you take your hand off the mouse and use the keyboard . I can touch type, lots of people cannot and using the keyboard throws up all sorts of other issues (what if you’re using a keyboard from another language for instance) Average Joe, doesn’t know the name of an application, Average Joe barely knows what an application is. Average joe has the thing for his email, Word for writing documents and “The Internet” and couldn’t give a rat’s ass what they’re called.  but mostly, that is quite a silly way to make people launch apps as often the names of applications don’t hint at their function (tooltips on the other hand can give clues)

My last try with Gnome 3 and Gnome shell left me pulling my hair out, it was the slowest, most painful experience imagineable. But, things change and it’s only fair to revisit them.

Rosa Gnome installs very well by the way, I had problems with earlier installs of Rosa, not this time. Smooth and sleek.

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The Default Desktop


Gnome 3

Well, on the positive side, it’s certainly improved an awful lot from my last use, it’s much more responsive, although still much much slower than any other desktop.

It looks lovely. The Font rendering in gnome is really lovely, nicer than KDE, nicer than anything else anywhere I think. it really does make fonts beautiful.

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Font Rendering looks lovely

When up and running Gnome shell didn’t max my CPU which surprised me, in fact, it’s actually quite low in terms of CPU usage I think. KDE does have a tendency to max my cpu at various times, (especially any time the god awful akonadi does anything at all – seriously, why is that still even used, it’s awful) Gnome 3, doesn’t cause my fan to whizz away, and my laptop stays reasonably cool. A very pleasant surprise.

What it saves in terms of CPU and therefore heat it makes up for in RAM usage. I’d approximate that KDE running uses between 500-900Kb of Ram on any of my machines. sometimes that goes up, naturally, but I’d say it averages around 600-700Kb most of the time. Like for Like, Gnome Shell casually sits around the 1.3-1.5Gb of Ram range. That seems an awful lot to me, especially as my laptop only has 1.7Gb in total. Maybe it managed memory differently, or better, I couldn’t say, but it did mean that running ram hungry apps like Chrome or LibraOffice caused Gnome to slow down noticeably.

However, it’s certainly a vast improvement over earlier versions.

But.. it’s still shockingly clumsy to use. Everything you would normally do in any other desktop environment, KDE, XFCE, Gnome2, Windows, etc takes either several more mouse clicks or much much mouse travelling to achive in Gnome shell.

For Example:

You have two applications running, Gnome hides the background application, that seems a good idea, except when you want to get the background application to the fore, the method is clunky and clumsy. Click on “applications” to show the desktop grid, then click on the window of the other application.  That is slow at best, but if you ramp that up to having dozens of applications running, you then find yourself scouring the screen looking for the tiny window that looks like the application you want. The reason other desktops have a task bar or dock is to make application switching as quick and simple as possible. Click the icon in the taskbar and it brings that window to the front. Simple, easy, one click and what we’re all used to doing.

If you want to run two applicationis windows side by side.. I found that to be hellishly fiddly to set up, much more complex than it need be, or is with anything other desktop.

The system tray/notification area:

[I would put a screenshot in here, but I can’t even get Shutter to take a screenshot of the system tray#

That’s hidden away underneath the windows at the bottom of the screen, there is no clue to how to access it, and it doesn’t show some notifications that I think it should. My package manager changes the icon in the notification area to signify updates are available. But Gnome chooses to it all so I can’t see the icon change. It was only by sheer accident that I even found out the notification was there in first place. I missed two alarms from my calendar because they didn’t appear on screen, I just saw an icon in the notification area sometime later.

What’s running

Other desktops use the taskbar or the dock to represent the applications you have running. Gnome, once again hides these and gives no clue how to find them.

The Lock Screen:

it’s lovely to look at least it is in Rosa 2012. The lock screen is the default Rosa wallpaper with a nicely rendered clock in the center of the screen. Looks terrific. But there is absolutely no clue whatsoever as to how to unlock the screen. It took me quite a while to work it out, partly due to the fact that there is a lag between pressing the Enter key and the unlock screen being displayed. (the unlock screen is lovely to look at as well). I can certainly see Average Joe user having no clue whatsoever and being so confused they just turn the computer off and back on again to resolve the problem.

The Unity Style Dock

ImageCopying Unity is foolish enough in my opinion, Unity is awful. But the Dock thing in Gnome 3 I can’t work out at all, It’s hidden by default only appearing when you click on the Applications menu, But it neither acts as a proper dock, nor as a menu, it just seems to show favourite applications. It seems pointless and not very well thought out.

No Scrollbar Buttons

This is theme specific I think, but it drove me insane, there are no up and down arrows at each end of the scrollbars in Gnome 3. I’ve noticed this trend also with a few themes popping up for KDE lately as well. Whilst it might look nice, when you’re only navigating via a touchpad it’s the most frustrating thing ever, because invariable you can’t get smooth tiny movements with the touchpad and I continually found that things scrolled off screen without me being able to see or use them. The scrollbar buttons provide a nice easy way to scroll by the smallest amount. If you have a mouse with a wheel this isn’t an issue at all, but using a touchpad on a laptop it is often deeply frustrating – I couldn’t find any way to alter any of the themes to reinstate them either. it might seem utterly trivial, but it’s almost the biggest reason for me to not use Gnome, because I use my touchpad all time, even when i have the mouse connected.

No Start Menus.

Without a proper, old fashoioned menu, finding applications is a slow and tedious process. Click on Applications, then either look through all applications for the one you want, or else, search in the categories. Again it’s more mouse travelling, more guessing and much more time consuming. Sure, with a menu, you might not know what category your application is in, but it’s just a few pixel movements of the mouse to find out. With Gnome it’s a whole screen you have to traverse.

You can retro fit a couple of menus that work quite well, but they shouldn’t have to be retrofitted

Lack of Configurability

I found the Tweak tool for Gnome, but it still lacks reconfigurability  For Example. I can’t remove the Accessibility menu option on the title bar. I have to download a 3rd party extension just to do that. I can’t add shortcuts to the title menu, I can’t seem to change very much about the title menu it seems.

There was also no clue or hint how I might get new themes or how they might be installed. OK I’m a bit spoiled I suppose having KDE’s built in access to KDE-Look and the ease with which you can download install or remove many theme elements, But there was just no clue where I might get themes or how to install them, which was a shame, not a big problem at all, just a shame.

Some of these issues can be solved by downloading extensions, but having to download 3rd party addons to fix so many failings in the UI just highlights that however far Gnome Shell might have come since my last using it, it’s still a flawed methodology and poor user interface design.

That is quite sad, because one of the things I remember admiring about Gnome 2 was their  strict and some might say, overly fussy Gnome HCI guidelines. I can remember reading various discussions about how rigidi and anal some of their guidelines seemed, taking things down to quite an extreme level. Yet I think that was a very good thing to bring consistency, polish, professionalism and ultimately led to a very good, very useful, desktop environment.

Switching from Gnome 3 to Mate (Gnome 2) for example, is pleasure. Gnome 2 is fast, sensible and easy to navigate around, everything you need is on screen and it’s not cluttered at all.  Gnome 3 fails to simplify the desktop environment, fails to give user feedback or clues about how to use the desktop, and fails for speed and usability.

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Switch Applications: umm. which one was the window I wanted?

EndNote

By adding, what seems like a thousand extensions,  you can get a much more intuitive and usable user experience.
I’ve managed to add a taskbar to show what’s running, Places menu, remove my name, remove Accessibility menu opton, and added a nice menu that makes finding and starting applications significantly faster.

I Tried for a week with Gnome, I’m trying again right now as I right this, So it’s not just a quick, ten minute “oh it’s different therefore it’s awful” kind of review. I took my time, I learned about the way it works (i think). I tweaked and configured it as much as I could.

But after a week I installed KDE and switched over, and it was an absolute pleasure to do so. Yes, I’m familiar with KDE now, so that did help a little, and certainly although i love KDE it’s far from perfect by any means. But there was so much that frustrated me in Gnome that just isn’t there in KDE, nor in XFCE, or LXDE, or OpenBox or Enlightenment 17,  Gnome stands along side Ubuntu’s Unity, as a usability disaster, slow, less productive, less intuitive, less configurable, less friendly and in my opinion altogether just less of a user experience and method of interaction with the computer than any other desktop. Yes, it is lovely to look at, really lovely, but such hard work to use. Mate, Cinnamon, XFCE, LXDE, KDE, E17  all have their differences and different way of working, yet they all follow a standard “grammar” that we have all learned and they’re although not as pretty are all much much usable than Gnome Shell

A Bit more usable?

A Bit more usable?

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