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Impressions of Fedora 15 with Gnome 3

I finally upgraded from Fedora 13 to Fedora 15 on my beloved ASUS-UL30A-X5. It includes the new Gnome 3, with the “Gnome Shell” interface. It’s quite different from anything else I’ve used, and you can read lots of positive and negative impressions around the web.

Fedora 15 and Gnome 3 have awesome support for my laptop’s hardware. It’s simply flawless. You could not expect better software/hardware integration if you paid thousands of dollars for something from Steve Jobs. Fedora has been great about this for a long time, actually, although there was a video driver problem in Fedora 13 that would sometimes kernel-panic if I did a lot of suspending and resuming combined with plugging and unplugging external monitors. That’s not a problem I’ve seen in this release.

This is my work laptop, so it’s not important whether it’s cool or exciting. I am generally dealing with a lot of open windows, rapidly switching between them, opening new programs, finding files and directories, and so on. I need the interface to help me with that. So far, results are very positive, with a few things that are either giving me withdrawal pains or simply aren’t working as well as I need.

If you’re considering using Gnome 3, don’t just try it out on a live CD for ten minutes and decide it’s lame. It’s completely new and different, and you need to spend a little time actually learning it. You had to learn Mac or Windows or whatever you currently use; if you struggle with Gnome 3 at first, stop struggling and read the documentation for 15 minutes or so. The best and fastest place to get started is with the cheat sheet. You do things differently in Gnome 3. You don’t have your familiar start menu, taskbar, system tray, desktop icons, and so on. You don’t use your mouse, in general, although you can if you want to.

The Gnome 3 desktop environment is definitely beautiful and well-done. I’d say it’s the best-designed, fastest, best-integrated desktop I’ve used on Linux, and perhaps all-around the best interface I’ve used on any platform. (Mac OS X, for example, is very pretty but not very usable IMO, although it’s getting better these days with the ability to control it more completely without using the mouse. I’m not a Mac fan, for what it’s worth.) You can call it eye candy if you wish, and I won’t argue, but I’ll point out that it’s extremely tasteful eye candy. I never felt that KDE’s eye candy was anything but garish, by contrast.

It’s extremely easy and efficient to find and open programs in Gnome 3; much better than using a “start menu.” Press the “Windows key” and type the first few letters of the program’s name, then press Enter. Done. You can do the same thing to switch between your open windows.

The most important thing for me is managing a lot of open windows while switching between things a lot. This is the nature of my work, not something I’m doing wrong. I haven’t gotten used to this yet. I still want to be able to choose a window from the taskbar with my mouse, when I’m working with a mouse. It’s nice to be able to switch to a window with the keyboard quickly, but I need both abilities. Some activities, such as web browsing and graphics editing, are more mouse-driven. It’s most important to me that I don’t have to switch between the mouse and the keyboard, rather than solely that the keyboard can be used very easily. When I’m text editing in Vim (100% keyboard driven), the abilities to find and switch to other windows with just the keyboard are awesome. But I need both kinds of usability.

I haven’t gotten used to the distinction between alt-tab and alt-backtick, for switching between groups of applications and switching between windows within an application group. I might ultimately decide to configure the behavior back to alt-tab’s old familiar behavior. I don’t really think of groups of windows as applications/activities in a unit, which I think the Gnome 3 interface really assumes is the case. I group windows by using tabbed interfaces (browser, for example) in most cases; and when I have multiple windows of a single application open, they’re usually not related. For example, I’ll have several terminals open, but they’re not all for one task. I’m more likely to have Firefox with three tabs open, and three terminals, and an email or two, and a chat window – and the three terminals all correspond to different activities.

Gnome 3′s partial answer to this task grouping is completely redesigned workspace support. It’s awesome – it’s the way it always should have worked. But I’m not quite used to using it yet. I expect to use it a lot more as I relearn/unlearn old habits. In the meantime, when I have several Skype chats open and I want to find one of them, it’s a bit painful for me because Gnome wants to switch me to Skype, as a whole, rather than switching me to any given chat window. And if one of them is buried and visually not accessible, it’s hard for me to use the keyboard to get to it.

I use IRC a lot at work. I usually use XChat, but I decided to give the Gnome messaging platform a try. It’s basically Empathy, tightly integrated into the desktop environment, to make chatting easy and unintrusive. These videos show how this works. Unfortunately, Empathy isn’t a very richly featured IRC client, and this is one of those tools that I use so much and so specifically that I have special needs. I was able to tweak Empathy to make it alert me when people mentioned me by name, but I ran out of some other configuration options that I need. XChat lets me create custom key bindings to change my nickname easily, custom highlight words, and so on. From what I can see so far, Empathy doesn’t have that ability. And I’ve gotten confused or lost a bit of chat history/context a couple of times when odd things happened, such as the person at the other end of a private message chat changing his nickname. I might just need to learn how to use Empathy better, so I’m reserving my judgment a bit before I switch back to XChat. But at this point I think that Empathy is better designed for the “AOL instant messenger” type of chatting than it is for IRC, with its concept of multiple people in a single channel with changing nicknames.

I had to change one of the default window manager behaviors. My email client (Claws Mail) opens a new window to compose a message, and I have customized Claws to do almost everything with the keyboard. So when I press ‘c’, it opens a new message window. Gnome 3 decided to place this window behind my Claws Mail window, with the focus remaining on the main window, and a notification that my new window is ready to use. But then I have to switch focus to the new window to actually use it. This doesn’t work for me, so I started gconf-editor and changed the value of /apps/metacity/general/new_windows_always_on_top. That solved the problem.

I absolutely rely on Revelation for password management, and it has a nice panel applet / widget that I used heavily in Gnome 2. Unfortunately, Gnome 3 has no panels. So I have to use the Revelation program directly, instead of the applet. This is painful. The Revelation interface is not very good. I searched around for another password manager, but couldn’t find anything better (they all look worse, frankly). I don’t think that the native Gnome keyring manager is the solution I’m looking for. I have nearly 200 passwords, and I use dozens of them actively every day – and the number of paswords probably grows by two or three a week. I would be willing to pay some money for a really good password manager with tight Gnome integration. I’d love something keyboard-driven, that I can switch my focus to, type a few characters to search for the account I need to use, hit TAB to highlight the password, copy with CTRL-C, dismiss with ESC, and be on my way.

The default Gnome 3 interface is too gray and colorless. Active and inactive windows look the same. It’s too uniform. I wish the color theme were slightly more imaginative. And the window titlebars are too thick – it uses too much space. I think all of these things are fixable, but I don’t see an easy way to change the visual theme from the preferences dialog. I think I need to install some add-on to do this.

That brings up another minor wish: the system and user preferences don’t seem complete. There isn’t enough control in the control panel, so to speak. If you search the Web for tweaks, you see a lot of gconf-editor command-line one-liners. This isn’t good for most users; most people need a graphical utility that groups configuration settings together nicely for them. I assume that this is just because it’s new, and a lot of the most popular tweaks and add-ons will find their way into the next Gnome 3 release as native, built-in preferences dialogs.

In summary, I really like Gnome 3 and thank the Gnome team very much for creating it. I hope that many of the hiccups I’ve seen so far are just early-adopter syndrome, and it’ll get more complete and well-rounded in future releases. I probably need better and more configurable IRC functionality if I’m going to switch to using the built-in messaging/chat functionality, and I definitely need a better password manager in general. I might also need a taskbar or something similar to help me switch between running applications and windows when I’m using my mouse to control my computer. But all of this is early impressions, and I’m trying to learn to be a more skilful Gnome user, so I’ll see how that goes.

Posted on Tue, Jun 7, 2011. Approximately 1700 Words.

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