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Monday, October 1, 2012

Software Review: Ubuntu Desktop Environments Part 3: Gnome Shell

This is Part 3 of a multi-part series of posts.
Part 1
Part 2

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Open Source world or operating systems other than Windows or Mac, there lies a magical world of free (as in freedom) software.  Many of you are already accustomed to free (as in beer) software, or freeware.  But what makes Open Source Free software so unique is that when it is licensed under something like the GNU General Public License anybody has the freedom to change, modify, and redistribute that software either for money or for free (as in beer).  That means that you could have thousands of individuals working on a piece of software all around the world, creating localized language packs, improving performance, squashing bugs, and fixing security holes.

  Sounds pretty sweet, right?  And I'm about to blow your mind, because not only is there software like LibreOffice or GIMP that's Open Source, but there's a whole slew of Operating Systems.  Versions of Unix, reincarnations of BeOS, and the very popular Unix-like GNU/Linux (often shortened to just Linux).  I'm going to be specifically looking at GNU/Linux for this multi-part post, and even more specifically I'm going to be comparing the Desktop Environments that are built on the GNU/Linux Distribution Ubuntu.  These posts will be spaced far enough apart to allow me to use the systems for a good week or two.  After I have tested the different "major" Desktop Environments I'll have a final post with my conclusion and opinion.  All of these OS's are run on my work computer, which is an HP ProBook 6460b with an Intel Core i5 2520m, 8GB of RAM, and 500GB 7200RPM drive with a custom partition setup.  This should be more than adequate to run all of these Desktop Environments.

  As I discussed in my last article, Ubuntu Unity was based on Gnome 3, but with a different User Interface.  Gnome Shell is much like Unity in that it sits on top of Gnome 3.  It shares many of the same visual styles and color schemes as Unity, but for all of it's similarities, the striking difference is how much more usable the other Desktop Environments I've used are compared to Gnome Shell.

  To install Gnome Shell in Ubuntu you simply need to type sudo apt-get update followed by <code>sudo apt-get install gnome-shell</code>.  Since Ubuntu Unity is based on Gnome 3, all you need is Gnome Shell.  Distributions like Fedora or OpenSUSE have Gnome Shell installed as the default Gnome environment.  Once installed, log out of your current session of Unity, and click the little Ubuntu symbol next to your name and select Gnome.  After you've logged back in, you'll be met with a blank desktop (or in my case anything left over from my desktop in Unity) with "Activities" in the upper-left corner, the applet menu on the upper-right containing your name, batter status, network, bluetooth, sound, and Accessibility options.

  Initially, I was a little confused at the layout.  I didn't understand the meaning of Activities outright.  Did it mean active Activities?  So, like many intrepid users, I went to click on it.  The Activities button is similar in function to the Ubuntu button in Unity.  The first difference is it's not just a button.  You can simply mouse over it and your screen dims, and you are presented with a dock on the left, the words "Windows" and "Applications" near the top, and on the right hand side are your virtual desktops.  By default there are only 2 virtual desktops, but that number can grow, as I'll cover in a moment.  And on the bottom-right corner are the icons for applications generally associated with the notification areas in other environments.  Things like Dropbox, Desura, and anything else reside here.

  The Dock is where you put your most used or favorite apps.  It comes pre-populated with Firefox, your Home folder, LibreOffice, and a few other apps.  As I normally do, I started customizing.  When you want to remove an app from the dock, you can either click and drag the app icon to a trash-bin that appears on the dock for just that purpose, or you can right click the icon and select "Remove from Favorites".  Pretty straight forward.   After clearing out my Dockbar from all of the kruft, I wanted to add my own favorites.  I figured that hovering over the "Applications" button would get me where I wanted, just like hovering over Activities.  That wasn't the case.  Applications and Windows were both like normal buttons, so click and voila, I can now peruse all of my applications.  Adding an application to the Dock can be done by either dragging the application over, or right clicking and selecting "Add to Favorites".

  Now my dock is how I like it, time to open a few apps.  I open gedit (to write this article), Firefox, Ubuntu Software Center, and Desura.  So after signing into Desura, and looking for a decent print-screen utility on Firefox (since the good ol Print Screen button doesn't seem to like Gnome Shell), I wanted to get down to work.  That's where I ran into a bit of a problem.  How do I minimize the windows to switch behind applications?  There was the exit "X" in the right hand corner, but no maximize and minimize buttons.I can drag the windows around, and Gnome Shell has the same "snap" feature that Windows 7 popularized.  I could snap my full screen Firefox to one side and access the full-screened Ubuntu Software Center.  So can I only have 2 apps open at a time?  By clicking on Activities, or using Super-L (the Windows key) on the keyboard, the dock pops up, along with all active windows.

  Gnome Shell doesn't have a minimize or maximize set of buttons because it doesn't have a normal task bar or launcher like the previous DE's I have reviewed.  I'm not sure why Gnome Shell chose this implementation, but I can tell you that I don't like it.  It feels cumbersome to constantly be hitting Super-L or Mousing up the the Activities button constantly to be switching between multiple windows.  It adds another unnecessary step into the equation.  You can't rearrange the windows, either.  Where they are is where they stay, based on when you opened them.  You can move the open windows to another Virtual Desktop, however, and you could even have one window per Virtual Desktop.

  Virtual Desktops allow you to group certain windows and open apps together on different "desktops".  If you're coming from Windows, it would be like if you could have 3 or 4 "desktops" with all of your same files and folders, but you could have different applications open on each one.  You could have all of your Programming apps on one desktop, and Writing apps on another, and you could have your music/movie players on a third.  Traditionally on KDE, Gnome 2.x, Xfce, and LXDE you are restricted to 2 or 4 Virtual desktops.  Ubuntu Unity has a limit of 4 Virtual Desktops.  Gnome Shell starts with 2, but you can add more on the fly by dragging an application to the next blank desktop.

  Clicking on the Applets in the upper-right corner bring up context menus for further options.  Clicking the wireless Applet shows you what wireless signals are in range, and shows if you are connected via ethernet.  Volume brings up a level slider, bluetooth brings up options to send or receive items as well as discover-ability.  Clicking on your name lets you see your online accounts, notifications, system settings, and logging out and suspending.  Curiously absent is the shutdown and restart buttons.  No where in the Applications Menu, nor the Applets, nor the favorites bar is a shutdown command.  other than Logging Out to shutdown, or typing in terminal sudo shutdown -h now could I figure out how to shutdown.  After some web-searching I found that you have to click on your name, hold down the Alt key, and then the "Suspend" option will change into the "Power Off".  That's a big detractor for me, simply because I shouldn't have to search the internet to figure out how to turn off the machine.  There are basic functions that should be very easy and clear for the end user, and I don't consider myself technically challenged, so imagine if a complete computer novice tried using this machine.

  After about a week of using Gnome Shell, I must say that I'm not impressed.  Some features are neat, like the flexible Virtual Desktops, the entire GUI just doesn't seem very usable.  The constant mousing up to Activities or using Super-L to constantly switch between applications tells me that very little effort was put into making Gnome Shell usable for the average user who uses the mouse for most tasks.  The fact that there is no shutdown or restart button seems like a no-brainer to include, but in Gnome Shell, it's hidden.  I can't even begin to imagine what made that seem like a good idea.   When using Unity, there were a few annoyances, such as the Close, Maximize, and Minimize buttons on the left, but the entire UI was still familiar and very user friendly.  Unity felt like more time and effort and polish were put into it.  Gnome Shell, while still built around the same Gnome 3 core as Unity, felt half done, and very unfriendly to a new user.

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