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GNOME 3.4: Are We There Yet?

The GNOME Project has dropped another update to the GNOME 3 platform, just a year after the first release of GNOME 3. The second update of GNOME 3 offers a few new features, applications, and improvements that might make it worth a second look for GNOME traditionalists.

To test GNOME 3.4 as it approached its final release, I installed the Fedora 17 alpha. As usual, if you really want to ride the leading edge of software development, Fedora is a good place to start. (Which is not to say other distros aren't good for leading edge software, by the way.) I also checked out the GNOME 3.4 live CD provided by the GNOME folks.

GNOME 3.0 had its issues, but the GNOME project has had a full year to move the ball forward. In that time, the GNOME platform has improved a bit and is looking more like an environment that I'd want to use day to day. Note that I'm looking at GNOME 3.4 as a whole and not just new features, so some of the features I mention herein may have been added prior to this release.

New Applications

GNOME 3.4 has a couple of new and revised applications worth mentioning. The first I'll mention is Documents, an application for managing your documents – which means office docs, images, PDFs, text files, etc. If you've supplied your Google credentials via GNOME's Online Accounts, then it'll also index your documents in Google Docs and try to treat them as part of your local document collection.

The GNOME folks are taking ideas from other desktop and mobile OSes with Documents, and trying to make it much easier for users to find and deal with all their documents in one place. This is, to be honest, not a problem that I've really encountered. I got into the habit of storing my documents in an organized fashion years ago. But for users who save things anyplace on the drive that seems like a good idea, or make a lot of use of Google Docs, Documents seems like a pretty nifty little app. The name is a little confusing, though, as most OSes have have had a "Documents" folder for years.

GNOME 3.4 also features Web, a WebKit-based browser that used to be called Epiphany. The nice thing about Web is that it highlights some of the GNOME features that aren't exposed by many Linux applications. Namely, Web makes use of the top menu bar. The Web button, on the top left next to Activities, has the items you'd have found on a normal menu bar in the GNOME 2ish days. So, you can open a new window, go to bookmarks or history, or open preferences from the Web button.

Most applications, even GNOME-specific apps like Evolution, don't have support for GNOME's menu bar. So, really, the GNOME menu up top is just unused desktop chrome for most applications right now. But when paired with an application written for GNOME 3, it's a pretty nice design.

Web is a nice enough browser, but aside from a tech demo for the GNOME desktop... I'm not sure that there's a lot of demand for Yet Another WebKit browser. Most Linux distros ship with Firefox as the default browser, and lots of Linux users install Chromium or Google Chrome straight-away. Most users will never even see Web unless they go specifically looking for it.

One complaint about Web, and that's the decision to make it full screen with no apparent way to change that. I tested GNOME 3.4 on a system with a 1920x1200 display. Maybe some users find it necessary or desirable to run a browser maximized on a display that large, but I prefer to be able to have two applications side-by-side.

Boxes, on the other hand, looks like an interesting and useful addition to the desktop. Boxes is an application for using local or remote virtual machines. If you're needing to run a virtual machine or connect to virtual machines from your desktop, this promises to be very handy.

Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to test this extensively – the machine that I was testing GNOME 3.4 on was a bit under-powered. However, I'm pretty excited about Boxes and will provide a longer review of it after I put Fedora 17 on a beefier machine.

The Contacts application is also looking pretty spiffy. Contacts, as the name suggests, is a contact manager. But it's a bit more than the standard "stuff contacts into a local file" contact manager. Contacts works with locally stored contacts or online services like Google Contacts, Windows Live, and Facebook. It is just a contact manager, so it's not going to change your life or anything – but it's pretty nifty.

GNOME Extensions

GNOME 3.4 is looking pretty snazzy, and has improved quite a bit since its debut. However, without the GNOME extensions, it would still be unready for prime time.

The GNOME live CD doesn't include extensions that I noticed, and you have to go looking for them on Fedora. However, if you install the extensions you get back some GNOME 2-ish behavior that makes GNOME much more friendly for users who prefer that environment.

For example, you can swap out the new-style Alt-Tab behavior for standard window-centric iteration. Let me explain what I mean... When you use Alt-Tab to switch to a new window or task, the GNOME 3 model is application-centric instead of window-centric So if you're using Web and you hit Alt-Tab, the next option you see is the last application you were using. The old model was window-centric, and would display the last window you were using. Basically, GNOME 3 is emulating the Mac OS X model – while the old GNOME emulated the Windows way of doing things.

There's no right or wrong here, it's just that GNOME 3.x is horribly wrong. OK, I kid. But it feels horribly wrong if you've been doing it the other way for more than a decade. Some users may eat the new behavior up with a spoon – but it's great to have a choice.

GNOME extensions also give the option of bringing back the beloved minimize and maximize buttons.

I won't go into each and every extension, but I will say that if you like the old way of doing things in GNOME install the gnome-tweak-tool and gnome-shell-extension packages. On Fedora, at least, the GNOME extension packages are broken out so you install one package for each extension. For instance, to get the old Alt-Tab behavior, install gnome-shell-extension-alternative-tab.

Are We There Yet?

So the big question for GNOME 3.4 is... are we there yet? Different people will define "there" differently, but I define "there" as "a welcome desktop environment for users who liked and used GNOME 2.x."

I think the answer is yes, but only with a bit of tweaking. If choosing a desktop for myself, I'd probably opt for the Cinnamon fork of GNOME 3.x for now. But I wouldn't be hesitant to put GNOME 3.4 on a desktop for a friend or family member at this point.

If you've been holding off on GNOME 3.x so far, give it a shot when Fedora 17, openSUSE 12.2 or your favorite distro comes out with the latest. If you can't wait quite that long, there's the promo CD with GNOME 3.4.

Tried GNOME 3.4 yet? Let us know what you think in the comments. What should the GNOME team tackle for GNOME 3.6?



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