September 20, 2007

GNOME 2.20 shows significant improvement

Author: Jeremy LaCroix

GNOME 2.20 was released yesterday. Even though I use GNOME regularly, I normally don't get excited over new releases, because most seem to offer little more substance than previous versions, with most of the work being done under the hood. This time, though, GNOME has a solid list of new features and upgrades. It's worth taking a look at even if you aren't a fan of this desktop environment.

I tested GNOME's new features by installing a nightly build of the upcoming Ubuntu 7.10 release, which will include GNOME 2.20 as its default user interface, on my laptop. In an attempt to maintain the feel of a default GNOME install as much as possible, I reverted the theme used by Ubuntu back to the new default of GNOME 2.20. The wallpaper used in the release notes was nowhere to be found in my Ubuntu install, which means it must not have been included in the art package.

Since most distributions these days customize the look and feel of the desktop, you might not see the new look of GNOME even if it's your distribution's desktop environment. Version 2.20 uses the same Clearlooks theme as previous versions, but it has been touched up to the point where you would almost think it's a different theme altogether. With this version of Clearlooks, there is a greater emphasis on blue, silver, and shiny buttons, with a more modern version of the window decorations. I like this version (which I hear referred to as "Gummy Clearlooks," which is a fitting name since it resembles the GNOME theme "nano-gummy"; this is the first time I've found myself continuing to use a desktop environment's default theme.

Speaking of themes, the old theme manager has been replaced with Appearance Preferences, which acts as a central place for customizing not only your desktop themes, but also your background, desktop effects, fonts, and interface settings. Putting all of these settings in one place saves space in GNOME's preferences menu.

The GNOME screensaver now has a neat new feature. When your computer is locked and you are away from your desk, people who share your office can leave a message for you to receive when you come back. This feature will likely save some Post-It notes.

I was pleased to see improvements in the GNOME Power Manager too. Not only does it give you helpful messages regarding power events, it also displays warnings to notify you of situations such as wireless mouse batteries running low, or a power cable coming unplugged.

Evolution, the default email client included with GNOME, has received some attention from the developers as well. Perhaps the most useful new feature is Evolution's backup and restore plugin. With previous versions, messages and accounts were not easy to back up. Now, however, according to the documentation, you can save your email messages and settings in an archive that you can import later, which is useful if you're moving to a new PC or reinstalling your existing one. Unfortunately, this feature was unavailable for me to test on Ubuntu 7.10 -- I'm not sure if the feature was disabled by Ubuntu, or if a bug in the package prevented it from being accessible.

Other new features on the Evolution front include a status bar icon that flashes when you receive new mail, as well as an attachment reminder that comes up if your text implies that there should be an attached file and one isn't present. In my installation, the attachment reminder plugin was turned off by default, but turning it on was a matter of clicking on Edit -> Plugins -> Configure and checking the "enabled" box.

GNOME's Totem media player can now search for a codec when it can't find one installed that matches the type of media you're attempting to play. Unfortunately, this needs to be implemented by package maintainers, so it may not be available in all distributions. Still, features such as this are a great step in increasing the usability of Linux.

Smaller features include a pie graph in the media properties window that represents how much free space you have on your media, and syntax highlighting for Gedit (though for right now only scripting languages such as Ruby and PHP are supported). The GNOME Keyring Manager now automatically unlocks itself when you log in, so you don't need to input an extra password to unlock your keyring.

This list is only a sampling of some of the most obvious and interesting features in the new version. There are many less noticeable changes all over the desktop.


All those features seem great, but how does it run? While your results may differ, on my machine I noticed a slight yet significant speed increase. Menus are quicker to appear, and everything in general is a bit more responsive than it was before. Memory usage is close to the same as it was with 2.18. For me, about 995MB of my 1GB of RAM was cached by the system, and of that cache only around 201MB was used by my desktop. These numbers vary only slightly from the 188MB used by my machine when GNOME 2.18 was installed.

Even though GNOME 2.20 is full of new features and improvements, it has its share of small problems as well. While the default widget theme received a face lift, the GNOME icon theme is still the same one we've had for a long time. In addition, even though we have a pie graph that represents a media's free and used space, the text on this dialogue box displays the drive size as "unknown" and the type as a "desktop configuration file." Finally, Evolution's Microsoft Exchange support is still buggy at best. Evolution froze several times for me when I tried to connect to my work email, and once when I was copying a message from one folder to another.

Overall, despite a few minor annoyances, GNOME 2.20 is an amazing release, and includes a plethora of new features users are sure to find worthwhile. It's not groundbreaking, nor is it going to revolutionize Linux as we know it, but it is a clear step in the right direction, in contrast to previous versions that brought few visible new features to the table. My experience with this software so far has been great, and I hope that GNOME continues in this tradition and releases great revisions more often going forward.


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