March 17, 2008

GNOME 2.22 focuses on utilities and standard applications

Author: Bruce Byfield

As you might expect, GNOME 2.22, the latest version of the popular desktop, which was released last week, has some functional tweaks and new default applications. If the release has a focus, it is on utilities, ranging from added features in standard GNOME applications such as Evolution and Archive Manager to improved accessibility and a handful of new applets. Few of these changes are dramatic, but the overall impression is of dozens of small enhancements that nudge GNOME toward greater usability.

Behind the scenes, where everyday users will hardly notice anything, developers have been busy. The GNOMEVFS abstraction layer, which was used by GNOME applications, has been replace by the more modern GVFS, which, among other things, provides a higher-level API for development and allows applications that don't share its library to access its mount points. The new cdda:// protocol allows the file manager to read tracks on a CD, while the gphoto2:// protocol does the same for digital cameras. While most users will probably not be aware of such changes, the overall result is faster performance and increased convenience.

GNOME 2.22 is also the first release in which Seahorse replaces the Keyring Manager as the default tool for managing passwords and encryption keys. This change should be especially important for inexperienced users for whom the entire idea of keys is murky, since Seahorse includes a list of first-time options, as well as a filter for finding local keys and a search tool for tracking down remote ones -- to say nothing of clear and extensive help. Perhaps with Seahorse installed by default, more users will start to use encryption where appropriate.

Another tool that has been around for several releases but receives new attention in GNOME 2.22 is Window Compositing, which is enabled by default for the first time. You still need more than a gigabyte of RAM to enable the feature, but if you appreciate eye-candy like shadows on windows and transparencies, or window previews, you might welcome compositing's new availability.

Completely new applications are rare in GNOME 2.22, but at least two fill missing gaps in desktop functionality. Cheese is the equivalent of Mac OS X's Photo Booth, and provides for the first time an efficient webcam viewer and video and still capture program for GNOME. It also includes various filters for captures, although these have such limited amusement value that most users will probably try them once and forget about them. Considering that the only webcam viewer that default GNOME has carried in the past is Ekiga, a VoIP tool in which viewing is secondary, Cheese is an addition that seems long overdue.

Another new application is the Remote Desktop Viewer (a.k.a. Vinagre), a VNC client that can provide access to multiple machines, and is distinguished by an interface that deserves a reward for its simplicity and usability. The Viewer includes a windowed and full-screen view, as well the ability to store bookmarks and take screen captures.

Old made new

These applications aside, what is most noticeable in GNOME 2.22 is the dozens of small changes made to standard GNOME applications. The Epiphany Web browser (not that many people use it when Firefox is available) now boasts a download notification, while Archive Manager now supports LZMA compression. Similarly, Tomboy -- probably the best of the Mono-based applets -- now includes folder-like notebooks for organizing loose notes, while the panel clock can now display multiple times, a feature that can be useful for those involved in online collaboration.

Especially welcome are the changes to Evolution, GNOME's clone of of Microsoft Outlook, which gains the ability to display Google calendars and, even more importantly, to add your own labels or tags to email. Unlike the older system, which allows messages to be marked only as Important, Work, Personal, To Do, and Later, the new tagging ability is so useful that it quickly establishes itself as indispensable.

Many of the small changes come in the area of accessibility, where a small group of developers have evolved their own subculture within GNOME in the last few years. Thanks to this group, collaboration with Mozilla has resulted in Firefox 3 being fully supported by applications like the Orca screen reader and the Screen Magnifier. In addition, GNOME 2.22 now supports mouse dwells or gestures, and keyboard shortcuts can now be linked to particular sounds.

In other applications, small changes are accompanied by interface improvements. For instance, in the gedit text editor, added printing features, such as the ability to print line numbers and syntax highlighting, are accompanied by a tidied-up dialog window. Similarly, the keyboards preference dialog now includes accessibility options and choices for the substitution of the keyboard for mouse buttons in the same window.

However, the tweaks of standard applications are not uniformly successful. The Totem movie player now views Flash via the swfdc library, but is of only limited use, given that the two latest versions of the format are not completely supported. Nor are Flash files downloaded to the desktop as often as viewed from a browser, so the absence of a Firefox plugin makes this enhancement less useful than it could have been. The most that can be said is that it is a step in the right direction toward a free software Flash player -- but one that falls disappointingly short.

Similarly, the Evince document viewer, perhaps in response to the rival Okular in KDE 4, is now noticeably faster and supports slide transitions in PDF files. However, these improvements are at least partly overshadowed by the failure to fix longstanding problems in in Evince, such as the tendency to crash when viewing presentations that include notes.

Overall impression

For the average user, few of these improvements are must-haves. The sole exceptions are probably the new accessibility features, which, for people with disabilities, may be far-ranging enough to make GNOME their desktop of choice.

Nor does GNOME 2.22 attempt a radical reinterpretation of the desktop, the way that KDE 4 does. However, to be fair, no one should expect it to, given that GNOME 2.22 is an incremental release.

What GNOME 2.22 offers is an accumulation of small improvements, similar to those of the last few releases. These improvements are unlikely to be enough for many people to rush out and compile the new version for themselves, or even to burn a CD of the latest snapshot of Ubuntu 8.04 or install Foresight 2.0, which was released at the same time as the new desktop version. All the same, when the new version trickles down into the repositories of other distributions, most users should find a handful of improvements they will be glad to have.


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