March 17, 2006

Review: GNOME 2.14

Author: Bruce Byfield

The GNOME desktop has come a long way since a study sponsored by Sun Microsystems in 2001 raised usability issues. Since then, GNOME has learned to take usability seriously, developing its Human Interface Guidelines and making strong efforts to apply them more thoroughly with each release. The GNOME 2.14 release continues this tradition. Although few major innovations are visible to the user, the release includes another round of improvements in usability and the continued development of the desktop administration tools, as well as numerous small improvements in productivity software.

Officially released on Wednesday, GNOME 2.14 is available on a live CD based on Ubuntu 6.04 (Dapper Drake). The live CD is currently in the 2.12 repository (look at the bottom of the list of files). Alternatively, you can install the latest build for Ubuntu 6.04 or Fedora Core 5. Both distributions will demonstrate the increase in speed in 2.14 better than the live CD, although you might check the GNOME 2.14 start page to add any packages that are excluded. You can also use Garnome, a program designed to install a GNOME release on an existing system without affecting your current GNOME installation. However, I don't recommend trying this method if you're only mildly curious, because checking Garnome's dependencies -- 70 for Debian -- and compiling it is probably more trouble than you would care to take. The hard-core, of course, may prefer to compile from source, possibly automating the process with JHBuild.

Usability improvements

Some of the interface changes in the new version, such as the addition of icons to dialog windows, are the equivalent of the gingerbread on the gables of Victorian houses -- decorations that do nothing for functionality. Others, such as the renaming or repositioning of menu items, increase the consistency of the interface, but will probably be unnoticed by most users, except as a mild irritation because something's different. Aside from these changes, GNOME 2.14 offers a solid core of improvements in usability, with an increased simplicity in general design, a help system that is finally more than minimally useful, and an acceleration of some key elements of the desktop.

GNOME's interface has been improving systematically with each of the last three or four releases. In version 2.12, for example, the emphasis seemed to be on the wholesale sprinkling of icons through the interface, sometimes as gingerbread, but often when they simplified and made sense, such as the options in the Add to Panel dialogue. Now, in version 2.14, the focus is on flattening the levels of menus, tabs, and dialogs that users have to go through to reach selections. For instance, the number of tabs has been reduced in dialogue windows, wherever possible, to two or three. Similarly, combo boxes have been removed in many places, such as in Sound Preferences; sound events are now displayed in a checkbox list. The practical result of such changes is that users can find options more quickly.

The same is true for Yelp, GNOME's help system. At times, the text in Yelp refers to older releases. At others, the text has more compound and complex sentences than is consistent with ease of use. Yet, despite these problems, Yelp is noticeably more useful. It now displays not only GNOME help, but also man and info pages, the help systems of the command line. More importantly, like Nautilus, Yelp has gained a search tool. With these changes, Yelp finally has the interface it needs to be truly useful, even if more work is needed to polish the contents.

By far the greatest improvement in usability is the enhanced performance, thanks to a project in Google's Summer of Code last year. Running Ubuntu 5.10, my test machine went from the GDM login screen to the GNOME 2.12 desktop in eight seconds. On the same machine, Ubuntu 6.04 with the GNOME 2.14 code took four seconds to log in. When I ran the ls -R command in gnome-terminal, the contents of the /var directory took 12 seconds to print to the screen in GNOME 2.12 and 6 seconds to print in GNOME 2.14. Similarly, displaying the contents of /etc took three seconds under GNOME 2.12 and just over a second under GNOME 2.14. So far as I can tell, programs do not open any faster in 2.14, and logging out is only marginally faster. Still, even allowing for my unscientific timing, the increase in speed is impressive. It should be especially welcome on older, RAM-challenged machines.

Metacity, GNOME's default window manager, has a number of improvements listed in the release notes, including enhanced support for multiple monitors and the ability to mark windows running on another machine. But, like GNOME as a whole, Metacity's most noticeable improvement is its speed -- specifically, a faster redraw of windows when they are resized, moved, or minimized. On faster machines, this redraw all but eliminates the ghostly outlines that have haunted moving windows in Metacity until now. If Metacity is still not quite a match in speed for Sawfish, the window manager shipped in GNOME prior to version 2.2, it finally comes close enough that I am considering using it on my main machine when I upgrade it.

All these enhancements add up to increased efficiency for GNOME users. They are joined by dozens of other changes, including improvements in font rendering, and the quickness with which users can be switched when logging out. As minor as some of these changes are, they combine to offer a desktop that is more responsive and easier to navigate.

Administration and configuration tools

Historically, GNOME has been light on administration and configuration tools. Recent releases, however, have improved the situation. GNOME 2.14 continues the trend, introducing several new tools.

Two of the new tools, Pessulus and Sabayon, help administrators limit what users of everyday accounts can do on the system. Using Pessulus, administrators can control access to hardware, such as printers, or to the command line, where malicious or inexperienced users can cause more damage than they can on the desktop. For the same reason, Pessulus can banish the Force Quit panel applet from users' desktops. Administrators can also use Pessulus to reduce common help desk requests or to set up GNOME on public computers by barring users from changing panel options, locking the screen, or logging out, or by disabling bookmark editing and unsafe protocols such as FTP in the default Web browser.

Sabayon might also be called a lockdown tool, but it takes a different approach from Pessulus. In Sabayon, you control access to software and hardware by creating user profiles. Administrators can create profiles in a reproduction of the desktop created using xnest. Unfortunately, this reproduction is slow to open, even on a recent system. After it opens, though, administrators can define access to any programs or hardware simply by selecting them from menus. Once the profile is set in xnest, administrators can add users to them.

From a security perspective, Sabayon and Pessulus are complementary tools, differing mainly in approach. They are joined by the Power Manager, used to control how a computer is suspended or hibernates when inactive.

In some areas of configuration, including the installation of system fonts, GNOME's administration suite still lags behind the KDE Control Center. However, with the improvements in 2.14, GNOME seems focused less on configuration than on practical concerns of daily administration. In particular, the new tools should go far in helping administrators in their never-ending struggle to keep one step ahead of users.

Productivity tools

Many of GNOME's standard tools have been upgraded in the latest release. Gedit, the GNOME text editor, has continued the improvements in the last few releases by adding support for Python plugins and plugins for executing external commands and tag completion. Evolution, which provides Outlook-like messaging and scheduling functionality, has even larger changes, including support for the Hula calendar and Web server, and a new WebDAV-like protocol called CalDav. Usefully, Evolution, also supports memos now, adding a long-missing function and improving connectivity with personal information managers. In addition, Evolution's address book is now integrated with Ekiga, a.k.a. GNOME Meeting. Ekiga itself has undergone sweeping changes, and now sports video and voice over IP.

The major new productivity tool in GNOME 2.14 is Beagle, a search tool for information in an account's home directory. Beagle can search through everything from office suite documents and IRC logs to Web browsers' histories, RSS feeds, and music files. Currently, Beagle has some limitations -- for example, it does not search for native KOffice files or for any image formats except .jpeg, .png, and .svg -- but its range is creditable for a new application. Its largest drawback is its sluggish performance on Reiser filesystems. Some users may also dislike the fact that its default focus is the home directory, and anally-retentive organizers of files and directories, like me, may find little need for it. However, within its limitations, Beagle is a potentially powerful tool, especially for beginners.

An incremental upgrade

GNOME 2.14 has a few issues. As I explored different incarnations of the beta, I was pleased to see the Alacarte Menu Editor, and disappointed to realize that it was added by Ubuntu, not GNOME 2.14; a menu editor is something that I've missed since one was dropped in an early 2.x release. Alacarte, or something similar, might complement Sabayon and Pessulus for administrators trying to control the users experience. Similarly, one or two administration tools are designed with the unsupported assumption that most distributions and users will choose the Epiphany Web browser, which robs them of some of their usefulness if you prefer another browser. A desktop tool for changing window managers would also be welcome.

Even more importantly, GNOME still needs a more powerful file manager. Never mind that Eazel went bankrupt developing Nautilus -- consigning the directory tree to a pulldown menu in the default view, lack of more than two panes and an inability to set the default directory all make it slow and awkward to use. Integrating other functions, such as file compression, into Nautilus would also make sense, especially since CD burning and a search tool are now part of it. Personally, I would appreciate the ability to turn off the context view, which stresses the current user's home directory and desktop over the general file system.

Such issues aside, GNOME 2.14 continues the steady improvement visible in the last few releases. It is an incremental upgrade, consisting largely of tweaks and the filling in of gaps in functionality. If few of these changes are major by themselves, the overall result is welcome.

Perhaps the best way of looking at the release is not as an end in itself, but as a milestone on the road to desktop usability in free operation systems. From this perspective, GNOME 2.14 is a sign that much of the journey is already over -- and that the remaining distance is less than many observers think.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and IT Manager's Journal.

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