To Gnome3 and back

Gnome3 made of easy

An itchy feeling

I admit, I'm a sucker for new things, shinny or not, and admittedly since I started out using Ubuntu/Linux a year or something ago (ON THE DESKTOP NO LESS) and what's newer and shinier than Gnome3 .

I've tried Unity before ( or The Ubuntu Netbook Remix system ), I've tried Jolicloud and had a look at MeeGo and ChromeOS and you can clearly the trend. I'm definitely not in a position to pass either judgment or give a complete utterly factual study about this, but seems to me the rise of small-screen computers - netbooks, MacBook Airs, Tablets and smartphones ( i-prefixed or not ) - has definitely had it's mark on the current Desktop paradigm (can I use this word here, buzzword already? Come on, it's my blog, let me use it :D ) .

Too many open windows!

Things have become bigger, screen use is more focused on one window (how many windows can you stick on a 11" screen?) and more is pushed down to small icons, visual indicators, special hardware keys, whatever is there to be helpful while getting out of your way (and by no means I'm vouching for results here, people have tried and failed, I'm just empirically stating a trend I see). This trend is going on despite the fact that you can now get bigger, cheaper and higher resolution LCD / LED screens than we used to in the CRT days, and after errr some 3 years of experimenting and messing around it seems that things are entering a stabilization stage now and we better get used to it :) - I also think it's useful to keep our synapses firing to new experiences and thank Zeus the world provides plenty of habit altering experiences .

Adventure time

Anyway, a couple of weeks after entering the Ubuntu Natty Narwhal world on my work laptop - I don't think I'm crazy, but I've had good experiences with these early upgrades not breaking my computer or even allowing me to continue to work, so my confidence is relatively high - I started getting Gnome3 references all over, culminating with a OMGUbuntu post mentioning an Ubuntu PPA being made available.

Me being me I obviously focused on the positive messages like

The good news is that Ubuntu maintain a GNOME 3 PPA for Ubuntu 11.04.

and less, much less on the not so positive warnings:

The bad news is that, for Ubuntu 11.04 at least, you won’t be able to run Unity and GNOME-Shell side-by-side as the GNOME 3 PPA breaks Unity.

or even

This PPA is EXPERIMENTAL and MAY BREAK YOUR SYSTEM. There is no downgrade process.

pffff please, where's your trust and nuts man :) , so after a couple of days of wanting to but finding reasons not to, I finally had a very very bad day (on all accounts) and decided that things could only get better if I went and potentially broke my of-office personal work computer, so a terminal was opened and words written on to it:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:gnome3-team/gnome3
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade
sudo apt-get install gnome-shell

... and then we waited ...

Gnome3: Made of different

Reboot (screen working: check, things responding: check, *sigh* of relief) and we're ready to go. The first impression is, hey, I remember this, it's vintage GTK look :), logging it to the new "Gnome Shell Desktop" worked (brave man's sigh of relief #2) and presto, my new desktop was actually working :) .

So the changes (from classic Gnome 2) are obvious and fall into what I mentioned a couple of sections back. A clean desktop, no drop down start/main menu, much less deskbar widgets, a surprising lack of right-mouse button and a top-left "hot corner" called Activities.

So after the initial - oh look it's soooo cute - it was time to start using it. I'm a developer so I guess I can call myself keyboard biased (versus using the mouse / trackpad ) and I've used a bit of Unity before so I immediately pressed the Super-key (ok, the Windows Key, yeah :) ) typed in the app name and it's up and running. The window decoration was clearly broken, and by broken I mean it had that mentioned vintage GTK look - apparently the Ubuntu theme(s) were broken with the current Gnome3 state - but generally and with that in mind everything was working as expected.

The thing I really liked was the new Notification system, everything that used to pop-up and grab the focus for you is now gently pushed down to the notification bar. A clear example is when a link is opened anywhere - inside the browser, on an email, help menu, whatever - where before a browser window would pop-up and have you look at it until the page would load up NOW a very gentle notification message tells you a page is gently being loaded somewhere and when it's done he will say so and if you really want to you can press this "we're done" message and it will take you to your newly opened window . This is by far my favorite thing so far :D

I also enjoyed - to some extent - the new Alt-Tab app switching . All applications on all workspaces (we'll talk about that in a second) are made available and instances of the same application are grouped together smartly so that you can browse between those instances separately. I sort of missed tabbing between windows on _one_ workspace but I could use the Actives screen for that, since he will show you a grid with the windows on the current workspace - even if the keyboard was made useless there and the mouse/trackpad had to be used.


Workspaces are now automatically created for you, there's always a spare empty workspace made available for you. What I don't like, or at least I didn't work for long enough to adapt, was the vertical-only workspace configuration. Having a linear-serial approach gives you less options to organize your workspaces, you also couldn't switch workspace positions meaning you are either stuck to the workspace sequence or you have to reorganize application workspace-position one by one. Browsing workspaces is also less productive since you might have to travel the entire linear road to get from workspace #1 to #5 . The always there spare workspace is cool, and I'm not saying it's easily workable to have a 2 dimensional workspace grid, but I missed it, even if, granted, I didn't use Gnome3 for long enough to alter my application-organization strategy-synapses :)

Troubles in paradise

Gnome3 System Settings Screen

With things mostly working, it was time for some important details. The new system settings screen now looks very familiar (can't put my finger on it) and right away I noticed my screen was running at full brightness which, when one has 2x 1h train trips is something of importance because I like my battery life . Unplugging the power cable seemed to produce zero automatic settings so I looked around and actually found it (sorry, I took so long to write this post that I lost some references, so between the Screen - Display or Power settings I don't remember where the brightness is) , what I do remember however is that the brightness settings showed up once and as soon as I touched them they would disappear into Computer Limbo. The hardware keys for brightness settings were also broken and a couple of grub boot settings grabbed from the Interwebz didn't produce any effect.

The CPU frequency settings that used to be available as a widget where also missing from action and the terminal command cpufreq-selector complained and failed to change things into powersave mode so two very important battery-life saving settings where now unavailable for me and this, by itself was a huge no-no .

Another problem - or lack of knowledge from my part, even if I trust in important things being made available instinctively - was THAT I SIMPLY COULDN'T FIND A BUTTON TO SHUTDOWN / RESTART MY COMPUTER . Now, it's ok, I know how to sudo reboot and sudo shutdown -h but let's consider for a second that some folk might not exactly enjoy the thril of command line operations :) - so I search around (apparently badly because I got nowhere) and reverted to the All-knowing-ever-present masses of the world - AKA twitter - for an answer and .. tara

Of course ... silly me :) but now I know ;) .

Apart from the power settings I noticed the graphical performance was slightly choppy, Gnome3 System Info apparently rated my graphical power as "standard" - my experience with gnome2 and compiz is fluid and I could clearly see the difference - even if this is a tiny detail, it wasn't that choppy.

Game over: Rollback

So, I sticked to Gnome for a few days longer hoping for some super update to solve some of the larger issues, I googled around and didn't get much, and the initial "YOU CAN'T DOWNGRADE" warning started to become heavier now :) but fellow Gnome3 testers @relva and @danyR opened the toolbox and boom, ppapurge came to the resque, so after a couple of commands, EVERYTHING was back to the way it was before and sigh of relief #3 was heard ... a couple of kilometers away too.

sudo apt-get install ppa-purge
sudo ppa-purge ppa:gnome3-team/gnome3

Surprise destination: Unity

Now, excited from the new experience (excited because it was new :) ) I decided to give Unity a second change (I had before but I clearly wasn't in it) and lo and behold, it has become my default desktop on my laptop :) - I'll write something about this later, but I'm now used to it, I actually enjoy it (even the new integrated app menu - again it sounds very familiar) and despite missing the CPU widget (how the heck do I add widgets to the bar - I guess I don't) and having to manually set the thing, I keeping it on the laptop. Where I'm not keeping it is on my office computer, the two screen large resolution experience begs for more GUI flexibility and I'm sticking to "Ubuntu Classic" on that one ... which got me thinking how the hell is this going to work out if Unity / Gnome3 like desktops become the one and only option ....... thoughts?

Update: For a really really really extensive Gnome3 review, by absolutely all means head over to @danyR's post here - it's in Portuguese but heck, that's what Google Translate was made for