Gnome 3

“The difference between something that can go wrong and something that can’t possibly go wrong is that when something that can’t possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”

Douglas Adams

I decided a while ago that virtualizing my whole devenv was getting kind of annoying, so I’ve spent a few weeks now living in Gnome 3, the latest version of the most widely-used Linux desktop user interface and a radical departure from previous gnomey efforts. It’s not without its flaws and imma let you finish, but my initial impression was that it’s really, really good, a huge breath of fresh air in terms of elegance, simplicity and modernity, particularly when you compare it to anything else available for Linux.

But, man, the things that it does get wrong it gets really, really wrong.

A friend of mine noted that Gnome 3 would be perfect for that intersection of people who want Linux on their desktops but who don’t actually want to customize anything, except that those people don’t actually exist. And since I’m not one of them it’s not an unconditional love, is all I’m saying.

The good things are:

  • Power management works right. I can close the lid on my laptop, and the OS doesn’t immediately lose its mind. I know, right? Maybe it’s because I’m doing this on a Thinkpad, but nobody’s more pleasantly surprised than me.
  • Window management is a lot better and less manual than it used to be. The Win7-style snap-to-fullscreen and snap-to-halfscreen is great; I wish I could do just a little bit more with it, like push-to-quadrant, but I’m OK with not having that. Wildly better than Unity, Ubuntu’s weird pastiche of antiquated UI ideas that feels like the user interface equivalent of finding out your grandmother has saved all of your old t-shirts from grade school and stitched them together into the tux she expects you to wear to prom. That right there’s a tux! But I think perhaps no.
  • I’m not sure I’m sold on their windows/applications hot-corner idea. One or the other would be a better choice, I think, but since you can fake that by putting all the applications you care about in the sidebar, it’s pretty good. Once you’ve done that, though, being able to throw the mouse up into the corner to get an expose-style view of all your windows and the sidebar is pretty great, comparable in terms of efficient navigational feel to OS X Lion and materially better than Win7, which really just feels horribly legacy lately.

A few things that aren’t:

  • The default UI widgets are unambiguously ugly. The default font isn’t great, and if you don’t like either of those things tough luck. You can’t change them. I hope you like a drunken stumble around a grayscale palette. Got a particularly high-res screen? The Gnome 3 devs don’t. Suck it.
  • Bluetooth is straight-up broken, and not “glue-the-parts-back-together” broken, but actual “mop-and-bucket-and-maybe-hazmat-suit” broken. It just doesn’t work at all. It’s inexplicably disabled by default, and there’s no way to turn it on in the UI – there’s a switch that doesn’t work because you need to restart the service, and you need to do that from the command line. The only reason I can think of that it’s disabled by default is that even after you’ve turned it all on, you discover that the UI is just about 100% brain damage.
  • Approximately zero thought has gone into the preferences window, not just in terms of how it’s laid out, but how things are categorized, how things look or how they work. It’s kind of ugly, and kind of dumb.
  • Relatedly, in regards to “Universal Access”, it’s very, very obvious that nobody with an actual disability or any accessibility expertise has had any say in this. Whatever it does well for fully able-bodied people, Gnome 3 is the creepy, bigoted great-uncle of accessible tech, telling jokes he doesn’t realize aren’t funny, just offensive, disappointing and sad. That’s not to say it’s not wholly typical, of course; failures of accessibility are one of free software’s most shameful ongoing failures. But it’s sad to see it take another decisive tumble downhill.
  • Reconnecting to wireless is tedious, taking about ten times longer from lid-open to connected than OSX, and I can’t get WPA-encrypted connections to work at all. I don’t know why that is, but NetworkManager has never been a particularly lovable piece of software. So it’s hard to blame the Gnome 3 people for that, but there it is in Gnome 3, so.
  • Multimonitor support is a straight-up disaster. It’s not possible that any Gnome 3 developer owns a multimonitor machine if it’s this bad.

I don’t fundamentally object to the idea of a computer as a just-works appliance, but if you’re going to go down that road the onus on the developer is that stuff has to just work, and lot of stuff around the edges of Gnome 3 Just Doesn’t. As great as it is in some respects, Gnome 3 has the classic Linux smell of “Works For Me On My Machine”. You get the impression you could tell what kind of computers the primary developers use by what works well, what works badly and what doesn’t work at all.

7 Comments

  1. Posted September 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    The multimonitor “support” is dumbfoundingly unusable. It’s just totally broken, to a degree that I can’t even understand.

    I agree with the fundamental point that aside from the details that make it nearly unusable (hah), it’s the best effort at a really good (as opposed to perfectly adequate) Linux desktop environment yet.

  2. Ian Hurst
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m with you on this in general, but I think I’m a lot closer to your mythical linux user that wants zero customization, and thus haven’t been as frustrated. We only share two complaints:

    1. The lack of a font dialog (actually hysterical)
    2. The delay connecting to a wireless network (maddening)

    Your other issues are undisputed problems that, for whatever reason, haven’t affected me (I’m not disabled, e.g., and don’t use bluetooth). One area where our experiences have differed significantly is multi monitor support. I have an external LCD connected to my dock, and it’s never once done anything but exactly what I want. This is presumably an Ian-Got-Lucky rather than a Haters-Gonna-Hate, of course.

    One annoyance I’d add is the Empathy message area notifications. I love what they’re trying to do, but because of the peculiar icon behavior I have to chase the fucking thing around every time I want to look at an IM. This bugged me enough that I switched back to Pidgin.

    Another (also minor) is clicking a dock icon doesn’t automatically create a new window, if one’s already open. This sucks particularly when trying to work with files.

  3. Posted September 7, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I’m confused – you think that any of this *works* on OSX? Because it doesn’t.

    Yes, Linuxen and lobotomised-BSDen suck for desktop use. That’s not new or surprising.

    (I’ve gotten yelled at by an entire mailing list of people who share my problems and yet can’t be bothered to read my complaints, for months at a time, on this kind of thing. And it pisses me off.)

  4. mhoye
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure what you’re saying “works” here, but: Getting around Lion with multitouch gestures is unambiguously the best way to navigate an computer on the market today. Gnome 3 is the only thing in the time zone, much less area.

    The Windows UI is really antiquated by comparison to either.

  5. Posted September 7, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Multitouch gestures are the enemy of usability. They are anti-usable. Leaving aside, of course, the idiotic “menus cannot be associated with the window” crap that BSD-With-A-Lobotomy works so hard to ensure that you can’t change.

  6. gary
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    FWIW, been using Gnome 3 shell with Ubuntu 11.04 for a month or so now on a Dell Inspiron laptop and it’s really grown on me. It is the most elegant OS out there right now but, more than that, I’ve found it to be really fast and smooth, much more so than Unity. I used it for a while on my desktop computer with OpenSUSE 11.4 but a kernel/nVidia update killed that (for now), so I’m back to Ubuntu classic on the desktop. But I think when Ubuntu 11.10 comes out – with Gnome 3 shell available – I’ll probably go with that. I have actually found Gnome 3 in Ubuntu to be easier to work with than in OpenSUSE, but then I’m not a techie. I also tried it a few days with Fedora but… well, I just didn’t like Fedora so much.
    But, yeah, that System Settings window is pretty bad. Anyway, I have found I can customize it enough for now with Gnome Tweak. And as time goes on people will keep coming up with more ways to make it customizable. But, again, it’s easily the fastest, smoothest thing I’ve ever used on a computer.

  7. Posted September 8, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Hoye: To be fair to Windows, Win8 looks to have a lot of the Liony stuff in it, and better-done. Though it remains to be seen how many apps will work in that mode vs. the legacy compatibility Win7-style.