Review At five years in the making, and with code contributions from more than 3,500 developers, the just released GNOME 3 is not a small upgrade: it's a radical departure with an entirely new approach.
GNOME 3 will no doubt prove polarizing for the GNOME community, at least initially. But, the reality is, love it or hate it, GNOME 3 is the future of GNOME. Work on GNOME 2.x has ceased and while some distros will probably stick with it for a while longer, there will be no future releases or new features.
Fortunately for GNOME fans there is much to love in GNOME 3 and only a few things that may trip up seasoned GNOME users.
The first time you fire up GNOME 3, the most noticeable change is the lack of, well, anything familiar. You'll see a toolbar at the top of the screen with a clock and some familiar panels for Wi-Fi, volume and the like, but there is no bottom panel and no menu items to click on save one - "Activities."
GNOME 3 means you don't need to open menus or drill through categories to find your apps
The Activities menu is your gateway into the new GNOME Shell. The GNOME Shell sits on top of the desktop and moves aside the traditional window lists and menu bars in favor of what the GNOME team believes is a more streamlined interface with fewer distractions.
Although GNOME 3 will be a jarring shock for those accustomed to working with the GNOME 2.x line, once you spend some time with it, it's hard not to love the GNOME Shell - particularly if you're working on a small screen device where the reduced window clutter is a welcome change.
Indeed GNOME 3 is a cleaner, much-simplified desktop experience no matter what size your screen is. The GNOME Shell does an admirable job of making it feel like the entire system is just you and whatever app you're using at the moment - the Shell stays out of your way until you need it.
When you need it there are a variety of ways to invoke it - the aforementioned menu item, hot corners, mouse clicks or keyboard shortcuts (by default the Windows key). When the shell is brought forward you'll be greeted by a dock on the left of your screen, shrunk down windows of any running apps in the middle, a workspace switcher to the right and, most importantly, a search bar.
The workflow is simple, call up the shell and start typing. You can search for apps and documents, launch applications, switch desktop environments and perform all the tasks you're used to doing in GNOME from the shell. Once you're done the shell moves back out of your way leaving just your apps on screen.
The integrated launcher means there's no need to open menus and hunt through app categories to find what you need (though you still can if you prefer, just click the applications item in the GNOME Shell). Clearly GNOME 3 takes some inspiration from third-party apps like GNOME Do, though it lacks many of GNOME Do's power-user functions. For example, there's no way to quickly open a document in a different program, rename a document, move a file or use any of GNOME Do's other powerful options. Still, there's no question that, especially for app launching, the GNOME Shell is a step up from GNOME 2.
For those that prefer a "dock" approach to launching apps, the GNOME Shell has that option covered as well, just add your favorites to the dock and click to launch. The dock is also an easy way to switch between open apps.
Messages that don't interrupt
Other standout new features in GNOME 3 include the new notifications system, which introduces persistent notification messages. The message tray in GNOME Shell will pop-up alerts, (just like GNOME 2 does), for a certain period of time. But, in GNOME 3, even after the message time expires, the notification message is still available in the message tray. The persistent messages mean that you no longer need to interrupt your work and immediately deal with the message window during the short time it's visible.
In GNOME 3 the message will be there whenever you decide to interact with it. In some cases - like instant messaging - you can even respond to a new message without leaving your current app. Just click the message, type your reply and send it - all from the notification window.
Undoubtedly, the most controversial decision in GNOME 3 is the removal of the maximize and minimize window buttons. Every window in GNOME 3 has only one button - the close button. To replicate the behavior of the missing maximize button you simply drag a window's title bar up to the top bar and release it. The window will then fill your screen. Drag the windows' title bar away from the top bar to return it to normal size.
A new way of working: no minimize or maximize window buttons
There is no equivalent action that replicates the function of the minimize button. Technically, you can minimize windows by right-clicking the close button and choosing minimize (or maximize for that matter), but that's definitely a step backwards for those that regularly minimize windows.
There isn't room here to get into the exact reasoning behind the lack of window buttons in GNOME 3, but the underlying idea is that GNOME 3 wants you to try a different workflow. And in fact the shell, along with the much improved desktop switching tools, go along way toward eliminating the need to minimize windows. But go a long way toward and completely replace are two totally different things. There's no way to sugar coat it - if your work habits rely on minimizing windows you're going to hate GNOME 3.
The decision to eliminate the minimize and maximize buttons also highlights another aspect of GNOME 3 that may irritate long time users - the lack of customization options. It used to be that GNOME could be tweaked to your liking, in fact customizing GNOME was just part of what you did - GNOME out of the box was never anything to write home about.
If fiddling with your system is part of what drew you to Linux in the first place, GNOME 3 in its current state will likely prove disappointing. There are ways to customize GNOME 3, but it will mean re-learning many things.
If, on the other hand, you really don't care what your desktop looks like and you just want to get some work done, GNOME 3 is a huge step up over GNOME 2.
As someone who has traditionally replaced GNOME's standard interface with tools like Docky and GNOME Do, I initially found GNOME 3 disorienting. But, after using it for a few days (via Fedora 15 beta), I found that GNOME 3 had slipped into my workflow with very little effort on my part.
Yes, GNOME Do offers more tools than the GNOME Shell, but for the 90 per cent use case the GNOME Shell ably does the job. And yes, I still sometimes get frustrated with certain behaviors. For example, clicking on an app in the dock brings the app forward if it's already open, handy most of the time, but irritating if you were expecting a new window. Overall, however, I've found that it doesn't take long to adjust to GNOME 3's quirks and get back to getting work done.
Nice though GNOME 3 may be, I don't suggest upgrading just yet. For one thing, this is essentially a 1.0 release and not everything is quite there just yet. But more important most distros haven't yet fully integrated with GNOME 3.
If you'd like to get up to speed on GNOME 3 before your favorite distro ships it, you can grab a live CD from the GNOME website. ®