One Week With GNOME 3 Classic: Prologue

Over the next week, I’m going to be experimenting with the new GNOME Classic desktop in Fedora 19 beta. I will be recording my experiences (hopefully) daily on this blog. This first post will be mainly to identify my use-cases and history with desktops. This series of blog entries are entirely my own opinion and do not reflect the opinions of my employer, the Fedora community or anyone besides myself (though I hope my findings will be useful to all).

I am a fickle user. As a general rule, I don’t tie myself to one particular brand when choosing my tools. Throughout the years, I’ve used a variety of desktop environments for doing work. Let’s go through the last six years of my desktop use.

Six years ago, I was a very happy user of the KDE 3 desktop environment. While sgallaghit was maybe not the fastest, prettiest desktop environment on the market, it was stable and customizable and over the previous two or three years I had turned it into a lean, mean workstation. Then, in 2008, KDE 4 landed on Fedora and my workflow was stood on its head. I tried to love it, I gave it about six months and a new Fedora releases with 4.1 before I finally decided that KDE, while getting better over time, was just not the right desktop for me.

Around the summer of 2008, which coincides with my employment at Red Hat, I switched over to GNOME 2 (which a quick Wikipedia search reminds me was GNOME 2.22). I found that I missed having access to some of the customizability options that KDE 3 had provided to me, but for the most part the defaults were acceptable to me (minus the top-and-bottom system panels; I removed the one at the top to get back a few pixels).

While I was never as much in love with GNOME 2 as I was with KDE 3, I found it to be a good fit for my workflow. It had excellent virtual workspace support (I could set up the number of workspaces that I wanted, label them and move between them very quickly). It was clean and largely uncluttered (minus the extra panel that I removed) and generally got out of my way and allowed me to work with the applications that I preferred. I stuck with GNOME 2 as my exclusive desktop from 2008 through 2011 and I don’t have any regrets. While I kept an eye on KDE 4 and acknowledged that over time it had evolved much further intosgallagh

In 2011, GNOME 3.0 was released, and I had flashbacks to KDE 4.0. My first impression of GNOME 3.0 was that it was trying too hard to decide for me what choices I should be making. For example, it took away my choice to use a panel at the bottom of the screen instead of the top. This was a purely aesthetic change, but one that irked me. Beyond that, the designers threw away a decade of workspace workflow and took away my fixed workspace arrangement and replaced it with dynamically-created ones. It broke my muscle-memory by forcing vertically-aligned workspaces, where I preferred horizontally-aligned ones (side-note: I don’t have research to back this up, but it’s always felt more natural to me that humans, like other animals, tend to process information on either side of their view more instinctually than that which is above or below).

The two most serious problems that I encountered in GNOME 3 were with message notifications and with multi-monitor support. Now that I was working at Red Hat, my daily workflow necessitated very heavy use of IRC to communicate with my team members and other upstream communities. The client that I was using however did not use the libnotify mechanism for alerting the user of waiting messages, but instead changed the system tray icon to indicate it.

Multi-monitor support was the other case with which I experienced problems. I traditionally use a laptop with an attached monitor (at work, I attach a smaller secondary monitor that I use as “extra space”; at home I attach a much larger monitor and use it as the primary source). With GNOME 3, the default behavior of multi-monitor support was to enable changing workspaces only on the primary monitor, which meant that the other monitor was always fixed in place. Since I have a different multi-monitor configuration at home and at work, this meant being forced to constantly switch which monitor was treated as primary, and I still didn’t have the opportunity to use all of my screen real-estate on each workspace.

I found a hidden option that enabled workspaces on all monitors, but as of GNOME 3.0 it was thoroughly broken and caused a lot of crashes (which I was told by the GNOME developers they weren’t going to look at, since it wasn’t a supported configuration), so I was forced to revert.

At this point, as a Red Hat employee, I decided to give GNOME 3 more time to get on its feet (and to do my part to try to help it there), so I stuck with it and filed bugs, went to the Gnome Summit to discuss it, etc. It took a couple months, but I was finally able to adapt my workflow to more-or-less work with the “GNOME Way” (this amounted to dedicating my second, non-primary monitor to always displaying my IRC program, since that was the only way I would be able to get updates when I was being pinged).

I stuck with GNOME 3 through 3.0, 3.2, 3.4 and 3.6, but I began to be disheartened. Each release came and went and GNOME upstream continued to ignore (or fail to improve upon) the two most serious user experience problems (as described above). I got disheartened, and decided to explore some of the other options in Fedora. I spent a couple weeks with Cinnamon, which I found to be fairly decent, but lacked polish. I then decided to switch back to KDE to see if the previous few years had been good to them.

I discovered – to my delight – that they had indeed. KDE had become a very solid, stable platform with none of the instability or jarring UI that had plagued it at the beginning. After tweaking one or two things (a few preferred keyboard shortcuts, mainly), I settled into using KDE for my primary desktop environment. That was a few months ago (on Fedora 18), and I continue to believe that KDE is a very strong choice and should be seriously considered by any individual using Fedora to do serious development work.

One of the major new features of Fedora 19 is a modified version of GNOME 3 – supported by the GNOME upstream, unlike Cinnamon – intended to address some of the concerns that the GNOME 3 user experience is too much of a departure for users of classic desktop environments to latch onto. Now that Fedora 19 is in beta and GNOME Classic mode is basically ready (in what I will treat as its 1.0 release), I decided that it was my duty to the open-source community to explore this new variant and give it a complete investigation. To this end, I have decided to use it as my exclusive desktop for at least a week and document my experiences each day. I began this undertaking yesterday, and my first day’s summary will follow shortly.

Well, this prologue has now grown to a prodigious length (over 1200 words), so I think I’ll stop here and move on to documenting yesterday’s and today’s experiences. If you have read this far, thank you. Give yourself a pat on the back.

EDIT (2013-06-06): Hello Slashdot!

I notice from the Slashdot comments that not everyone is aware of the other articles in this series, so here’s a Table of Contents for the rest of them:

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15 thoughts on “One Week With GNOME 3 Classic: Prologue

  1. Did you try XFCE at all. I switched from GNOME 3.6 to XFCE on my Fedora 18 machine out of frustration with dual monitor support and with ‘3-D’ graphics. While not having the best look, XFCE has provided unexcelled functionality for me.

    1. I have used XFCE in a very limited capacity: I’ve used it for the environment to run a few appliance machines I’ve built (like an XBMC set-top box). I haven’t really explored it yet as a primary desktop, but I’m very seriously considering doing One Week With XFCE after this experiment concludes. Stay tuned!

    2. So far I have tried different DEs and xfce seems to have the most advanced configurations for dual monitor :)

  2. Hi Stephen,

    My experience with Gnome 3 sounds similar to yours. I change major things around all the time, but prefer to decide myself what changes when, so while I did put effort into getting Gnome 3 to work for me, my unhappiness at having it forced upon me may have influenced me to throw in the towel early.

    I’m quite interested in trying out ‘Awesome’, which I hope can be scripted such that my usual six virtual desktops can be selected independently on left and right monitors. In emacs on desktop 1, left monitor, and need the browser on desktop 4, right monitor? Hit a key and the browser appears. Find a link to paste into IRC? Another key switches the left screen to desktop 3. Ok, back to hacking, hit a key to switch the left screen back to desktop 1, emacs.

  3. LXDE is a pretty lean work station desktop, while not being a Red Hat employee, I find it works great for actually getting work done.

  4. There’s alway twm (or tvtwm if you want workspaces) and xterm. Has allowed my workflow to remain the same since 1992.

  5. Your desktop blues sound familiar to me.
    Seems that we “linuxers” were always betrayed by the desktop specialists.
    At this moment I´m happy with the MATE Desktop, that resembles the old Gnome2..

  6. I keep falling back to Windowmaker – I’ve been trying others and going back time after time for 15 years now. It’s extremely fast and lightweight with quick virtual desktop management. Coupled with the worker filemanager it is incredibly nonintrusive and requires as few resources as one can expect.

  7. I can’t check the version (we use gnome) due to the fact the computers are at work, but our office just upgraded to RHAT v6 and gnome.

    While we just addressed the issue you noted above (primary monitor switching desktops), we have another issue I am hoping you can help with.

    Here is our config:
    -primary monitor with four desktops/workspaces
    -secondary monitor with four desktops/workspaces
    -two other monitors (smaller) with four desktop/workspaces

    When I change the workspace name on the primary monitor, it also changes it on the secondary monitor. Due to the number of applications we are using, I need to be able to label EACH workspace on EACH monitor something different.

    For example I want to label:
    -primary monitor – workspace 1 Blue, workspace 2 Red, etc
    -secondary monitor – workspace 1 Green, workspace 2 Yellow, etc

    Within each workspace, I need to have different applications running on them.

    With KDE, this was easy, but we are having an issue trying to setup KDE, so gnome needs to be our answer … Can you help?? Thank you!

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