GNOME 3.0: Making the same mistakes as KDE 4.0?

Yesterday Fedora held a GNOME 3 test day. In order to facilitate testing, they published a Rawhide live CD containing the latest builds of GNOME 3. This is a great opportunity to test the latest GNOME-shell and other new things without having to upgrade your system to unstable alpha stuff. I tried it out on my laptop with Intel graphics chipset.

After a quick test, I am quite disappointed. Just like KDE 4, GNOME 3 tries to explore some new innovative desktop stuff, but just like KDE 4 in its first versions, it feels extremely unpolished and very unfinished, resulting in a rather cumbersome experience.

On the positive side:

  • The desktop feels pretty fast. Starting up applications, using the search function to find applications and the graphical desktop effects are all pretty smooth.
  • The black GNOME shell interface looks nice with subtle but pleasing effects like drop shadows and transparency.
  • There is a nice Expose effect when clicking on activities, nicely showing you all windows running on your system.
  • I have not tried this myself, but it looks like instant messaging is nicely integrated into the desktop. The user menu in the top panel makes it easy to set your status, and you can chat directly from the notifications on the desktop.
  • Just like chatting is nicely integrated,  the user’s agenda is also nicely integrated on the desktop. Just click on the time and see a list of all your appointments at a glance. It looks much nicer than GNOME 2’s calendar view.
  • The fact that some application dialogs now appear to be popping out of the main window and do not have their own window decoration looks nice and avoids clutter. You can see this in the About dialogs in GTK+ applications.

On the negative side:

  • I have the feeling that a lot of space is wasted in the top bar. By default it contains the Activities menu (which is not really a menu and not really needed, because you can open it by just moving your mouse to the top left of your screen), the time, and a few applets (NetworkManager, Accessibility, Volume control, Battery monitor and a user menu allowing to set some personal preferences and instant messaging status. There does not seem to be a way to add application launchers, or any other custom applets.
  • When an application is launched, the name of the application appears in the panel, together with its icon. However, it is a partial version of the large icon, it looks a bit like it is zoomed in. Because the icon is cropped, it is very hard to recognize and looks rather ugly. I fail to understand why they do not simply show the scaled icon.
  • The application launcher is not handy to use. First you have to move your mouse to the top left of the screen to open Activities, then you have to click on Applications, and then you have to move your mouse to the right of your screen to select an application category and move again back to the center of the screen to launch the requested application. This way, launching an application requires much more mouse movements and clicks than simply navigating in the Applications menu in GNOME 2. Moving the search box and application category list to the left, would already be a huge improvement.
  • The list of applications is shown as a table of application icons, laid out both horizontally and vertically. Having to scan the list in two different directions is cumbersome compared to scanning a vertical application menu like in GNOME 2.
  • When opening the application list, by default it shows all applications in alphabetical order. Even if you want to keep this system, I think it would be much nicer to show them like in SUSE’s GNOME appliation launcher, where all icons are still organized by category and separated by the category headers.
  • Under the icons in the application launcher, the name of the application is shown. Or at least a part of the name: most names are shortened by an ellipsis (…) and this is very ugly. For example Transmission becomes “Transmiss…”, Remote Desktop Viewer becomes “Remote…”. There are also no tooltips showing the full name when hovering your mouse over them. LibreOffice is not included on this live CD, but if they are installed will both LibreOffice Writer and LibreOffice Calc become “Libreoffice…” then? It is clear that not seeing the full names at a glance is terrible for finding applications.
  • There does not seem to be support for desktop icons. The ~/Desktop folder contains some .desktop files, but they are not shown on the desktop. Left or right clicking on the desktop does not do anything. This reminds me of KDE 4.0, which also had broken support for desktop icons which was only fixed completely in later KDE versions when the Folder View widget came out.
  • There is no easy way to open your home directory, a bookmarked directory or a removable drive in a file browser except by opening the application launcher and finding the file manager. No more handy Places menu like in GNOME 2, or desktop icons for your home folder and removable disks.
  • There is no way to move the “dock” to another screen border. Personally I would prefer having it at the bottom side of my screen inside of at the left side, but I could not find a way to change that.
  • I do not like the default GTK+ theme too much. The big white scrollbars and high white tab pages look pretty hard to my eyes, and the grey backgrounded toolbars look a bit weird, especially the sunken View combobox  in Nautilus’ toolbar (it has a white line underneath). The default icon theme also needs an update, because it looks old-fashioned to me. I could not find a way to change the themes. There was no Appearance configuration tool in System Settings.
  • The day of the month and month are not shown by default in the date in the top panel. In the Date and Time Settings I could not find a way to show the complete date.
  • Similar to the above problem, it looks like we will not be able to easily configure what will happen when the laptop lid is closed. I have always preferred GNOME’s nice default settings over KDE’s settings clutter , but now I have the feeling that they are going much too far in GNOME 3.

A lot of my criticism seems pretty fundamental and as th final version of GNOME 3.0 is currently scheduled in 2 months (4th of april), it is sure that many of these issues will not be resolved. Just like KDE 4.0, there is definitely potential here. However in its current state, I consider GNOME 3.0 still as a playground for developers and unsuitable for use except by early adopters. Especially the fact that basic features have been removed (desktop icons) and basic tasks have become harder (launching applications) is really unforgivable.

Another interesting read is this quick screenshot based review by a QT developer. Also check out GNOME 3’s official website.

Update: GNOME 3 developer hadess responded to some frequently reported problems during the test day. Some of the problems I have written about here, are currently being worked on.


  • Johannes

    Nice and objective review, I like your neutral attitude.
    All my fears seem to become reality for Gnome 3. It is even more unforgivable since they have had the example of KDE 4 failing a few years ago.

    What’s left now? Xfce? Unity?

  • Hussam Al-Tayeb

    The good thing is that gnome-panel has been ported to GTK+ 3.0 so people who aren’t excited about gnome-shell can still fall back to a familiar desktop.

  • Patrick Niedzielski

    This is a very good review. It addresses a lot of the default problems of GNOME Shell. I do want to point out that many of them can be fixed very easily (or easily to me, a user of GNOME Shell who has been following it for a while): things like the icon in the panel can be changed in the CSS style sheet, and others could be addressed through extensions.

    Since a lot of this is personal preference (I, for one, don’t mind that icon scaling), I think the guys developing this should make it a little easier to modify things. CSS makes things much easier than before, but only if (1) you know about the style sheet, (2) you have time to play with it, and (3) you are savy enough to mess around with CSS at all. I personally think this classifies most users. Hopefully, we’ll either get simpler ways to change such things, or get a lot of people to make themes, etc.

    Also, GNOME Shell has an extension API…it’s still in turmoil between commits, but hopefully they’ll get it working. Here’s some extensions:

    “I think it would be much nicer to show them like in SUSE’s GNOME appliation launcher, where all icons are still organized by category and separated by the category headers.”
    They apparently listened to you; mine compiled from GIT has this now. :)

    I agree, GNOME Shell has a lot of knobs and such that you can play with, but only if you know CSS and Javascript (and have time to tweak them). Otherwise, it’s the same for everyone, whether they like it or not. Had I more time, I’d help address these. Maybe when it gets a bit more stable, I’ll help out.

    Patrick Niedzielski

  • Ben

    Good article. I felt the same way as you, having tried gnome-shell on Debian a few weeks ago. It’s definitely not ready for prime time. It will be difficult for me to migrate from Gnome 2.2 as it’s been refined and polished over the years to a really nice and comfortable desktop environment. I also wonder if we need a new desktop metaphor. I am personally quite happy with the Gnome 2.2 approach, although there is always room for improvement.