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GNOME 3.6 Review – Against the Grain

The latest version of the GNOME Shell is here, has it addressed the concerns of users, or gone further down the path of simplification?

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The release of GNOME 3 was just over 18 months ago, and it’s been an interesting time to say the least for the desktop environment and its users. With complaints centring around usability and the abandoning of the traditional desktop metaphor, the GNOME project says it’s taking this user feedback to heart, returning oft requested features such as the power button on the user bar in the brand new GNOME 3.6.

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Search in GNOME is still the best part of the DE

There are things that GNOME 3 does do well though – and 3.6 carries on this tradition. Keyboard navigation is pretty great, allowing you to press whatever your equivalent of a Windows Key is and search for documents and applications – this is very responsive, and if you know what you’re looking for you can access apps faster than before. Notifications have always been good as well, and there have been a few updates to allow for multiple events, easier dismissal of boxes, and they only show up important notifications when doing something full screen. We even quite like the dynamic workspace, creating new virtual desktops as you start using another.

Unfortunately, there is still so much fundamentally wrong with GNOME, and 3.6 seems to have gone even further out of its way to interrupt or generally slow down workflow. The main problem that has been plaguing GNOME 3 since its inception is navigating with a mouse – everything requires too many actions to perform. In the past, it was going to the hot corner to either go to another open window or workspace, and to open applications just add a few more steps. None of this has been addressed, and in fact has been made worse. Maximised windows now lose the menu bar, so to close them you need to go to the hot corner and do it from there, or right click on the top bar to access quit – both an extra action on top of the very simple one used before. With the GNOME Web Browser, you can’t use the drag feature to return it to windowed mode, instead having to right click the top bar again.

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Putting a lot of necessary functions into the activities overlay slows down workflow

If one of the criticisms of Unity was that it seems optimised for touch screen devices, then these changes and the new additions in GNOME 3.6 can only be specifically targeted towards tablet use. All the mousing issues and simplification of the UI make sense if you’re primarily using your fingers – no maximise button next to exit in case you press one and not the other, the hot corner, using the activities overlay to change windows, etc. The addition of the new lock screen and a clock application typifies this change to touch screen friendly interface.

The lock screen works very much like a smartphone or tablet lock screen – it has the good stuff such as notifications, big clock display, but it also has a ridiculous unlock process of using your mouse to click and drag the overlay up to access the login screen. A few glowing arrows are your only indication of how to do this, and while similar to the iOS Slide to Unlock message, these arrows flash up very briefly and quite rarely. You can use Escape or Enter to get past the screen, but you’ll only learn that through experimentation or finding the brief sidenote in the GNOME documentation.

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A lock screen designed for smart phones and tablets does not work on a desktop

GNOME tells us that they’re listening to user feedback, but the results of 3.6 seem to say otherwise. While touchscreen devices are slowly gaining market share, PCs and Laptops still make up the vast majority of systems that can even use GNOME. However, GNOME 3 is just no longer for desktop use.

And don’t get us started on Nautilus.

Verdict

2/5

GNOME 3.6 continues the practice of taking half a step forward and several giant leaps back, making it frustrating to use on a standard desktop PC or Laptop. The focus on touch friendly controls have further hampered the user experience and noticeably slowed down workflow, and we don’t believe that this will ever change.

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