In keeping with the theme of Ubuntu desktop environments, I thought that I would comment on my experiences with the latest version of the GNOME interface. As soon as Ubuntu 11.10 came out on October 13th, I decided to upgrade my previous installation. Bad idea. It ended up breaking so much that I could barely get into the system in failsafe mode, so a reinstall was necessary. I kind of expected this as 11.10 was a big change in some departments, and I did have an interesting system configuration. Anyway, back to environments. I used Unity for the first week or so, and I got used to it – somewhat. There were a few things that I just couldn’t get used to, like having the launcher all the way on the other side of my desk, a place where I seldom venture.

I then decided to try out GNOME 3 (also known as GNOME shell). It is the successor to the ‘classic’ interface in all previous versions of Ubuntu. You can install it with just a few clicks by opening Software Centre and searching for ‘GNOME Shell’. Once installed, you can simply log out, and then click the gear in the top right corner of the login area and select ‘GNOME’. Installing GNOME 3 does not replace Unity, and you can switch to and fro at any time. I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely avid about either Unity or GNOME 3 yet, but I see where they’re headed, and I embrace the change they are imposing. I just don’t think that either once has perfected the ‘new’ style interface yet. The first thing that you will notice is that with GNOME 3, almost the entire interface is hidden. Only a thin bar at the top is visible. It features an ‘Activities’ button on the left, the clock in the middle, and the accessibility, volume, networking, and user applets on the right. However, you will not find indicators there. They can be seen by moving your cursor to the bottom right of the screen. A transparent panel will emerge from the bottom, and the indicators appear on the right in an almost stacked manor. They don’t all look okay, especially ones like indicator-multiload. Their icons are cropped, and so ones that are irregularly shaped don’t turn out right. There is a special one called ‘Removable Devices’ which allows you to eject and unmount media. Your currently active application title will appear on the left of the top bar, directly beside the activities button. At this point all it seems to do is allow you to close the application, but I can see a jump-list type menu coming in the near future.

The top panel is flared at the edges of the screen, so that when a window is maximized, the corners are rounded, similar to Apple products. Speaking of maximizing, GNOME 3 has the same drag-and-snap features as Unity and Windows 7. What is interesting is that there is only one caption button in window title bars, and that is the close. There is no minimize or maximize/restore. You can always right-click the title bar though. The close button is on the right instead of the left like in Unity. The menus for applications are located under the title bar, unlike in Unity where they appear in the top bar. The whole interface aims to be semi-transparent and rounded, with very simple and clean menus. The applets for volume and network are much more simplified than in Unity. There are subtle animations everywhere, and they make the interface flow, but they’re not a waste of time and don’t reduce productivity. GNOME 3 does not have support for Compiz, so there are no customizable flashy effects at the moment, however that is likely to change in the future, as the GNOME 3 window manager, Mutter, matures. In terms of the notification system, notifications appear in the centre at the bottom of the screen in that transparent bar that I mentioned earlier. You can also turn them off in the user applet. The user applet is similar to that of the one in Unity, except that there is no section for devices and printers, and there is only an option for suspend, no shut down or restart. It took me a while to figure out that when you hold down the alt key on the keyboard, the suspend option turns into a menu which gives you the other options.

Now the real important part of the interface is the ‘Activities’ panel. This is the heart of the new interface. You can bring it up by clicking ‘Activities’ in the top left corner of the main monitor, or by moving the cursor to the top left corner of any monitor. I love that feature, because it doesn’t matter what monitor I’m using, I can always bring it up quickly in one fluid motion. One other great thing is that when you move your cursor into the corner on a multi-monitor setup like mine, for the height of the top panel, the cursor is held on one monitor like there is no other screen, so you can nudge the corner of the monitor even though there isn’t really a corner there because it is in between two monitors. It is such a small thing, but epically crucial to the interface, and it was something that Unity failed on for a long time. The activities panel is remotely similar to the dash in Unity. On the left is the ‘favourites bar’, which is like a launcher. You can pin applications to it, and start them by clicking. It appears on your primary monitor, so it’s in the right location regardless of your setup (are you listening Unity developers?). Unlike Unity’s launcher, the icons get smaller as the number increases, unlike Unity’s ‘folding’ effect. There are also no indicators as to how many instances are running. The large area in the middle can have two uses, which are toggled with two buttons at the top. The primary use is to show you all the windows open in your current workspace. It arranges them as large as possible in live updating tiles on the monitor that the window resides on. The window title is displayed below, and you can close applications right from the activities panel. You switch applications by clicking them. You might think that bringing up the panel to switch active windows is a pain, but I found it faster than Unity’s launcher, partly because I didn’t have to move my cursor as far, but mostly because the targets are bigger, and you can go faster without risk of selecting another application. On the right are the workspaces. GNOME 3 dynamically creates them as necessary. Just drag windows over the workspace you want them in. It will automatically create new workspaces as you fill them, and destroy them as you close or move applications. Applications that do not appear in your favourites can be opened by typing and searching, which works exactly the same way as Unity. If you want to browse installed applications, you can click the second function button at the top, and all the applications will appear as tiles. I find this interface better than Unity because it’s full screen. You can also view by category just as in Unity. To open a new instance of an already running application, hold down the ctrl key. You can close the activities panel by clicking on an application or launcher, or by nudging the corner again.

At this point you can clearly see that I enjoy using GNOME 3 far more than Unity, and I use it exclusively now. I highly recommend that you try out both because they offer a similar interface, with minor changes, and it’s those minor differences that can make or break your experience with Ubuntu.