I have been a Linux user since around 1993-94, and in that time I have seen projects rise, fall, rise again and some even died out completely. But of all of the projects that I have followed over the years, the ones I have always paid the most attention to were the window managers. You see, when I first started using Linux back in the day, everything was terminal based. If you didn’t know the commands then there was no place set for you at the table. That all started to change in the late 90′s when a plethora of projects got off the ground which made use of the X windows systems which had been around since the mid eighties. A few of these projects like KDE, Xfce, Enlightenment, and Sawfish would garner legions of followers. But one of these window managers would become the De facto standard and it’s implementation across multiple distributions would bring Linux into the mainstream. That project is called Gnome.
So in the 14 years since Gnome first made its debut way back in 1997 a lot has changed, but then a lot has stayed the same. The team that runs the project still puts a heavy emphasis on simplicity, usability and making things “just work” (wow that sounded really Apple fan boyish) but those have always been the goals of this project. That and they’ve always made it clear when developing the system that the desktop should be easily accessible to anyone who wants to use it, in that you don’t need to be a developer or computer wizard to dive right in and find your way around (heck my mom uses Gnome and she knows nothing about computers). As far as support, Gnome is one of the best documented pieces of software in the *nix portfolio. But hey, enough of the history lesson! Let’s dive into the latest version of this great window manger.
No longer are the days with icons and shortcuts floating about your desktop. With Gnome 3 and its heads-up display system, applications, documents and even contacts are a few key strokes away. At first glance around two years ago I thought that this move would alienate users from the desktops they have known since… well since forever. But it’s not like that at all. With one press of the super- key on your keyboard, you’re ready to start searching your computer for just about anything. This has eliminated the need to actually move your hand away from the keyboard, point and then mouse-click a shortcut. But I do have a few gripes with this. For starters, you cannot actually search documents from the HUD which is actually the whole reason for having a HUD. I can do this in spotlight and I can do this in Windows search. So why the hell can I not do this in Gnome 3 with HUD? The developers really dropped the ball on this one but overall it’s not hard to search for “files”, open your file manager and then browse a folder. You can still save files to the desktop and launch them from there as well, if you like.
Favorites and Notifications
Both Gnome and Unity deal with favorites in the same manner as the Dash/launcher. With this you can have all of your favorite applications in the launcher. The main difference being that while in Unity, the launcher never goes away. Once you search an application in the hud, you can then add its shortcut icon to the dock by right clicking it and adding it to “favorites”. Now the application icon will always appear in the dock. In Gnome Shell, notifications are displayed in the ‘messaging area’ which is automatically tucked away at the bottom of the screen. This is also where integrated chat functionality is provided. It’s pretty awesome if you ask me and non-interruptive.
Over the past few years, the advent of windows tiling has always been a bit of a chore, but no longer thanks to Gnome 3. If you want to maximize a window, drag it to the top of the screen. To tile windows side by side, drag them to the left or right of the screen. This approach works great and makes for fast window sizing. Once you’ve finished with a maximized window, either double-click the task bar or just drag the window down. Another great window feature that they’ve added is the way that multiple desktops are managed. Once you press the super key it is easy to move your open applications to various desktops as needed.
Rather than doing the whole Compiz thing, the Gnome 3 developers decided to keep things subtle, through minimal transparency and simple effects in Mutter, the new compositing manager that replaces metacity. This new compositor does not affect the performance of the machine, and the compositing is in the background to such a degree that you hardly notice it. Unless of course you have limited resources on your PC to begin with.
This is one of my personal favorites. I’ve always used some sort of desktop recorder in the past as a core component of my teaching Linux lessons to kids and adults. Before Gnome 3, this would require additional software. Now to accomplish this it is easier than it has ever been. If you use the keyboard combination Ctrl-Alt-Shift-R, your desktop actions are recorded. To stop the recording, hit the same combination. No additional software is needed for installation — it just works out of the box.
Gnome 3 is far from perfect, but it has some really nice features that are worth checking out so long as you’ve got the resources to keep it running smoothly. So If you have a newish machine (Dual core processor or better with at least 4GB of system ram and 512megs of video ram) purchased within the last 3-4 years, then give Gnome 3 a shot. You may actually find yourself liking it.