My glimpse at Gnome-Shell

Gnome-Shell was born out of the Gnome UI Hackfest at the Boston Summit wayback in 2008. The new user interface was aimed to be self-teaching, and base itself around the user’s day to day tasks. How Gnome-Shell will achieve this feat is for me to find out. Thus was the reason why I took time to check out this new user interface.

True to my way of testing, I’m using Gnome-Shell on a production basis. I’m using Gnome-Shell for my day-to-day work in order to get a feel of how it behaves in a true working environment. I have been using Gnome for innumerable years, and used Compiz for more than 3 years in a productive environment. This is going to be the first time that I am going to use a user interface that is not yet considered “mature” and is still largely incomplete. However, since Gnome-Shell has been considered “usable”, and I consider Gnome-Shell’s approach to be radical, I decided to give this thing a shot.

For this activity, I will be using my work laptop (I own this of course) running Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx. Check out my other article when I started using Lucid Lynx.


Installing and Starting Gnome-Shell

Gnome-Shell is already included in the Lucid Lynx repositories and can be installed using the Ubuntu Software Center, Synaptic, aptitude or apt-get (whew so many options!). I decided to install it via aptitude

sudo aptitude install gnome-shell

No sweat. I then proceeded in starting Gnome-Shell for the first time, by doing

gnome-shell --replace

Definitely radical and different

If you are going to start installing Gnome-Shell to try it out for the first time, and expecting that it is going to be similar to GNOME, then don’t bother. You are going to be in for a bigger surprise. Gnome-Shell isn’t GNOME. Nor does it aim to be. Gnome-Shell is totally different. In my desire to know about this new user interface, I was able to visit forum discussions and lists where the reactions to Gnome-Shell varied from accepting, to outright extreme hostility. If you want to try out Gnome-Shell, I suggest you keep an open mind and broader perspective because this is definitely  a different animal.

For starters, Gnome-Shell is still a work in progress. This is nowhere complete. If you come to Gnome-Shell expecting a GNOME mimic, or is expecting widgets from GNOME, then be ready to throw those notions away because you won’t need them. There’s no theme switcher yet, no GNOME panel, and no way to customize Gnome-Shell just yet. Though, I’ll touch on basic customization a little bit later on.

Behavior and Usability

Gnome-Shell, in all its intentions, aim to be usable and to allow the user to just do his work. It also aims to do away with excess baggage on the user interface. It is definitely extremely simplified. However, like GNOME and Compiz, it supports multiple ‘workspaces’ (also called ‘virtual desktops’). However, there’s no panel widget that will allow you to switch between workspaces. To do so, you will need to go to Overview and there are many ways to access it. You can click on the Activities button on the Gnome-Shell panel, you can press the Super button (Win logo) on the keyboard, or you can move your mouse cursor to the top-most left corner.

Overview is more than just a workspace switcher. It also as your applications manager in that it shows the user the currently opened  applications, as well as the user’s commonly used applications.  Similar to Nautilus and Gnome/Metacity, it also shows Places, as well as the recent documents.

While in Overview, the other applications can be reached by clicking on the Applications button (arrow) in the Overview Dash and the user will be presented with the App Well.

With Gnome-Shell leveraging the use of workspaces, Overview provides the quickest way to add workspaces. While in Overview, head on over to the bottom right corner on the screen and click on the ‘+ ‘ (plus) button to add more workspaces. Gnome-Shell provides one workspace by default when you login and there’s no easy way yet (or a way for that matter) to set more than one workspace by default. So every time you login to Gnome-Shell, you’ll need to add workspaces.

Switching between workspaces is also a snap. You can go to Overview and click on the workspace you wish to be on, or you can cycle through the workspaces by using CTRL + ALT + Left or Right Arrow key in the same way that you would when using Compiz or GNOME/Metacity.

Unused workspaces can be removed quite easily as well. Each workspace that doesn’t have an opened application window, displays a ‘-’ (minus or dash) button. Clicking on the minus button will remove the workspace.

It’s all about Search


Gnome-Shell also leverages on search. Head on over to Overview, and then just type a term, or filename and Overview will display the results whether it is a file, folder, or application link. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have web search capability. Perhaps they’re planning on putting that as well? Who knows?

For now, it’s desktop search only. But I don’t really mind. It’s more than enough for my needs.

Application Switching

Switching between different applications is also pretty straightforward. In an attempt to make things really simple, there’s no task bar unlike in GNOME. However, opened applications are still available in the Dash in Overview. Glowing buttons represent currently opened applications. Clicking on the icon will take the user to the related workspace where the application is on.

What about quick switching? We’ve been doing that for years in Linux, Mac, and Windows as well. The Alt-Tab salute is still supported so we can still do Alt-Tab to quickly switch between opened applications. The only distinction with doing Alt-Tab with Gnome-Shell compared to other interfaces is that the applications in the Alt-Tab interface are separated by a bar, and are grouped together according to their workspaces.

Where are my Settings?

In Gnome/Metacity/Compiz, the system and administration settings are reachable via the System menu on the panel. In Gnome-Shell, you can manage the system via the System button at the right-most part of the panel (top most right corner when in an active workspace). Managing the system can be done by clicking on System Preferences on the system menu. The Control Center is reminiscent of OpenSuSE’s. In fact, I think it’s the same Control Center.


Again, I am going to remind you that Gnome-Shell is still relatively a work in progress. A lot of things are still missing. But if you want to dive in head on and customize it, it’s going to be a big challenge.

However, Gnome-Shell is taking advantage of Javascript and CSS to allow it to be customizable. Yes, you’ve read it right – it uses your garden-variety JS and CSS . You can access its Javascript and CSS code at /usr/share/gnome-shell/.

If you are looking for pre-made themes for Gnome-Shell, there are still quite a few. You can take a look here should you decide to create a Gnome-Shell theme for your self.

My Verdict

With Gnome-Shell, I don’t see much of a difference. I was able to do my work, open my applications, do pretty much whatever it is I need to achieve to perform my tasks. Granted there are a lot of things missing if we are going to compare it with GNOME or other user interfaces. The following is just a list of what I think are things that some users may require. Though for me, these are not deal-breakers since I was able to do my work without any problems.

  • no theme switcher and editor
  • panel still lacks widgets and indicators (eg. battery, sound control, etc…)
  • internet search
  • the Dash needs to be scrollable – when there are lots of favorites, the Recent Documents gets displayed outside the screen’s viewable area
  • the system menu button (top right corner) should be clickable even when in Overview mode. Currently it is only clickable when in an active workspace

What I appreciate more with Gnome-Shell is the overall simplicity. I have gotten used to the flow with Gnome-Shell and I don’t see it such a big deal as opposed to hardline GNOME users. A lot of expletives have been thrown against Gnome-Shell and I couldn’t fathom the hostility. This is definitely innovation and unconventional thinking at work. In fact, I’m beginning to realize I’m working faster instead of slower.  I do not need to deal with more mouse clicks and submenus. Surely, Gnome-Shell is a radical concept and I am looking forward to when something as radical as this comes my way again.

By the way, Gnome-Shell is now my default user interface and will continue to work on this interface to see how much improvement I can get. And contrary to what others say, I notice my system to be much more responsive than when I was running Compiz.

Gnome-Shell is currently a work in progress with contributions from various developers, and spearheaded by Marina Zhurakhinskaya, Colin Walters, Jeremy Perry, and Jon McCann. Visit the Gnome-Shell project page for more details. Gnome-Shell is currently being groomed for integration into GNOME 3.0.

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