My frustration with GNOME 3

When GNOME 3 first appeared, I was so appalled that I briefly tried KDE, and then switched to XFCE. Unfortunately XFCE has many glitches and missing features. For example, there is no way to change the date and time in XFCE except open up a terminal and use the command  date -s . The Windows Manager in XFCE would frequently die on startup and I was forced to open a terminal and issue the command xfwm4 to get it restarted. In the end, I decided that I would need to learn how to use the GNOME 3 interface so I took the painful step of using it exclusively. Even after 3 months of daily use, GNOME 3 still frustrates me to no end.

I still miss the windows bar in GNOME 2 and XFCE 4 that displays which programs are currently open and allows me to switch programs with a click. In GNOME 3, I can still use ALT+TAB to switch programs, but most of my window switching is when I am cutting and pasting between LibreOffice documents or switching between multiple Firefox windows. To switch between open windows for the same program, I can no longer press ALT+TAB+TAB, as I used to do in GNOME 2 and XFCE 4. Now I have to hit ALT+TAB, then press TAB multiple times to cycle through all the programs to get back to the current program. Then, I have to press Down and then Right or Left to switch to another window for the current program.

In GNOME 2, I could arrange my task bars how I wanted them, and pack them with launchers, menus and window switchers. Now my taskbar is mostly a useless display of the name of the current program, the current time, my name, and few status buttons which are spaced too far apart and waste lots of space. Many of the status buttons for programs which were designed for GNOME 2 still don’t work correctly in GNOME 3. For example, the status bar menu for GoldenDict stops working after you close the window the first time in GNOME 3. The situation is worse with Ubuntu’s Unity interface in GNOME 3, since even more status bar elements don’t work correctly with Ubuntu’s customizations.

The only thing which I find really convenient in GNOME 3 is the search feature, but a search box could have easily been added to GNOME 2, in the same way that Windows 7 added a search box to its Start menu. GNOME 3 did make it convenient to get to the search function by just pressing the Windows key, but GNOME 2 could have added that shortcut just as easily if the designers had wanted to do it.

The designers of GNOME 3 claimed that their new interface is better designed for netbooks and tablets which have less screen space, but found that GNOME 2 was far better at conserving screen space than GNOME 3 is. In GNOME 2, I eliminated the top taskbar and then shrunk the bottom task bar down to just 24 pixels, which shrunk the icons to the corresponding size in turn. In GNOME 3, I can’t resize the height of the taskbar, and I can’t move its elements closer together to conserve space. Frankly, the majority of the taskbar in GNOME 3 is just wasted space in my opinion.

Most of the little utilities included in GNOME 3 are less useful than their counterparts in GNOME 2. For example, the utility to search for files in GNOME 3 doesn’t have any of the useful options to search for files by size, date, file type, etc. I do not like the placement of the Back button on the left hand side of the screen of the current version of Nautilus. The next version of Nautilus promises to be even worse with no ability to search within the current directory and no ability to navigate files in the current directory with key presses. Frankly, I am ready to abandon Nautilus after using it for a decade.

The GNOME designers told everyone that they should use the GNOME 3 “Classic Mode” interface if you still want a traditional menu. In my opinion, Classic Mode is even worse that the standard GNOME 3 interface with its Shell. It is clear that the GNOME designers didn’t put much work into it and they want everyone to use the standard interface. I could have forgiven GNOME designers if they had added back the right-click context menus in the Classic Mode or created a taskbar that was just as flexible and customizable as the taskbar in GNOME 2, but they refused, so I am left with a dumbed down interface that doesn’t serve my needs. The worst part is that they didn’t even include a search function in the Classic Mode, so it has none of the advantages of GNOME 3.

The only positive thing that I can say about GNOME 3 is that it is a decent interface for a tablet with a touch screen where you don’t have a mouse that can do right clicks. I would much rather have the GNOME 3 interface on a tablet than Android. The problem is that GNOME 3 takes way too much processing power, especially graphics processing, to be a decent interface for a low powered netbook or tablet. GNOME 3 fails in the one place where I really might want to use it.

The only unalloyed improvement that GNOME 3 offers over GNOME 2 in my opinion is that GNOME 3 makes it much easier to do key bindings. Because the GNOME 3 interface now longer allows me to add launchers to the taskbar where they can be conveniently clicked, I have bound all my favorite programs to key combinations, so I can launch Gnome Terminal by pressing CTL+ALT+T and LibreOffice Writer by pressing CTL+ALT+W. The only hard part is taking the time to bind all my programs to key combinations and then trying to remember all those combinations.

Key presses are far more efficient than using a mouse. In that sense, maybe the GNOME 3 interface is better because it has forced me to stop relying on the mouse. Pressing ESC, then the first couple letters of a program, then hitting Enter is better than navigating a menu with a mouse. Nonetheless, I could still launch a program faster by clicking a handy launcher on a taskbar in GNOME 2, rather than pressing ESC, 2 or 3 letters, then Enter in GNOME 3.

I know that I don’t have any right to gripe about GNOME 3, since I didn’t do anything to develop it and I didn’t participate in planning it. In the world of libre software, we need to be active in the community developing the software if we want to influence its direction. Now that GNOME 3 has already been released and is being used by millions of people is hardly the time to complain. Still, I feel like I have lost a dear old friend, since I have been using GNOME for over a decade. It hurts me everytime I have to struggle to use the GNOME 3 interface. The rational thing to do would be to switch back to buggy XFCE 4 or switch distros from Debian to Mint so I can use its Cinnamon interface, but old loyalties die hard. I’m reluctant to switch from the Debian community to the Mint community. Ideologically and emotionally, I’m bound to Debian, and I keep hoping that Debian will either incorporate the Mate project or Cinnamon interface so I can have a decent interface without abandoning Debian. Sadly, it looks like the Debian community is committed to the standard GNOME 3 interface, so I either have to choose between old loyalties or a more convenient interface.

Unlike proprietary software, where the user has little control, Libre software carries a sense of empowerment and liberation. As the users and developers of libre software, we are responsible for its direction, but having the responsibility also carries much greater emotional baggage. I never got emotionally attached to the interface I found in Windows or Mac OS, but I find myself crying at changes in the GNOME desktop environment that I have used for over a decade. I feel like I have lost a dear old friend, and I will never be able to find him again.

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