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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Wed, 16 Nov 2011

First impressions of the Fedora 16 GNOME 3 Live CD

I've spent probably more than a year avoiding new distributions, new releases, distro reviews and the dreaded "I ran the live CD of Project X and here's what happened" posts.

But I'm in an inquisitive mood. And here is one of those "I ran the live CD for an hour" reviews. Take it for the proverbial what it's worth.

My earlier tests of GNOME 3 (in OpenSUSE) were a bit of a bust, and while my tests of Unity in Ubuntu 11.04's live environment went well, I wasn't sufficiently moved enough to take the next step (which I suppose would be throwing over good ol' Debian Squeeze and GNOME 2 for Ubuntu with Unity).

Today I decided to give Fedora 16 and its GNOME 3/GNOME Shell desktop a try. Fedora was the first Linux OS I ever ran on this particular hardware, the Lenovo G555 laptop. It ran great under Fedora 13. Until the kernel jumped from 2.6.33 to 2.6.34 mid-release.

Things didn't go so well after that. And an attempt at upgrading to Fedora 14 made things worse. I ran back to Debian Stable, where I've been ever since.

Between knowing that GNOME 2's days are numbered and plain old curiosity, I burned the CD image of F16 and booted into it.

It took an eternity to boot from the disc. I walked away. I came back. The system was ready. I logged in as the test user. (Update: Today -- 11/21/11 -- I used the Unix/Linux dd utility to put Fedora 16 on a USB flash drive, and now it boots extremely quickly -- as fast or faster than Ubuntu 11.10 from USB).

GNOME 3/GNOME Shell sure is different. I figured out how to click Activities and find the most-used application icons on the right, those being Firefox, Evolution, Rhythmbox, Shotwell, the Nautilus file manager and an install icon.

I clicked on Activities and then Applications, found the GNOME Terminal (under Terminal alphabetically) and started it.

The Terminal icon then appeared in my list of programs on the left side of the screen for the duration of my session. That I liked.

I'm kind of getting the hang of how GNOME 3/GNOME Shell works. You don't have separate desktop spaces like in GNOME 2 (and most other desktop environments). Instead, by clicking "Activities" in the upper panel, each application can be "minimized" and take up a small portion of the desktop portion of the screen, where you can then switch between them.

You still get into NetworkManager by clicking (right- or left-click does it) on the appropriate icon on the right portion of the upper panel. The icons are different-looking enough, and there is no mouse-over text, so you have to click on them to figure out which icon does what.

The first icon is for accessibility settings, the second is volume (that one I could figure out), the third is NetworkManager, the fourth is power settings.

You can log out, suspend the computer, or set some online-account settings under your user name on the far right side of the upper panel.

Right- or left-clicking on the desktop itself does nothing. There is no menu system like you'd find in GNOME 2. Instead you click Activities, and then you can either click Applications to see everything, or type text into the search box that appears under the right portion of the upper panel to narrow things down.

It's actually quite fast to find the app you want this way. You can always look at the whole list to see what you've got installed.

And switching between Windows (your open application windows, arranged neatly on the desktop so you can click the one you want to come to the foreground) and Applications (apps you can start) is fast and fairly intuitive.

I remember hearing about not being able to actually shut down a computer in GNOME 3/GNOME Shell. I can report here that you can do this. First you log out. Then, in what must be the GDM window, you click the power icon, from which you can suspend, reboot or shut down.

Before I forget to mention it, I used the x86_64 version of F16. And the Lenovo G555 I'm testing this on has a dual-core 2.1 GHz AMD Athlon CPU, an ATI/AMD Mobility Radeon 4200 HD graphics chip and 3 GB of RAM.

Note: Below are my impressions of Fedora 16's design. While my initial reaction (as you'll read below) is negative, I'm getting over it. I still maintain that what Ubuntu is doing design-wise in 11.04 and 11.10 is head, shoulders and another head better than what either GNOME and/or Fedora are doing in this particular release. And now on with the show ...

Looks-wise, design-wise, if you will, this particular implementation of GNOME 3 doesn't do much for me. While I'm OK with the usability of GNOME 3/GNOME Shell (and know there will be a path ahead when my GNOME 2 days in Debian Squeeze are done), I really can't think of a single design aspect of Fedora 16 with GNOME 3 that I like.

I don't like the wallpaper, the fonts in the panel, the fonts in the apps and the way the application windows have too much space in their upper panels. I'm no design expert. I just don't like it.

I don't know what to think of Ubuntu 11.04 and 11.10 from a functionality standpoint, but I can tell you they look better by orders of magnitude.

Does GNOME 3/GNOME Shell look like Apple's OS X? Yeah, it kind of does. Ubuntu's Unity desktop looks better than both this implementation of GNOME and OS X itself. Remember, I say this not as a Ubuntu fanboy (I have a single install of 10.04 running on my daughter's computer) but as a fairly dedicated Debian user. Debian does what I want it to do, and I'm not bothered by potentially productivity-killing upgrades every six months.

I'm just not excited about Fedora 16 with GNOME. I say this with a heavy, geeky heart, because I thought the Xfce and LXDE desktops in previous versions of Fedora (13-14) were some of the best-looking desktops I've ever used.

Come to think of it, I remember in my F13 days thinking that the Xfce spin looked better than the distro's preferred GNOME 2 release.

I really loved the out-of-the-box Xfce setup in Fedora 13. It was the best Xfce system I ever used (until the whole thing stopped working, that is). It looked way better than Xubuntu or Xfce in Debian.

I'm disposed to at least tolerate if not wholly embrace GNOME 3/GNOME Shell, and I've always been a fan and booster of the Fedora Project. I like the way the project is run, the inclusive and community nature of it, its commitment to the latest versions of just about everything, the freedom philosophy and the overall quality level of the distribution.

I'm not so crazy about the additional repositories users need if they want to play and record MP3, MOV and other proprietary formats. I understand the free as in freedom situation, and I'm OK adding RPM Fusion. At the time I was frustrated by the ATI/Catalyst driver situation. Now that Fedora 16 runs with the free ATI driver, that wouldn't be a problem. I'd sure like to have new versions of OpenShot and gThumb right there in the Fedora repositories.

While apt and Aptitude are two of the best tools in the world of free software, I'm also very partial to Yum. It never failed me, and it makes it easy to mix in and maintain newer packages without manually fiddling with sources.list like I do in Debian.

I can definitely see myself running Fedora in the future. I will be looking at the Xfce and LXDE spins of Fedora 16. And as much as I'm kvetching, I will be keeping my eye on the GNOME 3 version as well.

I always say I'm not really a GNOME user, though I use GNOME (2 that is) all the time. So I guess I am a GNOME user. I like Nautilus, the GNOME Terminal, GEdit, Rhythmbox, Totem (which looks better than any other app in F16 due to its black menu bar), even Evolution, which I've grown fond of recently, Transmission, Synaptic ... the list goes on.

I didn't set out to like GNOME 2 so much, but I do.

And in the hour or so I've spent in GNOME 3, I find myself switching between windows and the display of applications very easily and intuitively. I'm not so wedded to multiple virtual desktops that I couldn't (and wouldn't) work with the GNOME 3/GNOME Shell paradigm of windows on the background of the screen and coming to the foreground as you click them (and I do realize I'm not describing this very well as I write it).

Everything is acceptably fast in the live Fedora 16 environment. I got my network configured pretty much the same way I've done in all recent NetworkManager-run desktops. Firefox runs great, as does the terminal and the other apps I've sampled.

I'd just like the whole thing to look a whole lot better. As I read this, it sounds shallow. The GNOME 3 desktop in Fedora 16 works well enough for my needs. All my favorite GNOME apps are here. I'm just not a big fan of the design choices made by either the upstream project (GNOME) or Fedora 16 itself.

I have a lot of respect for all of these people, these developers and designers who give us these wonderful technologies with which we work and play.

Right now I don't feel like GNOME 3 in Fedora 16 works any better or worse than the Unity shell in Ubuntu. I don't have enough experience in either desktop environment to make that call. I just think that the Ubuntu/Canonical team knows what it wants design-wise, and you can see the polish that's lacking in Fedora 16's default desktop.

I hope things change, because I love Fedora and GNOME, and I see myself in GNOME as opposed to Unity going forward.

To sum up, it runs, it works well, I pretty much figured it out, but it needs a whole lot of aesthetic polish.

And yes, this is a quickie "I ran the live CD for an hour" kind of review. I felt like giving Fedora 16 a try, and I'm not ready to install it on any hardware. I also don't run VMs.

If you wish, please let me know what you think about Fedora 16, Ubuntu 11.10 and their new desktop environments. I'm keeping an open mind on this one. I hope you do, too.

The next day: I downloaded an Ubuntu 11.10 ISO, dropped it on a USB thumb drive and gave the Unity desktop a try.

The next week: As I note above, I decided to make the Ubuntu vs. Fedora comparison more apples-to-apples (no pun intended) by putting the Fedora 16 ISO on a USB flash drive, just like I did with Ubuntu 11.10. Now F16 boots extremely quickly. As I say above, the Fedora 16 boot process is as fast or faster than that of Ubuntu 11.10.

I've been working in Fedora 16 a bit more since my initial test, and I'm starting to get the hang of GNOME 3/Shell, figuring out how to start and manipulate extra virtual desktops (when you mouse over the right portion of the screen in "Activities" mode, a graphic slides out to allow you to create a new desktop -- slick, and I don't think Ubuntu's Unity desktop does this).

I have had questions about whether or not you can start multiple instances of the same applications. Some apps like the Nautilus file manager let you do this, opening as many instances as you want in the same window. Others like the GNOME Terminal will only open new tabs in a single window. I believe that if you go to a new desktop, you can open a separate window of the GNOME terminal.

My initial reaction to the design of Fedora 16 is starting to mellow. I'm starting to like the way the app windows look (and I sure like having the menu choices in the app window as opposed to the desktop's upper panel). I LOVE the type style in the GNOME Terminal and the Gedit text editor. It's clear and smooth yet light.