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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Mon, 21 Nov 2011

Navigating in GNOME 3/Shell in Fedora 16

The more I figure out how GNOME 3/Shell works in Fedora 16, the more I like it.

I'm not at the point where I can say, "Oh, it's totally better than GNOME 2," but I'm increasingly able to do things the way I'm accustomed to doing in the GNOME Shell environment.

I will refrain from comparing how things work in Fedora 16/GNOME Shell vs. Ubuntu 11.10/Unity until I spend more time in the latter. But this comparison is at the forefront of my thinking about which direction my Linux desktop use will go in during the year ahead.

Here's what I learned recently:

-- Instead of clicking on Activities, you can minimize your open windows and see the dock on the left by clicking what some call the "Super" key, but which on most computer keyboards you'd call the Windows key due to the Microsoft logo on it. Yeah, you press the Microsoft logo key to make things happen in GNOME Shell. At least ZaReason can put a Ubuntu logo on that key (which would make just as little sense for those running Fedora. I'd settle for something more generic like a green dot or the word Super).

This "super" key thing is huge. It's the easiest way to seek everything on your desktop and then open a new applications.

-- More "Super"-ness. You can also mouse into the upper left corner of the screen and get the "super"-key/click-on-Activities action. You mouse into the corner, a neat little "sonar" wave comes out, and then your applications minimize and you get your app panel on the left.

-- You CAN get multiple desktops in GNOME Shell.

You can get a new, clear virtual desktop either by selecting one from the right side of the screen when you're in Activities mode (regardless of how you got there -- clicking on Activities, using the "super" key, mousing into the upper left corner).

Another way to get an additional virtual desktop (and another ... and another) is via the keyboard by doing ctrl-alt-down arrow. You are then on the next virtual desktop. They'll all show up on the right side of the screen when you're in Activities mode (I'm sure there's a better way to describe the desktop when you have all of your windows minimized, but I don't know it).

You can then navigate between all virtual desktops with ctrl-alt-up/down arrow.

App windows can be sent from one virtual desktop to another by right-clicking on the title words in the upper panel of the app window itself and then selecting the desired virtual desktop.

I was worried that GNOME Shell wouldn't allow for virtual desktops in the way that GNOME 2, Xfce and most other desktop environments do. But I almost think this is better. You can get as many of these as you want (or so it seems ...), and you don't need to have six virtual desktops on your screen at a time (like I do) if you don't need them for the current session.

Virtual desktops in GNOME 3/Shell? They're here!

-- Starting new instances of the same application on a different virtual desktop is a little dicey. If you go to a new virtual desktop, go into Activities mode and start, say, a second instance of the Nautilus File Manager, instead of having a new Nautilus window open on your clear virtual desktop, you'll be taken back to the window on which the first instance of Nautilus is living. Not cool. You can start a new Nautilus window by going to the existing Nautilus window, going to File - New Window to open up a second Nautilus instance and then right-click on the upper panel of the app window to send it to the virtual desktop you want it on.

That's a bit messy. I hope this is fixed in future versions of GNOME 3/Shell.

But I must say, between using the "super" key to get back to "Activities" mode and then using ctrl-alt-up/down arrow to select between virtual desktops (this works in "Activities" mode where you see your desktops on the right side of the screen as well as in "normal" mode where you go from desktop to desktop), navigating between desktops and app windows in GNOME 3/GNOME Shell is almost ... natural. I really like it.

I didn't expect to like GNOME Shell. I'm not working in it all day and night. But the time I'm spending (mostly writing and posting these blog entries) has been fairly pleasant and productive.

The design of Fedora 16 continues to grow on me (everything but the Jules Verne-themed submarine-underwater wallpaper, which is easily changed; I went back to my GNOME grass and leaf backgrounds of yore).

Not only didn't I expect to like GNOME Shell. I was prepared to hate it. I've spent most of my Linux/Unix time in GNOME 2, Xfce, Fvwm and Fluxbox. I started using GNOME 2 more and more because I found it acceptably fast compared with Xfce on much of my hardware, and I enjoyed the extra features and companion apps that come with a full GNOME installation.

And I've heard all of the negative reaction to both Ubuntu's Unity and GNOME 3/Shell as it is implemented in Fedora.

But I do think the GNOME developers/designers are on to something here. I can totally see GNOME 3/Shell holding its own in the desktop-environment war over the Linux/Unix desktop.

Right now GNOME 3/Shell needs:

-- A little polishing. Things like not being able to easily open a new instance of an already-opened app on a different virtual desktop need to be addressed.

-- A lot of PR and training. Somebody told me about the "super" key shortcut on one of the many social-networking sites I use. Nobody told me about ctrl-alt-up/down arrow. There need to be more GNOME Shell tutorials out there. Maybe there are. But if such tutorials do exist, more publicity for them is in order.

-- The ability to work on desktops without 3D acceleration. I've read that this issue is being worked on.

-- GNOME 2 mode for those who want it. If it's possible to graft GNOME 2 into GNOME 3, it would set a lot of people's minds at ease. Just as GNOME Shell sits on GNOME 3, maybe there could be a GNOME Classic Shell for those who don't want to give up on the GNOME 2 paradigm?

-- A fair shot. GNOME 3/Shell does things a lot differently than GNOME 2. Or any other desktop environment. Ironically (perhaps, or maybe not so much), Unity is closer than not. As I say, I was disposed not to like GNOME Shell. I don't embrace the new without a good reason for dumping the old. I'm maybe halfway there with GNOME 3/Shell. Just know that as the development cycle continues, it's going to get better. I'm sure of that. Even if you don't want to go all in with GNOME Shell, at least start becoming familiar with it by running live environments from USB or CD (like I'm doing now), and maybe throw it on a test box. Or add it as an alternate desktop environment to your Xfce- or LXDE-running system.

Note on hardware: My laptop, a Lenovo G555 was made in March 2010. It's by no means cutting edge hardware, nor is it my usual salvage rig from 2000-2002. I've found that GNOME 2 runs great on hardware from the 2000-02 era. I'm not sure how GNOME 3 would run on my old machines, which probably don't have 3D acceleration. GNOME 3 should run on everything.

The Lenovo G555, which I bought for at Fry's in May 2010, is new yet very mild, spec-wise. It has a 2.1 GHz AMD Athlon dual-core CPU, 3 GB of RAM and an AMD/ATI Mobility Radeon 4200 HD graphics chip. Pretty tame. I can't detect any difference in the "speed" of GNOME 3/Shell in Fedora 16 vs. GNOME 2 in Debian Squeeze. They seem the same from that standpoint.

All I'm saying about GNOME 3/Shell -- to you and to myself -- is to keep an open mind. I can tell you at this point (after maybe 3 to 5 hours of GNOME 3 use) that I have a good feeling about the whole thing.

Here is a link I found while looking for information on GNOME 3 virtual desktops (turns out there's always one more than you are using at any given time):

TechnologyTales.com: GNOME 3 in Fedora 15: A Case of Acclimatisation and Configuration