A Review of GNOME 3 and OpenSUSE 12.1

I was curious to try out OpenSUSE 12.1 not just because the buzz on it is that it’s a great release, but also because it presented a chance to kick the tires on GNOME 3, which I still hadn’t worked with.

I tested it on my ThinkPad T43 (on the actual machine and not in a virtual one) and it installed with no problems. Everything worked perfectly out of the box (as a side note, on a recent edition of the Tux Radar podcast, host Jonathan Roberts credited improvements in the Linux kernel in making non-Ubuntu distributions competitive hardware-wise; where Ubuntu found early success getting hardware to work, now the kernel itself seems to handle a lot of that heavy lifting for distributions).

OpenSUSE with GNOME 3 looked great. Everything worked. Everything felt fast, even on an older machine with 2GB RAM.

GNOME 3 isn’t that different from the previous GNOME. The big difference is the Activities area, which is kind of a master dashboard area where users can search for applications or files, and see everything they have open, as well as access a program dock.

It seemed perfectly innocuous, though. I bound it to Alt-space and found I had a great application launcher and file opener. It reminded me of a nicer looking GNOME Do. I could just flip open Activities and start typing whatever I needed. GNOME 3 also allows users to browse through their menus, too, which I often had to take advantage of, since I hadn’t used GNOME in quite a while and wanted to poke around a little bit.

screenshot of GNOME 3 Activities area

The Activities bar, which runs across the top of the desktop, shows only one application at a time, not all of your open programs. If it’s only going to show the one program and if that program is already open in front of you, I would just as soon not see anything in that area. And the inability to see all open windows for a program sometimes caused me to have some problems finding a Chromium window I had open somewhere.

GNOME 3 also has some interesting messaging. Some website messages rolled down from the top status bar. Other messages, like when I inserted a USB drive, came from the bottom. I’m not sure what was controlling the top messages versus the bottom ones, but it didn’t bother me. It seemed an interesting, new way to inform the user about something going on with their computer, like when updates are ready or a flash drive is installed:

example of bottom messaging

GNOME still has the Desktop file area, even though no files are shown on the actual Desktop. At this point, distros really need to think about the “Desktop” metaphor. I get that lots of desktop environments want to keep the desktop clear of files, and it’s a valid choice. But then what purpose does a folder called Desktop serve? Why not just get rid of it and avoid the confusion?

There’s an option to enter in Internet accounts. I put in my Twitter credentials and never saw any change, in terms of receiving messages or in the behavior of GNOME. There was also an option to enter in my Google credentials, but I’m not sure what that would have done or how it was supposed to work. The Twitter non-action left me a little cold, though.

The font rendering also isn’t great, although the fetchmsttfonts package/script, which facilitates the importing of Microsoft fonts, seemed to improve things.

There were some weird things. Gedit didn’t have a minimize option, which might be deliberate, although Chromium had one. My understanding is that GNOME is very easy to customize, since GNOME Shell uses a lot of JavaScript. The funny thing is, I didn’t feel a huge need to change anything. The out-of-the-box experience looked great and felt incredibly cohesive.

The crazy thing is, after a few hours, GNOME 3 felt very familiar. Anyone who’s spent any time with GNOME will recognize this new environment. It’s not as dramatic a change as it may have seen when GNOME 3 first came out. GNOME 3 is very much an enhancement of how I used to use GNOME.

OpenSUSE’s GNOME 3 was so nice, it got me curious about their LXDE implementation. I installed that on the T43 but was left throughly unimpressed. Everything worked well, but it looked kind of flat and ugly. A lot of that is probably a result of comparing it to my current LXDE implementation, which is a tweaked Sabayon. But it’s also fairly obvious that OpenSUSE puts their energy into GNOME and KDE. I quickly switched my T43 back to GNOME, where I’d like to continue playing with it.

From a GNOME perspective, I’d like to check out some of the shell extensions that are available. From an OpenSUSE perspective, I might try and work with Tumbleweed again, to make a rolling release.

Finally, not to make this an anti-Unity screed, but just as a point of information, the GNOME experience was way nicer than my Unity one. Unity felt broken and sluggish, where GNOME shell feels fast and whole. As Steve Rosenberg points out, the two environments aren’t all that different (Rosenberg also has some nice GNOME 3 observations here), but the big difference is in execution. OpenSUSE’s GNOME 3 is much more polished than Unity. For everything that Canonical’s put into Unity as a front-end to GNOME shell, I’m not really sure what it gives you that GNOME 3 alone doesn’t. Unity feels like it’s grasping to pull different GNOME parts together. GNOME shell on its own seems to effortlessly pull them into a unified experience.

I’m not a GNOME person but even I loved OpenSUSE’s GNOME implementation. It’s stable and fast and well thought out. If you’ve been curious about GNOME 3, OpenSUSE 12.1 is a great place to start. I don’t see myself leaving LXDE (although I never see myself leaving a distro right up until I do it), but GNOME 3 is very intriguing. It’s something I’ll keep an eye on.