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December 11, 2011

Why Gnome3 sucks (for me)

When I started using Linux, I started with a desktop environment (KDE) and then tried a lot of (standalone) window managers, including but not limited to Enlightenment, Blackbox, Fluxbox and Sawfish. But I was never really satisfied as it felt as if something was missing.
It then came, that I became a user of a desktop environment again. Now I have been a GNOME user for at least five years.

Among the users of desktop environments, I'm probably not a typical user. In 2009 my setup drifted from a more or less standard GNOME 2.3 to a combination of GNOME and a tiling window manager, which I called Gnomad, as a logical continuation of something I've done for a long time since using computers: Simplifying tasks, which are not my main business.
I just didn't want to care about the hundred techniques to auto mount an USB stick or similar tasks, which are handed just fine by a common Desktop Environment. And I didn't want to care about arranging windows, because after all the arrangement of my windows was always more or less the same.

But there were rumors that GNOME3 significantly changed the user experience and I wanted to give it a try at some point in the future. This try was forced by latest updates in Debian unstable, so I tested it for some days.

Day 1: Getting to know each other
My first day was GNOME3 was a non-working-day. When I'm at home I'm mostly using my computer for some chatting and surfing in the web, so I don't have great demands on the
Window manager/Desktop Environment.
Accordingly the very first experience with GNOME3 was mostly a good one, except some minor issues.
The first thing to notice in a positive way, is the activities screen. I guess this one is inspired by Mac Exposé, but its nevertheless a nice thing, as it provides an overview over opened applications.
Apart from that, its possible to launch applications from there. The classical application menu is gone, but this one is better. One can either choose with the mouse or start typing the applications name and it will incrementally search for it and show it immediately. Hitting Enter is enough to launch the application.
Additionally, on the left, there is a launcher for your favorite applications.

This one lead to the first question mark above my head.

I had opened a terminal via this launcher and now wanted to open another terminal, after I switched to a different workspace.
So I just clicked it again and had to notice that GNOME developers and I have a different perception, of whats intuitive, because that click
led me back to the terminal on the first workspace. It took me some minutes to realize how I'm able to start a second terminal, by just right clicking on the icon and click on Open new window or similar.

Day 2: Doing productive work
The next day was a work day and I was on a customer appointment to do support/maintenance tasks. On this appointments my notebook is not my primary work machine and so I could softly go over to using GNOME3 when doing productive work.
I can say that it worked, although I soon started to miss some keystrokes which I'm used to. Like switching workspaces with Meta4+Number or at least switch workspaces by cycling through them with STRG+Alt+Left and Right Arrow Keys. While the first is a shortcut specific to my GNOmad setup, the latter is something I knew back from the good old Gnome2 days.
It just vanished from the default keybindings and did nothing. Appearently, as I learned afterwards, it has been decided to use the Up/Down arrow keys instead.

While for new users this will not be a problem at all, this is really hard for someone using GNOME for about 5 years as these are keystrokes one is really used to.

Day 3: Going mulithead

The appointment ended on the third day at afternoon, so when I came back into the office, I had the chance to test the whole thing in my usual work environment. At office I have my notebook attached to a docking station which has a monitor attached to it. So usually I work in dual head mode, with my primary work screen being the bigger external screen.

That was the point, where GNOME3 became painful.

At first everything was fine. GNOME3 detected the second monitor and made it available for use with the correct resolution. But things started to become ugly, when I actually wanted to work with it. GNOME3 decided that the internal screen is the primary screen, so the panel (or what has stood around from it) was on that screen. I can live with that, as thats basically the same with GNOME2, but the question was: How to start an application in a way that its started on the big screen?
I knew that I couldn't just use the keystrokes I'm used to, like Meta4+p, which were bound to launching dmenu in my GNOmad setup, as I knew that I was not running GNOmad at present. So I thought hard and remembered that GNOME had a run dialog itself, bound to Alt+F2. Relieved I noticed, that this shortcut had not gone away. I typed 'chromium' and waited. A message appeared telling me that the file was not found. Okay. No, wait. What? I did not uninstall it, so I guess it should be there.
I tried several other applications and all were told not to be available. Most likely this is a bug and bugs happen but this was really serious for me.

Another approach was to use the activity screen. At first I used it manually, by moving the mouse to there, launch chromium (surprise, surprise, it was still there) and moved it to the right screen, because I haven't found a shorter way to do that. There must be a better way to that, I thought and so I googled. Actually there are more then one better way to do it.

  1. There is a hidden hot spot in the corner of the second screen, too. If one finds and moves the mouse over it, the activity screen will open on the primary monitor and on the secondary monitor, but the application list is only one the first. One can now type what he wants to start, hit Enter and Tada its on the screen where my mouse is. Not very intuitive, in my opinion, and I really would prefer if I had the same level of choice on the second screen.
  2. I can hit Meta4 and its opening the activitiy screen. From there everything is the same as described above.

There were many other small quirks that disturbed me, like that the desktop has vanished away (I used it seldom, but it was irritating that it wasn't there anymore), shortcuts I were missing and so on.  lot of this is really specific to me being used to my previous setup, but I can't help myself but I really need those little helpers.

So, at some point I decided to go back to GNOmad again, knowing that I will run into the next problem again, because I would have to permanently disable the new gnome3 mode and instead launch GNOME in the fallback mode. Luckily that is as easy as typing the following in a terminal

gsettings set org.gnome.desktop.session session-name 'gnome-fallback'

I quickly got this working again, but had to notice another cruel thing in GNOME3, that even disturbed my GNOmad experience. GNOME3 now binds to Meta4+p to a function, which switches internal/extern monitor setting, and now that is a real PITA.

From this point on another journey began, that eventually ended in switch to a Gnome/Awesome setup but this is a different story for a different time.

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2 Comments

For the record, the canonical way in Debian to set the default session is not to alter org.gnome.desktop.session/session-name, but to select it “GNOME fallback” from the display manager. We’ve run into several people having changed this setting and who failed to bring it back.

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