You may know Gnome as the “ah, something simple, which… — wait, where are my desktop icons and task bar?” desktop environment. Which, no doubt, it is; it’s what I liked about it when I first started using it in version 3.8 all those years ago. But recently, I discovered that it hadn’t just been that, but that it actively helps making things more seamless.
Let’s back up for a bit.
My theory on Desktop Environments is, in a nutshell, “if you notice them, they do something wrong”, or in other words: “A good desktop environment lets you focus on your tasks without getting in your way”. This basically also is true for programs in general, if it lets you do the thing you want to do easily and in one flow, it probably is a good program.
This effectively explains why Windows 10 keeps greatly displeasing me every time I use it. It’s design changes between the most recent Fluent Design, all the way down to Windows 2000/XP-style depending on which program you use (even built-in settings programs), and things like dark theme pretty much don’t work on anything at all. And even simple settings changes like adjusting the mic gain, require you to either dive into almost-invisible text-links in the settings app, or finding the right pop-up window of the old system control center. And after each somewhat major update, Cortana and Edge greet you yet again. To add to that, there’s my personal clumsiness which causes me to click on the wrong icon in the taskbar not quite daily, but enough that I now have “padding apps” between apps which take very long to load, so that a misclick doesn’t cause years of waiting. All of these things take me out of “the zone” whenever you encounter them, and I very frequently do.
Gnome beats this any day of the week. Changing the mic gain can be done right in next to where you know the volume slider is, if the mic is active. And since loads of apps are GTK-based anyway, the dark theme (or any theme, really) gets applied pretty much universally, with the notable exceptions of the major browsers and blender – all of which have their own, very capable theming options though anyway – and Qt-based apps.
Encountering a Qt-based app in Gnome is weird every time, but likewise, encountering a GTK-based app in KDE is weird as well. And while there is the minor problem of them looking kinda weird compared to the rest of the system, there is the slightly more major issue that Qt-apps tend to use different things for everything. For example, if I want to open a file in a GTK-based program, it gives me effectively Nautilus (aka Gnome Files), whereas Qt-based programs give me Dolphin. But look closely at the difference towards the folders on the left-hand side:
Where Nautilus has shortcuts for the images/documents/music/videos folders, Dolphin instead has basically the same, just slightly-different looking icons for a completely different function: Clicking on them filters the current folder for the type of file you’re looking for. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a very useful option, and on KDE, this Dolphin-modal does have the same shortcuts to drives and places, it’s just that this particular Qt-to-GTK-port is kinda confusing because it breaks the “there are shortcuts to your folders to the left” model that is established everywhere else by putting a search filter there instead.
But this is a small price to pay for what is my favourite part of Gnome: The Activity Overview.
The Activity Overview combines so many things into one place, it’s just awesome. Dead center, you have all your open windows. Not as window previews forced to the same size or just a bunch of icons as you may know from alt+tabbing or taskbars, but as actual windows which do a very decent job at conveying which windows are big and which aren’t. If you do need a taskbar, you can find it here as well, and if you need something which resembles OSX’ Launchpad and Spotlight search, they are here as well. In this view you can close windows you no longer need, or drag them to other screens, both real ones and virtual ones.
Opening the Activity Overview is as easy as pressing Super (the “Windows” key), or flinging your cursor into the top-left corner. It feels so good to use and I use it so often that it’s become my second nature: whenever I’m using a desktop environment which doesn’t have that, I’m actually starting to struggle a bit, to the point where I put the taskbar up top in Windows and KDE, so that flinging my cursor up left at least brings it in the right vicinity of the “Start” button.
Until recently, my review of Gnome would’ve stopped about there. The activity overview is awesome, and the rest is out of the way and (mostly) consistent, therefore, it’s a good desktop environment for me and I will continue using it whenever possible.
But, as I alluded to in the beginning, it’s taking steps towards making things more seamless.
As a small example, the notification center shows notifications (duh) and your calendar, but also give you player controls for the YouTube tab that currently is playing. So you can pause and skip videos playing in the background at any time without having to find the right browser tab.
The bigger example is Gnome Online Accounts. Which isn’t actually that new, but I didn’t bother trying it beforehand. Because, what I associate with “connect your account” is that it just grabs your email and avatar for account creation purposes, and maybe starts posting farmville status updates to your timeline if you aren’t careful. But that isn’t what’s happening here. If all you have is a Google account and put it into Gnome Online Accounts, it automatically…
- sets up your Email account in Geary and Evolution,
- syncs your Google calendar with Gnome Calendar and Evolution,
- imports your contacts in Gnome Contacts and Evolution,
- adds a remote server connection to Google Drive in Gnome Files,
- adds Google Documents to view in Gnome Documents,
- imports photos from Google Photos to Gnome Photos,
- does possibly more! I haven’t discovered all of the integrations yet.
Now, this sounds exactly like what Android does with the Google account, OSX with the AppleID/iCloud and Microsoft with the Microsoft Account, and to some degree, it is. The difference is however that it doesn’t try to get you into it’s ecosystem at which point it can extract money out of you for more storage space or whatever, but that it rather lets you keep your existing accounts and allows you to work with them faster. For example by letting you move stuff from and to your favourite cloud provider without having to open a browser, downloading it, finding it in the downloads folder and then moving it about.
Of course, we are still in FOSS-Land, so some of these integrations are kinda janky – I notice for example that the Gnome Files/Google Drive integration refuses to go much faster than 90 kiB/s despite me sitting on a 25 Mbit/s line – and some of the Gnome-specific apps aren’t quite as stable as the old guard – Geary sometimes refuses to connect to accounts until a system restart happens and sometimes insists that I’m working offline even though I’ve done nothing but watch YouTube videos for the past 3 hours.
And this shows the one gripe I do have with what Gnome’s UX decision imperative to keep things simple: The Geary team won’t build in a way manually reload. It instead shows you a banner saying “You are now working offline”, which you can dismiss, and that’s it. Which is immensely frustrating, because if you as a user are encountering an error which isn’t your fault, are you really supposed to… just wait until the program eventually decides to fix itself? Or did it fix itself and I am online again, but the banner didn’t remove itself afterwards? There’s no indication for when the next refresh happens either, because the only setting in Geary for updates is “automatically check for new mail”, which is either on or off, so when I see the banner, do I just click X and wait around for… ten minutes? Is that even enough? That’s not what I do! Monkey no patience! Monkey do thing! MONKEY SMASH BUTTONS!
… I’m beginning to wonder if Windows’ automatic “error fixing” thing actually would be a good feature for Gnome, because even if it doesn’t do anything, it at least lets you play around with a thing until it fixes itself…
So yeah. Gnome. Very awesome almost always, but can be kinda frustrating when it doesn’t work. Highly recommended, 5/5 toes. Get it on https://gnome.org