When Gnome Shell was first becoming available over a year ago, we took a look at it to see what the foundation was like, and to see what direction the Gnome desktop was likely to go. At the time, we liked it, though it was clearly a “rough draft” of what it could eventually become. Since then, time has gone by, and while Ubuntu may have decided to go with Unity instead, others have taken Gnome Shell up to the next level. Fedora, among others, will be putting it front and center in future releases. Today we’re going to take a look at one of the most recent builds available to see what this slick desktop environment has got to offer.
Note: The screenshots here were made with a Gnome Shell live CD based on OpenSUSE which can be found here, or the Fedora 15 nightly builds, which can be found here. The first link is a much more stable option currently but the Fedora images should improve daily. Lastly, you can also download the Gnome 3 Live CD from the new Gnome 3 website.
The Basic Desktop
When it launches, the Gnome Shell desktop is pretty sparse. In fact, all you’ve really got is a thin panel on the top.
It’s more-or-less like the default top panel you’d find on your average Gnome install. The user text in the upper right corner acts much like the equivalent Gnome applet in Ubuntu.
Things get interesting once you click the Activities button, or move your mouse all the way to the top left. This activates the nuts-and-bolts of Gnome Shell, the Activities screen.
Windows and Applications
If you have no applications open, the Activities screen doesn’t show very much to start.
But once you open a few things, possibly through the sidebar dock, you’ll see one of the features of Gnome Shell: decluttering your workspace.
However many windows you have open on that workspace will be sorted for easy viewing and access. As you may see in the screenshot above, Gnome Shell adds a close button to the window under the cursor, so excess applications can be removed without leaving the Activities screen.
So far that’s just the Windows section. If you look near the top of the Activities screen, you’ll also see Applications. Clicking this brings up the full application screen.
On the right you can choose specific categories of applications, much like the traditional Gnome menu.
The sidebar dock provided here is a pretty simple one, and is actually similar in many ways to the one found in Unity. It is a launcher of course and also tracks the open applications, so that if you click the icon when the application is open, it will move you to the appropriate workspace. Items can be added and removed by right clicking to icon to add it as a “Favorite”.
This is where Gnome Shell has always stood above most other desktop environments: its ability to manage multiple workspaces. So far there seem to be three approaches to workspace management. Early builds placed workspaces in a grid layout showing you all at once:
Fedora, and the live CD used for this article, place their workspace icons at the bottom of the Activities screen, and you click the “+” or “-” icons on the right to add and remove new workspaces.
But there are some screenshots circulating of a third method which, to some, may be the best of both worlds.
In the upper right corner you’ve got your search box. This can not only pick up applications and system settings, but you can use it to directly search sites like Google and Wikipedia.
As for this author’s opinion – I love it. While I can’t claim to take sides on the Compiz vs Clutter debate, it’s my opinion that Gnome Shell is the best designed desktop environment I’ve yet seen. This is coming from someone who’s very very picky about their interface. In Gnome Shell, all actions are fluid. Windows fade or slide into place. Transitions from one screen to the next are smooth and uninterrupted. To many it may resemble the feel of a modern smart phone more than a desktop. It’s a pity Ubuntu isn’t going to fully back it, they’ve got the best track record of giving a desktop the polish it really needs. I, for one, am very excited about the future of Gnome Shell and can’t wait to see where it goes.
Image credit: Jimmac