Gnome Shell is Almost Ready to Rock Your Desktop

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 Dock

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.


Enhanced Search

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

Joshua Price

Josh Price is a senior MakeTechEasier writer and owner of Rain Dog Software


  1. Pretty yes, Hell Yes! Practical? Not so sure. Imagine you are working on a large wide screen. do you mean that I would have to click the activities tab on the top left, then select the applications tab in the top center and then search my categories on the right of the screen for something not in my app-dock? Seems alike a few clicks too many and a bit much mouse travel. I have to wonder if it would not have been better design to aggregate these features on the same side of the screen. Also I wonder how much customization is possible in such an elaborate system. One of the things I always loved about Gnome is it’s ability to make it your own. with this, it seems like deep customization has been traded for a tightly integrated package. not that that’s a bade thing, but I’m just not sure its a good one either. It sure is pretty though

    1. I agree that the search should be included on the left near the hot corner and the other options. You can still bring up the keystroke Run box or assign Gnome-Do to help alleviate that, but you’re probably right that the layout can still use some tweaking.

      I admit that to me, Gnome Shell’s use of workspaces is the “killer feature”. Of the three screenshots I posted above, I believe the first is the one I like best as it seems most convenient for those with a lot of workspaces but few windows on each. The last, to me, seems great for those with few workspaces but many windows on each. The middle one, which is the default on the Gnome Shell live cd as of this writing, is in my opinion the least useful of the bunch.

      Either way, all three are an improvement (in my opinion) over workspace management in any other desktop environment, and that’s a big deal to me. As for customization, I fully agree and can only hope that flexibility will improve over time like it did with “old” Gnome.

    2. thats not how it works. When you click activities or hit super, you can start typing you dont have to click the box to start typing. Also it will show applications and preferences on seperate lines automatically.

      Zero travel required. I would like to be able to make the hot corner on the buttom right though.

      1. I’m sorry but typing? Why would I want to start typing when I’m launching an application using a GUI? If you are talking about search, that’s fine, but it wasn’t the point being raised.

  2. I just want my standard gnome desktop. It’s simple it works. Why do things have to change for the “better”

    1. I think of switching to Xfce because of all those “better” things (in gnome). Xfce 4.8 might be the one.

  3. Is desktop switching applet available? I don’t want to go to window list or workspace view. I know what I have where. For example all browsers on desktop 4, can I with just one click go from desktop 2 to desktop 4?

  4. You should really try it out, because once you do, you will even hate the “pretty” things you see. they are always in your way, and nothing work… really. GNOME SHell? maybe if it run on a Netbook, that’s fine. ON Desktop or workstation? Forget it. and if you are using more than one monitor. Don’t even think about it.

    Visual Graphic might look ok on this GNOME SHELL. But The Graphic “Design” as a “Desktop”. The worse one I have ever seen.

  5. Aside from some mockups in that list, most of your screenshots look outdated:

    1. 90% of those screenshots were taken from the Fedora 15 Nightly Build, and were as new as that build offered. The others were either the Gnome Shell live CD linked at the top, one from our year-old article, and one mockup.

  6. I have to admit that I am a power user, so this will not be from the perspective of an average user, which I presume is the type of person the GNOME 3 crew have in min. I have used about every DE or WM I could get my hands on and would like to make a few observations.

    Having all the programs lumped in one group is a BAD idea. If the average user only used 5 apps, they could set it the dock and all would be well. But most users will need to get to applications that they do not use often. Scrolling through a list of 300 apps when you don’t know the name of the app you want is NOT going to go over well.

    This desktop seems designed to almost force users to use virutal desktops. But the virtual desktop design is far from optimal. Most users are used to the Windows destkop metaphor, and this does not do much to help them.

    I typically run fluxbox and I can move around between a dozen apps on 4 virutal desktops faster than you can navigate this system. I suspect that there will be a lot of end-user anger at these changes. It really just seems to be change for changes sake. With no way to “rollback” to traditional desktop, I see trouble a breweing.

    1. you bring up an interesting point ElderGeek. It does look like a virtual desktop. In fact, it looks remarkably like a mobile touchscreen UI. If this was on a touchscreen enabled device, then I can see how it would be extremely user friendly.

    2. I forgot to mention it is not possible to place icons on the desktop. This is a standard feature users expect. You can tell me all you want that mousing to the top left corner and then clicking on an icon on the dock or clicking on the word “Applications” gets you desktop icons, but end users won’t buy it. At a desktop with no applications cluttering up the display, icons just being on the desktop is the better way of doing things. Even if the Gnome 3 way presents a better workflow, most users are not buying it. Currently they can click on the “Minimize to desktop” button and get to all of their applications. WIth the icons they have chosen in the exact location they have always had them on their desktop which optimizes their workflow. Having to scroll through a dock or a long list of applications in Alphabetical order is not going to engender any love for Gnome 3.

      Gnome 3 eliminates 0 to 1 click access to icons that rely on spacial memory. The folks over at KDE 4 tried that for a year. They finally gave in and gave users a way to put regular icons back on the desktop. What makes Gnome think it will go any better for them?

    1. In Gome 3 there are several ways.
      1. Mouse to the top left corner, Click on “Applications” on the desktop. Scroll till you find terminal and click.
      2. Mouse to the top left corner, Click on “Applications” on the desktop, and start typing in “terminal” in the search box, one you see the terminal on the desktop, click.
      3. Using either of the above methods, you can right click on the terminal and add it to the dock. Once you have done that then it is must a Mouse to the top left corner and click on the terminal on the dock (assuming your dock is not so full that you have to scroll to find anything).
      4. Press Alt-F2 and type in gnome-terminal and press Enter.
      5. Create a keyboard shortcut to launch gnome-terminal and use your shortcut combination

      My own personal favorite is to have the program tilda autostart. Then whenever I need a terminal I just press F1 and the terminal drops down for my use. I have not tested screen with Gnome 3 yet.

  7. How about configuring the desktop? I’ve always found that Gnome doesn’t seem to be designed in a way that easily lets the user change the desktops behavior. KDE Is much better at that. Is double-click still the only way to activate icons? Once you get used to it, single-click is very nice and you start to get annoyed about double-clicking again.
    Not set out to start a flame-war KDE vs Gnome or something. Just curious.

    1. Personally, I have not tried Gnome 3, but all previous version of Gnome are very user-friendly. Like any other apps, you just need to know where to go to configure the settings you want. To enable single click, you have to open the Nautilus file manager, go to Preferences and check the “single click” box.

  8. I have a funny feeling that the Gnome 3 release is going to be much like the KDE4 release. People will be attracted to it (again it is very pretty), and at first you’ll see several distros using it with minimal modification. The the bugs will be found and people will complain about functionalities either no longer present or which work in ways they don’t like. I think you’ll see a year or so of responses from Gnome (just as it happened with KDE), while they work out bugs and add flexibility in response to what the linux community is asking for. eventually the De will stabilize in a form that people will either like or not. I think it’s going to take some time for people to wrap their mind around the new shell.

    My biggest concern is that Like KDE4, Gnome will be so tightly integrated that all distros using it will end up looking largely the same (or very similar). Again, IMHO Gnome’s biggest strength, AFAIC, has been it’s enormous customization flexibility. I’ll give Gnome 3 the benefit of the doubt, but what I’m seeing looks a bit too tightly integrated to be particularly flexible in terms of deep customization. I hope I’m wrong.

  9. icons with text?-if you have text what function does the icon supply?This question is highlighted if you modify it: icons without text–this would require a lot of (human) user memory! Even on a touchscreen the use of icons seems redundant.

  10. xfce 4.8 for me when f14 reaches the end of its cycle and maybe a switch from fedora to zenwalk.

  11. It is something new and probably it is very convenient for touch-pad. But it is not option for me.
    Luckily I still may try in Ubuntu 11.04 Unity+Compiz thing. I thankful Gnome developers for their decision to continue support of Gnome 2 and eliminate all known bugs. I do not think it is wise idea to switch from Gnome 2 to Gnome 3. For now Gnome 2 is the most stable DE I ever saw. I know developers criticized Gnome 2 as something that was written by many people in chaos code and they totally rewrite some libraries in Gnome 3 to make it more stable and professional. I totally support this decision. But I cannot accept their forcing changing in user interface. Rewriting and making more stable is always good idea, but totally new interface can be suggested only as option, not as mainstream. It is just my opinion.

  12. Why are my comments being rejected. Every time I post something that makes it clear that GOME 3 isn’t just GNOME Shell, and that a standard GNOME desktop is also available, my post is rejected.

  13. GNOME Shell makes no sense on my High resolution multi monitor setup. Thankfully GNOME 3 isn’t just GNOME Shell, as demonstrated here. GNOME 3 is in fact much more than GNOME Shell, because it includes the standard GNOME desktop we are all familiar with, and which works much better on setups like mine described here. As Clem from Linux Mint has said Linux Mint 11 will come with GNOME 3 but NOT GNOME Shell, and will therefore look and function like previous versions of Linux Mint.

    1. I’m not sure you are that familiar with Gnome 3. The “standard” desktop without the shell, is nowhere near what the old desktop environment used to be. a bunch of stuff is missing and some of the pannel applets are either missing or no longer in the same place. Also some of Gnome 3’s cookier features (such as the no scaling button, only minimize and close). Clem and the guys at Mint are going to be doing a great deal of modification to the basic gnome 3 desktop in order to get it back to something everyone recognizes and is familiar with.

  14. I agree with “Companyemails” (O_o) and I’ll just stick with my custom made desktop manager

  15. well I tried it out and I must say I’m impressed. I didn’t like it when I read about the features – but actually using it resolved all the unanswered questions I had. You CAN choose apps by category, as well as having them all lumped in together…so that’s neat.
    You can also launch Activities via a keyboard combination, so no need to mouse to the top-left corner.
    Actually, using key-combinations and shortcuts is a much faster and more efficient way to work anyway.
    Whilst the whole desktop concept is wildly different to what I’m used to, I can see the rationale behind it and I actually think I could get used to it very quickly – and work very efficiently.
    I will be trying it on my work laptop (currently mint 10 KDE) as soon as a major distro supports it.

  16. This reminds me of the upcoming Mac OS X 10.7 with Launchpad and Mission Control and no light indicators in Dock. It’s funny how all desktop environments and operating systems tend in the same directions.

  17. i dont like 11.04 at all its too geared towards touch ui and im on a laptop and its just not practical to mouse all over the place to open somthing .. im probly going back to 10.04

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