Gnome Shell – Your Next Desktop Environment

Since the release of KDE4, a major overhaul of the KDE desktop, there’s been some grumbling among the Gnome community about if and when Gnome would have a major overhaul. Well with Gnome 3 we’ll have it in the form of Gnome Shell. It pretty much replaces the panel and window manager in a normal Gnome installation with a fully composited environment with some great new functionality.

Installation

It’s important to note right away that Gnome Shell is still in fairly early development. There is no stable release or package, we’ll be downloading and installing from source code using an auto build script. While I had no trouble at all with the installation, things could change at any moment so there’s certainly no guarantees that it will build, let alone run. That said, Gnome Shell has so far given me no trouble at all.

First, we’ll need jhbuild, a tool that’ll help with the installation. It’s probably in your distro’s repositories. Debian/Ubuntu users an fetch it with:

Next we download and run the installation script:

This will take a little while. It ran for about 10 minutes on my Core 2 Duo test machine. Fortunately, there were no errors during any part of it during my installation.

Running

BEFORE RUNNING GNOME SHELL, make sure to disable Compiz if you’ve got it running. Ubuntu users can do this by opening your normal Gnome panel to System -> Preferences -> Appearance and turning off desktop effects. Once you’re sure any desktop effects have been disabled, save any work you’re not willing to risk, and enter the following in your terminal:

If you find yourself liking Gnome Shell and running it often, I’d suggest making an alias in your .bashrc file for the command above.

Launching Applications

The main difference in working with the Gnome Shell desktop is that your panel on the top is not your normal panel, Once you click Activities, you’ll see a completely different interface from what you’re used to.

gnome-shell-single-desktop

You can also open the Activities screen by hitting the Super (aka Windows) key on your keyboard. On the left, you’ve got the equivalent of the old menu system. The top of that panel is the Find box, which operates like many of the desktop finder tools out there. You can type in the name of a program (like “firefox”) to run it, or you can specify a word in the program’s description, like below.

gnome-shell-finder

The other method of launching programs is to click the Browse button under Applications, if you prefer using menus.

Multiple Desktops

No Linux desktop environment would be complete if it wouldn’t run multiple desktop screens to manage all your apps. Gnome Shell is no different, and provides an interesting take on these often-used workspaces.

With the Activities screen up, you’ll see a small round “+” icon in the bottom right corner of your screen. Click that to add new workspaces to your desktop.

gnome-shell-multi-desktop

Even though Gnome Shell is still in pretty early stages, they’ve already included some great usability features. For example, with the Activities up, you can click an application icon to launch in your current workspace, or drag the launch icon onto the appropriate workspace. So in the screenshot above, for example, I could drag the Firefox icon onto the third desktop to make it open there directly. Once a window is open, you can easily drag it from one workspace to the next. This video demonstrates exactly what I mean.

Sidebar

This is a nice little feature that’s not much right now but my guess is that it could evolve into a great little tool. If you click your username in the top right corner of the screen, you can choose to enable the Sidebar. If enabled, it sits at the left edge of the screen and can be collapsed to a thin bar or expanded into a small box by clicking the arrows at the top.

gnome-shell-sidebar

Eye Candy

The most obvious comparison for a composited window manger like Gnome Shell would be to Compiz. They’ve both got window animation effects for things like minimizing and opening windows, as well as transparencies and everything else you’d expect from a composited setup. The difference, so far at least, seems to me to be the purpose of those effects. Compiz puts much more emphasis on pure decoration like rain drops and wobbly windows whereas the Gnome Shell effects are generally more practical. That’s not to say Compiz doesn’t have some handy features, and this could all change as Gnome Shell development goes on.

Conclusion

My overall impression of Gnome Shell is most certainly positive. There’s clearly been a lot of thought put into its design, and some equally impressive coding behind the implementation. The visual effects are pleasing but not overwhelming, and the interface is very intuitive and takes almost no effort to understand.

That said, there’s still plenty of room for development. So far I’ve found essentially no configuration options of any kind, so at the moment it seems you’re stuck with having the shell exactly the way it was installed, like it or not. Fortunately for me, I like it. I’m sure configuration options will improve as development continues and more tools and features are added, so that’s not so much a complaint as a suggestion to be patient. It looks like it’ll be worth the wait.

32 comments

  1. Finally, GNOME is playing catch up to KDE. I really like GNOME and have been using it since the version 1.x days, but lately it had started looking as if the project wasn’t really making any progress. GNOME Shell really puts GNOME on the road to recovery :-) Yay !

    • I fully agree. The last few releases have had some nice stuff but it sure seems like time for a real face lift, and Gnome Shell sure looks promising.

  2. It would be awesome if they were able to integrate all the gnome-do plugins in the new application launcher. Seeing as gnome-shell is more keyboard oriented I think it is the perfect chance to fully integrate gnome-do into gnome.

  3. Oh my God… It is awesome…. I just installed it in my Fedora 11… It is wroking fine without any problems….

    Can you suggest me how to make it as my default Desktop environment???

    • There are a few ways depending on your setup, and I’m afraid I don’t know fedora that well, particularly if it’s using KDM for a session manager. If gnome shell shows up in your session menu then that would be the easiest way, otherwise you could put the path to gnome shell (like ~/gnome-shell/gnome-shell or wherever it installed to) in your .xinitrc file or startup options (you may need –replace if it’s replacing a running window manager).

      Once again, you may want to think twice before running any critical apps on Gnome Shell before it’s got a stable release.

  4. I installed it, but now my Tomboy is not working….. Any solution for my tomboy to work???

    It works from the command line but the terminal has to be open for it to run….

  5. > So far I’ve found essentially no configuration options of any kind

    I’m pretty sure that’s the way GNOME devs want it — this is GNOME you know ;)

  6. Can the black color be changed into something brighter? black or any very dark color is very annoying.

    • So far I haven’t found ANY config options along the lines of colors, fonts, layout, whatever. Unless I just missed it during my tests, it would appear the only way to change pretty much anything is in the source code.

  7. This could be cool and keep those people that want more flashy effects, or this could be really dumb.

  8. @Sikandar Mohammed

    You can start Tomboy from the menus, the same way you start any other application. It should appear in the tray area of gnome-shell’s panel.

    Right now, gnome-shell doesn’t have the same support for applets that the old panel has, so you can’t add applets in the same way. But Tomboy supports running in the tray for people without gnome panels, so it should work fine. You can also use GNOME Session preferences to add Tomboy to startup.

    Oh, and apparently if you’re on Fedora, there is a bug in certain versions where they’ve removed the menu item that lets you launch Tomboy (assuming everybody would add it to their panel). This needs to change for proper gnome-shell support, and if you’re using Fedora, you might need to add your own menu item.

  9. @Sikandar Mohammed

    You can start Tomboy from the menus, the same way you start any other application. It should appear in the tray area of gnome-shell’s panel.

    Right now, gnome-shell doesn’t have the same support for applets that the old panel has, so you can’t add applets in the same way. But Tomboy supports running in the tray for people without gnome panels, so it should work fine. You can also use GNOME Session preferences to add Tomboy to startup.

    Oh, and apparently if you’re on Fedora, there is a bug in certain versions where they’ve removed the menu item that lets you launch Tomboy (assuming everybody would add it to their panel). This needs to change for proper gnome-shell support, and if you’re using Fedora, you might need to add your own menu item.

  10. It seems to be pretty unstable (well, it *is* a new project afterall) but while it’s running, it really does show promise.

    Looking forward to seeing how this develops

  11. Hi Joshua!

    I really loved this article!

    I am currently testing the gnome-shell and it’s working flawless!

    I am thinking to re-publish this on my blog, which is in Greek! Would there be any problem? Of course, I will mention the original writer of the article and I will let you know when this will be published!

    Please let me have your thoughts!

    Thanks again!
    Mat

  12. Can you please put & after ~/gnome-shell/source/gnome-shell/src/gnome-shell –replace in the command?

  13. I’m gladly out of gnome now, I won’t have to suffer THAT!
    It’s nice being in a WM that won’t probably change radically because it decided that YOU should change the way you work.
    Long live Openbox!

  14. Yeah so anybody who doesnt like it can go use xfce or whatever. I like the flashy effects, but I fear not much of it will run on my ATI Radeon card. It would be nice if Gnome upgrade kinda kicked up the priority for better open ATI drivers…

  15. I tried it but having errors can someone help. At the 6th and 7th stage of the module I was receiving errors which gave me options to choose and I chose 2 which is to skip the error. And after it has ended, when I run the last section, which is ~/gnome-shell/source/gnome-shell/src/gnome-shell –replace this was the error I received.
    No such file or directory.
    Also after the bash gnome-shell-build-setup.sh command. I got a message telling me to create a bin folder in it but I ignored since it was not in the procedure

    • the path given (~/gnome-shell/source/…) is the default location where the gnome-shell files should have been placed. Do you have a gnome-shell directory inside you Home?

      As Gnome Shell is a work in progress and is still far from a stable release, you might have just had a bad build. If that directory is missing, I’d recommend cleaning up any traces and trying the install again in a day or two, in case it’s a bug in the package.

    • You may not be trying Gnome Shell any more, but for anyone who is, I just found a solution to that problem.

      The problems stems from the fact that the config files are telling gcc to treat warnings as errors, even though the warnings aren’t critical. If you open the makefile in ~/gnome-shell/source/gnome-shell/src, just search for the like containing “-Werror” and remove that word. Rerun “jhbuild build” and it’ll work fine. At least, it did for me.

  16. This is the error message at
    *** Error during phase configure of gjs: ########## Error running ./autogen.sh –prefix /home/eocansey/gnome-shell/install –libdir ‘/home/eocansey/gnome-shell/install/lib’ –disable-static –disable-gtk-doc *** [6/7]
    what should I do?

  17. Good stuff.
    But i hope they will make it optionally, flashier,better and easier.
    At least,?they?, We all should participate and work at it !
    Its easy to say here that it rocks or sucks, you/we are theoretically a Gnome developer to! Say what you think to them and help them/yourself with it.

    Go Gnome !

  18. Great Gnome goes Trendy now.

    But I have a problem here. After starting Gnome Shell 3.0 Nothing on top panel seems to be working. I mean when I click on activities, nothing happen. Only network connections and deluge icons at right-top most seems to be working.

    Please Somebody help me how to get it work.
    Following are my details:-

    Fedora 12, Compiz disabled,

  19. I could really see this working well with devices such as netbooks and Internet tablets; I'm sure their recent popularity had some influence over the design. Definitely something I need to try as soon as I get my laptop working again.

  20. Instead of running gnome-shell with Alt-F2, use the terminal, it'll be less buggy. At least that's what I experienced ;)

  21. I had a 286 with DOS but it had a front end that made file search and program execution easy and fun, then came windows and it all went down the toilet. Gnome-shell is simple, fast and I understand it, except for themes. Turn side panel into Conky, cool, and Guake terminal and now I can do anything.

  22. Is there a way of skinning the gnome-shell overview black to be white? I normally use Ubuntu with *inverted colors*, which means gnome-shell shows up as bright white. I prefer most everything to be black.

  23. were is .bashrc file and will I be able to log in as usual in ubuntu 10.04? plus how do you move the buttons back to the left?

  24. Since this was published, Gnome Shell is now available in the default Ubuntu repos, so much of this post is now unnecessary.

    For the record though, .bashrc should be in your home directory, and the buttons can be moved with the command:

    gconftool-2 –set “/apps/metacity/general/button_layout” –type string “menu:minimize,maximize,close”

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