GNOME 3.12: Pixel perfect ... but homeless
Best thing out of GNOME camp for YEARS, but who'll take it in?
Review When the GNOME 3.x desktop arrived it was, frankly, unusable. It wasn't so much the radical departure from past desktop environments, as the fact that essential things did not work properly or, more frustratingly, had been deemed unnecessary.
Fast-forward three years and while GNOME 3.12 – released Wednesday – still isn't the infinitely customisable experience of GNOME 2.x, not only has the GNOME Shell progressed by leaps and bounds but it now makes for a stable, productive desktop environment.
One of the great things about releasing early and often is that eventually things improve; sometimes things improve so slowly you hardly notice it until a release like GNOME 3.12 rolls around, but they improve nonetheless.
If you dismissed GNOME 3 when it arrived, I can't blame you, but I suggest taking another look. GNOME 3 has finally arrived, with the newly released 3.12. The only problem with GNOME 3.12? It's a desktop in search of a Linux distro.
Ubuntu has Unity. Even Ubuntu GNOME 14.04 will most likely not be using GNOME 3.12. The future of Debian looks to be with Xfce. GNOME 3.12 will likely be part of Fedora 21, but that's still months from being released.
At the moment, if you want to try GNOME 3.12, your best bet is probably a rolling release distro like Arch, or – for the less experienced – an Arch derivative like Manjaro.
It's a shame no major distro has a release to showcase GNOME 3.12 because it may well be the best thing to come out of the GNOME camp in years.
One place that GNOME 3.12 hands down beats every other desktop I've tried is support for high-resolution screens. This isn't entirely new. GNOME 3.10 has some of the better high-dpi screen support you'll find in a Linux desktop, but there were still a few glitches. GNOME 3.12 picks up where 3.10 left off and polishes things up a bit. Problems like poorly sized icons and thumbnail images in the Alt+Tab switcher are thing of the past. There's still work to be done in this area, but GNOME 3.12 will likely be one of the best Linux desktops for those with a high-res screen.
The GNOME developers have also been busy improving what might be thought of as power-user tools. Perhaps one of the most immediately useful of these new tools are the "quick lists" or "jump lists" for the launch bar. Right click on the launch bar in GNOME 3.10 and earlier and the only menu items you'll see are "new window" and "close".
GNOME 3.12 expands that to add support for customisable right-click menus in the Activities view and in any running apps listed in the Favorites bar. All you need to do is create a simple text file with a few lines of code and your custom tools will show up in the right-click menu for the app you specify.
For example, imagine you want a shortcut to quickly launch theregister.co.uk in Firefox. All you need to do is edit the application's desktop file (in this case that's firefox.desktop). Then you define a "Desktop Action", which consists of a name and action. Save your file in ~/.local/share/applications and you're done.
Now whenever you right-click on the Firefox icon in the Favorites bar, you'll see an option to open theregister.co.uk directly. Other possible uses include opening an app with a blank document ready to go or opening an app with a new document based on a template of your choosing.
While it's nice to have customisation options for power users, this also makes it much easier for GNOME apps to customise their options, which in turn will make the Activities view and Favorites bar more useful.
Much of what's noticeably different in GNOME 3.12 are the various new and revamped applications.
Perhaps the biggest change is in Totem, GNOME’s default video player. In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was an entirely new video player. The app has been renamed Videos (or GNOME Videos if you want to be more specific), though the project itself retains the Totem moniker. The interface has been completely redesigned to fit with the look of GNOME 3 apps.
Totem/Videos isn't the only app with new features in this release. The whole GNOME apps suite, which consists of Maps, Weather, Photos, Videos and others, have been updated and improved. The Software app remains a bit confusing - it seems to only list GUI apps, which means you're left to whatever tools your distro provides for anything non-GUI - but at least it now ties into the GNOME Shell search so you can find apps regardless of whether or not they're currently installed.
GNOME keeps expanding its suite of apps too. There's even a graphical client for the Git version control system now. Or at least there should be. The Fedora rawhide releases I used for testing did not actually include Gitg (as the app is known), but it was listed – along with several others – in the Fedora repos.
The Maps application showcases GNOME 3.12's new geolocation privacy controls. You can completely turn off location services in this release, but should you choose to leave them on, there's a nice new indicator applet that will let you know whenever an application (like Maps, Weather and Photos) accesses your location data.
GNOME's long term-plans call for even more fine-grained location privacy controls – like the ability to decide which applications can access your location – but for now there is at least an off switch.
In the end geolocation privacy controls are probably more of a concern for mobile users and thus far GNOME-based mobile devices aren't exactly flying off the shelves.
GNOME 3.12 continues the trend of integrating web-based service into desktop apps. The revamped Videos app now supports Pocket, a read-it-later service that can also save videos (which are then synced to the GNOME Videos app). GNOME's Photos app has added Facebook support, which allows you to interact with your Facebook photos directly inside Photos. Or it should anyway, I was never able to log in to Facebook as the site complained that the pop-up window –that is the online accounts window in GNOME – was "too small to display this page". I suspect this is a recent change on Facebook's end.
Another nice change in this release is the revamped GNOME account setup process, though whether or not you see it will depend on how your distro of choice works. In Fedora, for example, most of the account setup process is handled in the Anaconda installer, thus bypassing the GNOME version.
All of which brings us back to the problem: GNOME 3.12 is nice but a desktop in search of a distro.
Of course all Linux desktops are ostensibly that way, that's part of what makes Linux Linux: all the choices. That works for Xfce, LXDE and others, but increasingly environments like GNOME Shell and Unity want to be more than just desktops in the traditional sense and to do that well it seems to mean tightly integrating with a single distro, the way Unity effectively is Ubuntu.
Perhaps now GNOME Shell has become a more mature, stable and genuinely useful desktop, some distro will come along and provide the kind of integration that GNOME deserves. ®