Why now is the best time to use GNOME

GNOME developer Emmanuele Bassi explains the user experience updates in the GNOME desktop environment.
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(Image by The GNOME Foundation, CC-BY 4.0)

The GNOME desktop environment has been through many changes since its initial release in March 1999. For most of this time, the open source project has issued updates twice a year, which gives users predictability in when they can expect new features to land on their Linux and other Unix-like desktops. Its latest release, GNOME 3.36, came out in March, and the project is preparing to issue its next iteration in September. To learn about what's new in GNOME, I spoke with Emmanuele Bassi.

Emmanuele has been contributing to GNOME for more than 15 years. He started as the maintainer of language bindings that allow developers to use GNOME libraries in other programming languages, then moved on to contribute to GTK (a cross-platform widget for developing GNOME apps) and other parts of GNOME. In 2018, GNOME hired Emmanuele as a full-time GTK Core Developer, where he works on GTK and the GNOME application development platform.

Jim Hall: GNOME 3.36 was released in March 2020. What are some of the major features people should know about?

Emmanuele Bassi: GNOME has followed a release schedule for the last 18 or so years. GNOME doesn't release when a new feature is ready; we release when it's time. That simplifies the new releases. There isn't a "next big thing" in GNOME. Instead, it's just a new release every six months. We always fix bugs, add new features, and polish up what's there.

This release was really about making sure all the features were nice to use and pleasant to use. In GNOME 3.36, there's a lot that improves the user experience. One thing I like is the ability to turn off notifications. This is a feature that was available in a very old version of GNOME but was removed a while back because the mechanism underneath it wasn't very reliable. But we added it back because this feature is so useful and important to a lot of people.

You can toggle notifications on and off for everything or set them for each application you use. You can find this setting in the GNOME Settings app, under the Applications menu.

GNOME "Do Not Disturb" feature

Click "Do Not Disturb" to turn off notifications. (GNOME, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Notifications options in GNOME Settings

You can turn off notifications for individual applications in the Settings app. (Jim Hall, CC BY-SA 4.0)

We also added extra polish to the GNOME lock screen. This updated lock screen has been in the works for ages, and now it's ready. The new GNOME lock screen will blur the background of your current workspace but doesn't show your running applications. It's a great feature for the user experience. We've been working on that for the last three or four cycles, and we fixed a lot of things along the way to make that work well.

Another thing that's important for user experience is that [there is a new] place to put all the extensions. [It was in] GNOME Software Center, but no one knew to look there. Now there's a separate application to manage it.

GNOME Extensions app

The new Extensions app lets you change extension preferences or turn off extensions you don't want. (GNOME, CC BY-SA 4.0)

And there's lots of little polish added to the GNOME Shell itself. For example, the application folders in the GNOME Shell application launcher are a great new feature. It's really easy to create your own application groups or folders in the launcher. A lot of people had asked for this for a long time. Application folders actually landed in an earlier GNOME release, but [the feature] needed extra work to make it really great, and that's what you see in GNOME 3.36.

JH: What are some features of GNOME that more people should know about?

EB: I don't know that there are other features that are really big in GNOME 3.36. If you're already using GNOME, the biggest thing you'll see is the improved user experience. If you aren't using GNOME, then the big thing is the consistent behavior in using GNOME. It's about a smooth experience with your computer, like your computer isn't going to be bothering you.

Password fields are easier. This used to be in a menu that you had to know existed if you wanted to use it, but now it's right there.

JH: This is a great feature if you use long and complex passwords, like me. In any GNOME prompt where you would type in a password, you can click a little icon to expose your password to make sure you typed it correctly.

GNOME lock screen

The lock screen includes the new "show your password" feature. (GNOME, CC BY-SA 4.0)

EB: The new application folders in the GNOME application launcher is another [feature to know about]. The folders are easier to see, and they look great. GNOME will suggest a name for the application folder, but it's really easy to give that folder a different name.

And more applications in GNOME are now responsive to being resized. They changed that in the user interface. The Settings app is a good example of that. If you make it too narrow, it changes how it displays things. We've been working on this for a while because of companies like Purism that are putting GNOME on other display sizes like phones or anyone who is using GNOME on other form factors.

You don't notice some of the changes until you use them. There are lots of great features to see and that allow you to use GNOME in different ways.

JH: As a GNOME developer and user, what GNOME features do you find most useful in your daily work?

EB: I get a lot of use in the keyboard navigation. I use the keyboard all the time, so I live with my hands on the keyboard. When I use the mouse, I sometimes can get RSI (repetitive strain injury) by using it too much. Being able to use the keyboard for everything is great.

The keyboard shortcuts are part of the GNOME Accessibility. It's also part of a design direction to be able to count on keyboard shortcuts for things. Keyboard accessibility is a core part of the design language; it's not a side feature that will be dropped someday.

And having multiple windows on the screen and being able to tile them up, so I have two windows side by side. That, and multiple workspaces. I used to micromanage my workspaces back in the 1990s with different virtual desktops. But I'd always create more virtual desktops than I needed. But in GNOME, it's easy enough to create a new workspace if you need it, and when you don't need it, it's gone.

JH: We're already in the GNOME 3.37 development cycle, with GNOME 3.38 planned for September 2020. What are some new features showing up that will interest people?

EB: There are new changes all the time. One thing we're working on is the application grid and making that customizable. Right now, the applications are listed alphabetically, but you will be able to drag them around in any order you want. That will finish a massive change that's been in the works for five years or more. The goal is to be less automated and more user-driven.

Another thing happening is the GNOME Shell; developers want to do some tests on the Overview layout. Right now, you have a dashboard on the left and one on the right and windows in the center. We're trying to remove the dashboard because it's not helpful. If you want to configure it, you can. This is kind of being driven by the mobile effort. On the desktop, you're in Landscape mode and you have a lot of room to put things on the screen. But on mobile, you're probably in Portrait mode, and you have less space. So we're experimenting with new layouts and new ways to display the content. Some of that will land in GNOME 3.38, but it's been a really long project, so we'll see.

There are more features in GNOME Settings. A multi-tasking panel is planned in GNOME 3.38. Some of these settings exist already in the GNOME Tweaks app, and some of those will move from Tweaks into the main Settings app. Like being able to disable the hot corner—some people don't like that feature. Or letting you control the user interface when it comes to multiple screens—like if you want workspaces on multiple screens or just want workspaces on your main screen. Lots of these settings are not exposed right now unless you go into GNOME Tweaks, so we're moving those.

And I should mention that there's lots of work by everyone in GNOME to make things faster, even for people running on more limited systems like the Raspberry Pi. There's been a lot of work to get GNOME to perform better. That's a lot of work that people have been focusing on, because people really care about it.

You can download and learn more about GNOME, including its underlying technologies, getting involved, and more on its website. If you're curious to learn what else is new in GNOME, check out the GNOME 3.36 release notes.

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photo of Jim Hall
Jim Hall is an open source software advocate and developer, best known for usability testing in GNOME and as the founder + project coordinator of FreeDOS.


I recently by accident tried to use Gnome, and as usual, gave up very quickly. I have been using KDE for a variety of reasons, one being that when I install KDE on upgrading, I have a basically usable and understandable desktop that I can gradually tweak to my liking. Not so with Gnome, where I am faced with a blank screen and no clues as to where to start to make something useful to me from it. I am not going to launch into an extensive investigational search for documentation. Back to KDE and plasma.

you press the windows/mac/whatever-key, type in the name of the app you want to launch, it gets shown on the screen with other possible matches the system finds for you, you hit enter when you selected your app.
so your point of having to search through docs is obviously wrong since i can describe gnomes usage with one sentence.
i cant think of a more straight forward and intuitive way to get to the application i want than remembering this one key + typing its name.
its like using the terminal but better, because i dont need to remember how an app is named but search it.
i love gnome for actually thinking through its concept instead of copying the mainstream solution with its vices.

In reply to by Greg P

I agree with your point
GNOME is a bit different from windows, mac or other DE
but you will love it when you use it
my guess may be wrong in your case, but it works in my case
my first Linux uses KDE 3.5 and I love it, I don't like gnome 2
because it looks stupidly
things changed when gnome 3 was released
it looks more elegant and simpler to use than KDE
KDE 4 or 5 look great but they are too complex and heavy to be used in the product environment
so I moved to gnome
it helps me to work faster

In reply to by Greg P

One thing both gnome and kde lack is good epub reader , gnome-books is not developed anymore and okular is very slow and not useful.

As systems administrator and developer I'm frustrated every time I'm giving GNOME another chance. Last time I tried to move the clock from the very center of the panel to a corner and disable window grouping I failed (usually, I have a lot of opened windows and prefer managing it that way). The idea of "the clock in the middle" is questionable itself (IIRC no other DE or OS is using such layout at all) but lack of such basic and common ability to move a simple widget in a sane manner doesn't look sane to me. What is the point of the panel if it's lacking two main functions? (window management and tray management). Let's hope we will have another "best time" with the working panel.

GNOME is a great DE, probably just because it opensource. But every time I install regular Ubuntu, I see the same drawbacks. Some will be over 10 years old.
- My code editor / IDE, my browser, music player have long been able to save tabs on close. And after starting the package - restore their state. Nautilus and the terminal emulator don't do that. This is very strange, since in fact it does not require serious changes to the existing code.
- Calling up the application menu is slow due to long animation. And after I have time to drink tea, I will be greeted by huge icons, the position and size of which I cannot adjust. Blood from the eyes sometimes flows, just from one glance.
- For some reason removed the global menu. However, screen space was not saved. But now users are plagued with problems with gtk and non-gtk applications.
- The top panel is empty, with huge margins. It would be possible to mark the global menu in it. But this place is just empty.
- Dock is the most useless of all docks. It takes up a lot of space, even if configured, it is constantly distracting. If I try to drag the file onto the icon of an already running application, nothing happens. If I click on the icon to deactivate the application, nothing happens either.
- System settings menu - almost nonexistent. Any adequate user after installing the system - immediately installs the gnome tweak tool. And after that, it additionally rewrites a bunch of configuration files.
- If there was no gnome tweak tool, then some of the keyboard shortcuts had to be changed in the configuration files.
- App store in Ubuntu - in 20.04 it became just a monster. I could be wrong, but it seems it was made as a snap-package.
- Basic fonts - they're just awful. The size of the part of the fonts is simply not customizable.
- Unjustified consumption of resources. With such minimal functionality, it is not clear to me why the system needs 1.2-2.0 GB of RAM.

Personally, my opinion. GNOME has had the most negative impact on the development of the linux audience, and continues to do so today. Why is this so? The Windows user decides to change the OS and Ubuntu will be his first choice.
After studying the instructions on how to put the distribution on USB and install the system, it will be greeted by the GNOME interface.
And this interface is completely different from Windows. He is hostile to the user, he will not give instructions on how to work, it is very difficult to customize him for himself. And without additional configuration (for which you need to have experience with linux) - the interface will look terrible. After a week of torment, the user simply returns to Windows with a negative experience.

GNOME should be a ductile DE like KDE. Able to adapt to the user in a couple of clicks. Now it is a set of ramshackle planks, hammered together by nails. Tear off one board and the whole shed will crumble.

I was devastated when Ubuntu introduced Unity after having grown up with Gnome, but now I'm hooked on Unity and can see no benefit, only disadvantages by going back to Gnome. The slick Unity "search" button and work spaces switcher are what I miss most in Gnome.

I have been using Gnome since I stumbled upon Fedora in 2003, and I have been using it ever since. I left Windows and its ridiculous BSOD's and cryptic error messages, and I have been nothing but impressed by Gnome. When it moved from 2.x to 3.x? my mind was blown it was totally useful, and was elegant, pleasing to the eyes, and handled resources on middle-of-the-road hardware with ease. I compared it to KDE both back then and now...and Gnome wins everytime hands down! Sorry, I know there are KDE folks out there who will claim Gnome is resource heavy or that they're totally confused when presented with a Gnome desktop, because its main desktop is as sparse as the Sahara desert, but that is the actual attraction of Gnome, no icons strewn all over the desktop (as most Windows users seem to do, thirty Excel documents buried between pictures and Word document along with folders they created that were SUPPOSED to house the Excel documents!) I'll take Gnome over any other DE!...I mean they're all nice?...(Cinnamon, Budgie, Enlightment, Deepin, XFCE, LxQT, OpenBox, Fluxbox, and the myriad of other DE's and window managers out there) but to me? Gnome? just "Makes Sense" in every sense of the word I don't have any complaints, except maybe one "issue", but that's a more of a personal peeve than an issue!

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