Running Gnome Shell on Ubuntu 11.10

First I have to say that I am a fan of Unity, not when they first rolled it out on netbooks (crippling them performance wise) but on PC's or laptops it made more sense. No it is not perfect, yet, but I do like the direction it is going and what could be achieved with it in the future. That said, I thought it was about time to see what Gnome Shell was all about, especially after Canonical took the decision not to wait for Gnome Shell and to develop Unity as an alternative desktop environment. As a plus if you are running Ubuntu 11.10 then installing Gnome Shell is a piece of cake, just go into synaptic (sorry, but the Ubuntu Software Centre is just not for me...) and look for Gnome Shell. Select the package to install and restart your computer, then when the login screen appears click the 'gear' icon beside your name and select 'Gnome'. Now login as normal and welcome to Gnome Shell!

Gnome Shell - An idea of what you are greeted with

First question I was wondering was "where is everything?", and its this minimalistic approach that will take some time to get used to. Personally I like it, I do not like a cluttered desktop so this works for me. Getting started with Gnome Shell I highly recommend the Gnome Shell Cheat Sheet, its a clear guide of how to get started using the interface. I could not fathom how to do a restart or shutdown, but its just a matter of holding down the 'Alt' key while the user menu is open and by magic the 'Power Off...' option appears. The cheat sheet covers all this and includes lots of pretty pictures to go along with the explanations.

With a few tweaks, detailed below, my current desktop. Wallpaper is of Neeru Bajwa available from SantaBanta

The Overview on the Windows tab. To the left are pinned and running applications, the right lists the workspaces and the bottom right shows notifications and running services. 

The Overview again, but in the Applications tabs listed on the applications installed

The Right PPA's for the Job

To get started added two PPA's to help me tweak things to my liking;

My Top Extensions for Gnome Shell

Then I reloaded my software sources to check for any updates and got started with the tweaking, installing the following applications;

  • gnome-tweak-tool - tool to adjust advanced configuration settings for GNOME
  • gnome-shell-extension-notesearch - Note Search GNOME Shell extension for Gnote or Tomboy Notes
  • gnome-shell-extensions-common - Extensions to extend functionality of GNOME Shell
  • gnome-shell-extensions-dock - Dock extension to GNOME Shell
  • gnome-shell-extensions-mediaplayer - MediaPlayer extension for GNOME Shell
  • gnome-shell-extensions-places-menu - Places menu extension to GNOME Shell
  • gnome-shell-extensions-user-theme - User Theme extension to GNOME Shell
  • gnome-shell-extensions-weather - Weather extension for GNOME Shell
  • gnome-shell-message-notifier - GNOME Shell IM message notifier
  • gnome-shell-extensions-workspace-indicator - Workspace Indicator extension to GNOME Shell
  • gnome3-globalmenu - GNOME 3 Global Menu

Gnome Tweak Tool

After installing those few applications I restarted the computer but even then you will not even know they are there until you open Advanced Settings (Gnome Tweak Tool). In the section for 'shell extensions' you turn on whatever you like, and to reload the desktop to get them running just press 'Alt + F2' then type 'r'

Above is the Gnome Tweak Tool and the list of installed shell extensions

Dock Extension

Once I started using Gnome Shell one of the most frustrating things was having to constantly go into the 'Overview' window to switch applications as the applications do not minimize anywhere, nor is there a list of open applications on the workspace. So the Dock extension provides much welcome relief. It sits hidden and out of sight until you hover over the small black tab, then it unhides and expands. Of course you could use other alternative docks, but I find that this meets my requirements.

The Dock expanded, the favourites are pinned permanently together with running applications

Media Player Extension for the Sound Menu

Another favourite of mine is being able to control my media from the sound menu, this functionality was missing by default but the Media Player extensions brings it back with a simple and easy to use interface. Even without this, media notifications still pop up in the notification area about what is currently playing.

Thanks to the Media Player extension you can control your default music player from the sound menu

Workspace Extension

One of the things I miss from Unity is a dynamic way of knowing what workspace you are on. Most of the time I do not need to know, but when I am working on a project and have different information spread out over a couple of workspaces I would like to get back and forth easily. The 3rd paty extensions I have tried do not work well on my system. Gnome Shell does not have a set number of workspaces, instead it creates them as you need them. As soon as you open an application in a workspace, a new empty workspace is created below. I have really enjoyed this feature and the workspace extension works flawlessly.

The workspace extension, all I could ask for!

Places Extension

Again to avoid having to go into overview every time I want to access a file the Places Menu extension offers a quick and simple solution. All your favourite places just a click away, without having to go into overview and go on a search. Unity is particularly guilty of this too, I would not mind if the search function actually worked, but until they crack that opening Unity or Overview to go searching for files is a waste of time.

The Places Menu extension, it just works

Weather Extension

Another extension that tends not to work very well in Unity, for me anyway, is the weather indicator. So much so that I just use forecastfox in Google Chrome. So when I saw the weather extension for Gnome Shell I knew I had to give it a go. But it did nothing. Being in Ireland I was surprised that the closest it could get me is Germany, so I carried out a quick Google search and found a very helpful solution on Ask Ubuntu. Bingo, I had weather nicely integrated into my desktop, just a shame I had to jump through that one hoop.

The Weather extension showing the weather, and doing it rather well

IM Notifier Extension

A slightly annoying trait with Gnome Shell, its that it is so minimalistic that it gives you a brief notification when you get a message, then nothing. So if you blinked you might have people on the other end of an IM chat wondering why you have not replied. To fix this there is the Message Notifier extension which works with your IM client, Empathy in my case, currently services like Skype are not supported, but there are ways to do this just have a Google search. The notifier is invisible unless you have a message waiting for you and saves constantly checking you have not missed something.

Hover in the bottom right corner and you see your notifications and running services

Adding the Message Notifier gives you this handy little notifier on the top panel

Global Menu Extension

Finally to add a little bit of Unity functionality I added the Global Menu extension, this works differently then in Unity though. Instead of you hovering over the top panel and having the menu options revealed, in Gnome Shell you click the name of the application (just to the right of  'Activities') and then a drop-down menu appears. The styling has been carried out very well, included sliding buttons like the rest of the default theme. I am not sure if I prefer it over how Unity implements the global menu, but I believe it is the right fir for Gnome Shell.

The Global Menu extension in use on Google Chrome

With regards to choosing a theme there are plenty of options and themes out there. Above I have used my own wallpaper and via the Gnome Tweak Tool you can see my settings in the image below.

Theme settings

Concluding Thoughts

I have only been using Gnome Shell for about a week and I am starting to appreciate it now. At first install it probably is a bit over-the-top in a minimalistic sense, you really are left wondering what are you supposed to do with this. Over a few days I have discovered all the above extensions, got them working and now I have a desktop that works great for me. I do need to solve the Skype integration, but that's just me. Personally I do believe Gnome Shell could come preinstalled with a few more extensions, instead of having to go to a third party site for a PPA, this is not going to win over any new users to Linux operating systems. The experienced user can pull out all the parts they do not want and leave themselves with their preferred set-up, its best to give the new user more to either turn on or off, without having to go hiking through the web.

Other then that, I really enjoy using Gnome Shell. I like that the icons and text seems so much bigger by default, yes things are hidden but when you go looking for them there they are in all their glory! The whole environment has a quality feel and look to it and it is only early days yet. Part of me wonders what could have been if all the effort that has gone into Unity was put into Gnome Shell and what the end-user could have gotten. For me just being able to add and remove extensions 'easily' on the top panel is such a joy! This also highlights the best part of opensource software, if you do not like Unity then swap it out for something else, be it Gnome Shell or something like Mate for those trying to hold onto the Gnome 2 days (the end is nigh for that interface...).

I am going to stick with Gnome Shell for a while and see what comes of it, then again the Alpha 1 of Ubuntu 12.04 LTS has just been released and there is much to be done.

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