Gnome 3.28 review - Minimalism gone wrong

Updated: June 16, 2018

Now that I've tested Fedora 28 Workstation and sampled from its cuisine of good and bad stuff, I'd like to focus on testing Gnome 3.28 proper. I've already hinted at a full, separate review in my Ubuntu Beaver review, being rather sorely disappointed with how Gnome (and as a consequence, Ubuntu) is shaping up. The whole pseudo-touch minimalistic approach feels wrong.

But then, I might be mistaken. The last time I tested Gnome 3 was a whole bunch of years ago, and back then, the overall trend of over-simplification and functionality neutering was strong in this one. Gnome began and continued stripping valuable configurations from its menus, hiding them or removing them altogether, making visual and functional deviations from the intended default state near impossible. Gnome 3.28 brings a whole bunch of changes to the table, so it's time to revisit my impression. After me.

Teaser

First steps

I was not happy that I had to wait for a full distro release - like Fedora - to be able to test. Gnome does not have a dedicated demonstrator (one could argue that this IS Fedora) akin to KDE's neon, and no repo had the full bundle of code for me to sample and test early. No matter. I was able to accomplish my goal side by side with the full distro experiment.

Look & feel

Gnome 3 - and specifically Gnome 3.28 - isn't an (overly) ugly thing. The UI is quite simple and low on detail, so it should be easy to achieve a relatively high state of consistency throughout the menus. If only. Gnome 3 isn't too consistent, unfortunately. For example, even if you use a light desktop theme, some programs come with a dark theme. Application window titlebar thickness (height) differs among applications, and so do the size and thickness of window borders.

Then, there's a much bigger problem of missing functionality. Gnome 3 subscribed to the touch idea roughly in 2010 or so, about the same time Microsoft experimented with its Windows 8 and its full-screen menu nonsense. The big difference is, Microsoft quickly learned from its mistakes and abandoned the larger touchefication attempt in the desktop space, going back to offering the classic bottom panel + menu solution in Windows 10, although the application space still remains HUGELY inefficient. Has to do with the simple, natural order of things, as I've so eloquently described in my Windows Blue conspiracy article.

Gnome 3 never learned from these mistakes, and it still offers a pseudo-touch interface with overlarge, abstract layout that feels naked and simplistic on the desktop. And rather useless. You cannot create icons on the desktop. You cannot create new files in the file manager. There's no settings menu for the file manager. You cannot add icons or shortcuts to the top panel. You cannot edit or move the panel. The only way to access your applications is to invoke the Activities overlay - slam the mouse cursor into the top-left corner or hit the Super key and then type. Useless, unnecessary actions that serve no purpose. On a classic desktop, you need a single mouse click to run programs from their relevant shortcut bars. In Gnome, it's at least two clicks, provided the apps actually show in your Favorites.

Example of bad design, Nautilus

No window min and max buttons - more smartphone nonsense. You need to right-click to invoke the min/max actions. 100% more effort than normal desktops. A waste of time. No show desktop button. If you want to minimize everything - for whatever reason - you need to individually action each program like a monkey. You also have no list of open apps - again, like on mobile devices - so you can't really switch quickly if you need to. The whole concept is so bizarre and sad I'm actually watching funerals online to cheer myself up.

People - including the Gnome project - mistake visual minimalism for functional minimalism. They do not understand that function trumps looks. For instance, a car without doors and windows may look rather dashingly minimalistic, but it's also useless. A car without a dashboard serves no purpose. It might have a clean interface, but it's also worthless. I love the whole German/Scandinavian minimalism, I'm the first person to scream the word at the top of my lungs, but things can look simple and still be useful and practical. Or not. Removing functionality is not synonymous in any way, shape or form with how something is supposed to look.

If a program cannot fulfill basic functions - it's useless. In this case, if a desktop does not provide the user with what they need, then it does not matter how detailed, clean, cluttered, or cool the interface is. But then, just because Apple succeeded with a phone that has a single button, it does not mean everyone can - or even should, EVER - attempt something like that. Especially not on a desktop that is controlled by a three-button mouse and a 105-key typewriter.

Customization

This remains the worst flaw in Gnome. I can sort of accept the weird pseudo-touch vision. Somehow, somewhere, it might answer some weird need or whatever, so it could possibly be justified. But then, to not be able to change it, that's too much.

If you wish to have a classic desktop, and that would be: panel with icons, application menu, show desktop button, and application windows buttons, not too much, right, then you need to invest a lot of time and energy to get this in order. Gnome 3 makes it exceptionally difficult to achieve these simple things - ALL of which are a given in EVERY OTHER DESKTOP ENVIRONMENT OUT THERE. It's not like everyone's mentally slow and Gnome guys are suddenly bringing about this amazing revolution. There's a reason why after 30-odd years of graphical computing things are the way they are.

So what you need - I've outlined this in my Gnome accessibility article - is the following sequence: install Gnome Tweak Tool (GTT), which gives you control over some aspects of the desktop and application windows. Through GTT, enable window buttons. Three, setup Gnome extensions. This alone takes two separate actions. You need a Gnome extension for your browser and an additional software package that allows your browser to install extensions. Once this is in place, we move to step four (five actually). You now need an extension that can show you application icons/shortcuts. There's a nice one called Dash to Panel (D2P), and it will satisfy both this basic need AND also allow you to fix the show desktop thingie, so two birds with one stone. There's also an additional extension for the menu, if you want. Technically, seven separate actions, none of them trivial or intuitive, before you can have what every other desktop environment gives you by default. And this may yet change, because Gnome has often removed functionality between releases.

Extensions

To be able to list folders before files in Nautilus, you need to be familiar with the dconf command line utility or install dconf-editor, a Windows registry-like utility that allows you to make changes to the Gnome schemas, and here, again through a sequence of non-intuitive actions, you can make this tweak. All other desktop environments do this by default, and even if not, they have the necessary option in their relevant settings menu, which allows you to list folders before files.

Nautilus, folders first via dconf-editor

Wallpaper changes to custom images requires JPEG files inside your Pictures folder. This is hard-coded, so you can't use other formats or locations. To be able to create files with right-click > new, you need to add files into the Templates folder in your home directory. You need to manually create, say a text file, a LibreOffice Writer file, and so now. More pointless actions. In the end, it can be okay, but why?

Apps, extras

Fonts

Gnome 3.28 comes with average font quality - at least in Fedora. Some Gnome-based desktops, like Ubuntu and Mint, make their own modifications, but that's not a default set. Here, you can make changes using GTT or from the command line, using the Gnome gsettings configuration language. Non-intuitive stuff, once more.

gsettings set org.gnome.settings-daemon.plugins.xsettings hinting slight
gsettings set org.gnome.settings-daemon.plugins.xsettings antialiasing rgba
echo "Xft.lcdfilter: lcddefault" > ~/.Xresources

Fonts improved

If you want to edit font colors - you will need to HACK Gnome themes - manually play with CSS files and change hexadecimal color values for different classes. This means ordinary people, if they ever want to make a small visual change to their Gnome desktop - need to be HTML/CSS experts now.

Starred files

Gnome 3.28 introduces the stars - 'tis a smartphone-like feature, if you ask me - you can star your files, and then they will show under the hardcoded Starred category in the file manager. I tried this, and it did not really work. No file responded to my clicks (fully updated Fedora 28). This is a bug of course, but still.

Starred files did not work

Calendar changes

Gnome 3.28 introduces a revamped calendar app. It seems all right if a bit bland, but there were also some rather confusing things. It displayed weather around the current date. For some reason, it used imperial units instead of metric, THE WAY IT SHOULD. Under settings (notice the smartphone like icon), it displays weather by default - there's no unit customization - and location is also set to ON, which I find silly and alarming, because I chose to turn location services off when I set up Fedora/Gnome, and the whole privacy noise, shouldn't this be a configurable option? You see, when no one asks for extra stuff - unnecessary stuff really, Gnome 3 adds it. But basics like new files or show desktop, no.

Calendar, weather what

Calendar location

Contacts

More smartphone-like stuff:

Contacts, smartphone like

Online accounts

This is the one aspect of the Gnome desktop that works reasonably well - online accounts integration. You have a fairly colorful list of available services, and signing in presents no problem. Gnome applications will then sync up with your online accounts and show your contacts, appointments, chats, documents, and such. In theory. I tested this, and found this to be okay. The emphasis on okay. There were problems here and there.

Online accounts

Documents, from online account

The Calendar app didn't integrate well. It offers three online accounts of its own - not the full list like before. Now, I've already configured my online accounts (including a Microsoft one), so why was it asking me to set one up here again? The Contacts also didn't list my online friends. Jk, I don't have any friends.

Calendar offers MS exchange, but my account is already set up

Contacts, no online added

Notice that Documents and Contacts have different background colors, which adds yet more variation into the app inconsistency dimension in Gnome 3 - we have dark the theme and various shades of light color theme in the same desktop. The integration isn't the best.

Photos app

Works kind of okay, but feels too simple - and the image previews are fuzzy.

Photos, fuzzy

Boxes

This is a virtualization program. Over the years, I've struggled with why this is necessary where you already have things like KVM and Xen, to say nothing of VirtualBox and VMware Player. Now, Boxes has improved a little bit, and it offers more options, but it still remains a rather bland product. It's the retro-minimalism thing. Virtualization isn't a game. You do it right or not at all.

Boxes

Performance & resource usage

I said customization is the worst thing in Gnome 3.28? I lied - narrate this John Matrix style when he drops Sully from the cliff (in Commando, if you're too young to remember this sweet 80s legend). Performance is the worst. You can solve the former, but not the latter. For whatever reason, and this isn't some Fedora thing, this is consistent across many different Linux distros using Gnome, this desktop environment is slow. Even on a relatively modern machine like my 2015 Lenovo G50 four-core 8GB RAM machine, it should work fine. All its rival do.

Alas, not the case here. There's always - no matter what you do or how light or heavy your usage is, there's always a delay between action and realization. Application windows lag opening and closing. Things are perceptibly slow. The more things you do, the worse it becomes. It took me about an hour of ordinary usage to hit swap, and then to have the memory utilization settle on a whooping 3 GB with the CPU going wild and the desktop syrupy like treacle. There could be a big memory leak, but this behavior isn't specific or unique to this particular version of Gnome. Restarting the desktop environment also proved difficult, but once I had it done, the utilization was down to half this value, which is still 4x more than what you get in Plasma or Xfce.

Resources after one hour

People often say - RAM is there to be used. Yes, meaningfully. An idle desktop isn't doing anything, so why should it eat memory that could be given to applications. And if other desktop environments can achieve the same if not more with far, far less, the whole memory preallocation argument does not fly. There's an obvious performance and resource utilization penalty in Gnome.

Usage

Speaking of system metrics, Usage is a brand-new Gnome app - not installed by default - which offers the same functionality like the standard system monitor, plus disk utilization. The processor graph flows nice and smooth like, 60 FPS, but it has no actual values, which makes it useless, and the time window is only 10 seconds, again, making this useless. Here's a great example of minimalism gone wrong. System resource usage tools should be detailed and accurate. For instance, Gnome Shell. What is the process ID or the program path? How am I supposed to react to the displayed information?

Usage 1

Usage 2

Conclusion

Gnome 3.28 brings in a few interesting changes to the Gnome table - not too many, though, this version isn't a radical revamp, more sort of a gradual progression of the basic idea behind the Gnome desktop environment. Not bad in that regard. Bad in every other regard.

Unfortunately - and this is nothing personal, all I care for is to be happy and productive with my desktops, and Gnome 2 was my favorite thing for years and years - Gnome 3.28 is a sterile, counterproductive pseudo-touch concept that serves little purpose on the desktop. It requires significant tweaking and immense changes under the hood to make presentable and usable, and even then, it works hard against the user. Performance is really bad, a decade-old laptop with anything other than Gnome works better than a contemporary model with Gnome, and you feel the sluggishness with every little thing you do. It's life-sapping. The more you multi-task the worse it gets.

All in all, Gnome 3.28 has changed little from the original Gnome 3 a few years ago. It is still not suited for purpose, it has not evolved in any way, and in fact, there are fresh new functional regressions in the product. It's getting more and more difficult to achieve simple things, and you're fighting against the desktop. Not how it's meant to be. Maybe Linux will make it big on the phone and tablet one day, and then Gnome could be a blast. But on traditional computing devices, it's a flop. Not recommended, I'm afraid. Take care.

Cheers.

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