Taming Gnome 3 - theming and scheming

Updated: September 1, 2018

As time goes by, the Gnome 3 desktop is becoming more and more restrictive in what it allows its users to do, fundamentally mistaking visual and functional minimalism, further complicating things by using a pseudo-touch interface that makes little sense on the desktop. Shame, because it doesn't make much to have Gnome look and behave the part. I've written a whole bunch of guides explaining how you can regain some of the functionality (and sanity) back, and it's time for another such article.

First, please read the basics as I've outlined many months ago. Now, we will explore additional themes and options, additional extensions, and some other settings. Not all of this will bear fruit, but it's an exercise that should ultimately give you the right pointers to using Gnome 3 effectively. Let's roll.

Arc Menu

Following up on a suggestion from a reader, I decided to try the Arc Menu extension, intended as a simple, straightforward, classic application menu for the Gnome desktop. From what I was able to learn, it best works with a dock in place, like Dash to Panel. To wit, I had it installed - and to be able to do that, you will need to read my first tutorial, which explains how to make your Gnome system capable of installing extensions, how to activate extensions, and all the associated dependencies and snags.

The menu looks all right. You have the application categories on the left, and then on each click, you dive one level down, similar to the classic Plasma implementation. Static shortcuts - your home dir and folders, package manager, settings and alike are on the right. I think flipping the order horizontally would work better.

Arc Menu

Sub category 1

Sub category 2

Arc Menu behaved - but it has a few serious shortcomings, most notably the search. For instance, if you want to know which version of Gnome you're running, you need to launch the About tool. Using the regular search, you can find it by using multiple strings, like 'about' or 'details' perhaps. Both work fine. Not so with Arc Menu. It didn't use either, and couldn't find the applet. Moreover, it did not start when I used the Super key, and I couldn't figure out if there's any customization available.

Search does not work well

Gnome-PRO GTK theme

This is another recommendation from a user. It's meant to be a simple, clear and readable theme with good contrast, designed for real human eyes and not 3px-loving gray-on-gray developers. Well, I had it installed and tested.

Before we evaluate what it does and how it does it - apart from the witty name - let's take a look at my baseline. I'm using the standard Gnome 3 framework in CentOS 7.4, with the Breeze theme, which has a slightly less sharp font contrast than Adwaita (by default), but a more presentable overall UI, plus Papirus icons.

Desktop with the Breeze theme

And then, with the theme installed, we go from this:

Breeze theme

To something like this:

Gnome-PRO theme

It looks like you win some, you lose some. I brought up the settings tool again, and took a screenshot, and then compared the two side by side. One observation, regardless of the selected theme, is that there does not seem to be any RGB hinting (using slight/RGBA AA settings), only grayscale, which might be a bigger Gnome or CentOS issue.

Desktop with the Gnome-PRO theme

And we compare:

Themes, side by side

So is Gnome-PRO any better? Well, first, this is not Gnome 3.28, which should offer even better results. This is something that I had to check separately. Second, the author of the theme recommends using Adobe's MyriadPro Semi-bold font, but from what I was able to discern, this font costs money and not an insignificant amount, either. Which sort of makes any testing and tweaking of this kind out of scope.

But I did check the font color values - regardless of the actual background. The strongest gray used in Breeze has the hexa value of #3b4044, while the strongest gray in Gnome-PRO gives #252525, which is better but still far from the ultimate pure and simple black.

Anyway, I installed Gnome-PRO in Fedora 28, which indeed runs Gnome 3.28. I believe the theme looks ever so slightly better with this new version of the desktop environment, just as the author mentions in the theme's README file. So there's another notch of improvement there.

Gnome 32.8, Gnome-PRO 1

Gnome 32.8, Gnome-PRO 2

Gnome 32.8, Gnome-PRO 3

Folders before files

Whenever I bring this up in a review, there's always a random comment somewhere online how all you need to do is click the cogwheel button to open the Files settings and make changes. The thing is, the actual settings have been relocated into the top panel context menu, but if you use a dock, this is invisible. I mentioned this around Fedora 26 or so, I think, and it's another of many functionality-neutering steps inflicting Gnome.

Files and folders not in order

You actually need to fire up dconf-editor (which is most likely not installed by default), and then navigate to the following schema (read Windows registry hive) in the tree: org > gtk > settings > file-chooser and there sort directories first. I thought I'd find this under a different location: org > gnome > nautilus > preferences, but nope.

File chooser

Mixing themes

Plasma lets you do this thing, if you want. So does Ubuntu MATE. Choose a theme, then use a custom set of window decorations and such. I wanted to use Adwaita, because it has better contrast, with Breeze window borders, because they are nicer and thinner. Only this is not possible. Another feature long yanked out from Gnome.

No desktop customization

What you can customize - not a lot.

In the past, you could use gconf-editor (not installed by default) or the gsettings tool from the command line to make necessary changes. You could specify the particular theme you wanted for a particular GUI element, and this would work:

gsettings set org.gnome.metacity theme Breeze

Now, you get something like:

No such schema 'org.gnome.shell.windows'

Choose any which variation slash permutation you want, it's not going to work. In the end, I decided to use Breeze, but then, I edited the theme, as I've shown you in my Gnome 3 theme editing guide, by changing the hexadecimal color value for all foreground text from a random pale gray to proper black.

Edited font color

Fonts

The earlier reference to a third-party font got me thinking, okay, how do I go about searching for fonts in Gnome 3, other than the command line? Software is just not good enough, and there does not seem to be an integrated font manager tool the likes of Plasma's nifty one. I did read about something called Font Manager, but it's not available in any CentOS-friendly repo. You need an external source, and it will work with Fedora, so again, this is something for another occasion. But the fact there isn't a tool of this kind, well.

Conclusion

Another articles comes to a close. Hopefully, you did learn something, including several NOT to do things, which are just as important. But we did learn about an alternative app menu, and I'd like to see the current bugs and issues fixed, and a reasonably contrastful theme for Gnome 3 - here I will be testing some more in other distributions with higher versions of Gnome. Then, we dabbled in mixin' themes, with mixed results [sic], and the best solutions remains manually hacking the colors. Fonts are still a big problem, but there might be something nice coming along.

Unfortunately, Gnome has gone a long way from its simple, traditional layout from about seven years ago, becoming highly restricted, offering virtually no functionality to those who want to use their desktop as nature extended. The magnitude of this problem is such that Ubuntu LTS shipped with an older version of Gnome to be able to give users some of the sanity they expect. Maybe this article will help you in this regard. Every little bit helps.

Now, not all is lost! I have two or three additional articles in the pipeline, which will discuss a further use of fonts and extensions, as well as how to make Fedora 28 really pretty and fun. I would like to consider this to be my ultimate pimping guide, but you will have to wait a few weeks for that. Take care, fellow Tuxians.

Cheers.

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