Updated: March 10, 2021
And I think that's ok. Because I am a material nerd and I live in a material ... shell? I guess those should have been the lyrics of the iconic 80s song. But no matter. We will discuss technology regardless. Specifically, I want to talk about Material Shell, a Gnome desktop extension that transforms the default Gnome desktop into a multi-layer tiled interface, intended to be productive and fun. One of the stated goals also says: getting rid of the anarchy of the traditional desktop workflows.
Well, I'm not sure what anarchy we're talking about, but I was intrigued enough to have a go and see what gives. Perhaps Material Shell can indeed improve the Gnome experience, which I find quite restrictive, especially the lack of perma-visible application launcher shortcuts. Now, tiling is normally the domain of window managers, not so much full desktops, and ultra-nerd domain, so there's another angle right there. Begin to test, we shall.
The Great Linux mosaic
The setup is trivial. Provided you're comfortable installing Gnome extensions - you need the system component, the browser add-on, then you need to locate Material Shell on gnome.extensions.org, and turn it to ON. Then, you can further tweak the extension settings through Gnome Tweaks (which you also need installed), if you want other than default options.
Anyway, I clicked ON, and my desktop was transformed into something ... somewhat weird. Two panels, one left, one on top. The former acts as an application launcher a-la Ubuntu, and you can choose whether to use a hybrid view (apps grouped by type/function) or list them individually. This way, you get a more classic panel view. The second panel acts as a tabbed interface for your applications. And this is where it gets a bit complicated.
Each left-side category is a layer. Inside it, you can open any number of apps you like. Think desktop workspaces. This is it. Here, you can have one or more apps open. You could have Firefox, VLC, Settings, all open, each in its own tab. Then, you could click + on the left side, and create another workspace, and here add several more applications. For instance, Thunderbird, Transmission, Gedit, and Firefox again. A bit of recursive confusion to make things extra spicier.
In the default, hybrid mode, I found the labeling of workspaces a bit odd. The application mode makes more sense. But the biggest issue was that all of the programs were fully maximized, even those that simply make no sense being maximized. Very disorienting. To make things even worse, you get no min/max buttons. In the default mode, you can't minimize applications. I find this defeats the idea of the desktop, and turns a multi-app system into something resembling a phone. Not very useful.
Settings to the rescue ...
Luckily, it's not the end of the story. Material Shell comes with a rich options menu. You can customize the extension quite some, including which layouts you want enabled by default, theme and color, the size of the panels, padding, and so forth. Very useful. And also necessary, because at this point, I was ready to abandon the whole endeavor.
I decided to try additional layouts. Split view. Helps. You can put two applications side by side. Well, you can actually increase the number of columns you want, and this could potentially be rather useful for large, wide screens. I've not tried Material Shell with multi-monitor setups, but perhaps you can extend it over multiple devices. Something to explore, for sure.
Then, I tried the Floating mode - and this is very similar to what the ordinary desktop does. The applications are no longer hard-pinned and fully maximized, they are detachable, and you can move them around. You get to see your desktop underneath, and the eerie sensation of touch vanishes. Your machine is no longer a giant phone. However, I've not found a way to actually show just the desktop without the Gnome search menu blocking it. This minimizes usefulness, especially if you count on desktop icons being available. But then, Gnome 3 doesn't do desktop icons well. So Material Shell builds on a bad design and extends it, but cannot resolve the underlying problem.
However, I wasn't entirely displeased. I find the workflow odd - nothing beats the classic desktop formula really, and having a simple panel full of icons does the thing. Then, if you add in stuff like standard Linux desktop workspaces, or perhaps Activities in KDE, then you're more than sorted. So parity wise, Material Shell doesn't quite give you the classic formula. But it does introduce several new layouts, and can help you bucket applications into groups, if you find that useful. Then again, you can accomplish much of the same the traditional way, too. Speaking of traditional:
Material Shell triggered a couple of Gnome Shell crashes in a desktop that has otherwise been pristine and stable for many a month now. Usually when I tried to spawn new tabs or close one of the existing workspaces, the whole desktop would freeze, become unresponsive to mouse clicks, and after about 10-15 seconds, it would recover. Not good. I don't know if it's something in Material Shell or the interaction between the extension and the desktop.
Thus endeth the journey of the Material Nerd. Overall, I found the experience with Material Shell somewhat bi-polar. I liked the novelty, but I found the workflow weird and not as optimal as it can be. The variety is definitely nice, but I'm wondering if there's a real-life need to create these two-dimensional buckets of application workspaces and their different (associated) programs, mostly because workspaces with panels, like in other desktop environment, already do this. Say Plasma or Xfce, each workspace can have its own set of applications, and they can be completely different from the other desktops. Also, in a way, this is just like workspaces, only tilted 90 degrees.
Material Shell does add flexibility to Gnome, so in that regard, it is useful, and if you like to experiment, there's no harm in trying it. 'Tis but a click away. On/Off, and you're done. What would make it even more useful is if Material Shell allows the user to perma-pin workspaces and application groups. Then, one would have neatly organized, themed desktop workspaces. Furthermore, the ability to minimize applications should exist, especially for detachable layouts like Float. All in all, not bad. Avantgarde, one would say. And we're done here.