I’ve been sticking with Xfce for a few years, but sometimes I take a look at other DEs for fun. I think my favorite DE besides Xfce is MATE – both of them are lightweight, traditional, and customizable.
I tried Gnome Shell about two years ago and I dislike it more than Unity. I found it too heavy and quirky for my taste. At least Unity has a launcher that’s visible at all times and you can sort apps by categories. I went back to Gnome Shell only because I’ve heard some nice things about the extensions, and and also the news that Ubuntu will use Gnome as its default DE instead of Unity. The first time I tried Gnome I didn’t pay much attention to them and focuses more on Gnome’s out-of-the-box experience. I’d like to see what has changed from Gnome Shell.
The Basic Things
Here’s Gnome Shell, right after I log in.
The first thing I did after installing Gnome Shell and logging in was to search for Gnome Tweak Tool. Turns out I’ll have to install it from the repository; I still wonder why it’s not installed by default.
Pressing the Super key/throwing my mouse to the top left corner still brought me to the Activities screen and the Dash (which shows open apps and workspaces).
The search function works like Unity’s (although better and faster), and it searches apps, documents, music, settings, contacts, notes (from Gnote) and even timezones (from Gnome Clocks).
On the other hand, Gnome’s applications overview took 10 seconds to open, and I still can’t see any app categories.
The unified system status menu is neat, though. It made sense to hide indicators you don’t use often and show the ones that you need to pay attention to, like the battery, volume level, and network.
The clock, calendar, and notifications are combined in the middle of the panel, which is pretty and makes me think of Android’s notifications area.
When I opened Gmusicbrowser to listen to music, I realized I can’t find the tray icon where it usually is – on the top bar. It turns out that there’s a separate icon tray for non-Gnome apps called the ‘legacy tray’, which is hidden on the bottom left corner.
The lack of window buttons for non-Gnome apps can be alienating, and you’re supposed to manage windows from the Activities screen. Fortunately, there are some other ways you can minimize and unmaximize apps:
- Minimize: Window menu (Alt+Space), Super+H
- Unmaximize: Window menu, Double-click menu bar + drag (not working on Firefox/Electron apps)
Window menu on Gnome.
I’m also happy that I can tile windows by using Super+Left/Right. But one thing I’m still missing is the ability to show the desktop with a button/shortcut. I managed to create a shortcut for it, by going to Settings>Keyboard>Shortcuts>Navigation>’Hide all normal windows’.
This is where Gnome Shell suffers. The time it takes to log in and log out is much longer than Xfce, and opening Firefox with a couple of tabs or a large video can easily freeze my computer. Fortunately, disabling animations via the Tweak Tool makes it a little snappier.
Now this is the most fun part of Gnome Shell. Extensions are offered from Gnome’s website, and to install them you’ll have to install an extension for your browser, which makes installing and removing extensions a breeze. You can also manage them from the Tweak Tool.
Installing extension from the website, via Firefox.
I’ve found some interesting extensions that makes Gnome easier to use:
- Gno-Menu: Gno-Menu is a pretty good apps menu extension; I found it the fastest and most customizable among extensions that does the same job. You can also disable the Activities screen from
- Extensions: Lets you enable/disable extensions and access their settings right from the top panel. Useful if you often try extensions or want to compare them.
- Media Player Indicator: One weird thing about Gnome is it doesn’t have a sound menu indicator, so controlling music players isn’t convenient.
- Places Status Indicator: A simple extension that makes it easy to access GTK bookmarks.
- TopIcons Plus: It moves tray icons from the bottom corner to the top panel, where they used to be located.
- Battery Status: Shows battery percentage/remaining time (but not both), so you don’t have to click the system status menu to find them out.
- AlternateTab: Show window previews on Alt+Tab.
- User Themes: Selecting themes from Tweak Tool’s Appearance tab only changes the look of apps; the appearance of the shell (which includes dash, notification area, system dialogs, etc.) stays the same. This extension lets you change the shell’s theme for a more complete look.
- Extend Panel Menu: I like the unified menu indicators, but if you want them all separated, use this. You can select the order of the menus and enable/disable them, too.
- Dash to Dock: This is probably the extension I’ve heard the most. It’s a pretty neat extension, but I already have Plank as my trusty dock. It has some advantages over Dash to Dock, like apps minimizing on click, and a ‘show desktop’ button.
Gnome Shell with Chrome-OS theme and some extensions mentioned above.
The first time I tried Gnome Shell, it wasn’t an enjoyable experience. Overall, Gnome hasn’t changed much; I’m still not a fan of the Activities screen. I guess I’m a traditionalist in selecting a DE. I also think that Gnome is too heavy for my laptop, with occasional freezes and slow logging in/out times.
But there are a few things I enjoy, such as the unified indicators, the search function, and the extensions. Thanks to the extensions, Gnome is not as rigid as I remembered it to be. The extensions are fun to play with, but I also realize that I was trying to feel at home by installing extensions that makes Gnome behaves closer to Xfce, and it’s just pointless.
So I won’t use Gnome as a daily driver, but I won’t uninstall it. I’ve had a great time using its extensions, and will go back if I heard of something interesting. I’m also eager to see how Ubuntu will use Gnome as its DE. I wonder if they’ll use extensions such Dash to Dock to make Gnome look (or behave) like Unity.