Friday, May 2, 2014

GNOME 3.12 arrives to openSUSE Tumbleweed, and it is fabulous

In late March 2012 I gave +openSUSE 12.1 a second chance with +GNOME 3 after having a horrible experience with the version of KDE that shipped in that version. By April 4th I was a true believer in the GNOME Shell and the new user experience paradigm that was evolving in GNOME 3. Indeed, each version of GNOME since has been more exciting than the last, bringing massive improvements in performance, stability, reliability, workflow, and aesthetics. Indeed, a true tribute to the GNOME developers is that I hadn't been so sold on an environment since I left Apple's Mac OS X behind in 2010. Each version of GNOME has shown refinements as dramatic as anything I'd seen in Mac OS X, but at a breakneck pace. The latest GNOME 3.12 is not merely an incremental improvement like previous versions, but rather a shocking advancement. In this article I will allude to some changes that happened in recent previous versions since they deserve comment.

Elegance

I love an elegant desktop. In my days as a Mac snob, I got quite used to having a refined, elegant, and unified theme for my desktop and it's applications. Each version of GNOME 3 has shown significant improvements to it's visual appeal. 3.12 however takes this so much further with a nearly compulsive attention to refined details, resulting in an aesthetic that would make Steve Jobs swoon. The expansion of HiDPI support is very welcome and rounds out these refinements making all text and interface elements use your native resolution to maximum advantage. The clean elegance of GNOME 3.12 and it's applications is peerless. It would be surpassingly tedious to enumerate these refinements, and so I'd rather leave it to your own exploration.

Shell Function

The Gnome Shell itself has seen some refinements in functionality. The all in one User Menu (in the upper right hand corner) has seen improvements, chief of which is the addition of Wired (ethernet) network settings and overall improvements to the way network connection is managed from there. Location services have also been added to this menu. GNOME upstream has added the ability for the user to create application folders in the overview. However, this feature relies on gnome-software which is not installed by default and requires the upstream branding for packagekit. This feature should be moved into the shell itself. Another nice addition (I'll admit I may simply not have noticed it in previous versions) is that you can initiate specific actions from applications directly via context menu from the applications overview.

Online Accounts

I originally was going to include this in the software section below, but there is so much that has changed that it merits its own section. Firstly, the support for things it had before such as Windows Live, Google, and Facebook is rock solid compared to older versions. Of note, the automatic launch of Empathy has been removed from GNOME in a previous version, though Online Accounts still works with it. I will briefly go over the types of accounts supported and what capabilities they enable.
  • Google has not changed much, though it does seem to have gained support for Google Cloud Print. You can still access your Drive documents in the GNOME Documents application.
  • Windows Live has seen massive improvements. You can now access your OneDrive documents through the GNOME Documents application, and it will also set up your email account (outlook.com for example) with Evolution mail. Most impressive though is that it actually works reliably and consistently.
  • Pocket formerly known as Read it Later has also been added, though it currently does very little. So far only 'Videos' makes use of Pocket as  a plugin to play your Pocket saved videos. Developers say they will add integration to Epiphany or 'Web' in a future release of the browser. 
  • Flickr is included and is used by the 'Photos' application. I read somewhere that it can be used in some special way for desktop wallpapers.
  • IMAP and SMTP accounts can be set up directly from here for use with Evolution mail.
  • I believe the above are the only truly new notables to 3.12, I encourage you to take a look and see if you discover something new. I can revise this later.

Software

GNOME 3.12 introduces some welcome changes and refinements to programs, as well as a few new ones. 
  • gnome-software is the app-store style interface (PackageKit frontend) in upstream GNOME. This is not installed by default in openSUSE. Besides installing software, the new user defined application folders in the shell are set up by this program. It can be installed in openSUSE, but appears to be broken as it repeatedly asks for authentication for setting a network proxy. However, I have no need of application folders since I merely search for whatever I want and find it's package management capability massively redundant in light of YaST and our own Software Search portal
  • Gedit is the default GNOME text editor since time immemorial. In 3.12 it has received a massive interface overhaul following the minimalist UI philosophy of GNOME 3. Despite the minimalistic new design overhaul, it appears that none of its familiar functionality has been removed. I like it.
  • Nautilus or 'Files' as it's labeled appears to have changed little, excepting that you may now connect to servers straight from the app menu on the activities bar. For me, this is a very welcome change since the last time I needed this functionality it had been entirely removed into a separate module that needed to be invoked from the CLI.
  • gnome-photos is not installed by default in openSUSE as the default photo manager, that distinction goes to the revered Shotwell. Photos however is a simple and elegant photo manager, now with Facebook integration through the GNOME Online Accounts. Likewise it also supports Flickr via the same mechanism.
  • Totem or 'Videos' as it is now labeled has seen a massive cosmetic makeover. Under the hood though, it sees a new plugin architecture for online video services. Notably, Online Accounts has support for Pocket and any saved videos there will be accessible in Videos.
  • Epiphany or 'Web' as it is labeled now has seen major changes both under the hood and cosmetically. The minimalistic UI gets out of your way enabling your content. Each tab now has it's own process, and so when one page crashes the rest of the browser will not be affected. In my testing of it, I've found it to be swift and reliable like no other non-mainstream browser before. I can for once see people actually using this browser. It also enables with a quick menu option the ability to save a page as a Web App that will then be added to your applications, launchable immediately from the shell. Support for Pocket should be added in a later version. When Epiphany is installed, it enables the ability to perform internet searches directly from the shell.
  • Polari is an early 'preview' application. Polari is the new GNOME upstream default IRC client. XChat for GNOME is shipped by default in openSUSE. Polari however is a beautiful and easy to use client, which immediately became my new favorite. Polari has excellent integration with the GNOME Shell, using Online Accounts and the notification and chat frameworks allowing you to see pending private messages in the lock screen, and responding to them directly from the shell notifications.
  • gnome-logs is a new system log viewer for GNOME. It is not shipped by default in openSUSE and is redundant since we have a YaST module for this purpose. It also appears that it does not yet work under openSUSE, likely due to wrong permissions. Though 'Logs' may not be an important application for us in openSUSE, it represents a significant step forward for less experienced users in any GNOME distribution since it makes it much easier to fulfill the request, "Ok, in order to help you I'm going to need a couple system logs."