Debian Wheezy, GNOME 3 and others small things

When my Ubuntu GNU/Linux distro received the "alert" that it wasn't supported anymore and the upgrade failed, instead of finding out why, first I tried to transform the distro into a LTS one (not totally successful because I had to downgrade too many packages), then I decided to compile what I "needed"; but my final thought is that it is not a good idea mixing automatically installed packages and packages compiled by you (out of the APT world), especially if you begin updating libs which many other programs rely on, or if you compile the last version of a program that needs the last version of a "core" lib. To make it short, the system started to behave inconsistently (maybe since I circumvented some dependency…). Time for a brand new installation.

I decided for a Debian distro, so picked the wheezy Debian. I hate these swish codenames. I want the version number; a name don't tell you if it's newer or older. Anyway, there's this strange habit. Debian Wheezy it's Debian 7.0. The “technical” reasons for abandoning Ubuntu are not too strong (but there's some strong concern about Canonical), but there are others that are enough for me: trying something new; being a little bit scared of Unity; wanting a system I feel in control of, maybe more purity

I think Unity gives a horrible user experience. But I went towards Debian Wheezy blindly, ignoring the world of GNOME Shell and GNOME3… Of course I can change DE (and stick to a tiling window manager, I think they have some advantages for some kind of usage), but this does not fix what's wrong in the new GNOME.

Human beings can become accustomed to anything, but this does not mean the thing they become accustomed to is better than the previous one. “Modern” GUI tends to please average users (the Windows-like users), to blink to scenic effects more than substance. They tend to estrange the user from his/her power of customizing things: you can heavely customize everything, but you must emancipate yourself from being an average user or exploit intuition as you did before. Since the average user is dumb and the less s/he must configure, the more s/he is happy: you get things that way and that way likely fits your need (the Big Default Promise). This is portrayed also by the style: clean, apparently simple, no panels crowded by buttons, switches and so on. The user must not be flooded with possibilities put before her/his face as features s/he must be interested in.

Here an unordered list of my almost disappointing experience and other interleaved thoughts.
  • Configuring the topbar. Intuition: right click on something often opens a context menu where you can act someway on the object you rightclicked on; you can customize adding or removing things. It was so in the past. Now it is so no more. Nor you can move the bar: it stays as topbar. I wanted to remove the accessibility icon. There's no obvious way. But there's a shell extension to do it. Rather ridicolous. It seems like a lot of features were moved away and delegated to extensions. Which are more or less snippet of Javascript code; when they are used to tweak easy stuffs, the core is just a statement that sets a parameter —maybe you can access those parameters in other ways, but you have to know which one: it's not intuitive, nor obvious. If you know where to poke, you are in control of everything. But we knew it since the 8bit era.
    • Many anti-Microsoft folks have harshly criticized the infamous Windows registry, but GNOME has something similar since long time now, the gconf thing; just to make it easier, now it's an old stuff, replaced (in theory) by dconf, but for now they live together; e.g. if I run gconf-editor I see a lot of items, while if I run dconf-editor I see few items. GSettings uses dconf and it should be the API for apps needing local settings. Of course the number of “paremeters” that customize the system or an application is a lot greater than the number of “parameters” you can handle easily using an ad hoc interface. But it's not a justification of making it sometimes the only way to change configurations, in GNOME3, when there was a more direct, user-friendly way of doing it in previous version: I mean, if now extensions are the customization swiss knife, pre-installed default extensions should make it possible to customize what I customized "normally" in GNOME2.
    • The idea of a central repository for the configurations, even the more technical one, is not evil for itself to me. But it must not be a pretext to make the “settings” app/GUI skinny to the point where I have to learn to write extensions, or wait for a specific extension to exist, to obtain what I obtained before, without knowing anything more than moving mouse, reading, clicking and alike. It must not be the tool to hide things from the user —it's what will be, since the average users won't dig into the dconf world, unless they are pushed to do so by the lacking of alternative to achieve basic aims. More about configuring in general later.
  • The shell metaphor (UPD: in the GUI world) smells as Microsoft tongue. No issue, but just to note it…! Now it seems like Microsoft was ahead at least in this.
  • It seems like Designers have decided that some features must not be put in the user control so easily. Or maybe, even worse, they forgot to think about some of them as "important" choices common users can do. The way things are “designed” is more like I decide for you, and I am not interested in making it easy to make your own choice. It means that easy things become easier, while hard things become harder. Whoever is in the middle between a really average user and a really advanced user, must move towards an extreme: to become a really average user or to become a really advanced user, that's the question — and the only way to feel at home. There are shades, but to stay in them, you need more patience than before.
    • Detail: the topbar has rounded lower corners. They blend well with window frames having rounded corners; but among the pre-installed “styles” many don't use rounded corners; you can change easily this “style”, as it was before, but the topbar style doesn't follow. Again, you need an extension, or (as I did) editing directly the style of the topbar (this is interesting: the system uses CSS with custom properties!)
  • As said before, settings interface is rather lean. As Microsoft thaught, there must exist an advanced settings panel; where you get settings that were "normal" before — the GNOME Tweak Tool has a small amount of options that customize the desktop experience; is this real "tweaking"? Applications started to use the microsoft-way of measuring "the degree of complexity" of options long ago (everything a common user usually is not interested in, becomes advanced), and to take action accordingly, hiding (or removing — no worry, call the gsetting!) stuffs from the users' eyes. This philosophy seems to be embraced systemwide by "modern" Desktop Environments, altogether with a stronger care of the cool appearence.
  • I put a cdrom in the cdrom tray and a “what to do” panel slided up from bottom with two options: eject the disc or open it. Neither of two, but there's no way to dismiss the panel —intuitively a close button, or a third option, is what we expect. Maybe they are focusing too much on “great things” and doing so they break other, taken for granted?
  • I have already said something about shell extensions. How does the user handle them? You can enable or disable them in an advanced settings window which is more or less a “plain list” with on/off buttons next to the extension names. Each item is not "clickable", there are no info about those extensions but their name! To know what the extension is about, you must go on the web, or be confident with the name describing perfectly what the extension does. You can find new extension in the official site, which is currently in beta and it's integrated with the desktop through a web browser plugin. I haven't found a way to keep the plugin disabled and download the extension, in order to install and enable it offline. Anyway, on the site you can read the description of all the known extension, and you can handle your own installed one, and discover more about them. Isn't it silly? Imagine if the package manager would list the package without a word about them…
  • They decided that the topbar is not done for holding windows list or a desktop switcher by default. You select the Activities button (or move the mouse to the top-left active corner) to access the activity manager (or Mission Control): a mix between Expose (Compiz can do it), virtual desktops selector, application launcher… It means there's no graphical clue of any other opened window on the desktop, unless it is partially visible on the current virtual desktops. 
    • By default, virtual desktops are dynamically created. The easily accessible option allows you to make them static and choose a number (e.g. 4), but they are arranged linearly. Before GNOME3, you was able to choose how many rows and how many columns. Now there's no an obvious standard way of doing it. Of course, an extension makes it possible again. Another extension can be enabled to add to the topbar a virtual desktop indicator, which is unsatisfactory: it only tells you 1, 2, 3... while what I wanted is a miniature of the “desktops grid” (included the opened windows in them!) with the one I am on highlighted. The current height of the topbar may be not enough for a complete miniature, I would have been happy with a simple 2×2 matrix.
    • So, because windows are not graphically listed on any bar, I need 2 or 3 clicks to pick the right one (click on Activities, then pick the right window, on the right desktop), if I want to use the mouse, instead of 1 click (if the list included all the windows on all the desktops).
  • Show me the desktop! ­ … By default the desktop is a wasted space, unless you put it under the control of Nautilus. I am not a fan of the school of icons on the desktop. On the contrary. But few chosen icons can be useful sometimes. In order to show them, you need a show the desktop shortcut, or button. The only way to obtain the functionality the right way (almost) is, again, to use an extension (currently it means I have to click, since the extension does not contemplate a shortcut binding)! There's a Hide all normal windows function you can configure as shortcut, but is not capable of restoring the windows. What I wanted: Win+D = show desktop hiding all windows; Win+D again, restore all windows.
  • In the Mission Control (or activity manager) there's a search box. When I see a search box I become a little bit worried. It means the system create indexes, potentially of everything, and searching becomes easily the straightforward way of finding programs (or in general "objects") that you have not put as preferred (or created a shortcut to reach them); likely, when you select the application tab, it shows you the most recently used or more often used applications. Luckly categories appear on the right.
    • I believe hierarchical organization is fine: human mind creates categories, or choose and assign categories among a set of categories according to certain categorization schema. Categories, folders are hierarchical containers. It's rather natural for a human mind, and exhibit a logical structure: follow the logic, and you'll find the object. Next to categories/folders, I can accept the idea of tags. Trying to avoid the little effort to put an object in the correct category (even the broader one), or let the system assign tags instead of you, it's a kind of mental lazyness that I am afraid of. Sometimes you can't escape it, but placing the search text widget in a so prominent way, it means like suggesting it's the best way you can find stuffs. So, people tend to skip the organize-it step, and stop caring of where things actually are. It's a sort of abstraction from the file system, and thinking of it like this makes it a good approach. Only if saying "X is actually there" you think of filesystems rather than a generic, already abstract, hierarchical label. Put it otherwise, hierachies are fine, but you must make it possible to use them properly and easily. It seems to me that it's not the case of modern "desktop" systems like GNOME3, which states something like I will help you in finding swiftly your stuffs, I will show the objects you use more first, and so on. How? Indexing, then Type to search, then sorting by usage frequency, depending on what we are actually talking about. It makes no sense except in few cases when you indeed don't know what you are exactly searching for.
    • Other search provider can be added, e.g. Wikipedia or Google. Argh. I want to keep those functions in a web browser, well separated by the desktop.
  • When I click the application tab, I have to wait a bit before I can see the list: there's an annoying time gap. Maybe my dual core processor and my 2 Gbytes are not enough, or maybe my hd is too slow… [sarcasm!]? Indeed the list consists of big icons organized as in a matrix. Since not all the applications have big icons (or SVG, scalable icons), some icon appear grainy. Ugly. This is the normal way of launching app, beyond the preferred app you can add to the launcher on the left (UPD: called dash, if I absorbed the nomenclature correctly).
    • Can you add easily application to the launcher? Yes, but first you have to create a desktop entry, maybe using gnome-desktop-item-edit, or you need to add the application to the menu (according to freedesktop), using Alacarte. Alacarte is the kind of software that hides in the dark, a little bit shy, not too much known nor advertised, as something you are ashamed of. It was so in GNOME2 too. The reason why it is not a well-visibile, clear component of the system is a mistery to me. If you don't add them to the menu, right-clicking on the launcher won't give you the option to add to favorite.
      • Running apps appear in the launcher with their icon, and there's no way to distinguish them by favorite apps; nor there's graphical way to distinguish from a running favorite app and a not-running favorite app. (In Unity there was some clues)
    • You can launch app with Win+F2 [UPD: Alt+F2 indeed, but the first shortcut customizations was using Win instead of Alt — yes, I need Win+F1 to fire activities manager]: a mini dialog pops up and you can enter a command; Tab autompletes it, but doesn't show alternatives when multiple completions are available.
    • An extension adds the pulldown menu to run application in the topbar (it appears as the GNOME foot), and of course I added it. It expands categories in place (using scrollbar if they exceed a certain amount, unknown to me), instead of opening a new "list" on the right — the classical way Windows, GNOME2 and others do. The expansion is kept even if you click another category, and since there's less room, the visual window is small, and the scrollbar has to scroll more.
    • I wanted to do a screenshot to use less words for the previous issue, and thus I discovered another issue. When the extension has the focus, the "Print Screen" button does not work. So, I can't make screenshots when a "topbar extension" has focus. (Tried with all the current “extensions” that shows something in the topbar). Also, when you are in the Mission Control, Print shortcut does not work! It takes control of everything, bypassing all the shortcut: in fact Alt and Ctrl have their own meaning in that context; if you press any other key which is not "interpreted" by the activity manager, you go back to the desktop.
      • Ctrl+Number switchs between virtual desktop. But you can't hold Ctrl down and press 1, then 2, then 3… You have to release it, then push it again.
  • Do you want to disable special effects or tweak something about graphics? There's an advanced settings tab (in the GNOME Tweak Tool — advanced as in the microsoft-jargon), but the only aim of the pane that appears is to give informations: your system is enough (or it is not!) for the level of fancy the system has chosen for you. You have a powerful enough gfx card. Ok, but what if I want to disable/enable some effects? With Compiz, there were a lot of possible settings and "pluggable" effects. Where's all the treasure? Again, perhaps you can tweak everything going undercover, with the aid of dconf/gsettings or proper extensions. Powers that were given to the common user before, now are hidden somewhere and you have to be happy with the default
  • It happens I want to mute the speaker with the mouse (without using Fn+mute/unmute laptop key), then unmute, preserving the previous volume level. I find it unbelievable they “forgot” a mute button: there's only the volume slide.
    • The eradication of PulseAudio is a different topic, but I am going to tell something about it. I hate PulseAudio: sometimes I need Jack, I try to make music, and PulseAudio is not good for that. There's no an easy way to disable/enable it. I fought against it hard in Ubuntu; at last I won: I had mixing without PulseAudio (I think I was successful in configuring ALSA dmix with a proper asoundrc, and created a fake dummy pulseaudio package which I installed to satisfy dependencies), and I was able to run jack when I needed it. Now I am a little bit lazier and more tired, and since I have no quick solution, I settled for a compromise: PulseAudio won't run (hence I have no volume icon in the topbar), and if I need its service, I run it (Win+F2 → “pulseaudio -D”, and the volume-icon will appear again).
  • Nautilus left pane holds a list of relevant locations. It was easy to add new one by dragging and dropping a folder. Then you was able to arrange their order in the same way. Now you can't. Why? You can bookmark a locations, but it appears in a different section (Bookmarks) making it clear it's something you added. What if I don't want the Pictures dir to be listed? Again something that was intuitive and straightforward before, becomes counterintuitive. 
  • In Nautilus, when you explore the Downloads folder, a Personal file sharing bar appears. You can receive files over Bluetooth into this folder. I have no bluetooth and the personal file sharing option is disabled. There's no obvious way to dismiss this annoying bar telling me about a feature that I disabled. Almost worst than ads!
  • In Nautilus, I use the list view. But I don't want each folder be able to open a tree (clicking the "+" symbol). It was not so in the previous Nautilus. (Another details: when the window width is not maximum, if I open the extra pane with F3 and then close it, the left pane is shrunk but not restored to its size before the opening of the pane — small details, but…
  • When you install a server/daemon, you have it configured so that it starts. I want servers, but I want to run them when I need them. So I had to fire some update-rc.d to remove them. Nothing new. But then I installed git-daemon and discovered a brand new world in the daemon handling [UPD: runit, not GNOME fault: only new stuffs]. Ignorant me. Few seconds of skirmish trying to tame it, then since I had other priorities decided to apt-get-remove it.
  • I am used to keep all the system in english, since I dislike some translations and since not all the apps I'm going to install are translated and I don't like to mix language on the desktop (the opposite in other context). In Ubuntu (in GNOME2) I was able to keep the system in english and customize the locale (e.g. for date format, currency, decimal point). Instead what I obtained without efforts in GNOME3 on Debian is english system but full italian locale or english with full english locale (month/day/year, sterling or dollar as currency…). The most visible effect for now when I keep the italian locale is that the date in the topbar is in italian ("dom 29 set, 23:21"). Annoying. But the worst effect will be the decimal separator (the comma in Italy). I will use the english locale then, hoping smart application does not adhere to it without allowing the user to change…
    • It's the case of the topbar clock. As said it became "dom 29 set", i.e. it took the italian locale (and use the italian language even if the language settings is english), and of course there are no (detailed) settings for what the calendar/clock must show in the topbar! Shameful. An extension... we need an extension, we need to extend it in order to have something we had before, again.
  • Let's go in the GNOME Tweak tool, just to discover that with the font size I've chosen the window is not enough wide, and some text is truncated. Since these are Advanced Settings the Microsoft way, the window can't be resized! Congratulations to the GNOME team for this imitation of the common Microsoft feature of the fixed-size windows!
    • UPDATE: Indeed it seems GNOME Tweak tool is an independent software; it means that without a "third-party" developer (likely stimulated by the lack of similar basic tools in GNOME3), we would have even less!

For now, it's all about complaining for removed features, settings or added problems. But if I will stumble upon another issue or have another thought about my experience using GNOME3, I will add it to this list, or maybe I will create a new shorter post just for the real issues.

1 comment:

  1. I installed Debian Wheezy just today and noticed right away that I couldn't resize the settings windows after having doubled the font size with the Advanced settings. With X2 font size, many settings windows are now unreadable. Hopefully the resizing of settings windows will be added back in soon. - Also, I could not "open in terminal" from Nautilus (which I am accustomed to doing in Linux Mint (Cinnamon).