GNOME 2's desktop has such a long tradition that little needs to be said about it. Its desktop was a place where you could add launchers for applications, files, or locations. Its windows could be minimized or maximized, and opened somewhere between these two extremes. The main problem was the non-intelligent placement of new windows, which required a Show Desktop applet on the panel as a panic button.
For better or worse, GNOME 3 is a complete rethinking of the desktop. By default, no launchers of any sort are allowed on it. Except for apps like Empathy, whose windows require very little space, everything is open maximized, with no indicator like the windows list to suggest what other else might be buried beneath the active application.
If you are a user with the least tendency to multi-task, this arrangement quickly leads to chaos on the desktop. GNOME 3's solution? A depiction of the open applications on the overview that has no connection to how the windows are actually arranged, and no power to change the arrangement.
Verdict: GNOME 2. Its concept of the desktop includes the possibility of a setup like GNOME 3's, while GNOME 3's doesn't include the unaided recreation of GNOME 2. Also, while GNOME 2's window placement could use some improvement, its positioning and handling of windows is far less awkward than GNOME 3's.
GNOME 3 creates virtual workspaces automatically. This feature has the advantage of introducing users to the concept, but the disadvantage of frustrating those already familiar with the concept. Unlike in GNOME 2, you can control neither the number of virtual workspaces, nor which applications are placed on which workspaces. Since many users divide applications by workspaces -- for example, opening all apps for editing graphics on one page, and all apps for music on another -- this is a major shortcoming.
But it gets worse. While the display of virtual workspaces is well designed, you have to switch to the overview to see it, instead of just clicking on a panel app as in GNOME 2. Other features of GNOME 2 are also missing, including the ability to choose the number of virtual workspaces (which can affect available memory), and to name them. Nor can you decide how or if the task switcher displays the contents of workspaces.
Verdict: GNOME 2. Full credit to GNOME 3 for bringing virtual workspaces into users' work flow, but the rest of its implementation is lackluster. Anyway, as much as virtual workspaces are important to me, users should have the choice whether to use them.
Preferences and Administration
Years ago, GNOME 2's designers decided to avoid a centralized configuration and administration window of the sort favored by KDE. The result was the Systems menu, divided -- sometimes confusingly -- into Preferences and Administration menus. In many distributions, both Preferences and Administration had close up to two dozen items apiece, and finding a particular item could be difficult, especially if its name happened to be poorly chosen.
This increasingly clumsy system is replaced in GNOME 3 by a Systems Setting window. By dividing tools into categories, with no more than a dozen tools in each, GNOME 3 makes configuration and administration tools much easier to find than they were in late GNOME 2 releases -- at least in theory. In practice, distributions using GNOME 3 often display network and package management utilities and other tools separately from Systems Settings, recreating the problem of GNOME 2.
Just as importantly, accessibility to System Settings is four clicks down from the desktop in GNOME 3, as opposed to the two required by GNOME 3. In addition, controls like the choice of apps to start when you login are also missing from GNOME 3 installations.
Verdict: Tie. GNOME 3's system settings should be an improvement over GNOME 2's hodgepodge, but mostly it isn't.
By my count, GNOME 2 emerged as a clear victor, winning in three categories and tying in two. In comparison, GNOME 3 tied twice, and won no category.
However, the point is not simply to declare GNOME 2 the better desktop. Instead, the results also suggest why GNOME 2 refuses to disappear and GNOME 3 is still strongly resisted.
The two desktop environments tied in their menus and configuration tools. In the other categories, which concerned the tools for everyday computing, GNOME 2 included its share of shortcomings. Yet, even with those shortcomings, GNOME 2 was consistently quicker and easier to use and offered more choices for users.
The fact that GNOME 3 often looks better can't hide that, functionally, it tends to be needlessly complex and awkward, with less toleration for different work flows than the desktop environment it is supposed to replace.
With an increasing number of GNOME Shell Extensions becoming available, GNOME 3 is improving rapidly. Ironically, though, most of these extensions tend to recreate GNOME 2. After a close examination, I can better understand why.