GNOME 3.2: Tactical Brilliance and Strategic Stubbornness

It's unclear whether GNOME 3.2 will be enough to reconcile users alienated by GNOME 3.0.
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If you're still waiting for the GNOME 3 series to tolerate more than one work-flow, then GNOME 3.2 is going to disappoint you.

Although the new release contains dozens of improvements, both practical and aesthetic, it still supports only a single work flow, just like GNOME 3.0. Despite six months of protests, the GNOME team seems to have decided that, if it just ignores the complaints, eventually they'll go away.

That said, some of the improvements might just be enough to reconcile you to the GNOME 3 series. While some improvements are useful but minor refinements, others ranging from task-oriented documentation and accessibility improvements to online integration tools, would be welcome additions to any desktops.

GNOME 3.2 was released less than a week ago, but already packages are finding their way into major distributions -- if not of the final release, then at least of late betas in distributions' development releases.

However, the easiest way to explore the new release is download one of the openSUSE live images (available for 32 and 64 bit machines), and transfer it to a DVD or USB drive from which you can boot your computer.

Some features may not be available (for instance, the openSUSE), but enough are there to give you a general impression, especially when you use the release notes as a guide.

The Refinements

When GNOME 3.0 was released, it seemed like a reasonably complete desktop. However, after seeing some of the small additions to the 3.2 release, you might conclude that 3.0 was a bare desktop. Not that the new release introduces any major new functionality, but many of the small ones in 3.2 make work just that much easier - and each one has a cumulative effect on your general impression.

For instance, when you search in the overview, the results now include listings in your contacts, not just files. You also get previews of multimedia files in the file manager (although not, so far as I can see, of folders, as you do in KDE), and, in open and save dialogs, a list of recent files, which can be useful if you are saving groups of files to more than one location.

Notifications in particular show improvements, with counters that allow you to see -- for example -- the number of new emails awaiting you. In addition, notifications now give you a list of options when you plug in a removable device. This list looks strangely elongated in the long, narrow format for notifications, but is a welcome addition all the same.

System Settings are another area where the refinements are noticeable. Unlike KDE, which insists that panel backgrounds remain part of the theme, GNOME 3.2's System Settings include duplicates of settings found elsewhere, such as the keyboard settings found in the panels. The dialog also includes settings for Wacom graphic tablets, if one is detected.

Now, too, experts can calibrate color management on a system-wide basis in the hopes of having the screen display match printed output -- although, realistically, differences in batches of ink and the different absorbency and color in different papers mean that this age-old problem will continue to annoy designers. At best, GNOME's color management will reduce some of the problems.

Other refinements include a greater consistency of appearance, and other aesthetic choices. The only refinement which seems a mixed blessing is the slightly shorter title bars, buttons, and other widgets. The release notes suggest that this change will make it easier to use GNOME on small screens -- presumably because slightly less space is taken up.

However, the change also means that you need to point the mouse with greater precision on small screens, so whether you'll think the change is an improvement depends on what your priorities are.

Accessibility, Documentation, and Online Integration

During the development of GNOME 3.0, one of the complaints was that the backend changes were not being communicated to accessibility designers. Perhaps as a result, accessibility is a priority in the 3.2 release, with Orca -- GNOME's main claim to accessibility excellence -- being made compatible to the new backend, and an online keyboard being added.

In addition, accessibility features can now be activated on the fly, with the potential of being used when applications from other desktops are run on GNOME.

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Tags: Linux, Gnome, KDE

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