GNOME 3.8 is still a few weeks from release, but with the latest beta, users can view the new GNOME Classic for the first time. The replacement for the retiring fallback mode, GNOME Classic uses extensions to provide something of the GNOME 2 experience — but it is a strangely limited experience that fails to match Linux Mint's Mate or Cinnamon, as though the GNOME project is reluctant to provide a "classic" experience at all.
GNOME Classic is not included on the beta Live CD. You might find the beta in development directories for distributions such as Fedora or openSUSE, and the option of compiling from source is always available.
However, the easiest way to view it is to download the latest version of Ubuntu 13.04, then use the command
sudo add-apt-repository to add
ppa:gnome3-team/gnome3-staging as sources.
apt-get update followed by
apt-get install gnome-shell gnome-shell extensions should add GNOME Classic to the selection of desktops when you log-in. Both these Launchpad sources are in rapid development, so you might have some unexpected problems (in my case, the keyboard stops working if the screen is locked).
I would prefer to report that GNOME Classic was an improvement in every way over fallback mode, and that the GNOME project was finally giving its work on GNOME 2 the respect it deserves.
Unfortunately, that would be a half-truth. At best, GNOME Classic is a small improvement over fallback mode, and it remains some distance from the best GNOME 2 experience available on a modern desktop.
You can select GNOME Classic at login, or else switch to it with the command
gnome-shell --mode=classic -r, reverting to GNOME 3 with
gnome-shell -r. (In my experience, using the command can crash the desktop, but that might be the luck of the nightly release.)
Superficially, GNOME Classic looks similar to GNOME 2. The Application and Places menus are back, although the System menu is not. The panel includes a taskbar with icons, and if not an indicator tray, at least a collection of system icons towards the right. Most applications open in the center of the screen, occupying just over a quarter of the screen space instead of opening maximized as in GNOME 3, and they include traditional title bar buttons for minimizing, maximizing, and closing — a feature that many missed in GNOME 3.
In a couple of cases, GNOME Classic is even an improvement over other GNOME 2 lookalikes. For example, the calendar is large by default and includes any appointments listed for today or tomorrow in a separate column. Similarly, the addition of a menu does not eliminate the activities overview, as Linux Mint's Cinnamon does. Instead, a link is presented at the bottom of the menu for the overview, so that the desktop is not a complete regression.
Unfortunately, these tidbits of promising new features are matched by unwelcome changes. The Application menu is an improvement on the traditional GNOME 2 menu, confined to three columns in a single window instead of having each sub-level spill further across the desktop, but includes no Search field.
Just as importantly, the top-level items are poorly organized. What, for example, is the distinction intended between "Sundry" and "Other"? Or "System Tools" and "Utilities"? For most users, these pairs of menu items sound like synonyms, with other items placed beneath them arbitrarily.
In many fundamental features, GNOME Classic actually fails to match GNOME 2's standards. On closer examination, the panel proves to be unmovable and un-resizable. Nor has GNOME Classic followed Mate's lead and restored the ecosystem of applets, the small utilities that could do so much to customize a GNOME 2 desktop.