If you dislike the GNOME 3 release series, the new 3.8 version of the popular desktop environment won't change your mind. However, if you do use GNOME 3, you'll appreciate the enhancements. Essentially, 3.8 is an incremental release, in which the project does what it has always done best — making dozens of tweaks that affect the user experience (generally for the better) without making any major changes to how it works.
GNOME 3.8 should be making its way to the package repositories of major distributions later this week. Those who want to satisfy their curiosity sooner can download the release candidate image. Alternatively, they can download the still-in-development Ubuntu 13.04, add the repositories
ppa:gnome3-team/gnome3-staging as sources, and then enter
apt-get install gnome-shell gnome-shell-extensions. Release notes are available so that you know what to look for.
Like most software releases, GNOME 3.8 is full of changes that aren't likely to be visible to most users. In GNOME 3.8, these invisible changes include modifications of key libraries such as GLib, GTK+ and Clutter, as well as Python bindings and a new help interface in the GNOME 3 style.
However, the features that most users are likely to notice are the replacement of fallback mode with GNOME Classic, the changes to the main screen and the overview screen, and the addition of new top-level headings in the Settings dialog.
During the last six months of development, the major announcement was that the unsatisfactory fallback mode would be replaced with a set of core extensions to provide a GNOME 2-like experience. This decision freed GNOME from the need to maintain two separate code bases while seeming to offer a solution for those who prefer not to use GNOME 3.
The GNOME extensions exist to convert GNOME 3 into something very much like GNOME 2. However, GNOME opted to make what it calls "GNOME Classic" default to an interface that is as unsatisfactory as fallback mode was.
With a few more extensions, GNOME Classic could eliminate any need for the overview, allowing manual management of workspaces and adding a number of useful applets to the panel. As things are, users hoping to re-create the GNOME 2 experience will need to spend some time browsing the GNOME extensions site — and even then, they still won't have desktop icons.
How many users need GNOME Classic — as oppose to want it — is open to question. Over the last few releases, GNOME has steadily increased support for different video drivers, and in the latest release, a majority of users can probably run the standard release.
Still, after all the discussion, some users are likely to be disappointed to find GNOME has replaced fallback mode with something whose default is no better for users. Instead of drawing users back to GNOME, GNOME Classic as installed is more likely to continue sending users to Linux Mint's Mate or Cinnamon, both of which provide a much better experience.
The best thing users can do is bypass GNOME Classic altogether and go directly to GNOME 3 proper. If its changes are less dramatic than GNOME Classic's, they are also more clearly improvements.
To start, GNOME 3.8 is more connected than early releases. Perhaps in answer to Ubuntu Unity's support for Ubuntu One's cloud storage, GNOME now supports the use of OpenCloud. Similarly, virtual machines now have built-in USB support, which means they can use external devices. In addition, they can exchange information with the host operating system via the clipboard.
In addition, desktop search has been improved in a number of ways. Users can now search within applications, including, for example, personal contacts within address books. A further enhancement is keyword search, which allows users to search by concept rather than file or application name. For example, search for "graphics" on the overview, and the results include Image Viewer, xdiagnose, LibreOffice Draw and the settings panel of Wacom Tablets. Together, these tools make navigating the desktop in GNOME 3.8 just a little easier than it is in earlier releases.