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For the past five months, the most talked-about free desktop environment hasn't been GNOME, KDE or Unity. It's been Linux Mint -- specifically Cinnamon, a project to re-create GNOME 2 on top of GNOME 3.
Cinnamon has been growing dramatically with regular monthly releases ever since its first announcement. Now, with the release of version 1.4, it has largely succeeded in providing the necessary basics. The result is a GNOME 2 look-alike that combines the best of both GNOME 2 and 3, while adding a few enhancements of its own.
Linux Mint 12, the current release, already comes with the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions (MGSE). MGSE is a collection of extensions that add a dozen GNOME 2-like features to GNOME 3, such as a menu and a second panel. Each extensions can be toggled on or off by going to Shell Extensions in the Advanced Settings.
In addition, users can install the cinnamon package, which adds more GNOME 2-like behavior. Users might also want to add the port of alacarte, the standard GNOME 2 menu editor. Both the cinnamon and alacarte packages are available for most major distributions, including Ubuntu and Fedora.
Admittedly, this separation of the configuration options is mildly confusing. Since Linux Mint is obviously strongly committed to answering the demand -- or nostalgia -- for GNOME 2, I wonder why a minor version upgrade wasn't announced along with the new version of Cinnamon in which both MGSE and Cinnamon are turned on by default. A common configuration window would also be a logical step.
However, experimentation soon overcomes any confusion. From the main screen to the virtual workspaces and overview mode, when it works, Cinnamon can be a pleasing mixture of the old and new. The real problem is that results seem to vary from one machine to the next.
The Main Screen
In GNOME 3, the main screen is almost totally redesigned. The workspace, panel, and menu are all re-thought, mainly in the interest of removing clutter. By contrast, Cinnamon mitigates or undoes most of those changes, restoring greater choice of workflow in the process.
GNOME 3 greatly de-emphasizes the role of the panel, leaving it a place for app-indicators and a few basic applets like a clock and calendar, and the Activity button that switches to the overview mode. Even the menu and notifications are switched to the overview mode.
In contrast, the combination of MGSE and Cinnamon preserves the app-indicators and the basic applets, leaving them in more or less the same positions as they are in Ubuntu. Otherwise, though, their result is much more GNOME 2 than 3.
To start with, Cinnamon adds the option of a second panel, as many distributions did for GNOME 2. In addition, notifications can also be toggled on or off on the panel, although the notifications tray has not been restored.
The panel itself now has an entire window of settings. The text and icon for the menu are both editable, perhaps in part to pacify Windows refugees accustomed to looking for the Start button. You can also auto-hide the panel, or enter a KDE-like edit mode for adding applets.
The only shortcoming is that panel editing is somewhat basic compared to GNOME 2. Panels still can't be positioned on the left or right sides of the screen, and, for other positioning changes to take effect, you need to reboot. Similarly, icons can only be moved to a left, center or middle zone of a panel.
But at least the idea of configurability options has been introduced. With any luck, later releases will make them more reliable and allow more choice.
Just as important, Cinnamon restores the menu to the workspace, instead of shifting it to the overview, Cinnamon also offers a menu on the panel.
This menu is not the classic menu of GNOME 2, with sub-menus opening across the workspace. Instead, Cinnamon opts for a menu confined to a window, with a Favorites bar, two menu levels and a search field, much like that of KDE's. I wouldn't be surprised to see an option for a classic menu in future releases, but the current choice does have the advantage of allowing users to ignore the overview if they prefer.
After all, having to switch to a different screen, the way you do in GNOME 3, just to start another application does seem inefficient, unless you are working on a small-screen mobile device and have no choice.
As for alacarte, it seems ported directly from GNOME 2 without any changes in functionality. It allows complete editing of the menu, from repositioning items to choosing which to display. Alacarte also offers the choice of the multi-level but totally complete Debian menus.
However, for many users, including me, the greatest improvement in Cinnamon is the restoration of drag and drop. In the latest version, applications can be dropped freely from the menu to the workspace or the panel. With this simple feature, Cinnamon puts favorite launchers a mouse click away, enabling a work flow that GNOME 3's designers discarded, apparently in the mistaken belief that everyone would be happy to be forced to work another way.
True, features like automatic arranging of launchers would be welcome in future releases. But at least the current version of Cinnamon has set the principle that launchers are worth having.
Overviews and workspaces
GNOME 3 uses the overview mode for everything not directly involved with running the current application. The menu, favorites bar, and virtual workspaces all appear only in the overview mode, which is accessible by clicking the Activities link on the panel.
By contrast, Cinnamon lets users ignore the overview completely if they choose. Like the menus, virtual workspace controls are transferred to a panel in the main screen. There, they work exactly as in GNOME 2, with options for setting the number of virtual workspaces and arranging them in rows on the panel. The only feature of GNOME 2 virtual workspaces that is not enabled is the ability to name them, leaving users with the option of either displaying no name, or the unhelpful Workspaces 1, 2, and 3.
Users who want the overview can enable a corner hot spot or use Ctrl+Alt+Up or Ctrl+Alt+Down to switch to it. If you set the hot corner to make its icon visible, the result -- fittingly enough -- is an animation of radio waves that helps you zero in precisely at the corner.
Yet, even in the overview, Cinammon offers improvements over GNOME 3. In the Cinnamon settings, you can choose either Scale, a view of all the windows open in the current workspace that is much like GNOME 3's overview, or else the new Expo, from which you can drag and drop windows from one virtual workspace to another.
Of the two overviews, Scale will probably appeal most to those who make light use of virtual workspaces, but occasionally get lost in the clutter of open windows. Expo, in comparison, is better-suited to heavy users of virtual workspaces, for whom the panel controls are not enough. However, both are improvements over GNOME 3's concept of the overview.
A Foundation for Better
Despite these features, Cinnamon is not the perfect desktop environment. Annoyingly, it requires a reboot for some changes to take affect. The ecosystem of applets and extensions remains less extensive than the original GNOME 2's, and Cinnamon badly needs to organize configuration tools, instead of dumping them into a menu simply labeled Other.
However, the main trouble with Cinnamon 1.4 is that it appears to install with alarmingly varied results. On one test machine, both overviews were unavailable. On another, no drag and drop capability was available, and selecting most panel options had no effect. The only way that I could try all Cinnamon's features was to move between machines.
Because of these problems, as much as I approve of the directions in which Cinnamon is heading, I would hesitate to recommend it yet. Although my experience might not be typical, the risk of a partially functioning desktop seems too great.
However, Cinnamon has come a long way quickly. The 1.4 release could do with some functional improvements, but in general the project seems at the stage where it can start giving more attention to functionality.
Give Cinnamon another release or two, and it might become the main GNOME desktop, squeezing out GNOME 3 and Unity by giving users what they want. But for now, Cinnamon is merely promising -- and, at times, annoying as well.