GNOME 3.34 is awesome but still needs improvements in key areas
A comprehensive look at key areas in the most popular Linux Desktop Environment that stick out like a sore thumb.
GNOME 3.34 is the latest release of the most popular Linux Desktop Environment (Interface+Apps), seen in Ubuntu, Fedora and many other Linux distributions as their default experience, with or without changes. GNOME 3.34 packs itself with new niceties such as much needed performance improvements, app folders and more.
However, GNOME continues to have key areas that stick out like a sore thumb in terms of intuitiveness or usability. I have laid them down below with links to bug reports, please treat my feedback as constructive criticism of a project that I respect and love, but find confusing at the same time. This is going to be a comprehensive read, so buckle up!
Let's start with the GNOME Interface first.
1. A Desktop that does nothing
A vanilla GNOME Desktop boots to a wallpaper and a minimal status bar at the top. And nothing else.
To launch an app, I need to point the cursor to the top left edge of the screen and then a Dock appears (GNOME calls it Dash) with pinned applications. I don't understand why the Dash is hidden by default on the Desktop when there's nothing in its way. What is my computer doing starring at a wallpaper? I start my computer, I should be able to launch pinned apps in one click, with no unnecessary cursor movements.
The keyboard alternate is to hit "Windows/Super" key and search for an app to launch but that only works for infrequently used applications. It cannot be treated as a replacement of a cursor-based functionality. There are no default keyboard shortcuts, like "Windows/Super+Number", for launching apps pinned to the Dash either. Windows, Linux Mint and KDE all have this, as did Ubuntu's Unity, and is very convenient.
The default Dash experience is pretty unproductive right now. There's no doubt why the extension Dash to Dock is so popular, which does exactly what it sounds like. It makes the Dash visible by default. Ubuntu does a sane thing by bundling a customized Dash to Dock by default. Solus and Manjaro offer it as default too.
GNOME should reconsider what they want the default Desktop to do on boot. I think they can make it more useful without sacrificing their design philosophy. If you agree that the Dash being visible by default can make GNOME more useful, chime in on the bug report I've filed.
2. Barely functional status bar
Clicking on an indicator icon, say Wi-Fi, on GNOME's status bar doesn't open its respective menu. Instead, no matter which icon is clicked, there is a common menu that pops up.
Any individual indicator settings, like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, are hidden inside sub-menus! One good thing is that the Wi-Fi sub-menu lets me access Wi-Fi settings. But it's inconsistent with the fact that sound settings can't be accessed from the status bar menu.
a. Connecting to a Wi-Fi network is too many steps
Connecting to a Wi-Fi network in GNOME involves the following.
Click the status bar icons > Click the Wi-Fi sub-menu > Click "Select Network" > Select the network to connect to > Type password and hit Enter
Whereas on every other operating system I've used, the process involves two less steps.
Click the Wi-Fi icon directly, which shows a list of networks > Select the network to connect to > Type password and hit Enter
I don't understand why so many clicks are required to connect to a Wi-Fi network. I've filed a bug report.
b. No battery percentage option
GNOME doesn't show battery percentage by default and that is fine. For occasional needs, one can click on the status bar icons to check the battery percentage. But for those who need to see it regularly, GNOME makes it very difficult to enable that. Neither the status bar menu nor GNOME Settings have an option to show battery percentage on the status bar.
What's worse is that the battery indicator icon doesn't accurately reflect the battery level as it's too coarse. It can actually mislead you into thinking that the battery level is 40% when it's actually 20%!
Upon searching the web, it turns out a separate app called "GNOME Tweaks" needs to be installed to enable showing battery percentage in the status bar.
For most people who need this toggle, they will never know about the existence of the Tweaks app (more on this later). This is the kind of setting that needs to be baked in. Not having battery percentage shown by default is perfectly fine but having no discoverable way to toggle it despite it being an available feature is rather unhelpful.
GNOME is currently working on having the battery icon display finer levels, which is a start. But the thing to understand is that the purpose of doing that ultimately leads to the need to see battery percentage. There's is a reason why every single operating system in the world offers this toggle. If you think GNOME should bake in an option to show battery percentage on the status bar, weigh in on the bug report or file a new one.
c. No app indicators
Classic app indicator icons are used extensively throughout Windows, macOS and various Linux Desktop Environments. And for good reasons. They convey information which you may want to notice but don't require your full attention. GNOME doesn't support app indicators, putting forth for a long time that a better implementation of app indicators exists and that other features of the system, like notifications, can replace functionality of classic app indicators. The problem is they don't.
Take for example a syncing service like Dropbox or Google Drive. When uploading/downloading multiple files, especially smaller ones, I don't want to be receiving a sea of notifications for every single file sync. I can track the sync progress by clicking on the indicator without having to open the file manager.
Another example would be torrents. When closing a torrent app like Transmission, it continues running in the background and has a helpful optional feature that prevents the system from suspending if toggled. Even when the app window is closed, it's indicator icon allows for quick actions like "Pause/Start" torrents.
On the other hand, a GNOME styled torrent app "Fragments" stops downloading when the app window is closed and doesn't even notify the user. One needs to keep the app window open to ensure that the torrents are being downloaded. Not sure how this is an improvement.
A messaging service like Telegram is another example. I may not want to keep chat notifications on since they can quickly get disturbing, or for privacy reasons. But I may still want to know that I've gotten a message. This is exactly why Telegram provides a badge in its indicator icon. Starting to sense why they are called indicators, eh?
Vanilla GNOME doesn't support app indicators, doesn't have a permanently visible dock and doesn't support badges on app icons. All of this combined make it very difficult to know that I've gotten a Telegram message or if a cloud sync service is running in background without having to open the apps and not be constantly checking the notification area.
Even if a better implementation may exist, it needs to be understood and accepted that cross-platform apps are unlikely to create indicators specific to the Linux Desktop, a market-share of less than 5% by any measure. This is precisely why KDE continues to support the standard spec. Ubuntu and several other distributions that ship GNOME do a good job by enabling app indicator support, via an extension, by default.
At this point, it's probably too late for GNOME to reconsider the decision, but a feature parity gap is a gap. Numerous bug reports asking for app indicator support haven't proven positive, but it maybe worthwhile initiating a discussion on the GNOME Community.
d. No suspend button
The first time I was trying to suspend my laptop on GNOME, I popped open the status bar menu where I expected the suspend button to be. But the suspend button was nowhere to be found!
A bit of web searching and I found that GNOME indeed does have a suspend button in the very same menu. It's hidden behind the "Power" button. You need to long press on the Power button or press and hold the "Alt" key while the menu is popped up for the Suspend button to appear! So intuitive.
No one is ever going to find out that the Suspend button resides hidden behind the Power button all by themselves. The fact that an extension exists that merely puts the Suspend button in the status menu is rather obnoxious. Pop!_OS does a sane thing by showing the Suspend button in the menu by default.
GNOME considered adding this basic feature but there doesn't seem to be any progress since long. :/
3. Deceiving app drawer
Getting to the app drawer itself is a 2-step process on vanilla GNOME. Point the cursor to the top left edge of the screen, then in the Dash/Dock that appears, click the app grid button to see all apps installed on the system. Opening the app drawer should be but a one-step process, like in Windows, macOS, elementary OS, KDE and pretty much everywhere else. The above mentioned solution to make the Dash visible by default solves this problem as well.
Expecting people to just know that the keyboard shortcut "Super+A" opens the app drawer is not ideal. Of course, pressing "Windows/Super" key and searching for apps works but that's not the same use case as seeing what apps are installed on the system.
The GNOME app drawer has another issue. Application names are cut-off at a short length which makes it difficult to differentiate between apps with similar names, a problem that persists even in Search. Heck, it also affects the "Alt+Tab" applications switcher.
The thought that on large screens, and especially on Desktop monitors, I can't read full app names is an annoying one. The fix for truncated app names is still in progress since over a year. Please file a bug report on GNOME's Gitlab, again, to get their attention on this rather basic feature.
4. Unnecessary notifications
Say I click on the "Open containing folder" button in Firefox for a file I just downloaded. GNOME then displays a notification saying "Application is ready" but doesn't open the said app automatically. This happens for other similar cases where I'm trying to open an app from another.
Now if I clicked on the open folder button, it's pretty clear what I want to do. I'm totally expecting another app to launch because I actively initiated it, so there's no point of giving me a notification about it and sitting idle. No cause for this issue has yet been identified as per the discussion on its bug report. The fact that an extension exists to fix even this behavior is getting tiresome at this point.
Now on to GNOME apps.
5. Barebones file manager
a. Can't create new document from the context menu
GNOME's file manager can't create new files (e.g. A new text/office document) from the right-click context menu! Instead the solution is to open the desired app, create a new file there and save it to the desired location. This is quite unproductive for the many times when I already have the file manager open.
I've filed a bug report, weigh in with your thoughts. Surprisingly, it turns out that GNOME does have this feature. One needs to create a template file and place it in the "Templates" folder for the feature to work. This is not intuitive at all, we can't expect novice users to know this, or do this.
b. Confusing action buttons
The buttons in the file manager have monochrome icons and don't show any labels/tooltips on hover. This makes it difficult to identify what some buttons do, especially when similar ones are placed together. In the image below, can you identify the action invoked by each icon?
The first one opens a new window, the second opens a new tab and the third creates a new folder. Sighs. Also, why are these frequently used functions hidden inside a menu? Bug report here.
c. Same icons for different file types
Speaking of confusing icons, GNOME's new icon set doesn't distinguish between different file types.
d. Oh, the file picker!
GNOME's file picker, used to select files when in other applications, doesn't have a thumbnail grid view. This means having to navigate one file after another to see discernable previews of each before selecting any file. Windows, macOS and KDE provide a thumbnail grid view, why doesn't GNOME?
e. Saving files is a pain
There's a peculiar thing that GNOME's file save dialog does while saving files, from a browser say. When I select a folder for saving a file in and start typing the file name, the dialog.. begins a search! Facepalm.
Instead of naming files when typing, the file save dialog begins a file search. In what Universe is that relevant? I've filed a bug report.
f. Non-discoverable way to bookmark folders
The context-menu in GNOME's file manager can't be used to bookmark folders, a feature that pins them to the sidebar. One needs to click on the folder name in the location bar at the top for the option to present itself.
Several bug reports have been filed over the years repeatedly requesting multiple tabs. It gets shot down every time, citing a 10 year old decision mentioning "stability and security" as the reason.
Sorry but this is just incredibly stupid. Every other major document viewer in the world has multiple tabs - Adobe, Foxit, Okular, you name it. There's no reason to believe GNOME's arguments against tabs in just this one app are valid anymore. It's 2020.
While we are on GNOME's PDF viewer, it is annoying that it supports zoom levels only up to 400%. This is in contrast to all other aforementioned PDF viewers that can do at least 1600%. Interestingly, the bug report asking for this feature is 14 years old.
7. Two photo viewing apps
It is somewhat odd that GNOME has separate apps for an image viewer, called Eye of GNOME, and for photo management, called GNOME Photos. GNOME Photos has a perfectly functional image viewer built in. And so it seems to me that GNOME Photos can take over the role of image viewing and related functions from Eye of GNOME and the latter can be discarded.
elementary OS tackles this usecase elegantly by making the photo management app handle image viewing as well. This has the benefit of making basic image manipulation options like crop, rotate, filters, etc. available in the image viewer for quick access. Being a writer, I can't tell you just how often I use this feature.
There is a 3 year old bug report requesting GNOME Photos to handle image viewing.
8. Can't find my settings
a. Undiscoverable settings
The GNOME Settings app is also, well, minimal. That's not necessarily a bad thing, except when too much simplicity makes it harder to know a setting exists. For instance, the Wi-Fi Hotspot feature is hidden under the three-dot menu where it's unlikely to be expected or noticed.
Many of my friends who use Ubuntu actually thought the feature doesn't exist! The option to manage previously connected Wi-Fi networks is hidden in the same menu as well. There is ample room for the options to be shown in the main settings area and so I've filed a bug report.
b. Tweaks app that shouldn't exist
When using GNOME, the Tweaks app turns out to be a boon. Many of the needed settings are in there which the main Settings app doesn't host, such as the following.
Ability to turn off animations - This is useful for accessibility, or just because animations in GNOME can be jarring since it isn't quite a smooth performer anyway.
Option to suspend when laptop lid is closed - Something that I expected to be in GNOME Power settings where I couldn't find it and therefore thought such a basic feature didn't exist!
Show battery percentage, etc.
It seems to me that a separate Tweaks app shouldn't exist really. All important settings should be baked right into the main Settings app for discoverability. Most distros, including Ubuntu and Fedora don't ship with Tweaks app by default. It leads people to believe that features like "turning off animations", "battery percentage", etc. don't exist on GNOME when they actually do! Even if distros did ship the Tweaks app by default, the user is left confused as to which app contains which setting.
In the past few releases, quite a few options have moved from Tweaks to the main Settings app. How much longer till GNOME realizes that at least some of the options in the Tweaks app are universally relevant and that they belong in Settings? I've filed a bug report suggesting that the Tweaks app not exist!
9. Software Center
a. No changelogs
GNOME's Software Center works okay but there is one pet peeve of mine with it - App pages do not display changelogs, even for GNOME apps. It's something that elementary OS does quite well, like this elementary 3rd party app for example.
b. No download size for system updates
GNOME Software handles updates for the operating system and Fedora graciously makes use of that feature. The big problem is that it doesn't show the download size for said updates. For many situations like limited connectivity or bandwidth, and for setting an expectation of time required to download the updates, it is important to know the download size before one can proceed.
I've filed a bug report but got a response saying "That is expected so I don't see a bug in this ticket. Proposing to close this ticket as declined." Huh?
Several paper cuts in GNOME lead to an ultimately unpleasant experience for end users, new and experienced alike. On their own, these issues may seem minor, but together they can lead to a confusing and even annoying experience. The sheer number of extensions that exist to fill feature gaps and their popularity are a clear sign of shortcomings in vanilla GNOME.
I felt it was prudent to point out areas of improvement especially considering that most popular Linux distributions ship with GNOME as their default experience, with or without changes. Distros like Ubuntu and Fedora are first Linux Desktop experiences for many millions and it should really be the best it can be.
You may disagree with many of the issues pointed out above, or may have different solutions. But the common thing is we all want GNOME to be better. I urge you to initiate discussions on the GNOME Community and file bug reports. The stage is yours.
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