In association with heise online

28 March 2012, 15:39

First Look: GNOME 3.4

by Thorsten Leemhuis

Epiphany is now called Web and has a smartphone browser feel. GNOME uses screen space more efficiently and, in some cases, doesn't display a menu bar for full-screen applications. The new version also includes a large number of small improvements in different areas.

Nearly one year after introducing the third generation of GNOME, the GNOME Project has released GNOME 3.4, the second major overhaul of GNOME 3. After a wide range of new features was introduced in version 3.0, and a few stragglers and a lot of fine-tuning went into GNOME 3.2, the new version of GNOME now includes changes similar to those in the last few years of the 2.0 series: nothing big, just a long line of small improvements in different areas of the desktop environment.

Contacts, Documents and Browsing

GNOME's Epiphany browser is now simply called Web, and the user interface has been pared down to the necessary features. The menu and status bars are gone, while the toolbar has only forward and back buttons, a URL field and a gear icon, which leads to a "super menu" with bookmarks and functions that were previously in the file menu. The interface seems to be inspired by browsers found on smartphones, where users are presented with only the most important elements to prevent accidental clicks while only using a minimal amount of screen space.

The design of GNOME Documents and GNOME Contacts, applications introduced in GNOME 3.2, was also overhauled so that they now appear more modern and are somewhat easier to work with. With the document management tool, users hardly notice whether the documents being worked on are stored locally or in an account connected via GNOME Online Accounts. In addition to Google, users can now configure connections to Facebook and Windows Live in GNOME Online Accounts, which afterwards can be used by various GNOME applications.

If the contact management program believes that two entries are for the same person, it offers a suggestion at the bottom of the screen to combine the two. In addition to contacts, settings, and applications, the GNOME Shell's search function now also finds documents displayed by GNOME Documents, and plans are in the works to extend it to music and video files, as well.

As in earlier versions, the GNOME Shell displays the name of the program currently being used at top left next to "Activities"; now, clicking on that name in applications such as Epiphany/Web, GNOME Contacts and GNOME Documents leads to a menu with some of the application's most important functions. When these applications are running in full-screen mode, this menu can also be used to close them, since their windows no longer have a title bar that would normally include the "close" symbol; as in Epiphany/Web, the idea here is to free up horizontal space. One can move a full-screen application to a window by left-clicking the top edge, moving the mouse down a little, and letting go again.


Epiphany is not the only program to get a facelift and a new name: the Palimpsest disk management application has been reborn as Disks. To launch it with the command line, however, users still need to use the old name, as is the case for Epiphany.

The changes are intended to make the program for adding drives and partitioning and formatting them easier to use, but it has also lost some functions – with Device Mapper/LVM2 and MD-RAID, for example, it can no longer add or configure created drives, only display them. On the other hand, Disks acquires some new features for adding and modifying entries in the /etc/fstab and /etc/crypttab files, restoring images, and (at a basic level) creating disk images.

The program window has shrunk a little to allow use on netbooks. One reason for the facelift was an overhaul of the udisk function in Palimpsest/Disks, as the application's developer explains in a detailed blog post that discusses many aspects of the program's redesign. Xan Lopez also writes about the ideas behind Epiphany's new feel in his blog.

Minor improvements

As part of the Every Detail Matters initiative launched in December, GNOME developers have fixed twenty bugs. Some of those changes take care of unusual behaviour in Dash and the window overview, and now users can also select workspaces in the workspace overview when the cursor is at the far right of the screen.

Another change suggested was to sort workspaces using drag & drop. That would allow users to re-organize workspaces in a preferred order even if they close all the windows in one workspace – that leads to a termination of the workspace, so users can only re-launch the application in a new space at the very bottom. That change was not implemented, but there is now another, quite satisfactory solution to the problem. Users can now use the mouse to drop a window between two workspaces in the workspace overview, which creates a new workspace in that spot that contains the moved window.

Next: Extensions, miscellaneous, conclusion

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