Diving Into GNOME 2.5 - A Preview of GNOME 2.6
The boring intro...
As a part of the Bangla/Bengali GNOME l10n
team, I decided to give the GNOME HEAD branch a spin - in order to find out
what's new, as well as to get an estimate of how much we would have to
translate (I hate that part of the job) to attain supported status. The last time I did
this, I also wrote an article about what I saw, but unfortunately, I never learn from my
mistakes - so here I go again....
However, before jumping in into this guided tour, please remember that I have been involved with the GNOME community for the past few months as a helper in the GNOME Summaries, and I may not be able totally impartial towards GNOME. Feel free to consider me biased.
The Vital Statistics
Before going into the real stuff, let me give me a brief overview of my system, so that when I mention something as fast or as slow, you would be able to guess how it would crawl in your system.
- Processor: AMD Athlon XP 2600+
- RAM: 512 MB of PC 2700 DDR RAM (with 875 MB swap)
- Motherboard: Nforce 2 based mobo from Leadtek
- Storage: A 40 GB Seagate Barracuda HDD
- Distro: Mandrake 9.2
- Kernel: 2.6.2
I had gone through (successfully) the GNOME dependency maze before, and to
avoid losing my sanity, I decided to use
jhbuild (one can
also use GARNOME or
maybe I'll test one of those with GNOME 2.8) .
Using jhbuild is quite easy - just set some variables in ~/.jhbuildrc, and you are ready to roll. Jhbuild grabs the latest source code from CVS (taking care of the dependencies), compiles them, and installs them in whatever $prefix you want them to be in. OK - there was one major problem - but that was at a later stage, and it got fixed really quickly.
Jhbuild took around 6 hours to get a bare bones GNOME system up and running, and surprisingly, there were very few errors, and I had to manually intervene only thrice.
I logged in as root the first time (yaya - I know security risk and other stuff..), to be greeted by a clean and polished looking GNOME desktop (Fig. 1) . (Note that I am running the Freedesktop.org Xserver here - so don't expect a stock GNOME 2.6 install to have panel shadows).
Seeing an icon named "Computer" right on the desktop - my first reaction was to click on it, expecting Nautilus to pop up with my "/" directory or something like that.
Nautilus goes spatial
However, as soon as I clicked on that icon - my reaction was "Yikes!! What have they done to Nautilus ??". Gone was the old and familiar explorer like interface. In it's place was a really minimalistic window, with no toolbar, just a plain menubar. I was quite confused - I even clicked on "Help" -> "About" to verify that the "thing" was indeed Nautilus. After some head scratching I remembered a post at FootNotes, in which the Nautilus developers announced something about going "Spatial". People had been pretty much excited about this - though I personally had no idea about what this stuff was all about. Now I thought I understood.
All my disks had been correctly identified by Nautilus, and was showing up in the "Computer" window (Fig. 2). But that was not very important at that point - all my attention was riveted on the new UI. After some Googling and RTFM sessions, I figured out that Nautilus was following a "Object Oriented" metaphor, instead of the normally used "Navigational" metaphor. The most user visible aspect of the OO metaphor is that there is a always a direct, one-to-one relationship between folders and windows, and the window for each folder remembers where you placed it the last time - i.e, the next time it will pop up in the same position. This new interface is partially inspired by the interface described in http://arstechnica.com/paedia/f/finder/finder-1.html.
At first, I was not very comfortable with the new spatial mode (to be honest, I thought it
sucked), but after a few days, I grew used to it, and believe it or not - I found it to be quite
usable. It much faster than the 2.4x series (installed in the same system), and apparently,
this improvement in speed helps a lot. In fact, the speed reminds me of the "Good Ol' Days
with GMC" I had back in distant past when men (and women) ran GNOME 1.x . However, the real major test
of spatial Nautilus came when I decided to reorganise my home directory
(This is one of the most painful jobs that can be carried out with a computer - and children -
please do not try this at home). I was simply stunned by the ease of use and the efficiency of
the spatial mode - I did a complete reorganisation of my home directory (consisting of
168271 items) in just around half an hour. OK, many of the files were in directories which
were moved as a whole, but I would still say that spatial Nautilus made me understand the
sheer power of drag and drop ;-). A cool thing that I noticed later was that when I dragged a
file into the "CD Creator" window, instead of getting moved, the file just got copied. One of
the things that was really irritating me, however, was that my 1024x768 desktop was soon
getting cluttered up by too many windows while using spatial Nautilus to view a deep
directory (Fig. 3). I soon found a nice way to avoid that - once the directory in question popped up, I
just clicked on File -> Close Parent Folder, and my Desktop showed up again. (But a
shortcut key to close all the open folders will be even nicer) Also, middle clicking twice on a
folder closes the parent window after the child folder is opened. (Fig. 4)
I noticed that this new spatial Nautlus kind of forces me to keep my files and folders organised in sane structure. Also, what made me all the more happy was the fact that the Nautilus developers have not got rid of the older "navigational" interface, it can started by selecting a folder in the spatial window, right clicking, and selecting "Browse Folder". Their comments on this ?? "We want Nautilus to give us the best of both worlds" Cool!! (Actually, if you don't like the spatial metaphor, you can enable the /apps/nautilus/preferences/always_use_browser GConf key and go back to the navigational setup.)
The only signs of trouble that I noticed was that the drag and drop failed to work on a very few rare occasions. But hey, I can't expect beta software to be perfect - and at least it is not as bad as this. And of course, there's the irritating bug #101332. But I guess that spatial Nautilus neutralises that bug to a large extent. I had another wish - to jump to a higher (grand-parent/parent) directory directly, and I found this nice button in the lower left corner of the spatial window which let me do just that. (But somehow it doesn't look much like a button - can anyone fix that ? Please?)
Nautilus Gets Template Support and the Preferences dialogue gets better
Fig 5. Templates in Nautilus
Another exciting new feature (I personally don't find it much exciting - but most probably my mom would) of Nautilus is the templates support. You just put a file in ~/Templates directory, and Nautilus will have an entry for it in the Templates submenu (Fig. 5). Click on it, and a copy of that file will be created in the directory you are viewing. A very handy feature for new users ! Hopefully distro makers will ship Nautilus with some handy templates.
The Nautilus preferences dialogue now has a handy tab where you can select the columns (modification date, size, mimetype, etc) which are to be displayed in the "List View" mode of Nautilus - and I hear that the List View has improved a lot - though I am not very familiar with that, and so it would be better for everyone concerned if I keep my mouth shut on this.
Metacity and the Window list gets more options
The pop up menu in the Window List applets seems to have two extra options - one for putting the selected window in all workspaces, and another for sending the window to a specified workspace. On clicking on the titlebar of an app window, I noticed a new option - "On Top". Yay!!
The one and only Microsoft product that I use regularly is my Microsoft Multimedia Keyboard - which has quite a few fancy buttons marked Web/Home, Media. etc on its top. The only set of buttons that I regularly use is the volume control ones. GNOME 2.4 had a nifty application called ACME with which I could easily use those buttons. In GNOME 2.5, ACME has been merged with the Keyboard Shortcuts applet of the GNOME control centre (Fig. 6), and I easily managed to enable my volume control keys from that capplet.
However, I would request the developers to use some kind of human readable keycodes in the shortcuts column of the dialogue. Hex numbers are scary... And I don't know if it's just me, but it seems that the keyboard shortcut dialogue in general could use some UI love.
The wallpaper selector and keyboard tool start to rock
Another major change in the GNOME Control Centre is in the "Background" tool. I simply love this new UI design (Fig. 7) - it is cleaner, and looks much more polished and now it is much easier to manage one's wallpaper collection, especially since Epiphany's "Use Image as Background" has been integrated with this as well.
The keyboard tool has been extended too, and now you can select additional layouts from this tool. This means I can now change my keyboard layout from English to Bengali without remembering that complicated setxkbmap command sequence. This enhancement, along with the proposed (for GNOME 2.8) Language and Culture capplet, should make life a lot easier for us l10n people. Currently the l10n capplet is in the Control Center, but is not compiled by default as it introduces a dependency for IBM ICU.
The GTK File Selector evolves
However, one of the most anticipated changes in the GNOME 2.6 release has been the introduction of a new GTK+ file selector. So I fired up EOG, and hit the Open button - and my first reaction was - Wow!. (You can't blame me, I have been using that older thingy with GNOME ever since I booted up a GNU/Linux box for the first time in my life ;-)
The GTK hackers have done some really good work, and have taken a few quite bold steps, and the
result is quite stunning.
The new file selector has two main modes - one for selecting/opening files, and another for saving files. (I hear that there is also one for one for selecting new folders (having a tree view of folders) - but I am not very sure.)
Each avatar of the selector has a cool new "pathbar" widget for filesystem navigation, which making moving around in the filesystem really really easy and fast. There is also a bookmarks system, to bring oft visited directories within easy reach. Developers also have the option of adding extra widgets to the selector - the infamous "frobinate/lart" confusion was supposed to be the placeholder for that widget.
The first thing that one notices with the Open/Load dialogue (Fig. 8) is that there is no place for text entry. This would most probably make many users "very angry - very angry indeed!" (remember a little not so green fellow called Marvin ??). I was quite baffled at first, but later figured out that the only time I needed the text entry widget was when I tried to open a hidden file. That was easily solved by using the Ctrl-l shortcut - a text entry dialogue popped up - end of all troubles. The text entry dialogue even has type-ahead support. Nice...
However, the Save dialogue looks really bare bones (Fig. 9). Just a text-entry widget to enter the filename, and a drop down list listing the folders in the bookmarks list. Quite a simplistic approach. But life does not restrict itself within the bookmarks list, so to save a file in some other folder, you need to click on "Browse for other folders", and you will be presented with a familiar looking dialogue box (Fig. 10), complete with a "Create Folder" button at the corner.
My reactions on this file-selector is largely positive. The new UI rocks, and enhancements like bookmarks list, preview support, filtering are just the things which were needed at this stage. I was slightly annoyed at the inability to rename a file through the file-selector, but I never used that feature in a frequent basis, and it is a mild annoyance. Also, I had really hoped that the developers would keep the separate panes for directories and files - the files+folders approach can sometimes make things really cluttered up. Another possible enhancement would be the use of distinct icons for the "Home" and "Desktop" items on the bookmarks pane of the file-selector. They are "special" directories - right? And support for drag and drop from the file list to the bookmark list would be a really cool thing (tm) (It is in the TODO list - I believe) . Finally, support for the ".hidden" file used by Nautilus will be really great - otherwise it gets difficult to explain to people where all those new files and folders cropped up from. (bug #129170)
Gedit has UI improvements
The Preferences dialogue of Gedit has been improved (Fig. 11)- and it is now much more cleaner and less cluttered. There's also a very handy new feature which lets you display the right margin as a thin line - I chose column 80 to be my right margin, so that my documents look OK in console based editors. And the spellchecker plugin, instead of colouring the entire misspelled word red, now just underlines it with a squiggly red line.
Also, thanks to and improved gtksourceview, the number of languages/scripts supported for syntax highlighting has improved dramatically - it has now support for Ada, C, C++, C#, diff files, .desktop files, HTML, IDL files, Java, LaTeX, MSIL, Perl, PHP (Yay!!), gettext translations (PO files), Python, SQL, Verilog, and XML. And you can also customise the syntax colours according to your wishes. Cool!!
There is also a new handy close button in the menu - which closes all the open documents. And the new warning dialogue when you are about to close an unsaved document is really "sweet" (Fig. 12).
However, Gedit did seem to act sluggishly when I scrolled down a large document with Pg Dn (around 20 KB) - with syntax highlighting turned on. Some google-ing suggests that this might have something to do with the Render extension being really slow in current Xfree86.
Yelp becomes really faster and better
Thanks to Shaun McCance and the other Yelp hackers, this program has become
really really fast - and reports suggest that even the huge Gnumeric manual
is handled by this new beast in a few seconds. There have been considerable
improvements to the general look and feel too (Fig. 13). There is a good overview of the
this interview of Shaun.
I had complained about Yelp in my last article on GNOME 2.4, and I am really happy to say that I have absolutely no complaints this time. Kudos to the Yelp developers.
Epiphany gets more polish
The Epiphany developers have been really busy all these six months, and a large
number of enhancements, tweaks and bugfixes have made into this browser. It
seems to even more faster (or it may be the Mozilla 1.7b against which it is being
compiled). There have been a large number of changes in the Preferences section.
You can now explicitly set a folder for storing all your downloads, and there's also
an option which makes the browser automatically open files once they have been
downloaded. This should be a handy option for new users, who are often confused
about this "download stuff". Also, when a download is progressing, an icon appears
in the notification area applet, and if you take your mouse over it, it tells you how
much time is left for the download to complete. Click on it, and the download
window is brought into focus. The tab list is not shown if there is only one tab open
Another interesting feature I noticed is that Epiphany warns you if you are about to close a window and there are un-submitted changes in a form. It also supports undo/redo in form elements. However, for some reason, it does not use the UI that every other GNOME program use in its print dialogue. I hope to see that fixed in the next version.
GNOME gets a net status applet, and the clock becomes integrated with Evolution
Fig 15. The netstatus applet and the clock
GNOME has a netstatus applet now, which lets you know about the status of your
network interface. It not only blinks during data transfers, but also, it can show
whether the connection is up or not or whether the link is present or not (on a
properly configured system). It is similar to the Windows XP network status
applet (which spews forth those irritating balloon like message boxes from the
taskbar every now and then).
The clock applet is now integrated with Evolution, and it highlights the days which are marked in your Evolution calendar (Fig. 15). This is done through evolution-data-server, and so you will actually see this when your system has Evolution 2.0 or 1.5. Double click on a highlighted day, and evolution pops up, showing the entries in your calendar for that day.
GNOME Games catch the SVG fever
I am not really very familiar with the GNOME Games package. However, a quick
look at the Changelog suggests a number of enhancements, especially with
respect to the generated hints, the scoring and statistics systems.
Also, quite a few of the games have switched to SVG based graphics, which is a really nice thing, and a move towards the right direction.
File-Roller gets RPM support
There has been a number of nice improvements to the FileRoller (equivalent of Winzip in 'doze). However, the most exciting feature for me is the support for RPM files (Fig. 16). I often need to extract just one file from a particular RPM, and previously, it was quite an irritating process. Now, it just works! This series of File-roller also features support for cut-copy-paste with files in an archive, and it also can rename files/folders inside archives. The menu item for file-roller has been moved to System Tools -> Zip Creator. I somehow don't like the name - it kind of under-estimates File-roller's abilities. However, I guess new users (especially those migrating from Windows) will be more comfortable with the name.
The Character Map gets more organised
Gucharmap, the GNOME Character Map/Picker now has a mode where the characters are organised by Unicode block, instead of the older "by codepoint" organisation. (Fig. 17) This is quite handy, and this should be much less confusing to the users unfamiliar with the intricacies of Unicode . No one needs to use all the characters defined by Unicode, and avoiding throwing a huge truck load of characters to the user really helps. Another nice feature (this is also present in older versions) that I noticed was that on right clicking on a character, it gets magnified.
GPDF comes of age
GPDF, the default PDF file viewer to ship with GNOME made its debut during the 2.4/2.3 series. At that time, many considered it to be quite unpolished, and people were quite shocked to discover that it did not even have a print mechanism. This time, the GPDF hackers have worked really hard, and GPDF is ready to take on any standard PDF viewer in terms of features. It can print, and it has a handy side panel which can be used for navigation (Fig. 18). You can navigate using bookmarks (provided that the file you are viewing has the proper support), or you can navigate using thumbnails of the pages. It has printing support, and the rendering of the pages in most cases is excellent. It has problems handling a very few files (apparently there are a few issues with embedded TrueType fonts), but such cases are rare. This version also has support for fullscreen viewing, and the Changelog suggests support for password protected files as well, but I did not have any such file to test that claim.
..And the Other Applications get tweaked and debugged
GNOME 2.6 will also see the debut of Dasher, an accessibility tool. Here is a cool demo which should give you an idea of what Dasher can do. Among the older applications, EOG (the image viewer) now has an improved image collection view mode, the audio tools use GStreamer, and the System Monitor has better support for systems with Kernel 2.6. There are probably a lot of other changes and major bugfixes which I have missed, and in the process, offended someone. My apologies in advance.
Final thoughts and Conclusion
This release of GNOME has been mostly about polish and more polish. The number
of new applications included in this cycle is quite low. Evolution 2,0 and Rhythmbox were
initially the two major new applications which were to be included in GNOME 2.6.
However, the maintainers of both the projects ultimately backed off, citing stability
issues. I think it is OK for a project like GNOME to have a "polish and tweakup"
release once in a while.
However, there are still a few nagging annoyances in GNOME which will be hopefully dealt with the next series.
- The UI of the sound capplet of the control center is quite terrible - and extremely confusing for new users. Also, a gnome-audio package (containing sound files for the GUI events) should be made a part of the official desktop package.
- The launcher properties dialogue has no option of setting the startup-notification support. The only way of enabling startup-notification in a launcher is to manually edit the launcher file. A simple checkbox in the dialogue box should do the job.
- There is no way of editing launchers on the Desktop (or maybe I am doing something really stupid). A context sensitive Nautilus menu item should do the job here.
- The print subsystem is not good for non-latin scripts. As far as on screen display is concerned, GNOME has really good support for complex scripts and the CJK languages (I personally consider the CTL support in GNOME to be one of the best in the FLOSS world). However, it is a real pity that printing has not caught up yet.
- Moreover, applications like GNOME CUPS Manager and Printman should be a part of the default desktop package - printing is something that a typical desktop user regulary does, and it should just work under GNOME.
- There should be at least one multimedia application in the official GNOME module list, which should follow the GNOME release cycle.
- A mouse cursor theme selector in the Themes chooser will be a welcome addition.
- Though the CD Creator location is quite visible now (Nautilus Menu -> Places -> CD Creator), the fonts:// location should really be given more prominence. It is a wonderful feature, and it is really terrible to see it wasted like that.
- Support for multi-session CD writing will be a really good feature to have in the Nautilus CD burner. (Bug #120384)
However, in spite of the above shortcomings, I would really like to
congratulate the GNOME hackers for a job well done. The last six months
have been exceptionally difficult for the GNOME community - with three
of some of the most active/enthusiastic members of the team passing
away in quick succession. Kudos to the developers and everyone who are
involved for creating such a great DE - you all rock, and as a lurking newbie
in the GNOME family, I can definitely say that March 22nd, 2004 will be a date
on Sprockets when we dance.
And to end it all, let me share with you the brand new default throbber/spinner for GNOME (sorry about the GIF). This thing rocks - many thanks to the GNOME Artmasters for coming up with this.
Copyright © 2004, Sayamindu Dasgupta (sayamindu (at) clai (dot) net).
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Linux is a registered Trademark of Linus Torvalds.
GNOME and the Foot logo are trademarks of the GNOME Foundation.
The throbber animation is a part of the GNOME Icon Theme Package.
All trademarks are property of their respective owners.
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