Shit. Utter unusable shit.

That was my real first impression, but that is not a tldr of the following screed. I'm about to be somewhat more charitable, although I'll say up front that my overall feeling is negative. After about a day of living with it, as I see no viable alternatives moving forward, I've carved out a desktop that I find somewhat livable. It's difficult to separate issues relating to the growing pains of moving to Gnome3, issues relating to Ubuntu's own Unity interface, and just general "new release" gremlins, and I've not had a long time with this dog food, nor any experience in another distro shipping Gnome3, so please forgive any misdiagnoses.

I decided to use Unity, because when I tried to install Gnome3 and use it in "classic" mode it was terrible. It displayed what seemed to be an unmovable date in middle of the top panel, which itself was nearly impervious to attempts to generate a context menu. After trying to switch back into a Unity session, it was hopelessly broken, Unity seemingly not starting at all as I was faced with only a Nautilus-drawn Desktop and a Gnome-Do prompt. I made the wrong choice a few times and just got fed up and reboot (none of my old faithful keyboard shortcuts like ctrl-alt-backspace seem to work anymore).

After re-installing the whole OS (and being very, very cross), I started to calm down and try to fix my problems with Unity. I could not believe I was being treated with such contempt that changing my fonts was not something immediately accessible in the appearance settings, but after installing a rather rudimentary looking gnome-tweak-tool, I managed to change most of the GTK settings I wanted to. I then found out that if I installed the Compiz configuration manager (which I was planning to anyway), I could fix the Unity sidebar so it would autohide (read: go the hell away) and stop looking like a game of Magical Drop. Although my modifications did not happen instantly as promised, a quick log-out & log-in fixed that as well as clashes with Gnome-Do's use of the super key.

Although I absolutely hated the out-of-box experience, I was now back to a simple screen that had a handfull of very good programs, a sane window switching & app launching policy, virtual desktops, some icons and most of the nice hardware abstraction I was used to. So things were actually looking okay.

GTK3 with the default themes Ubuntu ships looks alright, but GTK3 with the gnome3 default theme actually looks pretty great. The menus are incredibly clean and attractive. There are only a couple visual annoyances with it, first and foremost is that not every application is actually using it. Because of this, and because the nice new theme is quite different from clearlooks, it now looks like my desktop is a big ugly hodgepodge of toolkits. I guess it's sadly nothing new.

While I quite like the diet that the new scrollbars have taken (Yet another snipe off OSX), It's goddamn annoying that I have to hover, reveal some hidden handle that lives outside the application window, just to drag the bars, and that the option of clicking an intermediate space between the bars is no longer available. Finally, the resize handles on the default gnome theme are badly buggy. They show up as ugly white triangles on my terminals, obscuring text that dares approach, and in other applications lacking a status area they obscure icons and other widgets. Not sure who's to blame there.

The rest of the desktop is, well, a desktop. I don't have my really nice in-panel system monitors anymore, but I found an attractive text alternative. It seems that after about a few months of pain, many of the simple things have been ported.

The new indicator system in Unity seems (I'm not sure on this) to use a pretty simple indicator API that can be shared with other panel implementations; the sysmonitor is just a little python script, as is the attractive weather API. Perhaps a project like elementary will eventually design the desktop that I actually want; unfortunately, there are a few more quite ominous issues with Gnome3/Unity/Oneiric Ocelot.

Somewhat confusing is all of the really nice, attractive things people worked so hard to build that have been discarded. The old Gnome settings application was the source of near constant bike shedding until somehow everyone had the original idea to just copy Apple's. The new one feels sparsely populated; the icons are too small for the amount of negative space. There needs to be some borders or some region contrast or something; in my experience, going the last mile on your interface in GTK2 was an unending nightmare, but I hope the new foundations GTK3 is built upon will allow these types of embellishments to be more easily achieved.

The Ubuntu Software Center has a lot more thought put in to these types of things, although it's missing left and right padding on the "install" button area in package detail view which was quite distracting. It also just plain did not work with the google chrome beta package I downloaded; I eventually had to install it manually, which I'll probably just do from now on since synaptic has been discarded. I think they've also assumed a color scheme in the history pane, as the gray "installed" text goes invisible when I highlight and it doesn't change. It's a shame that the same care hasn't really found its way outside the "platform" ($$) drivers.

The worst part in all this, and something whose blame I'm led to believe lies at Gnome3's doorstep, is its inexplicable ruining of Gnome's virtual desktop paradigm. The first step in the process is removing the ability to decide on the number and layout of the virtual desktops at your disposal. Instead of allowing the user such awesome, destructive, confusing power, Gnome decides how many desktops you need, and dynamically adjusts the quantity and layout via some mysterious algorithm of unknown origin.

I was used to 3x2, but I could learn to live in the default 2x2. I only use 1x3 on my OSX laptop, which I'd actually prefer to 2x2, but since OSX virtual desktops are completely broken and useless, I'd trade my preferred layout for a working semantic model, provided that this would eventually bug enough people to the point where a solution would be created. Gnome3 is young, after all; only the major annoyances have been smoothed out yet.

Well, rather more unfortunately, the alt-tab model has also changed, and in fact there is no more strict concept of an application running within a window running within a desktop. Instead, the application is just running, and you have windows, which happen to be on one virtual desktop or another. Using the Compiz Scale (expose) plugin aggravatingly shows me windows from every desktop. The alt-tab thing was so egregious and annoying that, thankfully, there's at least a configuration option which sort-of fixes the behavior by sorting windows on the current workspace first.

Alt-tabbing doesn't quite mean the same thing as it used to, either. It brings up a nice little switcher, showing little icons of my running applications. Not windows, applications. If I have a chrome window and two terminals, I can no longer use alt-tab-tab to cycle between them. Since I work with many terminals and many Gvim windows, this new behavior is completely unwelcome. Although you can use alt-grave (`) to switch between an application's windows, this does not seem to actually cycle the current windows on the desktop.

Multi-monitor is clearly a second class citizen with this release, as there are some quite puzzling decisions. Gnome3 uses shared file menus, which bug me a lot less after lots of OSX usage. It's shared file menu is quite weird, and they piss on Fitz's law by making the top-left do absolutely nothing useful. In order to show the currently active application title in the shared menu bar, it's thrown onto the left, but has a faded cutoff so that the menus always come up in the same position. Unfortunately, on multi monitor, that's not true, because the menu for your application comes up on the monitor it's on. I'm not sure this is really a net positive; it does connect the menu with the window, but it makes keyboard window navigation really awkward.

But these menus are pretty useless, anyway. The applications I use are either menu-less, can become menu-less, or only have unnecessary and infrequently used options in menus. What's more puzzling is the decision to copy all of the indicator applets across both top menu bars. All of these applets go on the end of your gtk menu bars, since those are anchored in a thin strip at the top as on OSX (or any other implementation of this, to be fair), but they're copied over both screens. It's a lot of panel real estate that's awkwardly wasted on displaying the same information.

Beyond this, there are just some odd behavioral quirks. The Scale plugin I spoke of earlier only shows windows on one screen, which would get cluttered even if it worked properly and only showed windows on the current workspace. When I switch to an empty virtual desktop, it gets a menu on both screens.

I understand developing software like this is a thankless pain in the ass. I understand that weird-poweruser-programmer guy might not be your number one priority when you're struggling to get past half a percentage point install base for your 3rd year in a row. But where's the platform going?

They've got a lot of interesting and original usability things going in the new Unity and Gnome3 shells, but the actual desktop semantics; the way you run and interact with applications, it's an express train to OSX land, and they've decided to adopt OSX's biggest weaknesses first. Imitation as flattery, independent invention; whatever the cause, the effect is plain to see. Instead of a better version of Ubuntu 10.10, what I feel like I've installed here is a poor version of OSX. Which is sad.. I really preferred Ubuntu 10.10 to OSX, because the semantic issues above are workflow destroyers that have no workarounds.

Gone are most of the things I preferred about Gnome, and in are none any of the things I prefer about OSX: great font rendering, a consistent visual excellence and attention to detail, and software so solid it's nearly tangible. They've spent a lot of time on these new toys, and because of that they've fixed absolutely none of the annoying-yet-easily-fixable problems with the distribution that have been there since 10.10: nVidia's configuration tool still chokes on the default xorg config, there's still no way of closing growl-esque notifications with the mouse; or added new ones, like gvim completely hanging with some ibus related issue that was fixed months ago in Fedora. Or sometimes, when I click on indicators, the menu persists for me to explore, and sometimes it just goes away and I have to click-and-hold.

OSX has something to offer a Linux user, even if a lot of it can be unpleasant. Ubuntu used to have something to offer an OSX user, too; it probably still does, but with its window management advantages gone it's become a close call which box I'd rather work on. I hope they can recapture some of these advantages as their base platform (gnome3) and their addon platform (Unity, but also all of this cloud nonsense I wish I could disable completely) continues to mature, and features which have just been wholesale thrown away are re-introduced.

Or, that the Elementary guys take their heads out of their ass, stop developing a web browser and email client (in 2011) no one needs, and focus on making an amazing desktop experience for the coming rush of Ubuntu refugees.

Oct 14 2011