Utilizing GNOME on Linux, Really?

I think we’ve had enough of Gnome’s walled garden “ideology”

Gnome on Linux

Before you all get the torches and pitchforks, let me say my piece about Gnome on Linux.

I don’t “hate” GNOME on Linux, but the walled garden is real.

GNOME 3 is one of those desktop environments with a spotty history. Now, I’m not saying that KDE or XFCE haven’t had their share of problems, they most certainly have. I’m also not saying that GNOME shouldn’t be used, that’s not my view, nor what this article is trying to push. So don’t expect this article to be “Utilizing GNOME on Linux, Really? What are you, stupid? KDE FTW!” because that’s simply not happening here.

So, before I receive comments about how I know nothing about what I’m talking about (which is perfectly fine), or that I’m simply a KDE fanboy (Also fine, since I am biased towards that DE and use it daily, even on my Steam Deck), do realize that I actually use a variety of desktop environments (including GNOME on my laptop) and there’s no deep-seated hatred towards GNOME or their development team. That being said, this is going to be an opinion piece based upon my own experiences and views.

With that out of the way, let’s get into it…

GNOME’s touchscreen-first design is extremely annoying

GNOME is single-handedly one of the most annoying desktop environments I have ever used. “Why?”, you may ask. Well, the answer lies deeper than just bugs or obtuse features, of which KDE has both. The answer lies in the design philosophy and this weird obsession with creating a touchscreen-friendly OS.

A good look at the ‘default’ GNOME experience

I believe that GNOME’s whole design concept didn’t actually start as a push to embrace touchscreens, something that I think started with the Ubuntu Touch project. I believe that there were a lot of people that wanted to update the GNOME 2 desktop but enjoyed the MacOS experience and wanted something similar for Linux.

GNOME 3 in its early days definitely looked like a MacOSX clone.

Now, though, GNOME has definitely become more touch-centric over the years, with icons and buttons becoming larger and more grouped for easier accessibility, and the interface as a whole being adapted for using gestures more easily.

I do think GNOME looks extremely pretty, but could certainly be more functional.

It’s not perfect, and arguably the only company that’s come close to that seamless touch experience is Apple, who have the funds to just throw a couple million at UI/UX development and call it a day. GNOME, while it does receive support from several notable companies, doesn’t get nearly the same amount of funding.

Even I’ll admit that Apple’s MacOS UI is extremely smooth and inviting.

But, why is the whole premise of GNOME 3 seemingly built upon what seems like a singular feature? How many people are using their screens for browsing their OS instead of a mouse and keyboard? I remember that 12 years ago people were stating that touchscreens were “The next big thing for desktops and laptops,” yet at least 90% of the people I see either at work or in my personal life hardly ever use a touchscreen outside of the food industry and cashiers.

AIOs still come with a keyboard and mouse for the majority of control. Remember those touchscreen keyboards that were shown off everywhere at CES? They’re certainly not taking the market by storm. And Windows 8 was such a let down, Microsoft immediately made 8.1 and got rid of Metro entirely with Windows 10.

This honestly was such a stupid idea for desktops at the time.

Don’t get me wrong, touch is great for mobile devices or drawing tablets, or for accessibility features for people who have reduced motor functions. I’m not saying that it’s not a useful feature; what I’m saying isn’t useful is building your desktop environment for touchscreens when the majority of your users don’t utilize said feature.

To Extend Or NOT To Extend…

It used to be common in the Linux world that if you didn’t like a function, or it was missing, you could look at the code and easily write a plugin or extension to fit that problem, which you could then access from settings built into said desktop environment. Desktops have had these abilities to extend and customize by utilizing built-in plugin managers for decades.

Not so with GNOME anymore: you now need to install a ‘GNOME-Shell-Integration’ plugin in your web browser and simply install the ‘Extension List’ plugin to be able to access them in your top bar. Yes, it’s a nitpick to some, and a small one to others. But for a desktop environment that’s trying to be this cohesive, I find it extremely weird that this isn’t built into GNOME by default like it was before.

The Extension Manager by Matt Jakeman is another solution that people have come up with to manage their GNOME extensions.
Meanwhile, anything you need for new KDE scripts or extensions is built right into settings.

This is one of my more critical points of GNOME. In pursuit of a more unified experience, they’ve left behind two important components of the Linux desktop: customization and extensibility. These are core concepts adopted by Linux which people move away from Windows to embrace.

Another thing I find funny in a way is when I constantly see pictures posted on Reddit or blogs that showcase a number of extensions for GNOME that turn it from a more pure experience to something more akin to either Cinnamon or KDE.

GNOME with ‘Arc Menu’ & ‘Dash To Panel’ extensions
Cinnamon Desktop

Now, it’s far beyond my reach to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do with their desktop environment. Go ahead and turn Mate into a fully tileable experience, that’s your right to do so. But I do find it extremely interesting that with how many people complain about KDE’s more traditional desktop, there’s tons upon tons of others that turn their GNOME experience into just that: a more traditional experience.

Less Isn’t Always “More”

When I use GNOME, one of the first things I do is get my desktop icons back. And to be completely honest, it’s far more of a pain than it really has any right being for newer users. You have to install a shell extension for this, and if the shell extension breaks (which it has before) then say goodbye to your usable desktop.

If the devs at GNOME want to make it extremely simple and still keep the whole cohesive design, there’s an easy solution. There should be a singular radio button in ‘Desktop Settings’ that’s titled “Icons on Desktop”. Have it off by default, and include a slide for it on the GNOME ‘Tour’ when you first install the desktop environment.

Even MacOS Big Sur allows icons on the desktop by dragging and dropping

To me, this is inexcusable and clearly a thought of ‘form over function’. The desktop is there for everything to be in a singular place for ease of access; it isn’t there to simply be a pretty wallpaper. I still have a couple of desktop shortcuts on my monitors to quickly launch something or other. Do I use them all the time? No. Should I get that option? Absolutely.

I’m actually completely surprised that GNOME doesn’t have anything like KDE’s Folder View by default.

Folder View allows you to view entire folders on your desktop and group icons accordingly for organization, such as game icons or other folders you access a lot, even network shares.

If they had a nice comprehensive way to view folders when you double clicked on the desktop in a organized way, that would make so much more sense than locking down and not supporting anything on the desktop at all. Supposedly, GNOME’s whole thing is about minimizing wasted space, but how come I have to have 90% of my monitor as wasted space on the desktop then?

I honestly just prefer when my desktop is balancing form and function. I can have an awesome wallpaper and still have icons on it to use for my workflow.

Nautilus Is Too Simple

One of the most lackluster features in the GNOME toolset is Nautilus, or “Files,” as it’s sometimes called in the GNOME ecosystem.

While I understand the concept (and I will state that Nautilus fails in the regard of making things ‘Easy’ for the intermediate or expert users), simply trying to access the address bar and realizing that it’s not accessible by default means is a major blow to the usefulness of this file browser. (The shortcut is Ctrl+L)

Before people get upset, I do actually like the simple aspect of Nautilus, just not the reduced functionality.

The lack of context menus for what are essentially 2 click tasks in other file browsers also really gets on my nerves. Now, you can fix this with the XDG Templates directory, but I thought that this was supposed to be easily usable by new users not familiar with Linux. KDE users have to edit files in a similar manner. Meanwhile, Thunar allows ‘Custom Actions’, something I didn’t try before but is actually super well-integrated into the file browser.

No extensions necessary, Thunar supports adding custom actions to your context menus.

And this isn’t just a GNOME issue, but a KDE one as well. Why there hasn’t been an auto-builder built-in for *.desktop files is frankly beyond me. They aren’t hard to make once you learn how, but with how poorly Windows 11 adoption is going, you’d think that maybe some feedback from new users would be addressed.

Conclusion

By now, I’m sure there’s going to be seething comments and those that will say “Use whatever you want, that’s the beauty of Linux” but when we’re seeing companies like RHEL sponsor GNOME, a lot of money is flowing into that project (certainly more than KDE, Mate, LXDE/Qt or XFCE).

And that warrants some criticisms not applicable to these others. Listen, like I said before, I don’t “hate” GNOME, not at all. But I certainly don’t love this approach that feels awfully similar to how we were hacking Windows to conform to what we wanted. Every release, it just feels like the walls are closing in more and more.

Which is a complete shame honestly, because if some of these problems were fixed off the bat, GNOME would probably beat KDE in terms of functionality. But really, it just feels like the GNOME Foundation has lost its way over the past 10 years, and that’s not something I enjoy writing.

But hey, at least we have Unity back…

Thanks so much for reading this article, enjoy the rest of your day!

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