She sells sea shells

Unity isn’t the only desktop environment that Ubuntu has. There are many and as they said, Unity is a shell for Gnome but it is not Gnome-Shell. I have been using Unity for a few years now and figured I would have a bit of a play with Gnome Shell for a bit. It is very easy to install, on Ubuntu clicking here: gnome-shell will with a bit of luck set it up for you. At the lightdm login screen you can then select gnome shell from the list of desktops and you are done.

Shell has two modes, normal and overview, and you get to the overview mode by hitting the super key (that is the one with the anticompetitive Microsoft advert on it in all probability). Overview mode allows you to see a launcher on the left (a lot like the unity launcher) and a workspace switcher on the right which flips workspaces for your primary monitor only, secondary monitor stays static, which actually works rather well for me, I prefer the 1 dimensional list of workspaces to the 2×2 grid that unity has by default. Also in overview mode at the bottom of the screen is a notification area, where you can see notifications that have happened, I like this too. Notifications seem to have a good balance between being ephemeral and reviewable, plus when you click on notifications in shell you actually get to the thing that made them – so you get a notification about an email and decide to go read it, click the notification and you activate Thunderbird rather than having to go and find it yourself. The menu bar  has cool looking speech bubble menus on the indicators and best of all it has an accessibility indicator in the menu bar so it is easy to turn on the various interesting assitive tools we have.  There isn’t a global menu which is great, after two years of using it I never really understood the benefit or got used to having the menu in a different place to the thing it belongs to. Overall it seems quite polished, quite productive to use and really rather pleasant.

So this is all rather fun, but is there cool stuff I am missing out on? I can see the HUD has gone, and the dash with it’s lenses and omni-global super search. Or are they? Gnome shell has extensions and they can do rather a lot. I haven’t seen a HUD extension yet, but I think that would be entirely possible. As for Lenses, well yes, they are absolutely there, have a look at the Wikipedia search provider. You type stuff in overview mode and as you type it searches both your local applications and Wikipedia, returning article summaries that you can click on to open them fully in the browser. When running gnome-shell you can install the extension right from that web page with a little slider control, it then automatically downloads (into ~/.local/share/gnome-shell/extensions) and starts working, no sudo access required as it is just your session, and you opted into it personally as these are not installed system-wide (you probably can install them system-wide by putting them somewhere else). They are written in Javascript and have quite a lot of control over the user interface and can do all kinds of things, in fact looking at the capabilities of extensions it strikes me that pretty much all of the Unity features could be re-implemented as gnome-shell extensions. Right now I am mostly interested in extending the search provider area and the overlap of that with lenses. I want to see if the gnome-shell approach has the same problems as Unity with regards to privacy or different ones. I have been doing a bit of tinkering and in the next post I should have something to show.


  • elvisd says:


    me too I installed in the last days gnome-shell just to look where is it going.
    I tried GS at the beginning and I liked it so-so.
    This time I must admit I’m rather impressed with it.
    I had to the idea to write a post but you anticipated me. :P

    I’ll write it in italian, anyway.
    Kindly elvisd

  • Taryn Fox says:

    GNOME Shell actually uses a global menu. Many native GNOME apps have menus that you can get to by clicking the name of the app in the upper-left, next to the Activities button. Some of them also have a “Chrome wrench” style menu separately.

    I really like the menu button thing, as it reminds me of Android and also keeps windows from being cluttered with hard-to-click-on menu options. If you don’t know it’s there, though, you might have trouble finding it, so I recommend mentioning it in any overview of GNOME Shell for newbies.

    There are also a few extra steps to getting a vanilla GNOME Shell install set up, such as using the tweak tool (installed separately) to change the theme to Adwaita, and installing Evolution and GNOME Documents.

    • Alan Bell says:

      Thanks Taryn, great points. I do kind of like my Thunderbird but I might give Evolution another go, it was a bit rubbish on smaller screens last time I tried it, but now I don’t have any small screens. I am not a huge fan of inconsistent menus either. I think they should all be exported through a common API and then the window manager can do app menus, wrench menus, global menus, HUD style search menus or whatever else comes along.

  • Bernd says:

    I wrote a search provider extension a while ago:

    In contrast to Ubuntu it’s very easy to push your app into I also wrote the same extension for Ubuntu and I’m still waiting (since beginning of 2012) to see my app in the software center. But at least you find the lens in the repository on the command line (sudo apt-cache search unity-lens-sshsearch)

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