New trends in Linux desktop UIs

win95Menu-WordAs I see there is a solid movement to reform the user interfaces that are in use in our computers. After all the menu bars with a start menu are on the mainstream desktops since the win95/OS2 era. And the programs can be started using icons on the desktop and the start menu. For the ones who know what they are looking for there is also a command line. And there is a task bar to switch your running applications. But things ought to change with time, shouldn’t they?

On Linux (Ubuntu) first there was a movement to make things fancier than on Windows. Compiz made a huge visual improvement but has not really changed anything. Having your desktop on a cube and spinning it around is particularly fancy, but not really useful.

Taking the ideas from MacOS X a couple of dock style window navigators popped up. Avant Window Navigator, Cairo Dock or Docky theme of the gnome-do (more about that later) These are really nice looking, but have no added value compared to standard application switcher that I see.

gnome-shellThe path gnome 3.0 is taking is quite different, it completely replaces the taskbar, with a live miniature based desktop switcher. It is activated with a hot-spot for mouse/thouchpad users, or a hotkey (Super) for those who don’t want to leave the keyboard.¬† You can switch to running apps with a single click, if unsure which window you want to see, you can use the wheel to zoom on the window before changing.

Personally I like it, and I’ve been using it on my laptop for weeks now. Why not on my desktop? Well, there is a catch. It requires working 3d acceleration to use. This rules out quite a few cards, all legacy nvidia and ati cards have issues. Basically it’s only Intel I’ve heard it works properly. Unfortunately there are no plans to support legacy cards. So for those hardware one will have to switch to icewm or kde based desktops.

There is more to desktop software than switching, after all you must start your applications before switching them. Are there improvements in that over the start menu?

First there is the intelligent start menu you find in Linux SuSe and Mint. It’s a lot like XP, where the most frequently applications are remembered and the menu provides you with that on opening. This is a change compared to the classic start menu, and is quite helpful. Unless of course you don’t quite where you find the application you are looking for in the menu. What can help there?

Both the upcoming gnome-shell and the gnome-do add-on provide an excellent, find as you type style interface, this greatly helps you finding the application you might want to start. It is quite basic in gnome-shell yet, and is only useful for finding applications and preferences with names and descriptions containing the characters typed. Gnome-do however is more advanced, it can be extended with plugins, that search in your IM’s contact list, recent documents, etc. This greatly speeds up application startup. I heard there are plans to integrate the gnome-do capabilities in gnome-do and I really welcome the idea.

On the whole I see the usability of the gnome-shell is the best enhancement in the past few years, and I really hope those wrinkles I meet every day will soon be eliminated.

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