It’s time to talk about GNOME 3.6.
I’m more excited about this release than any since 3.0. The list of major updates is impressive: new message tray, updated Activities Overview, lock screen, integrated input sources, accessibility on by default, new Nautilus. Then there are all the small changes: new style modal dialogs, bags of improvements to System Settings, a new Empathy buddy list, SkyDrive support, natural scrolling, new backgrounds, an overhauled Baobab… the list goes on and on.
Make no mistake: 3.6 is a major upgrade to GNOME 3. I’ve been testing it for a while now, and switching away from my development environment feels like a big step down. A huge amount of work has gone into this release, and it has been targeted at key aspects of the GNOME 3 user experience. We’ve done a lot, and we’ve made our work count.
So, without any further ado, let’s look at a few of the bigger features in detail…
In conception, the GNOME 3 notifications system hits all the right points, in my opinion: give a non-intrusive indication when there is a new notification, let someone inspect it further and respond in place, and provide a place where notifications can be reviewed and interacted with.
There were, however, issues with the execution of the GNOME 3 notifications model. Accessing the tray was fiddly, the hot corner caused a lot of accidental triggers, and the action to close a notification bubble was also non-obvious. We observed all of these issues during testing, and it was something that we received a lot of feedback on. Well, we listened, and we came up with something better.
The new tray is clearer, better looking, and easier to interact with. It keeps the same schema in place, but it refines the execution so that it is less error-prone and more satisfying to use.
Instead of overlapping the viewing area, the new tray slides the view up, suggesting that it is in the background, beneath the normal plane of interaction. The items in the tray are also bigger, clearer, and don’t move around, making them easier to interact with.
The way that the tray is triggered has also been changed. The hot corner – which many people had problems with – has been replaced. Instead, the whole of the bottom screen edge now acts as a trigger area; letting the mouse rest there for a short period will cause the tray to appear. We plan to improve this behaviour in subsequent releases, so that a certain about of pressure against the screen edge is required to open the tray (we need to wait for changes down the stack before we can achieve this).
There are quite a few other changes to notifications included in 3.6. We’ve tweaked the behaviour of the notification popups to make sure that people don’t miss them. Close buttons have been added, and the online status of contacts is now indicated with an icon. Altogether, these should make the tray and notifications more effective and easier to use.
The Activities Overview has been evolving ever since development work began on GNOME 3, and it has been getting better with every release. 3.6 includes some significant changes in this area. In total, these changes result in the overview having greater integrity, as well as improved usability.
Applications can now be accessed using the grid button in the dash, rather than by clicking on the applications tab. This improves the layout of the overview, and enables us to highlight the all-important search bar. It also addresses an issue that we saw when observing people use GNOME 3, where the applications button sometimes went unnoticed.
These layout changes make a big difference to the overall experience.
This is a big one, and it is something that has been on the drawing board for a while. The lock screen has a single primary aim: to provide useful functionality when the screen is locked. Right now, this means we:
- show the time and date in nice big letters, so you can see it when not directly in front of the device
- allow pausing and skipping media playback, as well as changing the volume
- display notifications, so that you can see what is happening even if the device is locked, and you can get a summary of what you’ve missed when you return to your machine (you can turn this off if you have privacy concerns, and we plan to add extra configurability in the future)
You shouldn’t have to enter a password in order to pause a song that you are playing, and you shouldn’t have to dig around your machine to see what has happened while you are away. With the lock screen, you no longer have to.
The new lock screen also accomplishes several secondary goals. It creates a much smoother and more satisfying login experience. Creating the lock screen, we wanted to make something that feels nice to use, and which sets the tone for your encounter with the device. To that end, we’ve given the lock screen a nice, tactile quality. The screen is designed to resemble a curtain, or a shield, that is removed to reveal the login screen beneath. That suggestion of layering and physicality enhances the experience of using GNOME 3, and is a pattern that is being introduced in other places.
The input sources work that will be arriving in 3.6 marks a watershed for GNOME. In the past, if someone wanted to use a different input source for text input, such as inputting Japanese or Simplified/Traditional Chinese, they would have to rely on an add on, and the experience was usually poor and badly integrated. From 3.6, this will change: we’ve integrated input methods directly into GNOME. A range of input sources will be accessible from System Settings, just like any other language option, and will only take a few clicks to set up.
Making this kind of functionality Just Work is an important part of the GNOME project’s mission: usable, free software for everyone. It is also about taking responsibility. GNOME 3 should work for people using different languages. It is our job as a community to make sure that our technologies work for everyone, and to welcome new people into our community rather than leaving them to build their own solutions elsewhere.
The functionality that is arriving in 3.6 will be a platform for the future, and there is plenty of work still to do. It has involved some changes to the way that keyboard configuration happens in general. If you have tweaked your keyboard layout in the past, make sure that you check the release notes (when they arrive) for guidance on how this area has changed.
Accessibility on by default
This is another milestone, and is something that we have never managed to do in the whole of GNOME’s history. From 3.6, accessibility will be on by default. That means that the full range of assistive technologies will always be easily accessible. If you ever need a screen reader, it will be within reach.
Again, this is a big achievement which speaks to the values and the goals of the GNOME project. It is something that we have never managed to do before. GNOME is growing up.
Improved Files Application (aka Nautilus)
After a period of little change, Nautilus has got some serious attention this cycle. The list of new features is pretty awesome:
- Real search, that actually works!
- A new section showing recent files (not included in the screenshot here – I suck at building development software)
- Updated and improved UI, including a new toolbar and a much nicer sidebar
- Better content presentation, with new view defaults and less noisy date formats
- Improved menu organisation
- The titlebar is now hidden when the window is maximised, giving more screen space to the content
- New Move To and Copy To workflow, which provides a great alternative to drag and drop or cut/copy and paste
- Quick creation of new folders with the New Folder with Selection option
Some of these improves are huge wins for the user experience. The fact that we have gone so long without working file search is just embarrassing. Thankfully that is behind us now, and we can actually claim to have a modern file browser.
If you want more information about the rationale behind the changes to Files, check out Jon’s extensive blog post on the subject. Matthias has also written a nice piece about the history behind these changes.
There is plenty more that I could talk about for this release, but I’ll leave that job to the release notes. There’s actually one thing that I have been involved with and am sorely tempted to talk about (hint: it’s a new application), but should let the developers write about that.
This release shows how energetic the GNOME community is at the moment, and how focused they are on improving the GNOME 3 user experience. Seeing everything that’s going on makes me wonder which planet some of the doom-mongers are on. It’s certainly not a place I’m familiar with.