The pace of change that we are managing to achieve within the 3.x series is impressive, and is a credit to the hard work and dedication of the GNOME community. In this post I’m going to describe some of the new GNOME 3.8 features that I’m particularly excited about, with a bias towards things that I’ve been involved in. I’ll also try to give a bit of background on the designs of each of these features. As always, you’ll have to wait for the release notes to find out everything that has been improved.
New applications view
This is one of the most noticeably changes included in GNOME 3.8. With previous versions, if you wanted to launch an application from the Activities Overview, you were confronted with a big grid containing all your application launchers. This could often be a bit overwhelming, and finding the application that you wanted was difficult.
The new design seeks to overcome previous limitations and to take the work out of browsing for an application. It has a few elements. First, the frequent applications tab seeks to provide a fast and easy way to launch those applications that you use a lot. One of the really nice things about this is that it is all automatic: the user does not have to do anything to enable it or to update it to changes in how they work.
The second part of the new applications view is the “All” part, which includes a couple of predefined application folders. These folders contain some of the less interesting applications (such as accessories or system utilities) and helps to lower the number of applications that are in the top-level grid. Finding applications and exploring the system for the first time is made much easier as a result.
Improved window selection
This isn’t a big new feature, but it is something that makes a huge difference to the overall GNOME 3 experience. It’s actually something that I’ve been pushing for a while, and which took a lot of work to refine the layout logic. The original bug report that we used to track this work closed with 204 comments! There were also plenty of other bugs that were fixed through the effort to improve this part of the user interface.
So what have we done? First and most importantly, we have made the window thumbnails in the Activities Overview much, much bigger. This sounds like a small change but the effect is dramatic, and it makes this part of GNOME 3 massively more effective and useful. The other thing we have done is scaled the window thumbnails so they reflect the actual size of the windows themselves. Before, all the thumbnails were roughly the same size, and this made it difficult to identify some windows. If you use a lot of unmaximised windows of different shapes and sizes, the new behaviour will be especially welcome.
Search has long been one of GNOME 3’s strongest features. Pressing the super (aka windows) key and typing is an incredibly effective way to access applications and content. Since 3.6 it has also been possible for 3rd party applications to provide their own search results, and this is used by Files, Contacts, Boxes and Documents to allow you to access a range of content using a single search.
For 3.8 we have reworked GNOME 3’s integrated search functionality to make extensibility much more central. The new search results view looks great and is much better suited to aggregated results from multiple sources. We have also added a search section to Settings, which allows you to control which applications provide results, as well as the order that they appear in.
These changes are pretty important, in that they will allow applications to integrate with GNOME 3’s integrated search functionality. We’re expecting more and more applications to start using this, so that search becomes an increasingly powerful way to access content.
Last cycle we introduced integrated Input Methods into GNOME (using the iBus framework). One of the goals for this was to make it easy for newcomers to set up input methods, and to provide an overall better experience when inputting different languages. Since it was the first iteration for this work, the emphasis was on basic integration.
Since then, we’ve been listening to feedback, and we’ve been taking the opportunity provided by having a single integrated input methods framework to make a number of enhancements. There’s a lot of nice new features and lots of polish that have gone into this area for 3.8: we have a new input method switcher OSD (pictured above) and new character selection popups, and there’s a new Region & Language settings panel which makes adding and removing input methods easier. It’s really satisfying to see input method integration starting to pay off.
Massive amounts bug fixing and polish
Another reason to be excited about 3.8 is the sheer quantity of bug fixing that has happened this cycle. The effort to track and resolve the most serious bugs and to add that extra level of polish has been pretty impressive this cycle, and we have been pushing to get the quality level as high as possible for the release.
Every Detail Matters had its most successful round for 3.8. I was blown away by the number of fixes and small enhancements that were committed. Right now I count a total of 56 bugs fixed through that initiative alone. Some of these include some of the most obvious bugs we’ve had in GNOME 3 since it was first released.
Some of the fixes included in 3.8 are really nice usability enhancements. One area that deserves special mention is the use of pressure sensitivity for the hot corner and for triggering the Message Tray. This required a decent chunk of work in the X Server, which was undertaken by Jasper St Pierre. The result is fewer accidental triggers and a faster way to open the tray using a pointing device.
One of the things I’ve found when testing 3.8 is that it feels much more satisfying to use. Little things like the new hover effect for window thumbnails, or the nice new transitions we have in the Activities Overview simply make the experience much more enjoyable. I find myself wanting to use features just because they look so great.
Roll on release day!
There is obviously much more to 3.8 than what I have described here (such as all the Settings work which I blogged about recently). Nevertheless, this post should hopefully make it clear how much work has gone into this release and how much GNOME 3 is improving.