A Hardcore KDE User Shelves Pride, Switches to GNOME With an Open Mind
I've always absolutely loved KDE for the the last 8-9 years, and generally stayed away from GNOME. I disagreed with a lot of their philosophy and I cannot say I was a fan of their plans for libadwaita. However, it's been quite some time and I'm starting to try to be open minded for once. I want to experience GNOME for what it is, and see how well it works. I'm hoping that anyone else who's like me and is curious to see what's going on over on the other side of the DE world will be brave enough to take a chance and try it out.
tl;dr? I think I like GNOME, and I think I'll be staying on it. That's not to say I don't have complaints, but overall the experience has been surprisingly great.
These are my expansive notes.
My Setup & My Needs
To do this I decided I'd make sure I was on the latest of everything. Here's what I'm running:
- Arch Linux
- Zen Kernel
- GNOME Stable
- Lenovo Thinkbook 13s Gen 2 AMD
- Ryzen 4800U
- 16 GB RAM
- 512GB NVME
- 13.3" 16:10 1920×1200 Screen
- Obviously no TB3, but Type C port carries DP and works great with a docking station.
Here are my needs from my computer as whole (including OS/distro/kernel/DE/whatever you'd like):
- Reliable (obviously!)
- Smooth transitions and animations (I'm very sensitive/easily annoyed by choppiness in animations)
- Great font rendering
- Able to run Chrome, Spotify, Telegram, VS Code (OSS or otherwise)
- Able easily tile my monitor into thirds (on External display, I use a 38" 3840×1600 display…being able to tile a window centered in the middle of the screen is very important)
It was fine. To be fair, this is more of an Arch thing, not a GNOME thing. I've been using Arch for more than a decade, so I can install it in my sleep. No issues here.
Side Note For Those Interested: The most recent Arch install ISOs include something called
archinstall (a command you simply run from the live cd terminal) and it guides you through the entire process. It was incredibly easy to use and let me select a preset to install the GNOME desktop in its entirety. I have never used an Arch "installer" before now but I have to say, it was my first time trying it and it worked flawlessly, taking care of lots of things I'd normally do manually (bog-standard partition setup, full package installs for different desktops, directly installing only the Linux Zen kernel (and not installing the base kernel at all), etc). It's always better to understand the install process manually, but if you haven't tried it, I strongly recommend you do!
Things I Love
Here's a list of things I am (surprisingly even myself here) very, very fond of with GNOME:
Default desktop experience is smooth and uncluttered: Getting started was nice and straight forward. META for an application launcher, top right for Settings accessibility, all working great. The last time I used GNOME was right around the switch from 2 to 3 (and 3 was why I stopped using GNOME altogether). I'm pleased to see that its all fairly intuitive.
Adwaita looks great: I have to give credit to Adwaita, it looks great. I particularly like how well Product Sans (the font) pairs with it, as seen in my About screen:
Login Screen + Lock Screen are great: It seems weird to have an opinion on the login screen and the lock screen, but I do; they look excellent. Very minimal, just what you need, nothing you don't. That's not to say that I think KDE's login/lock are worse! But I like the style, I like the subtle swipe up animations, and something about that vertical sliding animation between showing you the clock and showing you the password entry (on the lockscreen) I just find very, very pleasant.
Stock wallpapers…surprisingly beautiful!: I have to say, the stock provided wallpapers actually look fantastic. And I really like that they have day/night cycles for all the built in ones.
Docking station hotplugging is flawless, even on Wayland: This greatly surprised me. I don't know why I was skeptical, possibly because it's still a bit wonky on Plasma Wayland, but it handles hotplugging like a champ, and extremely fast. My docking station includes an ultrawide display, wired keyboard, wireless mouse, USB microphone, USB webcam, and Analog audio that presents itself as USB audio. Doesn't matter how many times I plug in and unplug, it all transfers over very nicely.
Gestures Are Incredible: GNOME has flatout nailed touchpad gestures. Unequivocally. I use a Macbook Pro for work and I felt right at home. Three finger gestures are wonderful and truly follow your fingers. You don't realize how nice this is until your workflow involves "peeking" over at another workspace and being able to slide your fingers just far enough to see part of another desktop, and then letting go to spring back to what you want. KDE has gestures but they are not configurable right now and don't use natural scrolling (something that GNOME does by default which I really like). I do something similar to the screenshot all the time:
GNOME Terminal is highly competent for my needs: GNOME terminal works great. I was not super happy that the process of adding a custom color scheme requires you to use scripts and clone profiles (Konsole has dedicated .colorscheme files), but Gogh made that process extremely easy for me. My preferred font and setup (JetBrains Mono + ZSH Powerlevel10k) look great:
GNOME Tweaks came preinstalled for me and worked great: I realize this may be a property of my Arch install, and not something that is standard on GNOME, but it let me change the interface/monospace fonts to what I wanted (Product Sans and JetBrains Mono). My font choice works great with most apps (like Nautilus):
I love the OSD: Volume/brightness/mic/etc on-screen displays were delightfully minimal and informative. Great design aesthetic.
Things I Wish Were Better
I also want to share things that I truly feel could be better. Some of these I've solved or at least mitigated with extensions, some are not truly a big deal, and some are absolutely specific to me. If you have suggestions, I'm definitely available.
Nautilus is frustrating: I tried. I tried my hardest to be okay with Files, as I knew this would be a sore spot for me. I realize that Dolphin is a difficult standard to compare by, but not having split window has made my file management very, very annoying. I don't find dual windows to be an acceptable trade off because that requires me to set up a workspace just for two file manager windows, and I don't think I quite like that.
I also found it annoying to find folders/files while viewing directories; I'm used to being able to simply type the first few characters of what I'm looking for and finding it, doesn't seem to be here.
Lastly, I really, really dislike that I don't have a good search functionality in here; the search that does pop up doesn't seem to limit itself to the current directory but searches all directories. This is just really unpleasant and unintuitive for me. It feels like the only way Nautilus proves to be useful is if you already carefully organize your files in a very specific way and for better or worse, I don't do that (and with file managers like Dolphin, that rarely seems to be a problem).
I want to point out that I realize there are other file managers. I've avoided using most of them for two very good reasons:
- I'm trying to stay open-minded and stay within the GNOME ecosystem of apps. I especially want to try to stay in the GTK realm as much as possible.
- Most of the alternative aesthetically pleasing GTK3/4 based File Managers that have these kinds of features are either out of date, require me to pull in a ton of dependencies for other desktop environments (like I can't seem to install Nemo without pulling in Cinnamon), or don't quite do what I'm looking for.
If there is an alternative GTK3/4 File Manager that at least has split window, I'd be very interested! This is easily the single-worst and most detracting part of GNOME 42 that I've experienced so far, and it really bums me out.
Window management got irritating very quickly: I understand GNOME's reasoning for not wanting tray icons, and I'm trying to respect it. However, what was getting really annoying for me very fast was window management. I get that the new paradigm is that nothing needs to be minimized anymore, but that just isn't true. I solved this with Dash to Panel, but I really wish I didn't have to use an extension for it.
- I use Spotify during the entire day. In KDE and MacOS, I can minimize it either to a task bar/dock, or to a tray. It doesn't take up any space. In GNOME, by default, there is no taskbar, and there is no try. If an app is open, it will be fully visible and that's that. The only option you have is to close the window.
- If I Alt Tab through open windows, it raises all windows of the same program to the front. If you've got two applications each with 1 window open, you don't notice this. But if I have multiple (like 3) terminal windows open in a workspace and I also have a single browser window open, and I want to go back and forth between the one terminal window and the browser window, every time I press ALT + Tab to go from browser to terminal, all the terminal windows get raised to the front (with the focus being put in the last used window). This means that if I want to Alt Tab to a terminal while reading something in the browser in the background, I have to ensure that none of the other inactive terminal windows will block the view because I can't just raise one window of an application to the front. It's either everything or nothing. You know what would solve this? Being able to minimize (but not being forced to close) terminal windows I don't need right just now but want to keep open for quick use later.
I wish there was a "Maximize to new workspace" function: In MacOS, if I maximize an application using the window button, it automatically gets maximized in a brand new workspace in fullscreen mode. I don't need to think about what workspace it goes to or plan it or anything. Later, changing the order in which my workspaces show up is as simple as click and drag (GNOME shell does have this click and drag feature). I know I can use CTRL + SHIFT + ALT + arrow key to move a window to a new workspace, and then use META + Up to maximize it. That's the workaround for now, but it feels a bit clunky.
The screenshot experience is poor: I have a very simple workflow where I like to take screenshots, sometimes of just certain windows, quickly obfuscate personal info, and copy to clipboard. This works great on my work mac (Greenshot), and works great with Spectacle (KDE). However, on GNOME, while the screenshot utility is nice looking (and I think it's super cool that it has a screen recorded integrated ), I have no option to annotate the screenshot.
Based on my understanding of the screenshot portal, the screenshot tools takes the screenshot and then can "hand it off" to a different program? If this is the case, while tedious, I guess I understand (especially if its a security concern), but I wish that the screenshot portal would ask me if I wanted to take a region, window, or full screen shot every time, because I often need regional and window-based screenshotting a lot more often than I need full-screen shots.
Thus, any screenshots you see in this post were taken with GNOME screenshots, but edited elsewhere. Just a bit of a bummer.
Extensions were unavoidable for me: When I first sat down, I tried to see how much I could make things work without resorting to extensions. I generally prefer to stick with what comes with a DE as I feel like I can count on it to be better integrated and longer supported than anything else.
I will list all the extensions I am using (and I want to note, they're all pretty fantastic), but it makes me highly uneasy that a system update could knock out an extension that becomes a core part of my workflow, disrupting me until it gets updated and forcing me to choose between workflow and software/security updates.
Finding my wireless network was difficult: I live in an apartment, and as such, am surrounded by 30+ wireless networks in every direction. In KDE, I can filter through the list of detected networks to find mine, but in GNOME, I had to go scroll-hunting. A small filter to look for your network would go a long way! ;). Granted, I only had to do this once when I first installed.
Changing sound devices was very tedious: Because of my docking station, I often change sound devices (on purpose, not to try to "fix" anything) to account for different listening/recording situations. In KDE, this was very simple and in the little taskbar applet. In GNOME, I need to open the system settings every time I want to do this. I solved this with a GNOME extension (see below).
System clocks render with a weird "triple dot colon" because of my font: I love Product Sans as a font. What I don't love is that in GNOME, the colon separator when you change the font to my font becomes a vertical ellipsis (this character – ⋮) instead of what it should be (this character – :). I don't know how to fix this, but it is a bit of a bummer. Especially on the very large lockscreen clock. KDE didn't seem to have a problem with this? I'm going to guess that GNOME shell isn't actually using a colon character in the time, and perhaps it maps to something different in my font than it does in Cantarell. This is something I'll probably just get used to.
Despite my feeling of unease using extensions that might break, I have to admit that there were some great extensions I found that I wanted to suggest for anyone looking to try it out:
Dash To Panel: Phenomenal extension, lots of great tools, and the stock preset was so good it's probably enough to convince my mother to stop using Windows.
Unblank lock screen: This is a fascinating little extension with a very singular purpose; to not immediately turn off the screen just because you lock it. I fully understand the workflow of "well, the user is locking their screen, it implies they're going to walk away so we might as well turn the screen off". I just really like the way the lockscreen looks, and I like that it becomes a really nice, readable clock that I can see from anywhere in my apartment, so I leave it on. It has the option to immediately turn off the screen when on battery, but not do it when on AC, and even then, you can set a timeout of 30min or more when you do want to eventually blank the screen.
Impatience: So the original purpose of this extension was to speed up general GNOME animations, but it also allows you to slow them down. I really like animations, so I have it set to about 1.25x and it does what I want it to.
Tactile: This lets you set custom tiling zones and very intuitive hot keys to use them. It was essential for making my Ultrawide monitor useful, strongly recommend if you have any kind of ultrawide monitor (or frankly, even if you don't). It also lets me have multiple "layouts", so I have a different layout to tile against on my monitor and a different layout to tile against on my laptop screen.
Sound Input & Output Chooser: This accomplishes what I wanted in the way of being able to quickly switch audio input/output devices from the top-right menu.
Brightness control using ddcutil: Awesome extension that (provided you've set up ddcutil properly and for non-root-user usage) will allow you to change your external monitor's actual brightness (as though you were doing so using the monitor's own OSD) in the same way you change it on a laptop. You can either use keyboard shortcuts, or the same brightness slider you'd use on a laptop. Good stuff.
Blur My Shell: This is a wonderful and ridiculous extension that lets you add blurring to key elements of your GNOME shell. It's got tons of configuration options and works perfectly with Dash to Panel, and my Dash to Panel remains blurred and translucent but turns solid if I maximize a window. Great stuff.
I'm glad I put aside my pride and gave GNOME a try. It's so far been a good experience. I find myself still puzzled at best and annoyed at worst at some decisions the GNOME team has made (and in some cases, I have an even deeper sympathy for those who complain) about certain things, such as Files.
But the change has been refreshing and I'm going to tag along with you all for a couple of releases to see where GNOME goes.
Thanks for reading through all of this!