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Ximian GNOME 1.4: The Monkey Has Landed: The Ximian Desktop Experience - page 2

What You Get With Ximian GNOME

  • May 3, 2001
  • By Michael Hall

We won't spend a lot of time with Nautilus, having reviewed it shortly after its release. The version in included, 1.0.2, felt more responsive than where we left it, and a few bugs that crashed components now and then seem to have been resolved. The built-in HTML-rendered access to man and info pages seemed to be a little speedier as well. Though we still ended up turning off a lot of the eye-candy features (such as anti-aliased text and image thumbnailing), we were left feeling much better about its inclusion after a little use. We do, however, think it was a good move on Ximian's part to include access to GNOME Midnight Commander (gmc) for those who are comfortable with it or want something demonstrably faster and more capable in some areas (such as virtual filesystem browsing).

We also noticed some change in performance depending on the distribution we ran it on (our Debian install seemed a little more sluggish) and kernel (with the 2.4 kernel it seemed slower, too.)

Enhanced File Interface

A major change to the way Ximian has GNOME set up is in the file saving interface. Though GTK+'s default setup is usable, it's reflective of the designers' familiarity with the filesystem structure and it doesn't allow for users who will tend to think of their computer differently. To that end, Ximian has added some touches to the file saving dialog (and the user directories) that includes direct links to the user's home directory, a "Documents" folder (located in the home directory) and the Desktop itself. Some will say it's a "Microsoftian" arrangement, but we think it's probably a good example of salvaging something useful from Redmond. Moreover, it doesn't bury the folders under several levels: they're all sitting in the user's home directory. Saving files becomes a proposition much less fraught with peril for end users (who will often accept a default save location they later forget, if they ever realized it was different from where they expected at all), and support personnel who have to go looking for said lost files.

The Default Desktop

Ximian's default setup presents a very small (24 pixel) panel at the bottom that contains the desk guide and tasklist applets. The tasklist applet has been improved in GNOME 1.4 in a very useful way. Where it used to reflect every open window on a desktop, it now "stacks" the tasks for applications with more than a single window . For instance, where the GIMP might have once occupied six or seven task buttons for all the windows it opens, it now occupies one. Clicking on the GIMP task brings up a list of the individual windows for selection. The cutoff for how many open windows it takes to begin stacking is user configurable.

Another small panel at the top includes the menus Programs, System, and Help, plus icons for Mozilla and gnome-terminal. At the far right of the menu bar, there's a clock that presents a menu that allows access to the GNOME calendar program, and a task icon that replaces GNOME 1.2's set of web links with a list of running programs on all desktops when clicked.

Under GNOME 1.4 as initially released, that icon also provided feedback during program launch as a way to show that clicking on an icon had a reaction even if the application was slow to launch. That functionality was provided by a program called xalf, which appears to have been removed by Ximian for their release. There were bugs in xalf that caused it to keep some applications from launching, and also provided bad feedback (continuing to show that accessing an application was ongoing even after the app had been launched), which make its removal welcome.

GNOME also launches a help window at login that provides a helpful 'tip of the day' users can disable. The one issue we found with Ximian's default desktop layout was a disconnect between what users get in terms of GUI elements and what the startup tip says: Ximian has removed GNOME's G/foot menu from the panel, but the helpful tips refer to it as the first place to go to get at applications.

The menus that do exist, however, replace The Foot, but we did discover some issues with them.

The Programs Menu

The 'Programs' menu provides a categorized list of applications that appears to be largely limited to the software Ximian included in the install. Most of the software is in subfolders with the exception of AbiWord, gnumeric, and Mozilla.

There have been complaints in the past few years about how GNOME manages the menu system, with users specifically concerned with how many nested menus there are to wade through. Ximian has taken a preliminary step to correcting this by presenting a Programs menu that covers only the applications they consider most essential, which means users aren't confronted by a vast array of applications. Ximian has also improved on a lot of the icons presented, making them more descriptive than some of their counterparts in the core GNOME distribution.

We did, however, have some problems with the menu configuration.

By default, Ximian excludes any preexisting menus. On our Red Hat 7.1 install, for instance, with very few exceptions (Emacs, specifically) there was no indication of how to get at programs besides those provided by Ximian. This isn't necessarily a problem with Ximian's choice in this area: careful reading of the prompts from Doorman will cause a user who's spent a lot of time tweaking menus carefully to consider more conservative choices at the first Ximian startup.

On the other hand, thanks to some problems in either Red Hat's menuing system or Ximian's interaction with it, even configuring the menu to show a "distribution" submenu netted us only one app: xmms. We had no access to any of the other software we knew to be on the system, including some essentials like Netscape Communicator. By adding yet another menu option, "GNOME Programs," we reclaimed the bulk of the icons. Confusingly enough, though, this created another issue:

Right-clicking on the panel will bring up a menu of available options and applications. With both 'GNOME Programs' and 'Ximian Programs' enabled, a right click reveals two submenus with identical icons but different sets of software. More strangely, each piece of software may have different icons for each menu it appears in, which means many of the improvements Ximian made in the icons presented is lost depending on which menu users access.

Another operation, adding an icon to a "favorites" menu, is supposed to be accomplished by right-clicking on a given menu item and selecting "Add this to favorites menu," but that didn't work correctly and failed to place the icon.

These will seem like petty things to people who have been around Linux desktops for a while, but part of the stated goals of GNOME (and Ximian and Eazel) is providing a consistent, usable end-user experience. While seemingly trivial, things like identical menu icons with different collections of software underneath and vanishing everday applications are problematic for people who crave consistency while they learn their way around a desktop, and they undermine claims to polish and attention to detail. On the other hand, Ximian should be congratulated for the first steps toward simplification. Experienced users are still offered some choice and flexibility, while new users can feel a little less assailed by all the options available to them.

The System Menu

The System Menu provides access to the GNOME Control Center application, where the bulk of GNOME configuration is handled, Red Carpet, a find tool Ximian added that provides a nice front-end to Linux file location apps, a 'Run...' icon for launching applications, a screen lock icon and a logout icon.

The GNOME Control Center is largely unchanged from GNOME 1.2, providing access to just about every configurable option in the GNOME environment, including the Sawfish and GNOME-Pilot configuration tools.

Red Carpet is shown as the Red Carpet icon with the caption "Get Software..." and clicking on it invokes a root password prompt and then Red Carpet itself.

The 'Find' tool should prove very nice for newbies and experienced users alike. It performs very basic searches (acting, we understand, as a 'slocate' front end) and can also perform much more complex searches as a 'find' front end, allowing not only basic globbing characters but regular expressions (if the user chooses) and compound search terms.

The screen lock icon invokes xscreensaver with a login prompt, and the logout icon allows users to either log out, restart the system, or shut the system down. It doesn't prompt for a root password to perform the latter two operations.

 

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