GNOME Shell tips

Jack Wallen
Apr 9, 2010
Updated • Dec 5, 2012

So recently I discussed GNOME shell which gave a sneak peak at what GNOME 3 was going to look like (see my article "A sneak peek at GNOME 3"). Although there are many naysayers out there - who seem to either only want more of the same or who doubt the ability of any developer to release anything worth while - I trust that GNOME 3 is going to make quite a major impression.

But how is it used? Being a major change from the usual, it's going to need some serious adjustments on the part of the end users. So I thought I would do a bit of research ("gasp" some of you might be saying) and share a few tips on the basic usage of this new desktop.

It's not all "that" different

When you really get down to it, GNOME 3 will not be all that different. Sure it will look quite different than what most are used to, and there will be features some may never have seen or used, but over all it is still a desktop that creates windows, minimizes windows, launches applications, has a panel, etc. But at first look you might wonder how does one configure GNOME now? Or how do you add applications to the favorites menu? What is the "hot corner"? And what are some of the important key combinations? Let's take a look.

Configuring GNOME

At this moment you will not find an icon or menu entry as a means to configure GNOME Shell. For GNOME 2.x you go to the System > Preferences or System > Administration menus to configure various aspects of GNOME. It looks as if GNOME 3 is going to go the Windows and KDE route by using only the GNOME Control Center. To bring this up you can hit <Alt>F2 and then type gnome-control-center. In this window you can configure the following groups of tasks:

  • Personal
  • Look and Feel
  • Internet and Network
  • Hardware
  • System
  • Other

TIP: If you don't like your window controls on the left, choose a different them and you can get the back to the right side.

Adding apps to the favorite menu

Figure 1

Take a look at Figure 1. In the upper portion of this you will see the APPLICATIONS entry and, below that, a few application icons. Those icons make up the Favorites Menu. These are the applications you use the most. You can easily add to this menu by doing the following:

1. Click on the APPLICATIONS entry (to open the full list of applications).

2. Right-click on the application you want to add.

3. From the resulting menu select "Add to favorites".

The icon will then be added to your favorites menu.

Conversely, you can remove an icon from the Favorites menu by right clicking the icon (in the Favorites menu) and selecting "Remove from favorites".

What is the "hot corner"?

At first you will think the only way to bring up the menu is by clicking the Activities button. Not so. If you take your cursor and place it all the way up in the upper left corner, the menu will open. This will mostly benefit laptop users, but it is still a nice touch.

What is the "overview"

The overview is when you have either clicked the Activities button or placed your cursor in the hot corner, at which point the menu will open and your windows will thumbnail. This is an "overview" of what is going on in your workspace.

Key combinations

Here are some of the more important key combinations you will want to know:

  • Windows key: Switch between overview and desktop
  • Alt+F1: Switch between overview and desktop
  • Alt+F2: Run dialog
  • Alt+Tab: Pop up window cycler
  • Alt+Shift+Tab: Cycle in reverse direction in the window cycler
  • Alt+`: Switch between windows of the same application in Alt+Tab
  • Ctrl+Shift+Alt+R: Start/stop screencast recording
  • Ctrl+Alt+D: Show desktop
  • Ctrl+Alt+Right/Left arrow: Switch between workspaces
  • Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Right/Left arrow: Move the current window to a different workspace

Those are all pretty basic. I'm sure as the full release comes more will rise to the surface.

Final thoughts

So now you have a good look at what GNOME 3 will be like as well as some tips on how to use the desktop. I know there are a lot of doubters and detractors out there. Many people do not like change. But in the case of he PC desktop - it's about time for a change. And seeing as how stable GNOME Shell already is, I can only imagine what the full release of GNOME 3.0 will be like.


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  1. Sigh... said on June 21, 2010 at 6:13 am

    Why make the user interface as alien as possible to new users? Good luck getting a significant market share with this crap.

  2. MadForUbuntu said on May 16, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    Granted, Gnome-Shell is still far from being complete. But its usability allowed me to continue working as if I was still in Metacity. Gnome-Shell is currently my default UI for my work laptop and no problem so far. Perhaps I have some observations like widgets for monitoring battery, etc.. but those were not deal breakers for me so far.

    As long as I am still productive in Gnome-Shell, I’m happy. I believe I’m even more productive now than in Metacity.


  3. ackondro said on April 13, 2010 at 9:12 am

    So I’ve noticed that a lot of commenters don’t seem to distinguish between Gnome, Compiz, Metacity, Gnome Shell, and Gnome Panel.
    Compiz was an experimental piece of software that was supposed to introduce 3d desktopping in the Gnome environment. It is not a part of Gnome, and in fact has been run by itself, with KDE, and with Gnome.
    Gnome is a collection of API’s, background programs, desktop management programs and applications, which is referred to as a Desktop Environment. Their analogue to Compiz is Metacity, which actually has a Composite(3D) extension, but it is rarely used.
    Metacity is the official window manager for Gnome, it currently provides Alt-Tab, Moving windows and many other functions.
    Gnome Shell, is based off/built on a experimental version of Metacity called Mutter that uses the Clutter toolkit. It is not due to be released til September and still has major features to implement. It takes over the responsibilities of Metacity and Gnome-Panel. There is still room for it to implement features from Compiz, in fact I believe some people are currently working on porting some feature from Compiz to Gnome-Shell/Mutter.
    Gnome-Panel is the default system panel for the Gnome desktop environment. Although there are Applets for it that are receiving work, the actual gnome-panel application is not. Just look at it’s Gnome Wiki page, we’re seeing ideas from the 2.12 cycle. I have heard that Gnome does not want to immediately do away with gnome-panel with the 3.0 cycle, but wants to maybe keep it around as a fallback

    I’ve been using Gnome Shell for 2 months or so, and it’s something you get used to. Sure it’s nice having a bar with everything you could need on it, but it’s also nice to not have to have your hands leave the keyboard to launch an application. Gnome shell is trying to address a lot of situations that come up with a modern desktop and bring them into “harmony.” In case you’re wondering, you can still run Docky or AWN. I usually run Docky on the left side, since the Sidebar isn’t finished yet.

    Anyway, anybody who is worried about gnome-panel should read this
    And anyone who is worried about Gnome Shell should read this

    tl;dr Nobody is killing gnome-panel, compiz or metacity, they’re just no longer the suggested defaults.

  4. misGnomer said on April 10, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    As a long-time GNOME user I’ve followed the 3.0 (p)reviews closely and I don’t like what I’m seeing either.

    The 2.xx series has improved constantly and incrementally (from an admittedly dismal beginning) to a point where I am very comfortable with the DE aspect of it.

    The apps I use are handily available and the ones I use less often are in known, constant places.

    The files/folders I create, update or archive are in equally predictable places; not constantly moving around according to current date etc. Am I the only one who doesn’t _want_ to see my past workflow blasted in front of me unevoked?

    Compiz works well on a slightly aging Intel IGP…

    GNOME 2.30 is the best GNOME yet, yet it’s facing planned obsoletion?

    I’ve used the lighter DEs on portable/older systems and if push comes to shove I’m fine replacing my old handle and switching more permanently, but I’m still hoping folks would either postpone the “3.0” or keep it as an optional alternative until… Are there people interested in either forking GNOME 2.3x or at least maintaining and fixing/updating it for the time being?

  5. TimM said on April 10, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    This is change without improvement. That’s why people deride it.

  6. Wanderer said on April 10, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    I am currently using Gnome-shell on a 5 year old Acer laptop with 2Gb memory and integrated Intel
    video and am loving it. It took all of about 5 minutes of playing around to figure out the basic navigation.
    Things change, time moves on. Instead of poo-pooing everything new that comes along we should
    at least experiment and if the change suits us embrace the change. Isn’t that what Linux is really all about – choice.

  7. nobodie said on April 10, 2010 at 8:07 am

    I’ve used it and it works well enough. The problem is that, like compiz, it requires serious resources not necessarily available with office boxes or older hardware. If you are really worried about it then and use compiz a lot (i don’t use that either) then I suggest using another DE like LX or X which still give a full compiz experience without the need for super resources. I use Knoppix on a flash drive that does a nice job with LXDE and iceWM. Still can’t get any glitz with my office box though.

  8. Trinae said on April 9, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    I am excited about the new GNOME shell, but will wait until it’s included with Ubuntu (maybe 10.10?) Since my laptop is a “production environment” I don’t want to break something I cannot fix.

  9. Bobby said on April 9, 2010 at 11:35 pm

    The screenshots of Gnome shell look really fugly. It reminds me of the console with some icons.
    I have no doubt that Gnome 3 will be a major improvement over the present version but it will take at least twice as long as KDE 4 took to reach a certain amount of maturity and acceptance. It’s radically different and also radically ugly.

  10. anon said on April 9, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    It’s not about rejecting something new, as the writer complains, but about not having to give up functionality for stupid glitz.

    I have my panel organized so that I can get to 95% of what I do with a single click. That won’t even be an option with gnome-shell. Perhaps people who do nothing with their computers but write insipid articles praising the latest software will be happy with that, but nost will not.

    I find it interesting that none of these articles praising gnome-shell ever mention the drawbacks. Like the fact that it will NOT support Compiz. Compiz is more than glitzy transitions, it allows you to configure your system to work the way YOU want it to, not the way the Gnome developer-gods decree.

    I suspect that once the novelty of the new shell wears off, a lot of people are going to look back fondly on the days when their computer just did what they wanted, not what someone else decided they would want.

    1. eCubeH said on June 2, 2011 at 9:32 am

      I share the feelings / concern.

      Esply about the single click buttons configured across multiple panels.

      Is this designed for a power systems user / developer?

      I hope with some level of learning the features are found to be available, but unable to easily find a detailed tutorial… Strange!

  11. hrhnick said on April 9, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    To configure GNOME, and access Control Center, I click my username in the top right corner and hit “System Preferences”
    Running the latest gnome-shell from the ricotz-ppa.

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