GNOME 3 and Its Fallback Desktop

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 06, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Okay, that was unexpected.

I like the GNOME 3 fallback desktop better than GNOME 3 itself.

Amid all the attention given to the new GNOME 3 with its overview page, you don't hear much about the fallback. Nor are you likely to stumble across it on your own, since it's buried in Applications -> System Settings -> System Info -> Graphics -> Forced Fallback -> On, a location that's both obscure and deep.

However, you might want to search out the setting if your computer lacks the hardware acceleration needed to run GNOME 3. Set it to On, and the next time you log in, you'll be using the fallback.

Midway between GNOME 2 and 3

The fallback could be described as a compromise between the GNOME 2 release series and GNOME 3. On the one hand, like GNOME 2, the fallback includes the familiar Applications / Places / System menus and workspace switchers, and title bar buttons for minimizing and maximizing windows, instead of GNOME 3's hot spots on the edges of the desktop. In fact, if you are used to opening applications from the menu, then the fallback will be instantly familiar (and you can stop searching for an alternative to GNOME 3 if you are wishing for one it).

On the other hand, the fallback has most of the pros and cons of GNOME 3. Not only that, but the fallback is a good place to study just what GNOME 3 is about, free from the most obvious feature of the overview screen, which is such a large change from earlier releases that it might overshadow smaller changes.

On the debit side of the ledger, the fallback is only marginally less memory intensive than the main GNOME 3 desktop, immediately consuming 853 megabytes on a one megabyte netbook, compared to 883 for GNOME 3 -- both of which are substantially higher than the 410 megabytes claimed by GNOME 2.32 on the same machine.

In addition, by default, the fallback includes no panel applets, no context menus, and no icons on the desktop. These lacks, which the main GNOME 3 desktop shares, are by design -- part of the intent to provide "distraction-free computing," as the GNOME marketing material explains the situation. But to users who prefer such things and want them, both the fallback and main GNOME 3 desktops are probably going to feel much like KDE 4.0, in that both are lacking customary features.

However, on the credit side, using the fallback highlights some of GNOME 3's improvements. For instance, if you regularly use chat, you should appreciate that you can switch to your chat application without losing the focus of the current window. Considering how often most users are apt to switch to chat for a brief read or reply, this is a sensible feature that I hope KDE and other desktops will soon borrow.

Another welcome feature are notifications that display extremely briefly in relatively small bubbles, and then are collected for you to read at your leisure. With notifications becoming increasingly obtrusive on both proprietary and free desktops in the last couple of years, these behaviors feel like a welcome return to sanity -- and, again, should be default behavior on other desktops as well.

Still another improved feature is the System Settings window, which organizes settings into manageable categories, with no more than six or seven settings in each one. Decentralized system settings has long been the norm in the GNOME 2 series, but, although decentralization might have been a desirable philosophy at one time, for several years, it has meant scanning through increasingly long lists of menu items to find the one you want -- as well as deciding whether the item you want is in the Personal or Administration menus. By contrast, System Settings reduces the time to find items by half or more.

The missed default

The main advantage of the fallback desktop is that it is less of a change from the GNOME 2 series than the main GNOME 3 desktop. In fact, considering that it does not require hardware acceleration to work, I have to wonder why it isn't the default desktop.

A basic principle of usability has always been to design for the lowest common denominator. While this principle has limits (no one, for example, could reasonably expect a desktop released in 2011 to run on an AT 286 computer), the design of the main GNOME 3 desktop, with its need for hardware acceleration, has likely over-estimated the current capacities of free video drivers. Probably, hardware acceleration will not be universal on the free desktop for at least another year, if not two or three.

Under these circumstances, why wasn't the fallback the desktop on which all the time was lavished, and the one used by default? The main desktop should probably have been labeled an optional experimental feature. Or did the GNOME team assume that everyone used proprietary drivers, or would be willing to switch to them?

Yet even with the emphasis on the main desktop, more could be done to encourage use of the fallback desktop. In particular, an auto-detection wizard at first bootup should be run at first log in, ready to start the fallback if the main desktop can't be run.

Twice in my testing of GNOME 3 over the past couple of weeks, I have encountered computers that could not run the main desktop, and showed only scattered pieces of desktops. With these results, the control for switching to the fallback is unavailable because you can't see any menu to click. At the very least, a keyboard shortcut to the control would help on similar computers.

In some ways, I can't blame the GNOME team for focusing on the main desktop. As a new concept in computing, doubtlessly it is far more interesting to code for than the fallback, which is essentially a stripped-down version of the desktop for the GNOME 2 series (certainly, it is far more interesting to review, even though I have reservations about it).

But I suspect that the fallback was closer to what most people were expecting. Based on my experience, it's also what more people could use.

Comments

  • no applets in fedora 15 fallback gnome

    I cannot add any applets to the topmenu
    Alt right click on the top menu did nothing

    I started using KDE again which is mine for me but
    maybe too clumsy for noobs

    One of my responsibilities is to recommend which
    distro to use

    I will never consider the use of minor releases
    although I have evaluated Unity 2D and Ubuntu
    classic is a real Gnome2 desktop in Natty
    which powers by backup machine

    I am recommending the use of Ubuntu LTS 10.04
    I can only hope that Marc Shuttleworth does the
    right thing for LTS Pragmatic or Practical Peccary or Porpoise or
    Porcupine and listens to Linus


    please comment with a screenshot of the applets appearing








  • Gnome3 Fallback - no applets.

    The statement that there are no applets for the Fallback panel is incorrect. If you point your mouse to the top panel - press the ALT key and right-click - a menu will pop up and right there will be a selection to add applets to the panel.

    --Theoden
  • Re: Memory Usage (again)

    Chris Carpenter Apr 08, 2011 3:06pm GMT wrote:
    "To expand on what the other Chris said, (though I believe it explains it sufficiently in the links s/he gave) using free -m will show you how much memory is being taken up, with buffers and cache included. You need to look at the -/+ buffers/cache line, as that is what most applications and people consider the actual memory usage (Gnome system monitor, for instance, uses this value for its memory graph). This is for numerous reasons, but one of them is that the kernel will automatically get rid of extra caching to make way for applications, if needed. [As an example, on my 4GB of RAM desktop I am usually using with buffers/cache multiple GB of memory, because I never reach 4GB of actual memory usage so most things I use are cached. However, i'm using < 1 GB of application memory]"

    So far as I know, everything you say is true. But whether the memory is used by GNOME 3 or something else, it still remains true that, in my experience, if you boot a clean install with GNOME 3, much more memory is used than with GNOME 2.32. Users aren't going to care much about exactly *what* is eating up extra memory -- just that it's happening.
  • Acceleration

    "the design of the main GNOME 3 desktop, with its need for hardware acceleration, has likely over-estimated the current capacities of free video drivers"

    I think you under-estimate it, and I have numbers. happy We _do_ check this stuff, y'know, it's not all just wings and prayers.

    https://fedoraproject.org/wiki/Test_Day:2011-02-22_Nouveau
    https://fedoraproject.org/wiki/Test_Day:2011-02-23_Radeon
    https://fedoraproject.org/wiki/Test_Day:2011-02-24_Intel

    check the 'GNOME 3 Start' columns. Note that for all three events, the majority of testers hit 'success' - even the hardest case, nouveau. Also note that if you look carefully, a lot of the fails and warns are due to a bug which caused false positives on the fallback test and caused fallback mode to start even though Shell would actually work; that bug has since been fixed. ALSO note that those tests are from a month and a half ago on a Fedora *Alpha* codebase; the current state of play is improved (in no small part due to those test events).

    The biggest gap in support for Shell is virtualization - most virt cases are going to get fallback mode - but that's something that will be worked on.
  • Memory Usage (again)

    To expand on what the other Chris said, (though I believe it explains it sufficiently in the links s/he gave) using free -m will show you how much memory is being taken up, with buffers and cache included. You need to look at the -/+ buffers/cache line, as that is what most applications and people consider the actual memory usage (Gnome system monitor, for instance, uses this value for its memory graph). This is for numerous reasons, but one of them is that the kernel will automatically get rid of extra caching to make way for applications, if needed. [As an example, on my 4GB of RAM desktop I am usually using with buffers/cache multiple GB of memory, because I never reach 4GB of actual memory usage so most things I use are cached. However, i'm using < 1 GB of application memory]
  • All of the holy crap about memory

    All of this arguing about numbers is missing the point. The important message is in the term is 'distraction free computing'.
    Gnome3 has abandoned the clean, uncluttered, functional desktop and neat system of menus of Gnome2 and replaced it with flashy effects, docky bars and menus that fill the entire screen with huge icons the size of tennis courts.
    I learned to read words when I was five and I prefer concise menus that use words and only involve minimal mouse travel to navigate. I have been watching the development of Gnome3 (and Unity) with dismay at the assumption that we are all illiterate and need big picture-book icons to use a computer.
    I would like to thank the author for informing us of this 'forced fallback' as it gives me the hope of being able to stay with Gnome, my desktop of choice since discovering Linux some years ago. I live in hope that some clever bunch of developers will get together and fork Gnome2 into a new project and possibly give miserable old gits like me a new 'Gnubuntu' distro.
  • gnome3

    It's good to agree Byfield! Great read and hopefully somebody does ensure functionality for those computers without the gnome3-relevance issue happy
  • Re: 410MB at idle, holy crap

    My simple means of measurement is the total memory consumption through GNOME system monitor - and this one measures the footprint of GNOME, the kernel, AND of itself, which is not quite neglegibe.

    And all this amounts to much less than 300 MB. Don't you think you've got something seriously messed up if you reach such ludicrous figures while everyone else praises GNOME 3's very moderate memory footprint?

    Indeed, you do.

    The Linux kernel will make good use of all the memory that is available, mostly for caching your local filesystem, to make things snappier. Your way of measuring GNOME's memory consumption is indeed useless.

    See also:
    http://tldp.org/LDP/tlk/fs/filesystem.html
    and
    http://tldp.org/LDP/tlk/fs/filesystem.html
  • Xfce

    AC, I'm with you. I was originally a KDE user until KDE4 came out three years ago. I switched to GNOME until last year, I saw a preview of what GNOME3 was like, and that was one of the reasons that I too decided to switch to Xfce. In my case, I'm running Crunchbang Statler Xfce, which is based on pure Debian, and as such, while I don't remember the specifics right offhand, I do know that it uses significantly less memory than Xubuntu does (I've tried Xubuntu before and it doesn't feel any lighter than plain ol' Ubuntu). In fact, some of my fellow #! users have mentioned in the #! forums that both the Openbox and Xfce versions of #! use less something like only 80MB or so of system memory, although I think that that's probably without any other apps running. But if you're interested in REALLY conserving system resources, I'd give #! a shot.

    Fred in St. Louis
  • Measuring memory footprint - yur doing it wrong!

    Holy SO-DIMM, Batman! How come that the whole GNOME 3 shebang is using only 250 Megs of RAM on my netbook - and only 192 MB in fallback mode?

    How long will it take you to realize that it must be you who is doing something wrong here, if your memory usage is that high?
  • Re: 410MB at idle, holy crap

    To be exact, the figures come from running free -m on a new Fedora system.

    You are right that not all of that is GNOME itself, and I could have got a more exact figure by running top. But the point is not the base amount, but the different in the memory being used between GNOME 2.32 and 3.
  • 410MB at idle, holy crap

    410MB at idle... what do you have running at startup? On a 32bit Ubuntu 10.10 system with a little tweaking I can get it down to around 100MB-ish bare bones. With all the bells and whistles it's still around 160MB. I understand that if you're running 64bit you can pretty much double that but jeez 410 seems high. Even with the pork chop full install of Ubuntu 10.10 64bit running defaults you shouldn't be using over the mid 300's. I think you really need to differentiate between what Gnome is actually using as far as resources and what non essential non Gnome services and programs are using. To say that Gnome is using 410MB at idle on your system is either ignorance on your part or deception. 410MB may be the total RAM being used by your system at idle but Gnome accounts for less then half of that I promise you.
  • XFCE+Firefox 4 = 220MB

    If you are looking for something smaller than Gnome 3, try XFCE. Xubuntu is a nice way to do so, if you are doing a fresh install.

    Gnome 3 is something I have decided to skip.
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