This post is not intended to start a flame/holy war or any other kind of religious conflict with regard to Linux desktop environments (DEs).  What it is intended to do, is to simply catalogue the multitude of problems I have been encountering while using Debian Jessie and GNOME 3.14.  🙂

I LOVE GNOME (I truly do)

Let’s put this one right out there:  The GNOME Shell/GNOME 3 UI is, IMHO, the BEST desktop user experience out there for Linux.

Wait,” you might say, “doesn’t this conflict with the title of this blog post?

Well yes, it does.  But I want you, my learned reader, to understand that I wish that the GNOME DE was as stable and solid as it should be.  As it could be.  And hopefully as it will be.

You see, this is what Linux and other Unix-like operating systems have been known and reputed for – their stability.  I love what the GNOME devs did when they decided to reimagine the desktop for GNOME 3:  they used space sensibly, vertically, which to me feels more natural and intuitive.  And I love how it’s meant to stay out of the way – another good design motif.

But in terms of stability, sadly, GNOME has been something of a disappointment to me, and I wish this were not the case.  Perhaps this is just a consequence of its ambition, and that will always garner my respect.  Or maybe my install went terribly wrong, somewhere.  But I don’t reckon.  So, without further ado…

DISCLAIMER: WRT the issues with Debian Jessie‘s implementation of GNOME Shell/GNOME 3, I shall simply refer to it as GNOME.  I apologise to the purists out there.  I am only commenting on my experience in Debian Jessie, not anyone else’s, nor of any other GNU/Linux distribution.  Finally, I intentionally do not go into detail here and am not providing numerous distro/upstream links to “validate” my own claims.  I don’t need to.  If you’re interested, just search anything I have put below.  I am pretty confident you will find stuff…

The 10 Problems

Have you had similar experiences to these?  Do comment below.

1.  Tracker

The problems with GNOME start from the very moment you log in: it’s a disk-thrashing, sluggard of a desktop.  And yes, I am using a disk, not a SSD.  Why?  Because badly written software doesn’t deserve a place in my CPU, let alone being so resource-hogging as to require an SSD.

So yes, Tracker is the first problem with GNOME.  From logging in, all the way through your session, to shutting down your machine, it’s there – consuming all available CPU, disk I/O and (perhaps due to a memory leak), system memory.  Happily gobbling it all up like a sickly child with no manners. 🙂

Perhaps I am being unfair, inferring that Tracker is “bad software”.  It’s not a bad idea and its search seems to work well.  But it doesn’t reign itself in.  And software that doesn’t adhere to users’ choices through its own preferences panel is software that needs attention.

There are too many people/posts on the web with/of similar experiences.  But, why not just disable tracking completely, you ask?  Like, through the GUI you mean..?  Mmm.

Screenshot showing Tracker consuming loads of everything, just after log-in.
Screenshot showing Tracker consuming loads of everything, just after log-in.

2. Crashes and Freezes

Next up is something akin to heresy: crashing and freezing of the whole desktop UI.  Seriously, it’s that bad.

You are in the middle of something, as you might be in a productive desktop environment, and BAM! no window response.  That’s it.  All gone.  This single issue is by far the most perplexing and irritating, totally demolishing my productivity recently.

When you start searching on t’interweb about this, you realise that this has haunted GNOME for years, and in multiple versions.  The nearest posts I have found on the web which seem related to the problem I have are here:

3. Crashes and Freezes after Live User Switching

LIve User Switching dialog in GNOME
Put GNOME through its paces by trying this one.

An alternative way to make GNOME hang on you is to use the live user switching.  Just set up another user account, then Switch User via this menu. Then, as your new user, switch back to your original account.

Do this a few times for maximum effect, until you get stuck looking at the frozen greeter, just after it’s accepted your password for logging back in.

Enjoy the view.

It’ll last a while.

In fact, no need to take a photo.  This’ll last long enough.

 

Moving on…

4. GNOME Online Accounts

Ahh, GOA.  Such a good idea.  Implemented in such an average way.

GNOME Online Accounts is meant to centralise internet service (or “cloud”, hwk-ding) accounts through one easy GUI component, and then share the online resources of each account with the appropriate desktop software.  Think, Google Calendar being visible in your desktop calendar, which is a separate desktop application than, say, your email reader (where you could read your GMail).  But no need to set up each application separately; just set up the GOA and each application gets relevant access.  Get the idea?

The account set-up bit of this is, actually, great.  I’m all for it too – this whole concept.  It just makes so much sense.

One of the problems with it is that things don’t work properly.  For example, if you use two-factor authentication in your Google account, and rely on application-specific passwords, then GOA doesn’t like that.  You will be constantly prompted for your Google account password, which is never accepted.

To be fair to Jessie, I haven’t seen this happen recently, so it may have finally been plugged.  Or I may just be lucky.

5. Evolution’s management of GOA’s SMTP/IMAP accounts

Another problem is SMTP/IMAP accounts.  Sure, they integrate nicely with Evolution.  Until you edit parts of the account in Evolution, which are more application-specific.  Then, you return to your account folders list with your GOA mail account being renamed to “Untitled”.  A rummage through, and edit of, the relevant ~/.config files is required to correct this error.  Not so slick.

I still have hope though.  One day this stuff will work great.

6. Evolution Hangs

Yep, another hangy-crashy thing.  Sometimes, for no discernible reason, when you close Evolution is hangs, mid-termination.  Forever.  You have to send a KILL to it to actually get it to close off completely.  Why?  Who knows.  It appears to be a timeout or spinlock type of problem.  Sorry for being vague, but look, just do this Google search and pick a year.  It looks like this bug has been around in one incarnation or another for a very long time.

7. Nautilus Hangs

Are you seeing a pattern here?  Yep, our faithful friend and file utility, Nautilus, also hangs.  Quite often.  Why it does this, I have not yet been able to determine.  Sigkill to the rescue.  (You can do a Google search on this too…)

8. Standby and resume with remote file system mounted

Lenovo ThinkPad T420, docked with keyboard and monitor.
It might be chunky, but the T420 is a solidly-built machine, with good internals.

Now, I admit, this is a silly thing to do when you look at it, because you are clearly asking for trouble if you have a remote filesystem mounted into your own filesystem, and then put your machine to sleep for a while.

You can make the problem worse still, if you have laptop with a docking station.  Simply put it to sleep, undock, wake the machine, then reconnect using your wireless instead of ethernet.  The outcome varies from a locked desktop (where nothing works), to a frozen nautilus.

Again, a silly thing to do, perhaps, but also an innocent mistake at times.  Like, when you’re rushing to attend a meeting, for example.

So, why not be offered a notification, when requesting to “sleep” the machine, saying that remote filesystems are mounted?  I think even I might be able to knock up some code for that one (but I’d prefer to leave it to the experts, who I respect fully and who would do it far better than I).

9. Audio Output Switching

User-entered search 'sound' for audio settings in GNOME.
GNOME allows a nice, quick way of locating and launching its Settings dialogs.

As you may have gathered from previous comments, when it comes to GNOME I am primarily a business user.  My business runs and relies on GNU software & Linux.  For the experience and knowledge I have gained – not to mention being able to sustain an income and lifestyle I’m happy with, I am indebted to many people for their determined efforts in the free software community.

Unfortunately, little bugs creep in here and there – that’s the rule of life.  One minor annoyance with Jessie, that wasn’t present in its predecessor Wheezy, is automatic audio output switching.  In Wheezy, after a small tweak to the kernel module loading (via /etc/modprobe.d), the audio output would be directed to my docking station’s analogue jack when the laptop was docked, and then automatically switch to the laptop’s speakers when undocked.

Unfortunately, in Jessie, when my laptop is docked I have to hit the Super (Windows) key and get to the Sound preferences, then switch the output device.  After undocking, the same story.  This is, apparently, fixed upstream, but regressive and annoying nonetheless.

Image of Tracker preferences dialog
The “Search and Indexing” preferences in GNOME Shell. I think the idea was to make things easier. :-/

10. The long pauses and (what seems like) catastrophic resource “sharing”

This is so subjective an issue that I thought it barely worth mentioning, but an issue it is nonetheless.  And one that I actually feel is perhaps the worst of all.

When key processes are busy in the GNOME Desktop Environment – say Tracker for sake of argument, the “hit” on the rest of the system is shocking.  Right now, as I type this blog entry, any mouse-based GUI interactions are extremely sluggish.  This could be the reason why:

top - 16:34:34 up 2:00, 2 users, load average: 16.31, 15.97, 13.93

 

So what is causing such a load on my machine?  It doesn’t take long to figure it out, in top:

 PID USER PR NI VIRT    RES    SHR   S  %CPU  %MEM  TIME+   COMMAND 
 9187 smd 39 19 2239548 210440 34852 R  83.7  1.3   3:50.74 tracker-extract 
 9148 smd 20 0  693940  59696  8652  S  7.6   0.4   4:33.53 tracker-store

For reference, my trusty ThinkPad T420 uses a 2nd gen Core i7 processor (dual core w/hyperthreading), 16GB DDR3 memory (dual channel), a 64GB mSATA SSD system drive and 500GB Seagate Momentus 7200.4 drive for my /home.  It’s a set-up that’s still powerful enough for getting things done, and I’ve grown quite fond of this chunky, heavy laptop (by 2016 standards).  Yes, it’s a bit clunky now, but it’s still got it where it counts, and has only required minimal servicing over the years (since 2011).

Back to the main issue, though.  You see, I grew up on Amigas.  Fully pre-emptive multitasking spoilt me, and I’ve never looked back, or sideways, since.  These days, all modern operating systems provide significantly more advanced multitasking and far, far more powerful hardware, but the user’s needs should always come first in a desktop environment.  So, having an unresponsive desktop for hours, because a non-GUI process is taking too much CPU and I/O, is not a productivity boon, to say the least.

And just when you thought my tirade was complete, for a special BONUS

11. Dejadup/duplicity and the inability to restore a backup!!

I love how well integrated Dejadup is into Nautilus.  It’s a neat idea, to be able to just navigate to anywhere on your file-system and then say “hey, you know what?  I wonder if that file I was looking for used to live here?“, or “I really must restore the earlier version of this file, or that file…”.. And so on.  It even states on its website, that it “hides the complexity of doing backups the Right Way (encrypted, off-site, and regular) and uses duplicity as the backend” [my link].

‘GNOME Backups’ was designed to facilitate exactly this, using the Dejadup/duplicity combo, with two main Nautilus integration actions.  Firstly, you can right-click in a folder (on blank space) and select “Restore missing files”.  Or, you can right-click on a specific file and select “Revert to previous version”.  In either case, a dialog will appear prompting you to select a date, from a range of dates when backups occurred.  Great, huh?

Except a backup is only good when you’re able to restore it.  I was not able to restore mine.  The “Revert” functionality simply failed, every time I tried, with a “File not found in archive”-style error message each time.  I also tried restoring the entire backup, which also failed.  This issue pretty much covers it.

So, perhaps using duplicity (and not Duplicity) as the backend is exactly what it does.  I don’t trust it with my back-ups.  For that job, I use BackInTime.

Conclusion: I STILL LOVE GNOME

I was originally going to entitle this blog post, Debian’s GNOME is a broken user experience, but shied away from making such a bold, and somewhat unfair, claim.  However, it’s hard not to conclude that this might actually be the case.

GNOME 2 used to be amazingly solid.  In fact, in my younger years I didn’t use it because I perceived it as being a little boring, instead opting for KDE (v2, then v3) as my go-to desktop for quite a while.  I would love to have the stability of GNOME 2 – at least as I experienced it – just in GNOME 3 form.

The biggest problem about GNOME 3 / Gnome Shell, is that I like it so damn much.  For me, despite all the wrinkles and annoyances, the occasional memory leaks of “background” indexing processes, the frequent hanging of various applications and the seemingly (at times) untested nature of the software, it’s actually brilliant.  It’s fast, feature-full, yet fluid.  That’s a rare combination in software.

For me, it’s faster to work in than any other DE, because it combines enough functionality with equally enough transparency.  For instance, when I am editing a client’s website files and want to upload them, Nautilus is the hero – allowing me to quickly mount the remote filesystem, upload my files, and then disconnect.  No need to launch additional software for that task.  We’re just moving data from one filesystem to another, right?  That’s what a file manager does and, in the main, Nautilus is exceptional at it.

As an Emacs user, I know I could do a similar thing using Tramp and Dired mode.  And I’ll keep that as an option to probably explore someday soon.

I’ve been using Debian for some time now, migrating away from Fedora on my netbook to start with, and then later on my main work laptop.  In general it’s an operating system that does so much right, it’s hard when things occasionally don’t work as expected.

I won’t say that Jessie’s innings with GNOME have been the best; fair from it.  But hopefully we can look forward to a smoother experience as time goes on.

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