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Gnome is too big, indeed.

Since I got Photoshop working in Ubuntu, I’ve spent more time on the Linux desktop than ever before. I’ve been a user of Linux and FreeBSD on the server for the past nine years and I am not afraid of the command line. During that same time, I made numerous attempts to switch on the desktop as well. I’ve always come back to Windows for two reasons: applications and usability.

Hugin Control Point Editor - Windows

For most applications there are solutions on both sides of the divide now. One application exclusive to one platform is enough to shift the balance. Rebooting is a hassle, so once the day has started on one side of the divide it takes a lot of effort to close all open applications and reboot on the other side.

Now that I do boot on the Linux side of the divide more often, I notice more issues with the desktop. Little details become more noticeable with frequent use. Like 90% of users I don’t bother with tweaking and customizing beyond some simple things. Gnome happens to be Ubuntu’s default, so I use it. I like Gnome. I find it modern and pleasant. It compares well to the other contemporary desktops I’ve seen – Windows, OSX, KDE. As always, there are things that can be improved and one that caught my eye big time is that Gnome is too big. Compare the Windows screenshot above with the Gnome screenshot below.

  • Both have the same application open – Hugin.
  • It is the same project – my first gigapixel panorama (still in the making) of 260+ shots.
  • Both are on the same 2560×1024 pixels of limited screen real estate.
  • Both display the same control point editor and the same images.
  • Gnome takes double as much vertical space for the same table as Windows. And this is not the worse example.

I understand that for some people, usability = accessibility and they need a readable desktop, with big icons, big fonts, lots of spacing. For me it is not. When I get a higher resolution display, it is to get as much information as possible on the limited surface. I loved the 1024×768 on 10.4″ of my old SONY Vaio SR7K (R.I.P.). I love the 1400×1050 on 15″ of my HP Compaq nc6120.

My desktop’s screen is scarce and very valuable real estate. On Windows, I hated application installers that clog it with their icons (obnoxious marketing fight for the user’s mind share). On Gnome the default icon and font size are taking that place. What can a user do to reclaim it?

18 Responses

  1. You understand the usability issues, so I’ll skip that.

    I’m not entirely sure how much you know about Gnome, so please forgive me if I insult your intellegence.

    To reclaim your screen space, you’ll have to install or switch to a smaller theme. “Redmond” is rather similar to Windows Classic. It was installed by default with Gnome for me in Arch Linux; you may have to install the gtk engine for it in Ubuntu, not sure. “apt-cache search gtk redmond” should be handy if it’s not installed

    The font size, GTK theme, and window border may be changed by going to System > Preferences > Appearance. More control can be gained over the theme by clicking “Customize” on the Theme tab.

    In addition to the font point size, you can also change your font DPI by clicking “Details” on the “Font” tab

    If the Redmond theme is still not small enough, you can get your hands dirty by copying /usr/share/themes/Redmond to ~/.themes/ and editing the gtk config file to reduce the padding around widgets.

    Finally, you can increase your vertical screen space (by 26 pixels or so) by consolidating the two gnome panels at the top and bottom of the desktop into one. It’s the first thing I do on a widescreen setup. This can be accomplished by right clicking on panel widgets and either moving or removing them, then deleting the empty panel.

    You can reduce the crampedness of your newly consolidated panel by removing the “Applications, Places, System” widget and adding the “Main Menu” widget to the panel.

    Hope that helps. :-)

  2. That is a really weird complaint you’re making here, considering that on one hand you’re showing a tweaked Windows desktop — the application bar and “start” menu are by default located at the bottom of the screen, not to the left — and a non-tweaked gnome desktop. Furthermore, it only takes a couple middle-button drags to move the menu and window bars to the side.
    That you should spend the time to upload those screen shots and write this long post is quite puzzling.

  3. How about picking a smaller font?

    As for the toolbar icons, the size can be configured like this:


  4. Yuv, you are doing same mistake a lot of people do – you don’t make difference between GNOME and a GTK+ theme.

    $ sudo gedit /usr/share/themes/YOURTHEME/gtk-2.0/gtkrc

    and add this to the end:

    gtk-icon-sizes = "panel-menu=16,16:panel=16,16:gtk-menu=16,16:gtk-large-toolbar=16,16:gtk-button=16,16"

    Then reload the theme and enjoy your snappy UI :)

    I also use Droid Sans 8pt for GUI.

    Here is the sample:

    I agree that defaults are not cool. I even posted a feature request to make icon size selectable (you can find it in bugzilla.gnome.org for GNOME control center).

  5. @James: thanks for the excellent info. It is an encouragement to work on my own theme / become a theme contributor. I did not really want to get into tweaking that much, the whole point of usability being *out of the box*.

    @NM: the changes made to my Windows desktop are minor compared to the changes made to my Gnome desktop.

    Windows (by default) does not offer as many tweaking options as Gnome, making it less intimidating and confusing to newbies (and sometimes frustrating to power users).

    Moving the menu and window bars to the side does not solve the problem. And Gnome’s window bar becomes useless when vertical.

    The window bar is ugly anyway – in Windows and in Gnome. Maybe I am just having desktop fatigue, but I find that vintage 2008 desktops are still stuck in the old metaphores developed at Xerox Parc in the seventies. I see a lot of fancy effects adding clutter and eating up system resources without tangible usability benefit. Alt-Tabbing between twenty open windows is a pain. A list of twenty open windows in the windows bar is a pain. Both, Windows and Gnome are very similar in this.

    @Alexandre: your screenshot looks better than default indeed, but there is still too much spacing. The dropdowns are too tall. But thanks for the hints, I’ll try to do things differently :)

    @Robin beautiful, thanks for the link. I wish those making the decision on the default theme would make a sensible choice so that average users won’t have to do that tweak.

  6. I did not intend to encourage you to become a theme contributor. I merely wanted to inform you of the configuration options available because you were still using the large default theme rather than one of the slimmer alternatives.
    I noted the .gtkrc config files only because (a) I assumed that they’d be pretty easy to figure out for a server administrator, and (b) you seemed like the sort of person who craved every pixel of screen space they could get.

    “I see a lot of fancy effects adding clutter and eating up system resources without tangible usability benefit. Alt-Tabbing between twenty open windows is a pain. A list of twenty open windows in the windows bar is a pain. Both, Windows and Gnome are very similar in this.”
    Have you enabled Desktop Effects? One of the plugins is a clone of Mac OS X expose; it’s both pretty and extremely useful for managing large numbers of windows. It’s also one of the only plugins I leave enabled.

  7. Actually, you don’t even need to edit the gtkrc config files.

    Here is a comparison screenshot I took using the default Redmond theme without any modification. You can also see my font settings and DPI. Note that it’s actually taking up slightly *less* space than the Windows 98 theme. ;-)
    http:// xs.to/xs.php?h=xs225&d=08120&f=size-comperison377.png Edit: link no longer functional.

  8. @James: the whole point of usability is to make the default so sensible that the majority of users does not need to change it.

    I’ve tried to enable Desktop Effects. It kills my workstation’s on-board nVidia GeForce 6150 with two displays. My notebook, with Intel GMA900 integrated graphics, becomes unstable. On my older notebooks I use Xubuntu.

  9. Yes, I realize that. I’m saying that having the smallest controls possible by default is not the most sensible solution for most users. Look at Mac OS X and Windows Vista. The defaults there are similar to those in Ubuntu.
    Even Windows XP uses larger controls by default than the ones you’re using in the Windows screenshot. ;-)

    The default theme on all those OS is a tad large for my taste, but I assume there’s been some sort of UI research done on the topic. At any rate, people complain when I decrease the size of the UI on shared computers, so I assume it’s sufficient for the majority of folks.

  10. Well, I do have a small theme with extra low and narrow buttons. Wanna have it in your inbox? :)

  11. @Robin @Alexandre : Thanks a lot guys. you have solved my problem.

  12. 100% agree with Yuval Levy.
    I have never switched to Linux, in spite of my great interest for it, just because of the ergonomy of the distribs.
    Every year I make a try, every year I give up.
    Fonts, icons, spaces between icons, it’s always too big, even when they are set to the minimum. I have tried KDE, Gnome, Xfce…
    So I keep my windows “classic” look and feel : icons and fonts are tiny, compact, but they remain very distinct.

  13. One comment: knowing that a usability concern *exists* is not necessarily the same as knowing what it *is*.

    One detailed quiz about what the usability concern *is*, is at http://asktog.com/columns/022DesignedToGiveFitts.html .

    The usability concern might be something *other than* graphic fluff at the expense of expert efficiency…


  14. @Johnatan: Excellent link, thanks for sharing. At one of my previous employer I had the privilege to assist to a private consultation on usability by one of his partners. The link explains a few reasons why Apple’s OS is superior.

    However the situation at hand here has little to do with Fitts’s Law: the target that the user needs to hit most on the depicted application is an area inside the picture. That area has same pixel-size in both Windows and Ubuntu. The picture has same pixel-size too. Only the viewport is smaller in Ubuntu because of the graphic fluff. Ideally the user would click on a target in the left image and a target on the right image. Because of the small viewport area, the target can be outside the displayed portion of the image and the user has to scroll first before having a chance to click on the target. The smaller the viewport, the higher the likelihood that scrolling is needed. The nature of the target (control point features) makes it impossible to assign keyboard shortcuts. hence in the trade-off between making the other targets faster to access and making the setting of control point faster, my choice is obvious. The same apply to many other situations, such as retouching in Photoshop or working on a large spreadsheet. I find that I am consistently faster with keyboard shortcuts rather than with the mouse (or in my case, the trackball and tablet that I use in alternance). The drawback is that keyboard shortcuts are not easy to remember, but there are plenty of well designed cheat-sheets and a glance at the cheat-sheet is always faster than moving the pointer device. Until we get laser pointers…

    I miss my self-built light-pen for the Commodore 64 and wish there was something similar to access the nearly 4 megapixels in front of me (I’ve upgraded one of the displays to 1920×1200).

    @Franck: When comparing Windows to Linux, you’re right. Try a Mac. I switched from Mac (OS7) to Windows because my desk at work was Windows-powered and I felt it was too much effort to maintain (redundant) knowledge of two desktops OS. Playing with Tiger recently reminded me of the Mac advantage. Too bad Apple is not ready (yet) to unbundle the software (great) from the hardware (not my taste). I wish the commerce department would give Apple the same attention and love it has given to Microsoft over its bundling…

    Still, for some things I find better usability in Windows. PuTTY is the best terminal application I have ever seen on a desktop, with fantastic handling of such functionality as copy&paste. And I have not found yet anything better integrated than TortoiseSVN to access SVN repositories. And TortoiseSVN is one of those applications where the GUI brings advantages over the CLI.

  15. I found this site looking for a solution to the problem you’re experiencing. That is: These themes: Human and Clearlooks use way too much whitespace.

    I found a version of both themes that are minimalized. The link is here: http://martin.ankerl.com/2008/05/13/human-compact-gnome-theme/

  16. That is so true. Yes, of course you can tweak it, but is it SO hard to have reasonable defaults? “Human Compact” theme shows that you can really save a lot of space there, but it still feels “hacked” (e.g. left padding is too small for some titles).

  17. I just want to commend you for this blog post, as I have similar thoughts, and every so often when I google for them, your post always shows up. More people need to speak up about UI issues like this in the Linux community – not many people notice them, but their presence often makes the whole desktop experience that much less usable, and its look that much less professional.

    Ubuntu has taken great strides recently especially with the 11.10 release, where Unity is a lot more polished, but this underlying problem still remains there and in Gnome 3.

  18. I realize that this is a very old post, but I just want to say I’ve always had this problem in gnome, and now in MATE. I’ve also noticed this problem in general with Linux GUIs.. and I’m surprised that few people have recognized this issue considering that most Linux users are very technical oriented and you’d think they would appreciate efficiency and not wasting screen space. Your article is the first thing that pops up when I google “gnome is too big”.. and I can’t find any other meaningful discussion about this topic on other sites. which is sad.

    This is especially noticeable when using eclipse. Eclipse on windows is great. Eclipse on Linux however is so freaking huge, it’s bizarre.

    In general I haven’t found a good or easy solution to this. All of the solutions I’ve seen here aren’t really solutions because they involve changing the theme to something ugly that doesn’t really solve the problem, or because they involve some really ugly hacks to some text file. What I’ve done is reduce the dpi in the appearance settings to something around 84 or 72, which helps somewhat as it reduces the overall size of the fonts, although it doesn’t really solve the problem either because I think the padding between the icons don’t really decrease either.

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