Gnome 3 Desktop: What It Is And How It Works

Your desktop will never be the same

Woman using Gnome Files app on a laptop in an office.

Original Image: Getty Images 

GNOME is a desktop environment for the Linux operating system. It is simply one of the most solid desktop environments you will find, regardless of platform.

The Linux desktop is all about choice. One of the biggest choices you can make is what desktop environment (DE) you should use. With Linux, there are a wide variety of DEs available. One such DE is GNOME. GNOME was originally an acronym for GNU Object Modelling Environment, however that acronym was dropped as it no longer reflects the direction of the project.

What Exactly is a Desktop Environment?

Simply put, a desktop environment is a bundle of programs that work together to form a cohesive, unified, seamless, interactive computer workspace for users. Or, to put it even more simply: The DE is the user interface that allows you to easily interact with the operating system. In the case of GNOME, that operating system is Linux. Without a DE, users would be relegated to using the command line … a choice that wouldn’t be terribly popular.

Now that you understand what a DE is, let’s take a look at what makes GNOME special.

The Interface

A screenshot showing the simplicity of the GNOME desktop.

Some claim that GNOME 3 (the latest release of which is 3.30) was originally designed to work best with touch interfaces. Although that may seem true, GNOME 3 was designed with the idea of getting out of the way of productivity. To that end, the desktop might seem very minimal to some. It’s not. In fact, the interface has been incredibly well designed with very distinctive pieces that work seamlessly together. With these pieces you can launch any of the installed applications, assign applications as favorites, search your desktop, get notified, and more.

Let’s take a look at the constituent pieces that come together to make up the GNOME 3 desktop.

Activities Overview

A screenshot showing the GNOME activities overview.

The Activities Overview is the heart of the GNOME 3 desktop. By clicking the Activities button, clicking the Super (aka “Windows”) key, or hovering your cursor in the upper left corner of the desktop, an overview window will appear that gives you access to your favorite applications, the search tool, virtual desktops, and the Dash. The Activities Overview also allows you to select from running, minimized applications.

The Dash

A screenshot showing the GNOME dash.

The Dash is a crucial element of GNOME 3. On the Dash, you’ll find launchers for those applications that are assigned as favorites, and add/remove any installed applications you want as favorites. There is also a very important button at the bottom of the Dash (a square of nine circles). Click on that button to reveal the Application Overview (which displays all of the installed applications). You can then either click the Frequent or the All button to filter the results. An even easier method of location the app in question is by using the search tool. Type in a search string for the application and, when the application appears, hit Enter (or click on the launcher) to open said app.

A screenshot showing how to add an app to the GNOME favorites.

From the Application Overview, you can also add apps to the Dash as favorites. To do this, locate the app in question, right-click its launcher, and select Add to Favorites. As you might expect, you can also remove launchers from the Dash. To do so, right-click the launcher in question and select Remove from Favorites.

The Search

A screenshot showing how GNOME search can be used to install applications.

The GNOME Search tool is far more powerful than you might think. It’s not only capable of searching for installed applications and files, but from it you can search for an application that isn’t currently installed and then open GNOME Software (the GNOME Application Store) to that app for installation. One of the more important features of the Search tool, however, is actually searching for files on your local drive. To do this, open Activities Overview and type your search string. When the file you’re looking for appears, click on it to open.

A screenshot showing how to search for files in GNOME.

The Calendar and Notifications

A screenshot showing GNOME's calendar.

If you click on the Date/Time in the top center of the desktop, the GNOME Calendar will be revealed. In this popup, an interactive calendar and notification window appears. Although in the current iteration, you cannot add events to this calendar popup, there are rumors that it will be an option in future releases. You can, however, add your Google Calendar to this, by doing the following:

  1. Open the Activities Overview
  2. Search for Settings
  3. Open the Settings app
  4. Click Online Accounts
  5. Select Google
  6. Walk through the account wizard
A screenshot showing how to add a Google account to GNOME.

Once you complete the wizard, the Calendar will populate from your Google account. Do give the calendar time to sync (depending on how full your calendar is, this can take some time).

Application Menus

GNOME Application menus have moved to the top of the screen.

After you open an application, you might be wondering where the application menu has gone. They’re there, just moved from the actual application window. For example, open the Firefox web browser. Once the application is open, you will see a Firefox drop-down next to the Activities button in the upper left corner. Click on the drop-down to reveal the Firefox application menu. Every application will have a different menu, some will have fewer entries (such as Firefox only containing the Quit option), while others will have a larger amount to choose from.

Some of GNOME's menus are hidden but revealed with a right-click.

You will also notice a lack of window control buttons (Close, Maximize, Minimize). To get those those functions, right-click on the application title bar, where you can easily manage the window containing the application.