Practical Technology

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GNOME 2.26’s 5 Best Features


ince I’ve grown disillusioned with the KDE 4.x interface to Linux, I’ve been spending more time using the GNOME desktop. With the recent release of GNOME 2.26, I’m really happy I made the move.

I started running GNOME 2.26 on the Ubuntu 9.04 alpha a few days ago, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised. While the Ubuntu 9.04 alpha 6 is still very much a work in progress, GNOME 2.26 manages to run like a charm on it. I’ll soon be installing it on my other Linux distributions.

So why do I like it so much? Let me count the ways:

1) Exchange/Outlook mail compatibility.

The reason I hear the most anymore about why people don’t switch to the Linux desktop isn’t about the desktop itself or office applications. It’s always about not being able to get to Exchange or not wanting to leave years of Outlook mail in the virtual trash can. Those excuses won’t fly any more.

That’s because the latest version of Evolution, my all time favorite e-mail/groupware client, now has two killer features for users who might migrate from Windows and Outlook to Linux and Evolution.

The first one is that you can now directly import Outlook PST (Personal Folders) files directly to Evolution. That means you can bring your e-mail, contacts, appointments, tasks, everything from Outlook to Evolution. In the past, the only way you could move PST files, was to jury-rig an export/import system. This, by the way, isn’t just a Linux problem. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to help people move their PST data just from one PC to another with different versions of Outlook, and I don’t even want talk about the pain I’ve had in getting Outlook PST information into Microsoft’s Entourage for Mac.

The new Evolution, in my experience with Outlook 2003 and 2007 PST files, just does it. No fuss, no muss. Frankly, I found it easier to get PST data into Evolution than it is to move it from one version of Outlook to another.

Evolution also now has support for Microsoft Exchange’s MAPI (Messaging Application Programming Interface) protocol. This is Outlook’s native protocol. You could always get Evolution to work with Exchange using its SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) protocol and OWA (Outlook Web Access), but older versions of Exchange didn’t support it and some system administrators didn’t enable this option. Now, no matter what version of Exchange you’re using, or how it’s set up, you’ll be able to replace Outlook with Evolution.

For business use, I think this may be the single most important update for the Linux desktop in years.

2) Improved and integrated CD/DVD burning

And, now for a completely fun change, Brasero, GNOME’s CD/DVD burner has seen some really nice improvements. The new feature list is impressive: audio CD burning with audio track preview, track splitting, and volume normalization; multi-session support; integrity checks; a cover editor; and support for multiple burning back-ends. But, what I really like is that the disc burning is now incorporated into the other GNOME application. So, if you’re enjoying the video you’re watching in the Media Player, you can just burn it right from the player on a DVD.

3) Media Player extender support

Speaking of Media Player, the GNOME 2.26 version can now play video and music from UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) or DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) compatible servers. So, for example, you can use your GNOME desktop to watch say a movie from your TVersity, TwonkyMedia, or even Windows Media Player 11 video library. Apple’s iTunes, however, is neither UPnP nor DLNA compatible so you can forget about streaming media from it to your GNOME desktop.

I was, however, able to easily stream media to my GNOME desktop with the other three media servers mentioned. GNOME makes this happen with the Coherence DLNA/UPnP client. I have no doubt that many other Linux audio and video player programmers will shortly be adding Coherence to their back-end. Since its open source and use the DBus API (application programming interface), it’s easy to implement in other media programs.

4) PulseAudio/Sound Preference integration

Going hand-in-hand with the improved Media Player, GNOME has integrated the PulseAudio audio server with a new Sound Preferences tool. The result is that you not only get great sound, you get a remarkable level of control over your audio system. It makes it much easier to pick and choose which devices you’ll use to play or record audio and how each device will handle the audio signal.

You could do this in the past, but it usually involved a lot of manual tweaking to get things just right. Now, you do it on the fly from an easy to use GUI. This may be a small thing, but, to me, it’s a very useful one.

5) Improved support for multiple monitors.

I don’t often use multiple monitors. Multiple computers with KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) switches, yes; multiple monitors, no. Except, and this is a big one, when I’m making a speech or teaching a class. Then, I really, really want to be able to see both my computer’s display and the one that everyone else is seeing.

With the revised Display Settings tool, I not only get a lot more control over my displays, the system will automatically reset each display individually to its last known good setting if something goes terribly wrong. And, as anyone who’s done much public speaking knows, something always goes terribly wrong with projectors when you most need them to work flawlessly.

Finally, GNOME 2.26 just looks good and it’s faster than its immediate ancestor. I’m running it on a Gateway 503GR. This PC uses a 3GHz Pentium IV CPU, 2GB of RAM, an ATI Radeon 250 graphics card, and a 300GB SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) hard drive. It is not, by 2009 standards, anything like a fast computer. Even so, I could tell in just a few minutes that the new GNOME was much more responsive on it than the last version had been.

Put it all together and you have an outstanding Linux desktop experience. If you’re already a GNOME user, I’d switch over as soon as your distribution supports it. If you’re a KDE user, you might want to give it a try, or at the least, look at its applications like Evolution and Brasero. I think you’ll like what you see.

A version of this story was first published in ComputerWorld.

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