Heaps of tweaks and improvements incoming with GNOME 42

The go-to desktop for Ubuntu, Fedora, and SUSE improves its fit and polish


After the project reorganized its version numbering, GNOME 42 consolidates the ongoing modernization effort. Bear in mind, we're describing the release candidate, so some of the details might change before it comes out.

The Reg looked at GNOME 40 about a year ago. That was a major release, and one of the big changes was new human-interface guidelines. That continued in GNOME 41 and the process is not finished yet.

The big new thing remains Gtk4, the underlying programming toolkit used to implement GNOME and all GNOME apps. Gtk4 includes a new library called libadwaita, which governs the appearance of GNOME apps. You might remember the name "Adwaita" from what used to be the default theme in earlier versions of GNOME. The word means "the only one" in Sanskrit and, in part, libadwaita is the outcome of a long-running argument about theme in the Gtk ecosystem.

One of the triggers was when the developer of a popular icon theme made a position statement that he did not provide icons for third-party applications, because he respected their own branding.

This led to a request from a group of GNOME developers asking downstream integrators to stop themeing their apps.

Earlier versions of GNOME didn't really have system-wide themes support. They just had one theme.

In Gtk4, libadwaita turned this into a platform-wide look. The new library replaces the old libhandy library.

Underneath, GNOME themes are CSS stylesheets, and libadwaita builds in an official one, meaning all apps that use it should look similar. GNOME 42 continues the process of moving all of its component apps over to Gtk4.

The main GNOME Shell has been tweaked, rather than overhauled. Its rounded corners have gone, on-screen indicators are smaller, and thumbnails have disappeared from the workspace switcher.

One of the most visible GNOME apps is the Settings app, which under the hood is called gnome-control-center.

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Many of the applets in Settings received a redesign in this version, notably Display and Applications. Under Sharing, the screen-sharing option for remote support now uses RDP, not VNC. There's a new pane for the GNOME Boxes desktop hypervisor. Under "Users", the option for fingerprint recognition is back.

The Files app has had a fairly big revamp, with a new path bar which contains a menu button. Searching now includes the ability to search by creation date, and the file-rename pop-up is wider and clearer. The Undo and Redo options have moved to the program's main menu.

The new look extends to many of GNOME's built-in applications, including the Baobab disk-usage analyzer, the calculator, the clock app, the character map, the Fonts tool, the Contacts app, the To-Do list manager, and the GNOME Tour.

The GNOME Software tool has seen extensive changes. As of version 42 it prioritizes exact matches in the search function, and it will automatically cancel ongoing software downloads if your laptop's power runs low. It can also detect if your network connection is metered or not, and it will only download updates if you switch to an unmetered connection. As GNOME Software supports Flatpaks, and they can be big, that's useful. App descriptions can now contain markup, and Software will highlight recommendations from the Apps for GNOME site.

A new Appearance pane replaces Background – although it can still change the wallpaper. It now includes support for the new global dark mode, and all the built-in wallpaper images have light/dark versions. Switching between light and dark modes fades in and out. Note, though, that the new dark mode uses Gtk4, so it won't work with Gtk3 apps.

GNOME 42 includes some new and replacement apps, such as the new Console which replaces the old GNOME Terminal. The new Text Editor replaces the venerable GEdit. While both aim to be simpler and easier to use than their forerunners, they still include useful new features; so, for example, Text Editor has autosave, and the open-file pop-over includes a search function.

The Screenshot app has improved. Just a press of the "Print Screen" key and you're off. If you press Enter, it grabs whole screen, or you can select an area. If you press Shift+PrsSc, it grabs current window. So far, though, it does not offer a delay before the grab. However, usefully, it can record video.

Telephony and Maps

The Calls telephony app has gained new abilities. It can show avatars, both in-call and in the call history. You can add people to Contacts from the call history, and it can handle telephone number URI.

Other apps have received minor but welcome improvements. GNOME Maps supports dark mode, has icons for U-turns and turn-by-turn when it's giving directions, and it can handle map URLs from the browser.

The Epiphany web browser has improved, hardware-accelerated scrolling, and its subsidiary PDF and Readability javascript applets are faster. The Eye of Gnome image viewer now has overlay scrollbars and smoother keyboard scrolling. The Tracker indexing tool uses 50 percent less memory and the Calendar applet's year view lets you pick the month.

In terms of overall performance tweaks, a new triple-buffering feature hasn't been integrated yet but should feature in the new Ubuntu release. Double-buffering for smoother display is well known, but triple-buffering less so: the rendering pipeline watches to see if the previous frame is likely to be overdue, and if so, it draws the next one into another buffer. This should particularly help GNOME 42 on the Raspberry Pi and on machines with Intel GPUs, where in tests, rendering went from 30 fps to 60 fps.

The GNOME JavaScript engine, GJS, is now based on Spidermonkey 91, the Mozilla JavaScript runtime from Firefox 91 ESR. Also, input event handling is no longer limited to the monitor refresh rate.

Finally, GNOME 42 boasts some improved hardware support. For years now, some laptops have boasted electronic privacy screens. Now GNOME has support for examples from Dell and Lenovo. The Bluetooth applet can show battery status, and supports connect and disconnect of Bluetooth LE devices.

GNOME 42 continues to integrate the bigger changes from the GNOME 40 release cycle, but Ubuntu users at least will be using this release for a few years to come. The GNOME environment continues to both grow and become more closely integrated, subsuming what was once third-party functionality, such as mapping and telephony. ®


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