The new GNOME 3.38 release comes with a crop of new features and welcome improvements — and in this post we take a closer look at ten of the best!

GNOME 3.38 is neater, faster, and prettier than any version to date

GNOME 3.38 is released on September 16. While the desktop environment offers all of the changes you see listed below do be aware that their availability will vary from distro to distro. Accordingly, some of what follows may be renamed, relocated, or removed as part of downstream packaging processes.

Although you can’t install GNOME 3.38 on Ubuntu 20.04 LTS (or earlier) this version of the desktop environment will feature in Ubuntu 20.10 (due for release on October 22, 2020). Keep in mind that Ubuntu does not ship a standard/stock/default GNOME Shell experience so some features below won’t be present.

Understood? Grand — let’s dive in to see what’s new!

GNOME 3.38’s New Features

1. New Welcome Tour App

GNOME 3.38 feature: Welcome Tour

A new GNOME Tour app is included. This acts as a greeter, guide, and primer to the “default” GNOME Shell experience. It points out core elements of the desktop UI, e.g., Activities button, message tray, etc to better orient users old and new in the way that GNOME Shell works.

While the new tour app won’t be that useful to anyone well versed in how GNOME Shell functions it’s nonetheless a well-intentioned addition that compliments the Initial Setup tool added a few releases back.

2. Improved Fingerprint Support

GNOME 3.38 feature: fingerprint login

Lucky enough to own a device with a fingerprint reader? If so, you’ll appreciate the touches devs have made to the fingerprint password/authentication flow.

A big chunk of the work was contributed by Ubuntu developers (and was back-ported to Ubuntu 20.04 LTS). In GNOME 3.38 the the new fingerprint enrolment UI, pictured above, is accessible from the Users section of the Settings app to all users on all distros, hardware dependent.

3. Better Applications Grid

GNOME applications grid on a wide monitor

The Applications grid in GNOME 3.38 features all of the changes we previewed on this blog earlier this year.

For example, each ‘page’ in the applications grid displays a fixed number of items — 24. The exact arrangement of rows, columns and margin per page varies depending on the size of the screen in use.

Not only does the grid make better use of screen space where and when it makes sense, but shortcut icons scale down gracefully on lower-res screens too.

The ‘Frequent Apps’ tab is gone so devs have added support for custom positions. This lets you rearrange and organise your apps exactly how you want. You can, for example, move your most used apps to the first row on the first page.

GNOME 3.38: app folder pagination
Paginated app folders feature in this update

App folders use pagination when more than 9 items are present. Icons in folders support custom positioning too (though you can’t drag an app shortcut out of one folder and drop it into another; you need to drop it on the grid, then drag it to the desired folder instead).

Custom positions are a nice “have” given there are no user-facing options for sorting how app shortcuts appear. And the adaptive look, while not instantly obvious on regular-sized screens, helps finesse the overall fit and finish of the shell.

4. Restart Option in System Menu

GNOME 3.38 features: restart option

GNOME 3.38 shows a visible Restart option in the System Menu — finally!

Ground breaking this change isn’t but welcome it most surely is! While it’s always been possible to access a restart option in GNOME Shell — you just need to know where to look for it first (spoiler: select “Power Off”) — making it more explicitly present is a real time saver.

5. Show Battery Percentage Option

There’s an ongoing effort to make GNOME Tweaks surplus to requirements. How? By relocating the utility’s most popular options to the relevant parts of the GNOME Settings app. Case in point is the ‘show battery’ toggle.

When using GNOME 3.38 on a portable device (with a physical battery present) a ‘show battery percentage’ toggle is present in the power menu, negating the need to install extra apps or fiddle with hidden config values.

6. New Parental Controls

GNOME devs shied away from shipping a new Multitasking panel (to house yet-more options ported over from GNOME Tweaks) but they did find permission (heh) to add new parental controls.

When creating or managing a ‘child’ account in the Users panel there’s now an option to turn on Parental Controls. When active this provide options to:

  • Restrict web browsers
  • Restrict specific applications
  • Block new app installs
  • Set age rating for apps

Most people using GNOME Shell likely do so on a single user system. This kinda makes the inclusion of parental controls a bit of a superfluous sounding feature. But those who do let their kids use Linux, as well as those who loan their portable to other people, the new controls will find appreciation.

7. GNOME Maps

GNOME 3.38 features: maps night mode

A handle of new features are signposted in GNOME’s desktop navigation app Maps in GNOME 3.38.

For one, Maps is now responsive (i.e. mobile friendly). The whole UI adapts and scales beautifully as the window is made more narrow. As part of the new design the routing sidebar now adapts to the window width (a minor tweak that makes the app look much nicer).

The optional satellite view is finally useful. It now shows location-based labels to, y’know, help you know what you’re looking at! The lack of location labels was a strange oversight in previous version so is a fix sure to be welcomed by many!

Finally, to the pleasure of eyeballs everywhere, Maps has a new ‘night mode’ option. This can be toggled on independently of the system dark mode setting, or activated globally.

8. Web Improvements

GNOME 3.38: web

GNOME Web aka Epiphany takes a couple steps closer to being a viable full-time browser in this update.

Biggest change? Web blocks websites from playing autoplay videos with sound by default. This behaviour can be tweaked to suit your needs and even configured to block all videos on specific sites — finally I can risk visiting a mainstream tech site!

Not only that but you can now easily mute/unmute audio on individual tabs by clicking the sound icon in the tab button.

Web also supports a new URL scheme for its built-in reader mode (grr lol) allowing users to link specifically to a parsed version of a web page; can import Chromium browser data (and presumably Chrome too); and all of the browser’s in-app preferences dialogs sports modest design changes.

9. QR Code Wifi Hotspots

GNOME 3.38 features: Qr code hotspots

GNOME has made it much easier to share your laptop’s internet connection with mobile devices. Next time you want to turn your laptop into a portable Wi-Fi hotspot for mobile devices to connect to just snap the QR Code shown in the Wi-Fi panel using a compatible mobile app.

10. Screenshot Dialog

GNOME 3.38 features: screenshot redesign

I’ve not exactly left the most breathtaking, jaw-dropping, expectation-annihilating GNOME 3.38 change until last but as the humble screenshot utility is one I use a lot (I’m a blogger) I certainly appreciate the new look it’s sporting in GNOME 3.38, pictured above.

Alas the changes are only pixel deep. It’d be great to see GNOME expand on its screenshot capabilities a bit. For instance, it’d be useful if the ‘selection’ option could remember the dimensions/position in the same session, and some kind of notification to say ‘screenshot successful’ (ideally with an action to view the image in Nautilus or open it in Eye of GNOME would be great.

Other Changes

Every new version of GNOME is crammed full of smaller, but no less welcome changes, bug fixes, and the such. A handful of notable ones of interest:

  • Built-in screen recorder makes use of Pipewire for improved performance
  • The Sound Recorder app has been redesigned
  • Mic icon changes to reflect active/muted status
  • Tracker file indexing engine now uses distributed database model
  • Photos app has a reverse-engineered version of Instagram’s “Clarendon” filter
  • New “Add World Clock” dialog in Clocks
  • GJS based on Spidermonkey v78
  • Set a snooze and ring duration for alarms in Clocks
  • Various new icons, including Cheese and Calculator
  • Consistent empty status for Weather and Clocks in message tray
  • Calendar events now sit beneath the calendar in message tray
  • Better handling of monitor refresh rates in Wayland

You will be able to learn more about all of the changes above (plus a few I’ve likely missed) when the GNOME 3.38 release is live (due September 15). Naturally we’ll carry word of the official release announcement (and a link to the new release video) is out, here on the blog.

Update: it’s now out.

Any changes you’re excited to try? Let me know your thoughts below
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