HowTo: Gnome Shell Extensions and Themes

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HowTo: Gnome Shell Extensions and Themes

Postby grege » 2013-08-20 02:18

Gnome Shell can be modified in hundreds of ways through the use of Extensions. You cannot directly alter the appearance of toolbars and menus, but you can apply themes that can give you all sorts of effects.

To apply changes immediately you can restart the shell at any time by pressing Alt-F2 and then entering "r" in the dialog box and pressing enter. Running programs will continue to run, only the Shell restarts.

The first thing to learn is that both extensions and themes are version specific. If you try and load an extension written for Shell 3.4 into Shell 3.8 it will not even appear as an option. Writing extensions and editing metadata.json is a subject for another HowTo. Themes can work across versions but the result can be unexpected. A wrong theme can actually block the notification area (a common error). You must consider this when updating between versions. It is best to deactivate all extensions and themes prior to a Gnome Shell version jump. Then put them back.

Extensions can come from two sources - the normal Debian Repositories and from Extensions installed via a packet manager are stored in /usr/share/gnome-shell/extensions and are available to all users on a given computer. Extensions installed from are stored on you home folder in ~/.local/share/gnome-shell/extensions and are user specific. There is a lot of overlap between the two groups and conflicts can occur. If you stick to extensions in the packages gnome-shell-extensions and gnome-shell-extensions-weather then they should be updated with the shell. extensions, and any you may have manually added, must be deleted as there is no update mechanism for these extensions. To delete them you must delete the contents of ~/.local/share/gnome-shell/extensions, there is no tool or app to automate the process. There is talk of adding extension updates in a future version of the Shell. My preference is to only use extensions from, but there are good reasons to only use the ones from Debian or to mix and match. It is up to you.

Through Iceweasel or Chrome/Chromium you can directly install and activate extensions from the web page. Just select "On" from the "On/Off" switch on each page.

Extensions and themes are controlled from Gnome Tweak Tool. Tweak Tool is also used to configure the desktop, mouse, windows etc. You can activate a traditional desktop with icons and a desktop folder, but it is no longer the Gnome preferred way.


Themes are simple to apply. Firstly ensure you have a theme manager extension active, find a theme and unzip it into the .themes folder in you home folder. If the folder does not exist then create it first. Then open Tweak Tool (sometimes listed as Advanced Settings) and select the themes tab and then use the pulldown menu to select from the list.

Themes can be found at My current favourite theme is XGnome Enhanced as it provides nice fonts and transparency to the toolbars.


There are so many Extensions that it is not sensible to try and list them or explain their function. There are more than 20 pages of extensions for each version of the shell at Note that some extensions can conflict, they are nearly all written by third parties and only trial and error can resolve an issue. If you add an extension and another stops working then a conflict has occurred and you may need to use Tweak Tool and a Shell restart to go back.

You can bend and twist Gnome Shell to look and act in many many ways. It is only limited by your imagination and willingness to have a go. Gnome Shell is a tinkerer's paradise. It is relatively easy to recreate the overall look and feel of Gnome 2.x if that is your desire. Where an extension has internal options they can be set from within Tweak Tool.

My desktop and extension list changes often, but this is my current list and what each one does

User Themes: Obvious

Impatience: This is for those who find Gnome Shell slow, it speeds up all animations until they appear instantaneous.

Taskbar: Adds an extension to top toolbar that is a window switcher, plus access the the Programs page, desktop switching and show desktop. Running programs are shown as icons with a hover preview. I also use this to turn off the Top Left Hot Corner, an option in Taskbar, so I do not constantly select the shell task switcher every time I miss the back button in Chrome. There is a standalone Hot Corner extension, but you do not need both.

Dash to Dock: This extension simply replicates the Gnome Dash as a Dock on the left side of screen (but not the top left). It auto hides and is a simple favourites program launcher. When used with the XGnome Enhanced Theme it is also semi transparent.

Removable Drive Menu: Provides an icon on top toolbar to mount and unmount devices. I find it easier than using the bottom notification area.

Weather: Obvious

I change my wallpaper through standard Gnome Settings.

That is it, it is not hard and can be fun. Use Iceweasel or Chome/Chromium to visit and have a look at what is available.

Please reply with your favourite extensions and what they do, or any corrections to my HowTo.

Gnome haters please refrain from comment, there are plenty of other threads to vent your anger.
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