Evince and the Detriments of Oversimplification

Very recently, the newest version of Ubuntu, 13.10, was released and I, running Xubuntu on my netbook, upgraded to it. While, as with most software version updates, most of the programs which were upgraded either remained at a level with imperceptible differences or improved, one specific program which I use rather frequently was changed drastically.

The program in question was Evince, the GNOME-developed document reader for PDF, DjVu and other similar files. Clearly, somewhere between the last version of Evince that I had used on Xubuntu 13.04 and the new version on Xubuntu 13.10, somebody in the GNOME team decided that it would be a good idea to dramatically change the graphical interface. Away went the menus and, as far as I can tell, the ability to customise the icon bar and in its place was placed the sort of user interface familiar to users of Google Chrome, with minimalism the order of the day, a few icons across the top and a single menu button placed on the right-hand side of the screen rather than the left.

I’m not a fan. My very first post for this blog criticised Google Chrome for exactly the same reasons, but at least Chrome started out like that. Evince had a serviceable interface, if not exceptional by my standards, but the new changes are not at all to my taste. The context provided by the menus to the options contained within them has disappeared, the remaining menu options are placed on what I perceive to be the wrong side of the screen and the removal of the icon bar customisation options make it slower to do what I want.

At this point, some of you may be thinking that the way to get around the minimalism of the user interface is to learn the keyboard equivalents of the commands I want. To be fair, I have used some very minimalistic and very idiosyncratic programs, including the ed text editor and other programs with very little graphical indication of what is going on. On the other hand, PDF is by its nature a graphical medium and it would therefore fit to have a program which uses graphics extensively in its interface.

On my main desktop, I use openSUSE 12.3 with the KDE interface, and my document viewer in that operating system is therefore Okular, the KDE equivalent of Evince. While I understand that KDE’s heavyweight support of features over minimalism isn’t to everybody’s taste, Okular is one of the best PDF readers that I’ve used, with an interface that I can tool closer to my liking than many other document readers, with an accurate depiction of the typography of the page. (Compared to this, I am not impressed by the typographic depiction done by Evince; it appears on my netbook at least to align typefaces to pixel boundaries rather than subpixel boundaries, giving a very disappointing image with many misaligned fonts.)

I’d be inclined to use Okular on my netbook as well, if it wasn’t for the fact that to install Okular, you need to install the entire KDE desktop environment on your computer. There wouldn’t be much point in doing that without using KDE as the desktop environment – and on a netbook with an Intel Atom processor running at 1.6GHz, there isn’t much hope of it running quickly enough to satisfy my needs. This doesn’t leave me with many options – Adobe Reader and Foxit Reader are both too proprietary for my liking, Evince’s interface is poor and its font rendering is, at least in my experiences, shoddy, Okular requires an entire desktop environment to be installed and most other options are too obscure or too old to consider.

Perhaps the best step would be to move towards an even more minimalistic document reader in the guise of MuPDF; at least with this, the minimalism is to be expected and the keyboard shortcuts are therefore correspondingly more intuitive. All I can hope is that not everybody decides to go towards a Google Chrome-style interface – I’d rather use command-line programs all day long than have to deal with that sort of compromise.

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