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Gnome and KDE Wrestle With Menus

Classic Menus, Newfangled Fancy Thingies

  • September 30, 2009
  • By Bruce Byfield
Bruce Byfield

If you believe that desktop features can be intuitive, then a survey of the available menus in free and open source (FOSS) desktops should disabuse you of the notion.

Although many desktop features, such as the panel, differ in only minor ways between desktops, menus are another matter. GNOME, KDE, and Xfce all offer beginners a classic menu with sub-menus that open out across the desktop.

But KDE also offers two more advanced choices, Kickoff and Lancelot. In addition, both GNOME and KDE include minimalist menu tools best suited for advanced users. A survey of these choices makes for an interesting study in interface design and user preference.

Classic Menus

For years, the classic menu was the standard on all computer desktops. It has gone through several variations, including Windows' dynamic menus that only display the items you use most often until you expand them, and GNOME's division into a menu bar with top level menus for applications, places, and system configuration. But the basic idea does not vary much.

The main challenge of the classic menu is to decide what to include in it. Although Debian has for years maintained a menu that is three or four layers deep, in general FOSS desktops seem to have rejected complete listings of applications, largely on the grounds that they make finding a specific program hard to find. Complete listing menus can spill out over a considerable amount of the desktop when you open the lowest level sub-menu.

For these reasons, classic menus in FOSS have often favored providing only a partial list of applications -- and, in the last few years, a menu editor for customization. This solution has the advantage of not overwhelming new users with too many choices. But the disadvantage that some applications are effectively hidden and may never be learned.

Another potential weakness of classic menus is that users are often searching, not for a program, but for a hardware device or file, which may require using another tool than the menu to find.

With its Places menu, the GNOME menu bar is one partial solution to this problem. GNOME also includes the Drawer applet, which is essentially a custom menu or toolbar that can include favorites or applications for a particular task.

The classic menu remains a popular choice, and all major operating systems, free or proprietary, offer it as a choice -- although, as in KDE, the choice may be hidden in the main menu's right-click context menu. However, because of the classic menu's shortcomings, desktop designers are increasingly looking for alternatives.

KDE: Kickoff vs. Lancelot

Since the 4.0 release, KDE has defaulted to the Kickoff menu. Inspired by the Windows Vista menu, Kickoff divides the menu into five separate views: Favorites; Applications; Computer, which includes system settings and common destinations in the directory structure; Recently Used, which includes both applications and documents, and Leave, which includes a number of options for what to do when you have finished your work.

In each view, only one menu level is visible at the time, which means that you must use the arrows at each side to move through the menus. In addition, a search menu with tab completion helps you to find items quickly.

Kickoff solves the most pressing problems of classic menus by using views to reduce the number of items visible at one time, and by keeping the menu within a single window. But the trouble is, this solution has problems of its own.

To start with, the views remain unconfigurable, and many people have complained that Leave does not really belong in it. More importantly, Applications remains the most heavily populated view, so in some ways Kickoff is simply embedding a classic menu in a more complex view.

Even more importantly, by displaying only one menu level at a time, Kickoff can actually make navigation cumbersome. You cannot see other levels in Kickoff, and moving to another sub-level in particular requires several more mouse clicks than in a classic menu.

Not everyone sees Kickoff as having these problems. Yet enough do that in most distributions KDE is now shipping with Lancelot, a complete replacement for Kickoff.

Looking even more like a Vista clone, Lancelot seems designed to address many of the criticisms of Kickoff. The views are reduced to four -- Applications, Computer, Contacts, and Documents -- and exiting options are available by clicking an icon in a toolbar that also includes options for locking the desktop and switching users.

Similarly, Lancelot displays several menu sub-levels at once. If the view gets cramped, you can expand drag on the corners to expand the size of the menu window, something that you are supposed to be able to do with Kickoff, but is disabled in some distributions.

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