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So Many Linux Desktops: Which One is Best? - page 2

GNOME in a Nutshell

  • August 10, 2009
  • By Bruce Byfield

KDE Summarized

Begun in 1996, KDE was the first effort to build a complete desktop for GNU/Linux, as opposed to the lightweight window managers that many people were using before. For several years, it was controversial because of the then-proprietary license for Qt, the developers' toolkit with which it is built.

At one point, Debian even debated whether to remove KDE from its repositories. However, such issues have long been left behind, along with the original name, the K Desktop Environment.

KDE pays some attention to usability, but has been known to ignore it to some degree in favor of performance or of providing as many options as possible. KDE menus and options often seem less organized than GNOME's, but often provide far more options, especially for customization.

KDE changed dramatically with the release of version 4.0 in January 2008. This release was a major re-write of the previous version, and showed a major rethinking of the desktop as smaller releases followed.

Changes included a default menu that no longer opened up like an accordion to show every possible choice, the ability to quickly change icon sets, and a new concept called activities that is scheduled to replace virtual workspaces in another release or two. For a number of complicated reasons, this change infuriated many users, some of who insisted on staying with early releases.

But as new releases added features that were not available in 4.0, and users learned their way around the changes, the complaints have died out considerably, though some still linger. Still, it is probably true that the current KDE will be less familiar than GNOME to those coming from another operating system.

One mitigating feature of KDE is that, even when it makes changes in the default setup, it generally offers an alternative. For instance, the KDE 4 series' new menu can be replaced by the so-called Classic menu, or by another application called Lancelot. Although newcomers can miss these alternatives if they never think to right-click items or explore, for long-term KDE users, they can soften the trauma of some of the recent changes.

KDE has a long history of applications written especially for it. This history has resulted in a number of applications that are as complete in their category as anyone could imagine, such as the music player Amarok and the image manager digiKam. It has also resulted in Kontact, a collection of personal information and productivity apps such as KMail that offers far more features than GNOME's Evolution.

KDE also includes its own web browser, Konqueror, which continues to have strong support, even though many users prefer Firefox. Konqueror can also double as a file manager, although in the 4.x series, the role of file manager has been largely filled by Dolphin.

Currently, however, some applications have not released versions for the KDE 4 series. The older versions still run, but sometimes give the desktop a disorganized appearance, with the old and new interfaces visually clashing.

Like GNOME, KDE also has some radical changes ahead -- although none so radical as KDE 4.0. These include additions that will add social computing tools directly to existing applications, and remote widgets -- tools that you will be able to transfer from another computer's desktop to your own. Such tools place KDE at the head of desktop innovation, but raise problems of complexity and security that some users may prefer not to handle.

Several distributions use KDE by default, including Mandriva and Kubuntu. It tends to be more popular in Europe than North America, but, even in North America, it has a quarter to a third of the GNU/Linux desktop.

The Xfce Alternative

Many users think of Xfce as a new desktop. However, the only thing new about Xfce is its interest in usability over the last couple of years, and its emergence as an alternative to both GNOME and KDE in the last few years.

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