GNOME and KDE: Seven Attractions In Each

Published on: March 9, 2010
Last Updated: March 9, 2010

GNOME and KDE: Seven Attractions In Each

Published on: March 9, 2010
Last Updated: March 9, 2010

Despite all the talk about the mythical Year of the Linux Desktop, somewhere in the last few years, free software passed a milestone without anyone noticing.

At some point, after years of struggling to rival proprietary desktops, both GNOME and KDE have caught up in features and narrowed the gap in usability. We are now at a point where free software is often an innovator on the desktop.

Of course, GNOME and KDE have long had features that Windows lacked, such as multiple desktops and finer controls for customizing the user experience.

However, in the last few years, both major free desktops have added features that show not only an interest in usability, but, at times, an effort to anticipate what users might actually want.

The focus is by no means consistent, yet scattered here and there are features that can make any user glad that they’re using a open source desktop.

Your list of such features might vary, but here’s my shortlist for both GNOME and KDE:

Seven Attractions In GNOME

In 2001, the GNOME Usability Study Report, sponsored by Sun Microsystems, made GNOME the first free desktop to examine the desktop experience. Since then, GNOME has codified usability in its Human Interface Guidelines.

These guidelines are sometimes applied too literally, or as though they were the only consideration.

But over the years, they have given GNOME an understated look and a high degree of efficiency. Applied well, the guidelines have resulted in some welcome features:

The Multiple Time Zone Clock

The panel clock in GNOME can be configured to display the time in multiple locations. If you regularly deal with people in different locations, this feature is far handier than looking up time zones every time you want to arrange a meeting or a phone call.

You can also access to do lists and calendars from the clock, although these are less useful since most GNOME users probably have Evolution open all the time they are logged in, anyway.

In GNOME, you can add an icon for any program to the panel. If you are icon-oriented, rather than menu-oriented, this ability makes the panel an ideal place for applications that you use too irregularly to put on the desktop, but still want accessible. However, this is a feature that is still missing in the KDE 4 series.

The Desktop Settings Dialog

Sometimes, GNOME’s Human Interface Guidelines oversimplify and take choices away from users.

By contrast, the Appearance Settings dialog in GNOME is generally an example of the guidelines being applied successfully.

Opened by selecting Change Desktop Background from the desktop context menu, the dialog consists of a number of tabs, most of which offer customization of a single feature.

The exception is for fonts, and complicated only by settings for different font locations.

Unfortunately, in Ubuntu’s Karmic release, the effect is spoiled by a Visual Effects tab, which oversimplified by describing three different levels of animation while failing to offer detailed choices, but the rest of the dialog balances simplicity with options.

A Simple Web-Cam App

OK, Cheese is a bit cheesy, with its filters to distort faces. Yet it’s still the only easy-to-use controller for a web camera on any open source desktop.

Multiple Email Signature Lines

Evolution, GNOME’s email reader, supports multiple signatures that can be used with any configured account.

Although you can set the default, you can just as easily choose one from the upper right corner of the Compose Message window and have it automatically appended to your email.

If you want to share different bits of personal information with different recipients, or perhaps include a quotation in messages to friends but not to messages to possible employers, this simple feature is ideal.

Panel Drawers:

A drawer is a GNOME applet that you can drop icons into, creating a rough and ready menu that you can keep open while you work.

It’s a convenient way to create custom sets of icons, and to keep the panel from becoming too cluttered.

With some patience, you might create the same convenience with the menu editor, but you’d take much longer to do so.

The one problem is that neither drawers nor their contents support icon text, but you can overcome this problem by a careful selection of icons.

Using Non-Specific Basic Applications

For some years, GNOME has emphasized two productivity applications that are not heavily tied to a specific desktop: OpenOffice.org and Firefox.

Given the mature feature sets of both applications, this decision seems only sensible. GNOME still includes AbiWord and Gnumerics, the remnants of efforts to build an office suite, and some distros also include Epiphany, GNOME’s default lightweight Mozilla-based browsers.

But these applications are largely sideshows. By contrast, KDE still emphasizes both KOffice and the Konqueror browser, despite their relatively small followings.

Seven Attractions In KDE

The KDE 4 series of releases has taken more than its share of criticism since it began two years ago. Granted, the series was a radical re-design, but I’ve never understood the reaction.

So far as I’m concerned, the desktop only became innovative and interesting with the KDE 4 series. Here are some of the features I especially appreciate:

Folder View

Once jokingly referred to as the end of desktop icons, Folder View has proved the icon user’s best friend.

Essentially a divorce of desktop content from the desktop, Folder View gives users the power of maintaining different sets of icons for different tasks, and of switching quickly between sets. It’s a powerful tool that, for some reason, many users still underestimate.

Tabbed Windows

New in the recent 4.4 release, tabbed windows allow the grouping of several windows into one.

This ability not only reduces desktop clutter, but allows users to group related tasks together. In many ways, tabbed windows seem a natural extension of Activities and Folder View in giving users more organizational choices on the desktop.

Edge Actions

Edge actions are eight hot spots along the edges of the desktop. Move the mouse to one of the hot spots, and a pre-defined action takes place, such as showing all open windows on a cube.

My own favorite action is Present All Windows – Current Desktop, which temporarily shows all open windows at a small enough size that you can see them all at once.

In the 4.4 release, edge actions have been joined by the ability to maximize a window by moving it against the top, or to tile it by moving it to one side. My only complaint is that the selection of programmable options is still relatively limited.

Font Manager

When I was a GNOME user, the font manager was sometimes the only reason I kept KDE installed.

The font manager remains an essential tool for me in my design work, both as a kind of dedicated file viewer for fonts, and because of the preview for each font in the general list.

Translucency And Dim Inactive Windows Effects

Ordinarily, I care little about compositing effects, partly because I choose to use free video drivers that don’t support them, and partly because I am not much for eye candy.

But KDE has several genuinely useful ones. Translucency makes windows transparent as you are moving them, allowing you to see the other windows beneath them and making positioning easier.

Dim Inactive Windows is similarly useful in navigating through a pile of open windows, because it displays only the active window as fully lit.

While I have to remember to change the focus before I take screen shots, that’s a small price to pay for the greater general convenience.

Icon Management

Part of the settings for each Folder view are detailed configuration options for icons.

For each Folder View, you can set the size of its icons, the text color and the number of lines that the text can occupy.

Better yet, KDE has provided for those of us who like to arrange icons from left to right, instead of top to bottom, and includes options to align icons on a grid and to lock them in place.

Completist Apps

In the 19th Century, people wrote books that were supposed to be the definitive word on their subjects — the most notable, of course, was Origin of the Species.

For some reason, KDE has attracted developers whose apparent goal is to be equally definitive in software categories, such as Amarok in music players and DigiKam in image management.

The result is applications that have every feature you can think of and often several that you never expected, but rapidly come to appreciate all the same.

You might accuse such applications of being bloated, but another way to look at them is as proof of the maturity of free software. Often, they far exceed anything found in proprietary software.

The Best Of Times

I expected a list of what I appreciated to be much harder to generate than last week’s list of KDE GNOME irritations. In fact, the hard part was confining the lists to manageable lengths.

For KDE, I might have expressed appreciation for the new Gwenview and Okular, respectively the image and document viewers, or for Marble, KDE’s answer to Google Earth and Maps.

Similarly, for GNOME, I might have mentioned the advanced accessibility in Orca (although I don’t use it personally), or the Shutter screen capture utility.

Over the years, both GNOME and KDE have attracted a healthy ecosystem of related applets, widgets, and applications, offering a wealth of features that are either unavailable on proprietary desktops, or else only available at additional cost and under restrictive licenses.

That, really, is the point of listing some of the attractions of the two major free desktops. Both still need improvements, and will evolve along with users’ needs. But despite such qualifications, there’s never been a better time to be an open source software user.

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Written by Bobby

Bobby Lawson is a seasoned technology writer with over a decade of experience in the industry. He has written extensively on topics such as cybersecurity, cloud computing, and data analytics. His articles have been featured in several prominent publications, and he is known for his ability to distill complex technical concepts into easily digestible content.