KDE and GNOME: Seven Irritations in Each

Published on: May 20, 2023
Last Updated: May 20, 2023

KDE and GNOME: Seven Irritations in Each

Published on: May 20, 2023
Last Updated: May 20, 2023

Life in an Olympics-occupied city has left me grumpy. Ordinarily, I’m a tolerably contented desktop user, spending about three-quarters of my time in KDE and the rest in GNOME, with occasional forays into other desktops. But in the last two weeks, I’ve been noticing irritations in every interface I’ve used.

I’m not talking, you understand, about new features that annoy simply because they are unfamiliar.

I’m always curious about innovations — even failed ones — and I know that some can take a while to appreciate.

For instance, KDE’s Folder View, which initially seemed a needless complication, now seems to be a structure that allows greater flexibility and customization.

I suspect I will have the same sequence of reactions about GNOME-Shell when GNOME 3.0 gets released.

Instead, I’m talking about inconsistencies in the interface, design elements that are awkward or reduce users’ abilities to customize their desktops.

These irritations range from the minor to the major, and exist equally in both KDE and GNOME. Probably, some will always be present unless I have the chance to design my own desktop.

Seven Irritations in KDE

Holdouts still exist who find the whole of the KDE 4 series an irritant. By contrast, I never warmed to KDE until the KDE 4 series, which I consider the most innovative desktop available today.

Still, even with my high level of satisfaction, I keep mentally barking my shins against certain features:

The Device Notifier Eject Button

The Device Notifier is a widget that sits on the panel, listing external devices and suggesting actions to take with each device.

But although this design generally works well enough, it has one flaw: If you plug a flash drive into a USB port, no eject button displays.

That means that, if you suddenly realize that you have plugged in the wrong flash drive (and who doesn’t have half a dozen lying around these days?), you have to arbitrarily choose an action before the button appears.

You can, of course, always just remove the flash drive, but, personally, I always have a second of apprehension before I remind myself that I can do so without dire consequences.

Strangely, the problem does not exist with CD/DVDs, for which the eject button is always available.

Apps That Close to the Notification Tray

For reasons that escape me, a few applications such as Amarok do not shut down if you close their windows.

Unless you select Quit from the applications’ menus, they minimize to icons in the system tray, and you have to close them from there.

Admittedly, an icon in the system tray takes up less space than a minimized window in the taskbar, but space is never at that much of a premium, so what’s the point?

At the very least, you should be able to choose whether applications are minimized to the system tray.

In GNOME, you can change a panel’s background by right-clicking somewhere on the panel.

By contrast, in KDE, although you can customize other aspects of the panel in the same way as in GNOME, you will find no background settings.

Instead, you have to go to System Settings -> Advanced -> Desktop Themes Details -> Panel Background — a location so obscure that many people are surprised it exists.

While this detail is a matter of themes, a little redundancy in the panel options hardly seems too much to ask.

No Listing of Which Effects Require 3-D

If you select System Settings -> Desktop -> Desktop Effects, KDE offers dozens of compositing effects.

Some are eye-candy, but a surprising number are practical, including several for accessibility. Some do not even require 3-D acceleration.

Yet KDE’s developers have apparently never considered that those who have only 2-D acceleration because they prefer to use free video drivers might want to take advantage of the compositing effects they can use.

Consequently, those with 2-D acceleration have to go discover what works through trial and error and occasional crashes.

Would a filter be too much to ask?

Advanced System Settings Are Unorganized

On the General tab of System Settings, KDE has carefully organized features into four categories, only one of which has more than four top-level items.

But go to the General tab, and Advanced User Settings has sixteen items crammed into it — far too many for easy searching.

Dividing the category into two or three new categories would provide some much-needed organization.

Distinguishing Between Multiple Desktops and Activities Difficult

KDE has had multiple desktops for years. However, the KDE 4 series adds Activities. Both support separate Folder Views, but each has separate controls, multiple desktops on the panel, and Activities from the Desktop Toolkit menu.

The differences between them are so slight that why they continue to co-exist is a mystery.

The Role and Positioning of the Desktop Toolkit

The Desktop Toolkit is the half-circle at the upper right of the desktop. However, the very fact that almost nobody uses its proper name, referring instead to “the cashew” or “the kidney bean” suggests how uncertain its role is — and so does the way that its context menu changes from release to release, although basically it is the place to go to add widgets to the desktop or to change between activities.

Most people don’t realize that the Desktop Toolkit can be repositioned, either, so if they move their panel to the top of the desktop, it is hidden.

Why this chubby little protuberance isn’t placed on the panel where it so clearly belongs is beyond me.

Seven Irritations In GNOME

Since GNOME began making usability a priority in the first years of this century, it has improved out of all recognition.

However, even the best design principles can be rigidly or inconsistently applied, and usually lose out when they conflict with policy. Here are seven places where GNOME could use improvement:

No Font Installer

Yes, you can find third-party font installers like Fontmatrix or Fonty Python. But a font installer seems so basic to a desktop that GNOME’s continued lack of one is hard to understand. The lack makes GNOME less appealing to a broad class of graphic designers.

No Control of Notifications

In KDE, you can control which notices appear as pop-ups, and which of four broad categories display. By contrast, in GNOME, you have to endure the whole barrage.

The result is that, in some GNOME-based distributions, the messages can come so quickly that at times you might almost imagine yourself on Windows.

Obviously, you want to be notified of any serious problems, and to avoid interrupting processes that are still running, but many notifications are irrelevant to the average desktop users and can only distract them from what they are doing.

So why not give users some control over notices?

Minimally Organized Sub-Menus

Over the last decade, top-level GNOME menus have been simplified. While the menu items differ with the distributions, generally the top-level menus are limited to 6-8 choices. This organization, I suspect, was chosen so that users are not overwhelmed by choices.

Unfortunately, however, the decision to limit the default menus to a single sub-menu means that the second level of the menus is simply an alphabetical list, and can quickly grow long as applications are added. In some cases, the Debian menus, which can be four or five levels deep, are actually quicker to navigate because, although they require more clicks, they are better organized.

The Organization of the Default Menus

One of GNOME’s distinguishing features is a trio of menus on the panel: Applications, Places, and System. The Applications menu makes sense, but why a separate System menu?

Moreover, within in the System menu, the distinction between Preferences and Administration is frequently vague — even the rule that Preferences refer to the settings for the current account and Administration to those for the entire operating system is not strictly enforced.

As for the Places menu, it could be replaced by a good file manager, if only it could be deleted.

The Move Away From File Management

File management has been a major feature of computing for decades. The concepts of directory hierarchies is easy to understand, and can be used to organize files to make them locatable.

Yet GNOME seems to have decided that directory hierarchies are too difficult to understand, and seems intent on replacing them.

Not only is the Places menu more prominent than the file manager in most GNOME-based distributions, but the file manager itself has emblems with which you can organize files.

In the past, GNOME has emphasized applications like Beagle or Trackers as ways to locate files, and, in GNOME 3.0, apparently intends to feature Zeitgeist, an application that locates files by dates.

All these efforts might enhance a file manager, but as replacements they seem far more complicated than the system they are intended to replace. 

Increasingly Hands-off Controls

In the effort to improve usability, GNOME sometimes seems too eager to reduce options.

An example of this trend is the Brassero CD burner, which is very easy to use, but offers users far fewer choices than KDE’s K3B.

Other signs of this tendency include the increased use of wizards and applications like Ubuntu’s Computer Janitor, which give users no ideas of where they are making changes, informing them only of the general results.

This tendency exists in KDE and other desktops as well, but is especially strong in GNOME.

The problem isn’t that I always want a full array of options so much as I appreciate having them available for the times when I need them.

Dragging Users Into the Mono Debate

Mono is an implementation of Microsoft’s .NET. Although Mono is freely licensed itself, the fear is widespread that Microsoft might use the patents in .NET to sabotage GNU/Linux through Mono.

How realistic or unique this possibility might be is unknown, but all the concern and obsession over Mono is makes an assessment of the situation impossible for the average user.

Yet GNOME continues to add Mono applications like Tomboy, F-Spot, and Banshee.

Obviously, no one is going to stop developers from using Mono, but before GNOME starts to use it widely, the project needs to negotiate with Microsoft to end the ambiguity — and to safeguard users’ interests and put their concerns to rest.

Other Dislikes, and Yours

These are not the only dislikes I could have included. However, I excluded KDE’s default Kicker menu because it has at least two replacements and the display of one level at a time in KDE’s System Settings because an alternate menu and tab view is available. To my mind, these are made like all defaults should be — with easily available alternatives.

I have also omitted irritations that both KDE and GNOME include. These include file managers that make viewing anything outside of your home directory structure difficult, pointless applets or widgets such as swimming fish and bouncing balls, the lack of migration tools for those wishing to switch desktops, and the hit and miss efforts to find context menus for items on crowded panels.

Such items do not seem to be due to design principles peculiar to either desktop so much as principles common to usability and free software in general.

Moreover, I’m sure that readers have their own dislikes. Let me know what they are. Meanwhile, I’ll be preparing the follow-up to this article, detailing what I like about the two major desktops in free software.

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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.