Pros and cons of the KDE, Unity, GNOME 2, and GNOME 3 Linux desktops.
The perfect desktop would be the one you design yourself. Failing that, which of the main Linux desktops is right for you?
A few months ago, this question came to a choice between GNOME and KDE. Now, with the introduction of GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's Unity, the question has become more complex.
Should you accept the latest innovation, or go with a desktop that proves itself? A simple desktop, or a complex one with all sorts of customization? One that doesn't change, regardless of whether you are using a mobile device or a workstation, or one that changes to fit the limitations or advantages of each computing device?
To help you decide, here are some of the major pros and cons for the four leading desktops that vie for your attention.
GNOME 2 and DerivativesOfficially, the GNOME 2 release series is yesterday's news. But it's still very much alive in distros like Debian that are slow to update or choose to wait for GNOME 3 to mature more. Just as importantly, if your video drivers don't support hardware acceleration, then GNOME 3 defaults to Fallback Mode and Unity to Ubuntu Classic, both of which are essentially GNOME 2 desktops with a few minor differences. For instance, Fallback Mode lacks the System menu, while Ubuntu Classic includes the app indicators and other tweaks found in earlier Ubuntu releases.
- Late GNOME 2 releases are the culmination of over a decade of development. They're stable, and their interfaces are easily learned. These are major advantages to everyone, but particularly new users or those who view a desktop as an application launcher, where you spend as little time as possible.
- GNOME 2 desktops should continue to be compatible with new GNOME-specific applications for at least a few releases. For instance, in GNOME 3's Fallback Mode, you still get improved notifications and messaging windows that don't take the focus away from your current window when you click them.
- You have an entire ecosystem of utilities and panel applets for added functionality. By contrast, GNOME 3 avoids placing applets in the panel in the name of distraction-free computing, placing them -- less conveniently -- in the general list of applications.
- GNOME 2 derivatives continue to have the old accordion style menu whose sub-menus spill out across the screens, potentially distracting from your work. The usual solution of limiting menu items can make you forget about potentially useful applications.
- Midway through the second series of releases, GNOME became committed to a minimalist usability style that covers only the most common use cases and does not always accommodate a variety of workflows. GNOME 3 takes this style even further, but even in GNOME 2 it can be a nuisance, as Linus Torvalds famously complained.
- You can probably continue using a GNOME 2 or a derivative for a year or two, but ultimately it's probably a dead end. These desktops might receive maintenance, but little else. Any fork of GNOME 2 is unlikely to be a large project, and GNOME and Ubuntu are likely to tire eventually of maintaining an obsolete code base. Sooner or later, you will likely need to make another choice.
GNOME 3GNOME 3 was released in April 2011 after two years of work. It features a major cleanup of the GNOME code, and a division between the main desktop and the overview mode that contains a menu and a view of virtual workspaces.
So far, Fedora is the only major distribution that uses GNOME 3. However, that should gradually change as new releases are published and subsequent releases refine GNOME 3 and add features.
- GNOME 3 brings virtual desktops into the main workflow, greatly improving their display and partly automating their use. If you haven't used virtual desktops in the base, GNOME 3 is a painless way to learn about them. If you do use them, then you might appreciate how easy using them has become.
- For years, GNOME 2 dumped administrative tools into the System menu, where they might be placed under Preferences or Administration, according to the whim of the distribution. GNOME 3's new System Setting window categorizes tools, producing a display more like that of other free and proprietary desktops, and making them easier to find.
- You can change to a messaging window without the current window losing focus. This is an unmitigated blessing, particularly if you habitually work with a dozen windows open.
- The panel only supports a few basic applets, like a calendar, apparently on the grounds that few people used applets anyway. In fact, from what I've observed, it might be more accurate to say that most people only used a few applets, but that selection varied widely. At any rate, if you're used to having easily accessible applets, GNOME 3 can feel like a step back in functionality.
- Creating an overview is supposed to allow you to focus on your work without having to look at a lot of icons. That might be useful as you settle down to work, but as you are setting up, the overview means that you are doing a lot of switching back and forth. Learning shortcut keys increases your efficiency and prevents repetitive stress, but doesn't reduce the switching back and forth. The amount of switching might pass unnoticed on a phone, but on a laptop or a workstation, it feels needlessly complicated.
- GNOME 3's designers seem convinced that Linux usability studies can tell what's best for you. Want icons on the desktop? Panel applets? Title bar buttons? Sorry -- GNOME 3 knows a better way to do things, and will force you into conformity.
KDEThe release of KDE 4.0 several years ago was a major break from earlier releases. It was also a public relations disaster, for reasons that were not entirely the project's fault. However, the series 4 releases than followed soon proved their worth.
Today, with release 4.7 due in a few weeks, KDE's pace of innovation has slowed, but so has most of the criticism -- although some people mistakenly believe that they know what KDE is like from obsolete rumors.
- With the Folder View widget, you can maintain multiple icons sets, each for a different purpose. You can either leave these icon sets in floating windows, or else fill the desktop with one of them and change it as needed. Either way, you reduce clutter, and relieve the need to evolve one set of icons that fits all your computing.
- The KDE desktop continues to include virtual workspaces to increase your screen real estate. However, KDE also includes Activities, or multiple screens, each of which can be customized separately. Although the distinction between workspaces and Activities can be confusing, the net result is more flexibility, especially when combined with Folder View.
- While KDE continues to innovate, it rarely enforces a single workflow. If you don't like Folder View or Activities, you can ignore them and work on a single screen. Similarly, if you don't like the KDE menu, you can switch to the Classic accordion-style menu or to the alternative menu Lancelot.
- The KDE 4 series is different enough from early releases that the logic of features like Folder View or Activities can escape new users. It might help to remember that KDE abstracts functions so that one can easily replace another -- for example, while you need a shell (or containment, as KDE calls it) to work in KDE, you can choose which one you actually use: for instance, a normal Desktop, a Newspaper Layout, or a Search and Launch. Still, the possible choices can be overwhelming for someone who just wants to get some work done.
- Technically, GNOME and KDE are desktops. However, more than one user has remarked that they are so different that they almost seem separate operating systems. Each not only has its own ecosystem of utilities and widgets or applets, but also its own design philosophy. As a result, if you haven't used KDE before, you may need time to adjust. In fact, the temptation might be just to reject it because it's new.
- As applications like digiKam, Amarok, and K3B show, KDE has a tendency toward apps that are as fully-featured as possible. This tendency creates organizational problems that KDE and associated apps haven't fully mastered. In many parts of KDE, you can still find
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