Why I Prefer KDE

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 27, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Fifteen years ago today, KDE began -- and I, for one, am glad that it did. I run virtualized versions of all the major desktop environments, and have a few more on secondary machines. Sometimes, too, I'll log into a desktop like Mate, Xfce, or LXDE just for a change of pace or to keep myself in touch. Yet, on my main workstation, I always return sooner or later to KDE. Of all my available choices, it's the one whose design philosophy, communal attitudes, and vision come closest to my idea of what a desktop environment and its project should be.

That wasn't always the case. Although my first year of working in GNU/Linux was on KDE, I spent close to eight years as a die-hard GNOME user. Glances over the year suggested that KDE's default theme looked as though it were based on plastic Fisher- Price toys, and that its organization was casual at best. The clean lines of GNOME seemed far less of a distraction from my work.

But as my familiarity with GNU/Linux grew, GNOME's minimalistic philosophy began to feel restrictive. Key GNOME applications such as the Evolution, which had seemed so radical a few years earlier, appeared stuck in maintenance mode.

I started exploring the development releases for the KDE 4 series, and found the look much improved. The first release was lacking features, not being intended for general use, but, six months later, as the 4.1 release started to remedy the defficiences, my last objections fell and I became a confirmed KDE user.

The Design Philosophy
My first reasons for preferring KDE were reactive. GNOME seemed to be designing increasingly for new users. The problem was, I wasn't a new user, and GNOME's efforts to simplify in the name of increasing usability felt increasingly restrictive.

How, I wondered, was I ever going to learn more about the applications I used if I couldn't see the advanced features? I felt patronized by what I saw as over-simplification and a deliberate withholding of information.

By contrast, KDE apps did their best to include everything in their interfaces. Yes, Amarok, digiKam or K3B seemed overwhelming at first, and sometimes looked as though they could stand more organization. Yet I could ignore the advanced features easily enough, and I preferred knowing that they were easy to find when I was ready to go exploring. KDE seemed designed for all levels of users, not just beginners.

Another sign of KDE's inclusiveness was its approach to innovation. When the KDE 4 series defaulted to a windowed menu, it didn't eliminate the traditional menu. Instead, the traditional menu was simply reduced to an option. The same thing happened with the tree view of the KDE Control Center when it was replaced by the new Systems Setting window. Obviously, the developers thought the new ways of doing things preferable, but they had the sense to realize that some users might not agree. Four years after KDE 4.0, its descendants continue to offer these fallbacks.

Even Activities, KDE's task-oriented virtual workspaces, were not forced on people. To this day, you can ignore this attempt at innovation, and use KDE as a traditional desktop. The mechanism for enabling desktop icons has changed, but not the ability to have them. In fact, if you want, you can quickly swap icon sets so that the desktop is better suited for the current task.

I guess that what I am trying to say is that KDE is designed to leave the choices up to the users. The main reason I have never warmed much to GNOME 3 is that it forces me to adjust to how its designers think I should work. In comparison, KDE offers tools for working with whatever combination of features best suits my work habits.

The Community Professionals
In general, I prefer to keep my distance from projects so that I can write about them more impartially. That's one reason why I've never been very involved with Debian or the Free Software Foundation, for example.

All the same, over the last five years, the KDE developers and volunteers with whom I have had contact have impressed me. The ones I've encountered keep their belief in free software quiet, but once they start to express it, their beliefs seem no less sincere for not being vocal or dogmatic. They keep alive the old idea of scratching their own itch, and many announcements of changes seem to involve someone adding a feature that they want themselves.

However, what I approve of most about those in KDE is that they are honest about their mistakes. Eighteen months after GNOME 3.0 was released, GNOME developers are just getting around indirectly to answering user criticisms by providing alternatives, but KDE did so publicly, and within five months. To admit that mistakes were made after you have labored for years on what you expected would be received as revolutionary is difficult, yet KDE faced the truth with a minimum of self-serving justifications. 

In fact, its members actually managed a complex analysis of KDE 4.0's reception. In the process, they seemed to have learned something about how to develop and present innovation, too.

True, when I criticized KDE extensively (and, once or twice, erroneously), the first reaction from the project was to attack. But when I responded in a reasonable way, making my interest in free software obvious, we struggled through to what I believe is mutual respect.

This behavior is in naked contrast to what I have encountered from much of GNOME recently. A few leading members of the project, such as Karen Sandler, Dave Neary, and Matthias Clasen know how to act professionally. However, these days, any negative comment about GNOME is met by an effort to villify me, and even to advise me about how to do my job (apparently, I should be more of a fan-boy).

In the most recent case, the accusations began with a careless reading of what I said, and ignored the fact the article was actually praising GNOME -- all which is sufficiently aggravating that I am becoming less inclined to cover GNOME except generally and at a distance.

I don't agree by any means with everything KDE or its members do or say. However, I appreciate that KDE's members know how to agree to disagree and how to avoid taking discussions personally. They act like professionals, which means that I am all the more likely to trust their programming to be professional as well. So far, they have yet to let me seriously down.

Vision, Not Bifocals
Over the last couple of years, I have also come to appreciate KDE for another reason: it, more than any other desktop environment, seems to have a clear sense of what should happen next to computer interfaces.

Among the major desktops, only KDE has rejected the idea that one interface fits all the form factors from the workstation to the cell phone. Instead, it has modularized its structure, allowing its GUI to be customized for different circumstances while leaving most of the operating system unchanged. 

Admittedly, I am less sure about KDE's efforts to encourage task-based organization of the desktop (I am personally enthusiastic about Activities, but suspect that many others will never be). Still, so long as KDE presents such experiments as possibilities rather than inevitable directions that all users must take, I'll happily investigate them. 

Alone among the major desktops, KDE seems to be neither wallowing in the past or imposing crankish ideas. Its avoidance of these extremes makes it the most usefully innovative desktop environment available.

So, Happy Birthday, KDE. Just keep doing what you're doing, and in the way you are now, and I'm confident that you'll have many more.


  • Desktop Enviroment

    Si en ocasiones inicias sesión en otros Entornos de Escritorio como LXDE, XFCE, es porque KDE no termina de darte lo que quieres, aunque al final regreses a KDE.

    En mi opinión prefiero Gnome Shell, un nuevo paradigma más actual, moderno y productivo.
  • Happy Birthday KDE!

    KDE has been my favorite desktop for years and it's good to see someone else praising it. I love it because I can easily make it look and function the way I want. I love that it doesn't make my desktop computer pretend to be a tablet or smart phone. I love that I don't have to look at a whole page of giant icons to load a program. I can read quite well, and don't need to poke at pictures like a child to make my selections. I love how intergrated all the programs feel. I'm not crazy about the slab menu (takes too many clicks) but the classic menu still works great or (my preference) a quick install of Lancelot makes it even better. I love all the options I have with it. I don't use activities, but the fact that they are an option doesn't get in my way. I can use them or not. It's MY option. I think they are doing a great job.
  • Happy Birthday KDE

    "Just keep doing what you're doing, and in the way you are now, and I'm confident that you'll have many more."

    Amen to that.
  • my opinion

    I think Ubuntu 10.10/ Mint 9 was Gnome's peak. I used to wholeheartedly recommend these to my Windows using friends. Since Gnome Shell I'm a KDE user and I'm "kind of happy" (I still prefer gnome 2 on most regards), but I do not recommend Linux desktop to non-geeks anymore. I know Gnome3 targets only "regular people", but all I see right now is them lacking a pragmatic and clear direction while losing their previous userbase. I always saw myself as a "Gnomer" and I don't like watching this desktop becoming a niche one.

    As for KDE4... I use 4.8.x and I haven't had a single crash so far. It's pretty fast, considering it's complexity. Dolphin is IMHO the best file manager around, and it gets cleaner, better and faster with each release. Okular, Ark, Kwrite/Kate, K3b are amazing apps, and I found them to be better than their Gnome counterparts. The funny thing is I never liked Plasma and I don't use Activities (possibly the 2 fundamental innovations of KDE4) although I tried incorporating them to my workflow; I use the desktop as if it were Xfce but with better apps. I think it could use some UI clean-up, but it's better to have clutter, than not having features and options. You know, you need features to get work done. I still consider KDE to be geeky and quirky at times, and I don't recommend it to 'ordinary users'.

    Maybe Gnome could use less designers, and KDE could use a couple of them?

    I'm keeping an eye on Cinnamon and Pantheon. Maybe these guys pull this off and be what Gnome3 should be in the first place; a well balanced DE for personal computers (not tablets) that I'll be able to recommend to others.
  • KDE rocks

    Yes, configuration options galore is of course a big reason that draws me to KDE. But also, GTK apps look childish, whereas QT apps look much better. KDE taking too much ram is a legend from a bygone era. In this age of gigs of ram, using 200mb more than other environments isn't gonna dry up anybody's wallet. And then, as you said, KDE doesn't force you to use any new features.

    Can't wait to the next wave of improvements, like not using inline renaming. That's dumb. When renaming from a box you can see what name the fil/dir had WHILE you're renaming it. So it's a much better option.

    And as I wrote elsewhere, can' t wait for the return of one of my favorite featues: Setting up a custom color or custom texture as background on Konqueror/Dolphin. That way you can tell root sessions for normal sessions in a splitsecond.

    Yes, KDE is the most kick ass environment currently available, on any platform.
  • Why I prefer KDE too.

    I couldn't agree more. I've used KDE almost exclusively now for many, many years. Why? Well, I could re-iterate all the DE-oriented niceties you mentioned, but mostly it's been the community behind KDE. There's none on any platform that are better. While there is a lot of that "scratch-my-own-itch" creativity in the KDE development community which keeps it on the forefront of innovation, it's coupled and tempered with an equal desire to create something other people will actually want to use. They not only try to accept criticism - good or bad - from their users, they often solicit it. They learned from the experience of the sudden change from the 3 to 4 platform - with the hoopla it created - and strive to balance cutting-edge innovation with user expectations. The result is a desktop I find a pleasure to use every day. Easily configurable to how I want to work, deeply integrated, and more innovative than any other I've ever experienced.
  • I need to take another look at KDE

    I think it's time for me to take another look at KDE. I didn't like it when I first saw it, around 2005 or so, and have never bothered to take a second look... mainly because I liked GNOME at the time. Thanks, Bruce.
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