KDE: A home for Unity/Gnome 3 refugees

KDE screenshot
KDE 1.0 (beta3), image courtesy of Wikipedia

When it comes to the Linux desktop, I’m not some Ubuntu-era carpetbagger. For me the Year of the Linux Desktop was 1997 and because computers were merely a high school hobby, having a telnet server I could access over the other side of an ISDN connection was far more exciting than getting work done, especially because I had no work to get done. Since then the desktop has matured with my needs and I’ve become accustom to its sleekness. It’s telling that in all truth, I have no idea whether CUPS is still used for printing — I just plugin my printer and it works. I don’t even care, and that’s a win.

In 2007, in The Economist declared that:

[Ubuntu] is the sleekest, best integrated and most user-friendly Linux distribution yet. It’s now simpler to set up and configure than Windows.

And they were right; if you have two identical PCs side-by-side to do a comparison test, install Linux first, and use it to Google whatever goes wrong installing Windows.

But for better or worse, no geek programmer quits when he’s ahead.

Ubuntu 11.10 - Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Ubuntu 11.10 - Image courtesy of Wikipedia

When KDE 4 crash-landed in 2007-2008, I fled to Gnome. By then Mark Shuttleworth had already invested quite a bit of his personal fortune polishing Gnome, and it showed: Gnome had become gorgeous, highly usable, and best of all, elegant.

But as we all know by now, both Gnome 3 and Unity decided to break drastically with the desktop Canonical and the Gnome team had worked to create. Much of the design behind Gnome 3 and Unity is based on tablets and smartphones. Not that they’re alone — Windows 8 is shaping up to be a confusing mess that switches between tablet and desktop modes. (It’s worth pointing out that the only successful tablet company, Apple, is showing no interest in ruining their desktop OS to accommodate touch!)

As a geek, I can’t really blame the Gnome volunteers. Spending years polishing the same code for incremental improvement gets tiresome, especially for something as aesthetic as a GUI. But Microsoft and Canonical, who pay programmers to do the grunt work, have no excuse: recreational redesign should not be a software company’s core value.

And Unity is the worst offender. Remember that remark about Pidgin’s icon always working? System trays tend to get cluttered with icons and notifications that only occasionally matter. It even happens on Android. Ubuntu’s solution is to simply hide the ugly icons, and to get them back, you modify a binary database. That’s a solid step backwards from 1997, when I edited the icons on my desktop with emacs.

Unity and Gnome 3 may well mature, but for now, they are huge resets on usability. Users are clamoring for alternatives. XFCE is almost there, and I was using it for a while, but alas, it’s missing a lot of those “it just works” moments I’ve come to enjoy. So where does that leave us?

Might I make a recommendation: KDE.

KDE 4.7 - My desktop
KDE 4.7 - My desktop

My advice is to use KDE. Yes, KDE 4.0 was bad. 4.1 was bad. By 4.4, I’d stopped checking. The good news is, the KDE team has already learned what Canonical and Gnome are currently refusing to admit: it’s not a good idea to release unstable half-baked redesigns and expect no backlash. I don’t claim to have any arcane insight into the the psychology of the KDE team, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect they’ll be more cautious going forward.

And dare I say: KDE 4.7 is damn good. It’s probably better than Gnome ever was. That problem of a cluttered system tray? KDE solves it by letting you configure what icons you want always shown. You probably know it’s extremely configurable, and a lot of those options are genuinely useful. Features like “Activities” and “Desktop Widgets” (which in my opinion are largely useless) can be safely ignored and if your desktop is slow, turning off compositing will probably fix it.

Apps in KDE are pleasantly surprising. Amarok is a confusing disaster, but Clementine is fantastic. If you’re like me and prefer a combined launcher/task bar ala MacOS X, icontasks gets the job done and unlike Unity, it doesn’t turn your desktop into a candy-colored cartoon.

Gnome 3 and Unity are not necessarily lost causes. Maybe I’ll go back to them. But for now, it’s clear to me that KDE 4 is the way to go. Give it a try. And don’t just install kubuntu-desktop on an existing Ubuntu box; install the real thing from scratch or use OpenSuse; it’s a much cleaner experience. Just do it; you owe it to yourself to give KDE another chance.


  1. anj tuesday says:

    Incidentally, the default KDE taskbar already is a launcher, too (just right click any entry and toggle “Show A Launcher When Not Running”).

  2. null says:

    well, right, KDE is ok. but to be honest: tiling window managers are much more efficient. A DE just slows the machine down and the window management ist awkward. I use xmonad with an xfce4-panel btw

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