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KDE4 overtaking GNOME in terms of usability?

If it hasn't happened already it seems poised to happen sooner or later, albeit usability is to some extent in the eyes of the beholder. My basis of this expectation is personal experience of KDE4 improvements thus far and observation of future trends for both platforms.

GNOME is facing a fairly major shift next year with GNOME 3.0 and the introduction of GNOME Shell, possibly comparable to the shift KDE had with its 4.0 release. I could argue that the GNOME shift would be even more dramatic, thus taking an even larger risk. Fundamentally, in terms of user interaction with the system KDE4 actually didn't change all that much. It remained a somewhat Windows-like interface with a typical panel-desktop paradigm. It has "merely" upgraded it and rebuilt the gears behind the scenes which is where the most revolutionary changes and most potential seems to lie.

Perhaps the biggest change visible to the user is making everything into a widget, but the default and typical configuration of those widgets still resembles a typical paradigm, and that seems to sit well with the users. At least it does for me. I'm increasingly finding it more natural to have a single panel at the bottom with all of the stuff I need immediately available than to alternate between upper and lower panel.

GNOME 3.0 on the other hand promises to completely do away with the typical main menu currently resembling Mac OS X and replace it by something that probably wont be very familiar to neither Windows nor OS X users. Upon pressing of the "activity" button an entire screen transforms. It's not just another menu, it's a whole new "mode" of operation. It's yet to be seen how are users to respond to this as they begin to test it in day-to-day use, but I am somewhat skeptical and tend to side with some of the Bruce Byfield's commentary. Furthermore, as he points out, it doesn't appear that the GNOME Shell is getting enough opportunity to be tested by users for valuable feedback. This increases chances of GNOME 3.0 becoming a similar scenario to KDE4.0.

In short, as KDE4.0 rapidly becomes more and more comfortable in its new skin, improving significantly with each release and unfolding it's potential like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly GNOME is facing a major shift with an interface change that seems to go beyond what KDE4 underwent.

Speaking of usability improvements there are a few KDE4 features which are rapidly becoming a kind of a "killer app" for KDE, some of which have existed even in previous KDE generations and some of which have been introduced by KDE4.

KDE is known to allow the user to adjust far more options than GNOME (which has been known to hide options for the sake of usability). KDE3 therefore often ended up seeming complex and overwhelming yet KDE4 appears to be succeeding in blending this flexibility with ease of use as is perhaps best testified by its new control panel, but also to some degree the various configuration dialog styles across the system.

Take for instance the dialog for configuring toolbars in dolphin (and some other KDE4 applications such as Dragon Player).


KDE4 toolbars configuration

A whole slew of available toolbar actions are available on the left, but a typical set of what most users may want is already selected on the right. To add new buttons all you need to do is select the desired action and drop it to the desired position for the toolbar, and if you prefer you can also use the arrow buttons. It's pretty simple, yet it didn't require hiding options. So at the same time KDE4 here succeeds at tremendously empowering the user and keeping things simple.

It's this sort of thing why I am beginning to love and prefer KDE4. In GNOME, things sure are simple, but that goes at the expense of flexibility. KDE4 gives me both without the extra flexibility feeling like too big a burden.

This theme seems fundamental to what may thrust KDE4 towards overtaking GNOME in terms of usability. Consider for instance KDE's traditional ability to choose what to do with the file you're drag and dropping. The menu appears on the destination, right when you need to make a choice. I've always envied this about KDE when using GNOME.


KDE4 drag and drop menu

Again, giving me options without feeling like a burden. They're there right when I actually need them. I know countless of times that I wanted to make a bunch of shortcuts on the desktop in GNOME and always needed to make a shortcut (right click > make link) in the current directory and then move it to the directory I wanted them in because GNOME seems to offer no way to do this in a single operation. There might be tweaks that allow doing that, but they're not enabled by default and most people don't know how to enable them.

Not only that, but GNOME insists on naming the short cuts "A link to x" rather than just "x" so after moving the links I also have to rename them. Furthermore, if the short cut is on the other partition, I also have to delete the duplicate because in partition-to-partition operations GNOME's default operation is to copy, rather than move. Yet in KDE a single menu popping up with choices right when I need them deals away with all of these issues conveniently.

Another good example of flexibility that aids usability is KDE4's ability to select and deselect files and folders by just clicking on "+" or "-" emblems. This allows me to use one-click launch of folders and files without it getting in the way of selections. Without this feature the only way to select a single file without launching it as well is to draw a rectangle over it or press ctrl. Now I can simply click "+". No ctrl or rectangles needed. Single-click operation suddenly becomes a no-brainer as now there are no disadvantages to it. Awesome.


KDE4 select emblem

I could go on and on. There are many interesting details. Just think of krunner, kick off, options for window manager buttons, wallpaper modes etc. In any case, whereas GNOME so far made sacrifices to flexibility and power in order to improve usability KDE4 is succeeding in having its cake and eating it too. They merge flexibility with ingenious design to create a desktop environment in which having lots of options to choose from doesn't impair the ease of use and in some cases as seen above actually aids it. The advantage over GNOME's approach seems clear to me. I'd rather have both power and ease, then just ease and a sense of lack.

I only wish Kubuntu was given more attention in the Ubuntu development process. It still does to some extent feel like a second class citizen, yet I think it is more deserving of spotlight than ever before.

Comments

Re: KDE4 overtaking GNOME in terms of usability?

 

I use GNOME, but really I don't know what part of it I actually use as I use Dolphin not Nautilus, Compiz not Metacity, the run application dialog over the GNOME main menu, and Compiz plugins over the bottom task bar. I don't even use GNOME's default icon set.

My problem is nothing seems to work just out of the box, I spend huge numbers of hours just getting things to work, whether it be Compiz on KDE, or getting GNOME to default to Dolphin.

Re: KDE4 overtaking GNOME in terms of usability?

 

There's a few things I'm concerned about:

1) KDE4 is resource hungry and demands "modern" hardware? I happily ran it on a home-built under/over-clocked AthlonXP 2000+, 1GB DDR-333, and a GeForce 6200LE until just a couple months ago, and it was fine. Modest hardware, at best, and it ran fine. it felt "snappy" enough, still had enough resources to play most 720p files (no GPU acceleration there!), and almost never swapped.

2) I'm not sure why people keep saying KDE4 isn't feature complete with respect to its predecessor. Everything I ever did with 3.5.x, I could do again with KDE 4.2, and most of that was back with 4.1. Some things are done differently, but the end result is still there (or back, whatever). Only possible exception is k3b - the KDE4 port is still very much a work-in-progress, and it seems like distros are getting sick of shipping the KDE3 version.

3) Has anyone actually gone back to Windows XP lately? I just came back to it (thanks, Virtualbox) after a year and a half away. What a disaster that is! KDE (3 and 4) and Gnome (2, and very likely 3) are already ahead of that. KDE (3 or 4) might do things its own way, and have its own look and feel, but it's generally uniform. By that I mean similar looks, feel, and behavior in different KDE programs. Likewise for Gnome. No such luck in XP. So, in my eyes, all of us have already won.

Re: KDE4 overtaking GNOME in terms of usability?

 

If you don't like Kick-off menu use Lancelot

I use kicker with fsrunner and i love it.

Re: KDE4 overtaking GNOME in terms of usability?

 

"Linux should be different looking then Windows or OS X because it is different, otherwise it looks like a poor windows or OS X clone."

Linux is only the operating system (monolithic kernel == complete operating system, not just a kernel like microkernels) and it has nothing to do with the desktop environments or even windowmanagers. Linux includes the support for X11 (Xorg) so it is capable to graphical UI. That's why Linux is counted as graphical operating system as well, because it has support for it (some companies disables that support, like Google when they wanted not to use X11).

That depends about desktop environments, windowmanagers and so on, how much other _systems_ you want to copy. And as far, MS has copied KDE4 on it's Windows Vista and Windows 7.
And tell us, what is wrong copying good ideas and developing more of them? That is Open Source idea, you watch what others do and you take good ideas and you fix things what are broken.

"KDE4 more custmizable then Gnome? What the heck have you been drinking? Gnome is far more customizable then KDE4 (granted idk about Gnome3 yet sense its not out) but as it stands it is."

Okay, I ask example. I want to remove text from Nautilus toolbar. Only to see icons (but not on all applications). Then I want to remove few icons from Nautilus toolbar like "Computer" and add few own functions what I need from menu. How I do that?

Then I want to hide menubar from specific applications, on all wanted applications if just possible. KDE allows this to do. I can hide menu on all applications what I want. Just to see icons on toolbars. (Same way I can move menu from application window to own panel, what I can place anywhere I want, even as floating panel if I so want) How I do that? I do hate menubars but I need sometimes have a easy way to get access to them. (thats why Ctrl+M and Ctrl+Alt+M functions).

"KDE4 lacks a GUI based Touchpad Utility at the very least there isn't one that deals with the Dell Touch Pads where is Gnome does have such utility and has had it for a long while."

You can use ksynaptics or then even the Gnome's own gsynaptics (what does not have so many features) or even pure xsynaptics. But if you want just for KDE4 and very nice, install this http://kde-apps.org/content/show.php/kcm_touchpad?content=113335 It can be found precompiled on many distributions. I made the configs by hand to text file because gnome's settings were TERRIBLE and I were not founded KDE's own tools. Sorry, but GNOME's version is just worse.

"While Gnome3 may not be perfect either at least with it your OS won't seem like just some poorer looking Windows clone."

Desktop environments are not part of the operating system at all. The operating system controls all processes and computer resources and operates them. Do not judge OS from what the software does what's job is deliver UI.
And I do not see similarity to Windows UI. Of course the OK/CANCEL button order is samekind, but hey, it is better than Gnomes auto-apply function on many places.

Re: Don't write-off Gnome 3 Yet...

 
Anonymous wrote:

I Don't know if Gnome 3 is going to be the next Wii once they finish tweaking it. What I can see, having tried Gnome Shell out myself: Even if Gnome keeps the sucky-looking 1995 default icons, it will be the only desktop out there offering "more than just the same ol' desktop paradigm."

11 my friends buyed Wii because it was cheap, fancy and cool! Now 10 of them owns XBox 360 or PS3. Do you know why? Because best games came to those two consoles. Not to Wii. Wii is great for childrends or people who want to use WiiFit or bowling. But for the HC players who want to play action games, the Wii is not what it tought to be. Because there is no games for it.

And what comes to outlook, it is important for many user. You can make with bad theme the GUI very terrible to use. But just by changing theme, you can get it look awesome and it's usability is much better right away. Even that you didn't do anything else than just change the wallpaper and the style. No other configuration changes.

If the desktop looks dull, it's using can be such as well. Powerusers do not care so much about "eyecandy" like shining windowdecorations and fading animations for windows. Because when they just need to get job done, they want just to get job done and do not care does it look nice when doing the job. Avarage joe wants to feel the GUI and see how nice it is when using. They want to experience it! That is one thing what KDE4 offers, but Gnome lacks. Even that Gnome has great amount of themes, they do not change the GUI so much and usually too much same to each other.

Re: KDE4 overtaking GNOME in terms of usability?

 

That's just silly, frankly. Anyone who was confused as to "folder views" versus "desktop views" would look at a KDE4 desktop and just see their desktop. I don't know anyone who "Googles" how to use a KDE4 system, unless they are typing to learn new things. I will admit that "Activities" took a bit of reading to get at first - but it's so worth learning. It's a great building block for some very cool things.

Besides, all OS's have to evolve. Newer technologies, newer tools, and new generations of computer users and programmers come along every year. KDE3.5 was great. The new KDE code technologies are evolving at an amazing pace. Things like this are why I like KDE: http://dot.kde.org/2009/09/26/what-i-did-my-summer-holiday

To the reader above re: Kubuntu - I run into the same things with Linux Mint (as you know based on Kubuntu). Any edition that has Gnome as their "official" DE is going to make their KDE base users feel a little 2nd class at times. But instead of leaving for a more "KDE-friendly" distro as many have, I am going to stick it out and see how I can contribute to helping KDE gain ground and "street cred" in my beloved distro's.

If anyone has ideas that can help, feel free to email me at james(at)koinsolutions.com.

Thanks for the good article!

Maybe I'm just "silly" but I just failed use KDE4 comfortably. In the first time I failed to find which option can switch the desktop to the "classic" style (because I don't want to waste time on customizations, and the new desktop is a good example of "having to be customized before it can be used"), and I had to google and find that "Desktop/Folder View" thing. For the start menu, I just found it almost impossible to navigate programs smoothly unless switching to the "classic" style.

to sum up I just don't want waste the time to "learn" before I can get working. For me KDE4 is a drawback rather than evolution. I only care about whether it works for me or not. I don't care about whatever "design concept" or nonsenses like "Don't look back".

And IMHO forcing users to "learn" for a long time before they can actually get working is the silliest thing developers can do.
for me "New technology" absolutely doesn't mean something just looked flashy but extremely awkward to get working. any "new technology" targeting normal users should make their life easier rather than adding complexity and testing their IQ's and patience.

PS: I've already got enough name-calling for being honest by saying what exactly I felt and I don't want more. Such name calling can just make me hate KDE4 and its fanboys even more, and I don't think you can help KDE4 "gaining ground" by calling others "silly".
PPS: Before I get labeled as "KDE hater from GNOME camp" or something like that - I've been using KDE since KDE2, and recently had to switch to GNOME due to KDE4's unusability.

Whistler, I don't condone the name calling for what it's worth. You're entitled to your own opinion and experiences. To be honest I'm far from what some might call a KDE fanboy personally since I've been using GNOME primarily over the last few years and am now using KDE4 because, well, I like the way it works. I guess it works for me, so long as it is stable. However in terms of stability there could still be improvements.

In any case, the good thing is you have choice. If KDE4 doesn't work for you there's a bunch of other desktop environments or window managers you can use. Smiling

Also, I think KDE4 is still to some extent a work in progress so even if I envision some ideal outcome for it, like for example what I wrote at the end of my dot.kde.org article, it's not quite there yet. But even then it'll seldom be possible to please everyone and I'd be the last one to deny people the right to be extraordinary and different enough not to fit a particular mold or a particular vision of what people should prefer.

Cheers

Re: KDE4 overtaking GNOME in terms of usability?

 

The title is good!

Re: KDE4 overtaking GNOME in terms of usability?

 

It was really nice post. And must say that you written it really well as you got so strong response. I had seen some other blogs also on the same topic but the content are so rich here. I am really impressed. The video was also mind blowing. Keep it up.

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Re: KDE4 overtaking GNOME in terms of usability?

 

I've been using Linux since Red Hat 6.1. KDE has always been the more usable of the two. If anything, KDE4 has slipped backwards so that is is close to GNOME in its anti-usability.

GNOME's interface guidelines mean that its apps are inflexible and misnamed. If "movie player" can't play a video, how do you know which media player (mplayer or totem) you haven't tried? It would be easy to label it "totem movie player" or "epiphany web browser", so that users could easily try another one if that one doesn't work. Instead, one product is announted as "web browser", one as "movie player", and so on.

KDE's problem was that it is a resource hog and slow as molasses. But now that GNOME is also morbidly obese, that doesn't matter. I typically use XFCE or LXDE with KDE apps. That way, I get a fast, responsive desktop, with apps that actually work. (digiKam instead of F-spot. 'Nuff said?)