How I Learned to Love the KDE 4 Series

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 20, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

For nine years, my default desktop was GNOME. About the third of the time, I'd use another desktop or a shell, either for the purposes of review or just for a change, but I'd always return to GNOME. It was a no-fuss interface in which I could do my common tasks without any problem. But a glitch on my system that left GNOME unstartable coincided with the release of KDE 4.2, and -- not having the time to reinstall -- I switched to KDE. I haven't looked back since.

Nobody could have been more surprised than I was. I'd worked in KDE 3.x many times, of course, but I was never comfortable in it. The defaults themes and icons looked so blocky and childish that it didn't look in the least modern. It was so different from GNOME that I might as well have been in another operating system.

So why did I switch permanently? Two main reasons come to mind: KDE's design philosophy and its ability to innovate without dictating.

Minimalism Vs. completism

To start with, I started noticing a difference in design philosophy between GNOME and KDE. GNOME's Human Interface Guidelines advocate a minimalist design in which only the most basic functions are available in the interface. By contrast, although I don't believe that KDE has ever formally expressed its design preferences, you only have to look at apps like Amarok, DigiKam, K3B, KMail, or Marble to see a completist philosophy, rather like that of all those Victorians who set out to write the definitive study of their subject. If a feature has even the remotest connection to the core function, then sooner or later a KDE app will add it.

KDE's completist philosophy creates organizational problems that, in some apps or menus are unresolved. At times, too, it seems like overkill to start DigiKam when you want to do some simple editing, or K3B when you are doing a straightforward burn. If you agree with GNOME's philosophy, you might justifiably call these apps bloated.

However, I'm the sort of user who finds an overflowing toolbox more of a comfort than an intimidation. Eighty percent of my work might be done with twenty percent of the features, but I appreciate that the other features are there if I need them. The same appreciation underlies my preference for LibreOffice over AbiWord, although I recognize that AbiWord is useful for some things, such as quickly opening a Microsoft Office attachment and rendering it with reasonable accuracy.

The point is, KDE is developing for all levels of users. Too often, GNOME -- whether you're talking about GNOME 2 or 3, or Unity -- feels like it is taking functionality away from more experienced users in the name of helping beginning users ramp up faster. That's a worthy goal, but when accomplished through minimalist interfaces, it usually means that new users gain basic competence quickly, then fail to learn anything more. If I'm typical (and, anecdotally, I seem to be), they are probably not even aware that any possibilities beyond the basic exist.

By contrast, when an interface includes more advanced features, I have a chance to expand my expertise. Often, I can find simple ways of doing a task instead of inventing torturous and inexact work-arounds. I am far less likely, too, to have to spend time searching for another tool to do what I want. To have these advantages, I willingly endure the odd patch of disorganization.

A different view of the KDE 4 series

Another reason I switched to KDE was the spirit of innovation that I saw in the early releases in the fourth series. Unlike many people, I knew KDE 4.0 wasn't ready for everyday use, but it was also the first desktop for years that had intrigued me. Suddenly, a group of developers seemed to have realized that they no longer needed to worry about catching up with proprietary desktops, but could finally take the lead.

Never having been a fan of the KDE 3 series, I approached the KDE 4 series with fewer preconceptions than most people. If anything, I was all the more intrigued because nothing in KDE's past had prepared me for the fourth series.

Specifically, what interested me was that -- contrary to many people's hurried judgments -- the fourth series was not abandoning the features of the third series so much as rearranging them to make innovation easier.

For example, instead of being confined to a single desktop of icons, KDE 4.x allows multiple icon sets that can be easily switched. Instead of a single layout, it offers multiple views of widgets and icons. Instead of a single desktop, it encourages the use of several virtual ones. No one needs to use all these features; if you choose, you can ignore them and work in much the same way as you did in KDE 3.x. But if you do use them, you soon understand that KDE 4.x is not breaking with the traditional ideas about the desktop so much as expanding them.

Wherever KDE's fourth series innovates, it seems careful to allow alternatives. Don't like the menu? Then you can not only choose a classic accordion-style menu, but another menu called Lancelot. Prefer the traditional tree view for system settings instead of groups of icons? Then you can have it.

This approach is in marked contrast to both GNOME 3.x and Unity, both of which are full of marked breaks with the past and give you only the choice of enduring the breaks or else finding another interface. Alone among the major free desktops, KDE is innovating without insisting on dragging you along every step of the way. Although some people paint KDE as unwilling to consider the needs of users, the truth is that is actually far more tolerant of different ways of working than most of the alternatives.

Choosing KDE

By expressing the reasons for my preferences, I'm not trying to revive the old flame wars. GNOME 3.x and Unity have their supporters, and I respect their right to choose even while I disagree with their choices.
Still, if you are trying to settle on a desktop, then perhaps my points are worth considering. KDE as a whole has faults, and it has made some mis-steps. Yet, all the same, it is the only major desktop that does not try to force me into the work flow its designers think is best for me (as though interface design wasn't dependent on your starting assumptions). Instead, it offers me the chance to learn more about the software I'm using, and lets me work at least close to the way that I prefer.
All I can say is, it works for me.


  • TDE, not KDE

    If you want work to be done and make a living of your work then you need and a desktop that does not throw trees in your way. So you'll end neither with KDE nor GNOME but with TDE (which is the continued development of former KDE 3.5. TDE 3.5.13 was just released).
  • Thanks for telling us to stay away from KDE

    LOL. You actually summed up the reasons why we should stay away from both GNOME and KDE:

    Making only the basic functions available is poor UI design. Users should also have the option of using advanced features. However, going the other extreme and throwing every possible future at the user is also poor UI design. Clutter is a bad thing.

    What surprises me is that these are basic UI conventions. It amuses me that people are so quick to defend them.

    There's a second bad thing going for GNOME and KDE. I don't know if you guys realize it but the desktop is dying. No that doesn't mean people will stop using desktops. What it means is that the desktop PC is becoming a niche market. In the past, while everyone (including "grandma"blunk used to use a PC, in the future only programmers, engineers, etc will have use for a desktop. I.e., the desktop will go from a "bicycle of the mind" to just another tool---the slide ruler of the 21st century.

    What this means is that all this innovation, while nice, is fundamentally a waste---a waste of the user's time. Think about it. As a programmer developer, I don't want to re-learn how to interact with my desktop. I just want to get stuff done. Quit messing with my desktop.

    On the other hand, this business about the "semantic" desktop sounds very promising. It's basically the future of organizing your files.
  • KDE / Gnome

    Hi, my observations (tested on openSUSE 11.4, openSUSE 12.1 RC1, Chakra 2011.09, Kubuntu 11.04. 11.11 all on x64) on Thinkpad T61 Nvidia Quadro NVS 140M 128MB, Core 2 Duo T7300)

    with KDE 4.7.2 :
    fluency with KWin is still !! tragic (its still slideshow), it is full of innovation and technological progress but at the cost of that still spin the fan and the processor is constantly doing something.

    with Gnome 3.2
    flow environment is excellent and transitions quick, I'm now running Nautilus (with 5 tabs), Terminla (with 2 tabs), Virtual Machine Manager, Firefox 7 (with 20tabs), Liferea, Transmission, FileZilla, Evolution, Tomboy, Empathy, XChat, Rhythmbox (with music playback), Totem ,,, it all runs at 10 percent busy of CPU, with (Gnome 2.30 and Debian 6 Stable I have weeks of trouble-free operation , uptime is measured in weeks, with KDE , I never reached this uptime)
  • Konqueror and Dolphin

    Before I was a fan of KDE proper, I was using Konqueror as my file manager in the fluxbox window manager. THAT is a whole 'nother kind of awesome, especially in the days of KDE 3, when it was the default file manager. Lately, Konqueror hasn't even been part of the default Desktop in Kubuntu. There are people who still haven't gotten over the switch to KDE4, and Konqueror is usually the reason. In KDE3, Konqueror was the most comprehensive desktop application ever, a web browser as well as a file manager, but it was even more than that. It had (and still has) its own application menus, and unlike most graphical file manager, Konqueror could and still does support application launchers as well as file managers. This meant that Konqueror could turn a window manager like fluxbox into a full service desktop environment,

    The KDE3 desktop seemed to be designed to complement Konqueror, but in KDE4, Konqueror was just too big for the more elaborately planned desktop, and so the new default file manager became Dolphin, Dolphin and Konqueror share a lot of DNA, but Dolphin fits more easily into the Konqueror Desktop. Butthurt Konqueror fans still say terrible things about Dolphin, but they're not warranted. The worst thing you can say about Dolphin is that it's the second greatest file manager ever. You can launch applications from it, and you can use it to access Konqueror's built-in applications menu.

    In KDE4, Konqueror has been pushed toward an assigned role as KDE's web browser, but it's not a very good one. It's only recently supported flash, and when I try to use it for Gmail, I get a message to upgrade my browser. It has a way of being in perpetual web browser mode that makes it awkward to use as a file manager. You can overcome that by setting konqueror up to go straight to a file location, maybe by editing a launcher with a command like "konqueror ~/Desktop", or by setting up a local url like "~/Desktop" as Konqueror's home page, instead of a web page like Konqueror no longer mounts removable media, so if you want to use it as a file manager, you may have to mount your flash drives manually. You know what? It's not so bad, just not that big a deal.

    I've just recently (over the weekend) discovered to my surprise that I really like Unity, but that means I will be using unity to open these amazing KDE applications. Wherever I go in the Linux desktop world I take Konqueror with me, and these days I also take Dolphin.
  • The reason I don't use automobiles... because all auto manufacturers somehow gratuitously and----not a little tortuously--seem to just HAVE to work four wheels--and let's not forget brakes--into all of their accepted designs. What slavishness! What lack of originality. What pathology. What maroons (hey; it passed my spell-checker) !!

    Village idiots of the world, UNITE!!--after, of course, accepting the fact of your, er, challenge.
  • kde4 vs gnome-shell

    I also have used KDE from it's inception, even suffering the likes of 4.0, to help iron out the bugs. I have also seen the light with gnome-shell, which is a stunning new innovation in the way one approaches a computer for work.

    Once they integrate touch into g3, there'll be a bright line between KDE and gnome, they'll have niches in which they don't compete head to head. Gnome-shell will be the best mobile/tablet interface there is, but wouldn't be as graceful on a non-touch desktop system. Great concepts at work in gnome 3, but there'd be too much mouse movement required to get at everything, especially the activities pager.

    KDE 4 is the way to go for any user in my opinion, no question the power-user will make out better with it that with gnome, and if a sysadmin sets it up right, the newbie/typical end user type won't be confused by 'all the options' because they'll be buried out of site. You can make KDE4 look and behave almost exactly like windows, if that's what it takes to get some cubicle-dweller using Linux.
  • It's all kopestetic!

    mojohn wrote:
    >>It's a really picky point, but the reason I don't like KDE is because of the tortuous steps taken to work "K" into most if not all of the KDE suite of apps.

    Mojohn, you have an awesome nickname, but this time you're not just being nitpicky, you're flat-out wrong. They've been getting away from this in recent applications (the new filemanager is "dolphin"blunk, but the K isn't just a lame attempt to be kute that is hopelessly korny. The "K" is highly functional, and high-functioning.

    Suppose you're used to using KDE, and for some reason you're using gnome. Instead of "konsole", you're typing "gnome-terminal" into the run command dialogue. There are a whole bunch of other applications that begin with "gnome-", and that means you have no chance of reaching a distinct matching pattern that will trigger competition until you've typed seven characters. The K thing becomes less annoying real fast.

    The K tells you that an application is part of KDE with just one character, and in all those cases where the k is changed from a C, not a single character is added to convey the information! I don't know if this is by design, or it was just good luck, but I can't think of a letter, be it vowel or consonant, that has these special properties, that can tell you so much in so many situations, that can convey so much information without adding a keystroke or syllable.

    I don't know anything about Desktop development, but I wish someone like me had been on the Gnome Desktop team to explain to them why a name like "gnome-terminal" was a really dumb idea.
  • The made-up criticisms of KDE4 are getting really lame

    There seem to be a number of people who are still desperately trying to criticise KDE4, but the criticism is really starting to sound very, very lame.

    "I don't like the kickoff menu" ... use classic style menus, or use Lancelot.

    "I am forced to use all these complex options" ... no you aren't.

    "Can I turn off the Plasma widget yet" ... if it bothers you, don't click on it.

    "There are too many apps which have a K in their name" ... there are some, but those names don't appear on the menu. For example the menu entry for the kate application says "Text editor" ... no K.

    It alsmost seems as if some people are trying to make things up to complain about.
  • It's kopestetic!

    >> It's a really picky point, but the reason I don't like KDE is because of the tortuous steps taken to work "K" into most if not all of the KDE suite of apps.

    They're getting away from that now, but IMO, It's more than picky, it's wrong-headed. Gnone has "gnome-terminal", and a whole bunch of other apps beginning with "gnome-" This means that if I want to open a terminal window using the run command dialogue, I'm going to have to type seven characters before I have any hope of a deistinguishing match for completion.

    It may seem korny to you, but the "K" has the positive virtue of identifying an application as a part of KDE in one keystroke, which, I think you'll agree, is the minimum number of keystrokes.

    I envy Bruce for coming to KDE4 without being a fan of KDE3. Some of us have had a hard time letting go. This computer dual boots both 3 and 4G.

    So far, I dislike Gnome 3, but I consider it a positive development that Gnome and KDE3 are moving in such different directions. When I started using Linux in 2002, a newbie couldn't really tell them apart.
  • i've migrated as well to kde

    i too was a long time gnome user. back in 2000, i met kde, but redhat seemed to include it half heartily. it did not run well on redhat linux and it often crashed.

    i ran suse, while it was independent, for about a year and loved kde3's integration and miss it. but soon i returned to gnome, it being what i was most familiar with...

    enter the unity desktop. i liked ubuntu in that it just ran, but i was also a longtime user and believer in the debian philosophy, so i switched back to debian and have been running kde4 with immense satisfaction. especially the kdepim suite.
  • re: network manager vaporware

    kde's network manager found my hardware fine....the problem was it would abolutely refuse to make my static IP settings default no matter what I did....I would have to click on NM and change to my profile every time I booted.

    This was a while back kubuntu 10.04 so it might be fixed now....It was my office computer so I just removed NM and hard-coded it into my /etc/network/interfaces and never gave it another thought so it wasnt a huge deal....just quirky.....In your defense though in my experience Kubuntu was the most buggy implementation of KDE I have worked with....opensuse fedora LMDE & Debian all seemed to be alot more solid than Kubuntu so it may have been someting with them.

    I am on Linux Mint Debian edition (with KDE added) right now at home and NM is working fine with wifi & eth but I have never tried (or needed) static IP with it yet.

    ...either way keep up the good work the Linux desktop and FOSS get better all of the time because of you guys happy
  • Me Three

    KDE is indeed innovative and offers many options. I don't use it much, but I like better than Gnome. Between the light desktops and KDE, there is no place left for Gnome. Their arrogance will be the end of their desktop.

    BTW, good writeup, thanks.
  • re: Not me

    Yes to not use KDE because of the "k" addition to file names is a very lame reason. Lets see here;

    gconfmm gnome-python gnome-python-extras gtkmm libgnomemm pygtksourceview gnome-python-desktop gnome-vfsmm gtksourceviewmm

    and so on. So gnome uses either "gtk" or a "g" somewhere for a file name.

    If naming conventions are your only stumbling block then you are missing out.

  • A few replies

    You're seeing artifacts of Canonical's essential non-support of KDE. The one developer they had working on Kubuntu has been reassigned to other duties. If you love Ubuntu, by all means stay on it, but don't assume that issues with Kubuntu are representative of KDE as a whole. I'm using Gentoo, OpenSUSE, and Fedora, and KDE works fine for me on all three.

    Working "K" into things was an individual app's choice, not a mandate or policy by KDE as a whole. Most app writers simply wanted to do so out of pride/show of support/etc. That said, there's been a specific shift since 4.0 to move away from that, or de-emphasize the K. The default file manager is Dolphin; amaroK is now Amarok, etc. There are still a lot of Ks to be found (especially because Cs are in a lot of words), but they don't tend to be as obvious and in-your-face as they once were.
  • @ macias

    I don't know about turning off the Desktop Tool Box completely, but it isn't actually pinned to the upper right corner. If you drag it, it turns into a small rectangle when it's away from a corner. I have mine at the bottom, more or less as part of the panel, where it is entirely unobtrusive.
  • The problem with the modern development model

    It is to the credit of the KDE developers that they responded to user criticisms of KDE 4 relatively quickly. That said, the arrogance that has infected almost all of the modern development community is a serious impediment to the creation of truly usable software.

    The disconnect between developers and users was fostered early in the MS DOS era, when developers became dedicated professionals, lacking in the "real world" experience to make informed decisions in software design. A computer science degree alone gives little insight into the real workings of business and society. Efforts to mitigate the problem, such as focus groups and usability tests are rarely as effective as one might like. It is no help that the models for these young developers are often individuals who respond to real product problems with the hubris of statements like, "Just don't hold it that way."

    In the end this gap in understanding has led to "treating users as idiots" and financial trading software that contributed to the global banking crisis. We must do better. Too much is at stake not to.
  • Not me

    It's a really picky point, but the reason I don't like KDE is because of the tortuous steps taken to work "K" into most if not all of the KDE suite of apps.
  • network manager vaporware

    The latest network manager is very good and far from being vaporware. What kind of weird network hardware do you have?
  • Ok, I'll give it a try

    I'm one of the many old-time Linux users who switched to XFCE when faced with a choice of either Unity or GNOME3 (both of which are terrible). I'll give KDE4 a try and see what it's like. Thanks!
  • kubuntu -> ubuntu

    Since 11.10 I switched from kubuntu to ubuntu. Reason was that the upgrade from 11.04 did no go completely smooth. Result was that the window titles were messy. Plus, after working a few years with kubuntu, I'm still not comfortable working with Plasma.
    So the reason switching was perhaps the same as for you, but in the opposite direction. I'm now tyring out ubuntu's Unity, and find it quite appealing. I have to get used to a few other default applications to get things done (e.g., music player) , but I'm liking them more and more.
    I guess I'm more like a minimalist.
  • I prefer KDE too

    Maybe for different reasons, but I like KDE.
    I blog about different OSes, and always try GNOME/Unity/XFCE/etc if they are available.
    But my default system is still KDE on Mageia.
  • now KDE is my default DE

    Till last week was using Gnome.
    Sadly gnome removed my choices.
    Did have a love hate relation ship with KDE.
    Now permanently shifted to KDE on Fedora 15.
    Also works with XFCE, though rarely.
  • Simply the best

    Unlike the author, I have been using KDE since they re-licensed under the GPL (2.0 series). I never liked the GTK interface which reminded me of Windows 3.0. I liked KDE so much as it improved over the years that I abandoned my favorite distribution, Red Hat, when they committed to GNOME and stopped supporting KDE.

    I stayed with the KDE 3 series until KDE 4.4, which for me was the first completely stable, usable version in that series. I am now running KDE 4.6 and simply love working with the UI. It's beautiful, stable and fluid, and as the author pointed out almost infinitely configurable. That last point is what has kept me using KDE all these years. I'm still adjusting my work habits and find I am making much greater use of short-cut keys and some of the desktop transitioning effects of Kwin.

    I have to say I do not like the default menu, but as the author pointed out it takes one click to change it back to the traditional style. As it is, I almost never have to use the menu anyway, relying on Krunner to access applications I have not created short-cuts for. Another reason I stayed with KDE was the applications. K3b, Amarok, and Digikam are simply best in class.

    One nitpick I still have is that Krunner is still not 100% stable. I still occasionally receive pop-up error messages, though it no longer crashes as it did in the 4.4 series.

    As for innovation, KDE is simply tops. I can't wait to try out their remake of KOffice (Caligra) when the stable version is released. I really do like LibreOffice, primarily for its support of MS applications, which is an unfortunate necessity. I will continue using LibreOffice if Caligra disappoints in their implementation, but if the result is as successful as their desktop effort I expect Caligra will become my goto office suite.
  • KDE4

    "No one needs to use all these features" So you can finally switch off the Plasma widget (upper right corner)?
  • mee too 2!!

    Couldn't agree more. KDE gives you choice and you can use a small percentage of the options but you know they are there and I can work the same way I did in KDE3. Why do I have to use a system that works totally different than before with a tablet UI. Why not give an option if you want to use a different UI like KDE are doing with Plasma Active or Plasma netbook if you actually own a tablet. No one likes things to be forced down your throat. KDE rules and now more than ever people can see why. Try kde if you haven't done it already or give it a second chance it's worth it.
  • me too

    I recently swithed to KDE because of the simple but awesome spiral tiling feature in only big gripe with kde is that if you try to use anything but the default 4 window decorations or themes eerything gets buggy as hell......that and their network manager is vaporware but I can get wicd easily enough. Other than that the tiling is keeping me around and I am loving it.
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