Should you use KDE or GNOME on your Linux desktop?
At first the question sounds obsolete. Where once GNOME and KDE accounted for seventy percent of Linux desktop installations, today the choice has broadened, with half a dozen environments vying for users' attention.
However, the change is less dramatic than it appears. GNOME 3, Linux Mint's Cinnamon/Mate, and Ubuntu's Unity offer different interfaces, but the same GNOME utilities and applications underneath. Add their popularity together, and the same seventy percent of the Linux users — give or take — continue to select either KDE or GNOME. So the question of which to choose remains as timely as ever.
In fact, regardless of the percentages, the question has become even more important today because the old user loyalties have broken down. Although many are growing resigned to the changes brought about by GNOME 3, Unity, and KDE 4, many others continue to search for their ideal desktop environment.
What has changed is not the question so much as the range of possible answers. Today, when you analyze such aspects as performance, ease of use, design philosophy, applications and unique features, your answers are likely to be much more qualified. Instead of a single, definitive answer for your preferences, today you may often find several.
Although choice empowers users, it also complicates making choices, to the point where option anxiety — an ever-resent problem in free software — becomes a greater possibility than ever.
Here's how today's Big Four compare from where I sit. I have awarded points for ranking in each category, with the lowest score being the best:
None of the four main desktop options are particularly noted for being quick at the login or to start applications. If speed is the most important criterion for your choice of desktops, you are probably better off with Xfce, LXDE or others that have enjoyed their own small upsurges in popularity in recent years.
Unity's simple appearance leads some users to assume that it uses less memory than the other leading desktops. However, running the command
free -m indicates that, while all four major choices will seize as much of the first couple of gigabytes of RAM as they can, Unity consistently uses both more RAM and more buffers than the other three. Even GNOME 3 running on Ubuntu uses considerably less RAM and fewer buffers.
By contrast, KDE 4 has a reputation of being bloated. Perhaps early in the current release series, the reputation was justified. However, KDE has been rewriting much of its interface functionality in recent releases, and the 4.10 release uses about 55 percnet of the memory that Linux Mint's Cinnamon/Mate does, and about the same number of buffers. These figures support what my subjective eye tells me: KDE and Cinnamon/mate are the fastest of the four main choices.
The KDE Desktop
If you have a modern system with several gigabytes of RAM, the speed differences matters less.
Verdict: 1st place: Cinnamon/Mate and KDE are tied. 2nd place: GNOME 3. 3rd place: Unity.
Which of the Big 4 is easiest to use depends on your experience.
Inevitably, your answer will be highly contextual. Modeled on the popular GNOME 2 interface, Cinnamon/Mate presents an interface that will be instantly familiar to most people who have used a computer in the past. Even users of OS X and Windows 7 or earlier should be able to quickly recognize a classic desktop for workstations and laptops and become productive in it.
The Cinnamon/Mate Desktop
To an extent, the same is true of KDE. However, KDE's ease of use is reduced by concepts that, while convenient for developers, are likely to be puzzling to users of all levels.
For one thing, KDE has what be called an unlocked mode, in which icons and widgets can be configured, and each one contains a menu of mini-icons for configuration. It is only when the desktop is locked that it becomes ready for everyday use.