Customization has always had a high priority on the Linux desktop. That hasn't changed now that the two major desktops have become three -- GNOME, KDE and Ubuntu's Unity. If anything, as much as two-thirds of the complaints are about this trio.
Often, the problem isn't that a tool is missing, but that it's been renamed or repositioned. But the questions remain: Which of the three major Linux desktops offers the most customization tools, and which tools are easiest to use?
To look for an answer, I've compared visual interfaces for the three desktops for personal customization and for general system settings, which can also have an effect on setting up a computer according to your preferences.
I've omitted any mention of tweaking with GConf, GNOME's database of preferences, on the grounds that many desktop users would balk at using it. Instead, I've focused instead on the tools available from the menu or application listings.
At first glance, both GNOME and Unity might seem to be starkly lacking in options to personalize your desktop. But this impression is partly inaccurate.
So far as basic tools are concerned, neither desktop lacks basic settings, such as tools for changing the background wallpaper or the screen savers. They simply hide many configuration options between several layers of interface in the lists of applications under the name of System Settings.
Both probably do so in the name of simplicity, although in Unity's case, the burying of options might make users more likely to stay with the Ubuntu-branded defaults.
By contrast, KDE provides shortcuts to many configuration options from a number of menus on the desktop. Yet with KDE, as with GNOME and Unity, going to the System Settings provides the full range of options.
Yet, even when the hidden configuration options are taken into account, both GNOME and Unity look like experiments in simplifying the desktop. This tendency is especially obvious on the panels.
Both GNOME's and Unity's panels include a few standard applets, such as a calendar, but neither allows applets to be added, deleted, or repositioned, as their common ancestors in the GNOME 2 release series did. Nor can you resize or move the panel, which both GNOME and Unity place at the top of the screen. The most you can do is some minor configuration on the pre-set applets, such as adjusting the sound level, or choosing which wireless source to use.
All these limitations contrast sharply with KDE, whose current release has more in common with the GNOME 2 series than with either GNOME or Unity. Unlike the other major desktops, KDE's panel supports a full set of widgets (KDE's name for applets), and repositioning and resizing the panel.
In fact, the latest versions of KDE place such a high priority on customization that before changing anything, you must unlock the panel widgets and enter what might be called configuration mode, using a set of tools that appears only when the widgets are unlocked.
That's not to say that the KDE configuration tools are flawless. What I am calling configuration mode is a sometimes bewildering array of visual and menu-selected tools. Moreover, some of the visual tools, such as the tab-like arrows for changing the panel width, are so easy to overlook that you might think they don't exist. Nor can you change the panel's appearance without changing the desktop theme -- a step that might be logical, but remains annoying if all you want to do is change the panel color.
In addition, widgets are chosen from a horizontally-scrolling window that is often slow to respond. When you do select a widget, it is placed on the right of the panel, and needs to be repositioned in a separate action.
Still, at least KDE has the customization tools -- never mind how idiosyncratic they are.
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