Back when I started work at a Linux company, I had trouble wrapping my mind around the idea that an operating system could have more than one desktop. Finally, I asked what the difference between GNOME and KDE was.
"Oh, that's easy," another employee told me. "KDE is for people who are used to Windows, while GNOME is for those who like innovations."
Today, recommendations are much harder. For one thing, both GNOME and KDE have morphed out of all recognition, making that summary long obsolete. For another, at least half a dozen other desktops are clamoring for users' attention.
How do you summarize a desktop? Match desktops with personalities? With priorities? With work habits? At the risk of making sweeping generalizations and collapsing into caricatures, here are a few suggestions of how to answer these questions today:
Cinnamon has only been a desktop alternative for the last eight months. Developed by Linux Mint, it is an effort to recreate the experience of GNOME 2 on top of the GNOME 3 code.
Cinnamon is a series of extensions that redesign the GNOME 3 main desktop. These extensions include a second panel, an editable menu, and control of virtual workspaces from the main window. If all the Cinnamon extensions are added, then GNOME 3's overview mode can be bypassed entirely. In this way, Cinnamon combines the best of old and new, giving a GNOME 2 experience while running on recent GNOME 3 code.
As you might guess from this description, this workaround is mostly of interest if you are already familiar with the possible choices of desktops. Unless Linux Mint is already installed, a new user might find the Cinnamon extensions simply another level of complexity to frustrate them. They might prefer to get similar results more simply with Linux Mint's Mate.
GNOME and the applications designed for it continue to be the foundation of many desktops, including Cinnamon, Mate, and Unity.
And no wonder -- with a uniform design philosophy, GNOME offers an integrated look and feel that makes it look more polished than any other modern desktop, with the possible exception of Unity. While you might not be able to do everything with a GNOME app, you can do the most common tasks, and without having the distraction of features that you rarely need.
Within reason, that minimalism seems reasonable. Unfortunately, in what looks like a case of willful blindness mixed with an illusion of objectivity, in GNOME 3, developers chose to extend the minimalism to the interface. In the name of reducing clutter and improving users' work flow, the latest GNOME releases have removed icons from the desktop and applets from the panel, and started automatically using virtual workspaces, removing control of them from users. Then, just to complicate matters further, it added an overview separate from the working window, from which applications are launched.
The trouble is not that all these choices are poor ones, although some might be. It's hard to argue against less clutter, and more use of virtual workspaces probably is more efficient. The trouble is that users have no choice except to accept it,
For those whose preferences happen to coincide with GNOME's choices, or who are indifferent to desktops, this situation is no great matter. Those who are willing to experiment, or change their habits, may also choose GNOME.
However, judging from the way that users have abandoned GNOME, many users are not prepared to accept such limitations. They might seek out extensions that make GNOME more flexible, but they may also prefer to look for another desktop environment that gives them more freedom of choice. Although the recent GNOME 3.4 was more favorably reviewed than the rest of the GNOME 3 series, more and more GNOME is looking like an ambitious innovation that stumbled over its own cleverness.
KDE today has a split personality than would make Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde envious.