Popularity polls for software are questionable indicators at best. However, with KDE receiving just under a third of the votes in LinuxQuestion's Members Choice for 2011 and 2012 and in Linux Journal's 2013 Readers' Choice Awards, there's enough consistency to call KDE the most popular Linux desktop environment.
Admittedly, if you add all the choices that use GNOME technology (Cinnamon, GNOME, Mate, and Unity), then KDE loses its position. But if you consider a desktop environment as a combination of both the shell and the underlying technology, KDE's position is unchallenged. At a time when half a dozen choices are available, KDE's one-third is probably as close to dominance as any desktop is likely to get.
What makes KDE so popular? To find some answers, I asked for comments from subscribers to firstname.lastname@example.org. The list subscribers, most of whom are long time users of KDE, and some of whom are involved in the project, gave surprisingly consistent answers, singling out KDE's balance between a classic desktop and a high degree of configuration, and the general atmosphere of the project.
Some of the praise for KDE was based on its ecosystem of applications. The DVD burner K3B was singled out several times, and so were the web browser Konqueror and the editor Kate. Other applications praised included Ksnapshot, the screen capture app, Gwenview and Okular, the document and graphic viewers. Less well-known applications were also mentioned, such as the Krusader file manager.
More generally, however, those who replied agreed that KDE, as Kevin Krammer described it, is a "good combination of classic elements (panels, window lists, pager, etc.) with great configurability.)"
Doug McGarrett praised KDE as having "a great deal of visual similarity to Windows, on which virtually all of us learned graphical user inferfacing . . . .At the same time, the KDE desktop is more versatile, allowing various icons to be placed in the panel . . . as well as on the desktop surface itself, and has a lot more options for these users spaces. If your desktop uses widgets, rather than icons, they can be modified in size, one at a time, so as to be more pleasing to the eye as well as more easily found."
McGarrett also praised KDE for the fact that "certain eyecandy type things can be turned off. Especially when they hit up against a screen edge. And I can do without them ever becoming translucent!"
Frank Steinmetzger also praised the degree of configurability. "I am a heavy customizer and like adapting my computing environment to my needs and wishes. I like that you can put your panel (any number of panels) anywhere you want. You don't have to see a stupid panel that constantly tells you your own name. To me it's unbelievable that there are desktops out there that don't even let you choose another base font."
Steinmetzger continues, "I am also grateful that not all of the good old stuff is thrown away just because some hipster-inspired paradigm-of-the-month emerged from another project." He specifically mentions his dislike of the default menu --"too many animations, too much waiting, scrolling and clicking" -- and the ability to switch to the classic menus, as well as the ability to use virtual desktops and ignore the newer concept of Activities.
A poster who uses only the name Duncan elaborates on KDE's tendency to preserve older options, suggesting that the failure to follow it is one of the problems with the much-troubled Akonadi, the personal information manager. "If KDE had provided its usual level of choice, would it have been a big deal?" he asks. "No. Users would have decided they thought the default was stupid and would have gone and changed the config to something that worked for them. Because that's part of what makes KDE KDE, the ability to do just that."
Behind this praise for balancing classicism with configurability is often an implicit comparison with GNOME. Nowardev-Team specifically described KDE as "more flexible," adding that "I feel free to use it like I want." Much the same sentiment was expressed by Martin Skjoldebrand, who complains, "I've tried to like how GNOME works [and] I simply can't. To me it's not logical or customizable enough. KDE is so much easier to get to do exactly what I want it to do."
Some replies went beyond the software. Nowardev-Team wrote that "the most important thing is that KDE's people helped me." Singling out lead plasma developer Aaron Seigo, he says, "I was totally new and he helped me to develop some little stuff, losing his time," and compares this reception to a chillier one he found in GNOME.
Myriam Schweingruber also praised the community: It is very open and welcomes everybody, regardless of their skills, origins, or gender. Being a woman I never felt the need of having a separate group to include me, as the community doesn't make a difference in treating its members. I am not a software developer, but I am part of KDE nonetheless, as there is no separation between developers and non-developers. "The KDE way is to treat everybody as part of the community, and this also extends to the users.
Although generally favoring KDE, the replies were not completely uncritical. One or two complained about the Nepomuk search frame because it slowed down the system, but the loudest complaints were reserved for the Akonadi Personal Information Manager that runs Kmail, as well as the address book and calendar. Akonadi has had technical problems.
Some users suggested that most of the problems had been fixed and that KMail in particular deserved another look, but what was interesting was that the complainers had found other solutions for personal information while still being generally supportive of KDE.
Overall, what is interesting about the support expressed is its combination of detailed opinion and calm assurance. These were not the unthinking enthusiasms of fan-boys, but the informed thoughts of people familiar with KDE and mostly inclined to trust it. Clearly, KDE has a reputation that other desktop environments should envy -- and with good reason.