"It's like starting another operating system," a colleague complained recently when he switched from the GNOME to the KDE desktop. He was exaggerating, but the impression is accurate. Unlike Windows or OS X, where the desktop and the window manager -- the program that controls how programs open -- are fixed, in GNU/Linux, you have dozens of choices for a graphical interface, each one with its own look, tradition, and utilities.
The result is unparalleled choice -- but equally unparalleled confusion among new users. How do you decide which desktop to use? To help you decide, here are the pros and cons of some of the most popular alternatives, together with an assessment of their intended audiences.
Through much of its early history, GNOME was playing catch-up with KDE, first in terms of features and then in terms of popularity. However, those days are now several years in the past. For over five years, GNOME developers have paid special attention to usability, and the fact that such major distributions as Debian, Fedora, and Ubuntu default to GNOME now make it roughly equal to KDE in popularity.
Some weak points remain. GNOME continues to lack a font installer, and its help system continues to be overhauled. However, for the most part, GNOME today is a modern desktop that can be easily learned by anyone familiar with the concept.
If anything, the main problem with GNOME these days is that advanced users are largely ignored, as Linus Torvalds complained. The browser view of the file manager is increasingly hard to find in some distributions, and its organization around the current user's desktop and home directory is an irritant for those used to thinking in terms of the entire system structure.
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Some, too, complain of code bloat, as GNOME continues to add new features with each release. However, for the most part, GNOME deserves its dominant position among desktops, offering a wide range of utilities and a professional, blessedly, non-Windows look.
By name, IceWM is a window manager, and not a desktop at all. However, with its own control center and a broad assortment of themes, IceWM actually occupies a gray area somewhere between the two categories.
Users praise its low footprint and its use of plain text files for customizing settings, and its often one of the first choices for those who want a graphical interface for older machines or thin clients.
KDE is presently undergoing a massive face lift in the shape of version 4.0, which is due in January 2008. Meanwhile, its current version remains one of the two most popular desktops for GNU/Linux and other UNIX-like operating systems. It has the reputation of being more Windows-like than GNOME, and therefore the most likely of the two to appeal to new users.
This reputation depends as much on the past as on present day reality, but undoubtedly KDE offers one of the friendliest user experiences of any available desktop, with adjustable levels of eye-candy and the support of dozens of programs written specifically for the desktop. Its configuration options are especially thorough, and are conveniently arranged in the KDE Control Center, where they can be easily found.
KDE's main weaknesses are a chaotic main menu and a combination file manager and file browser -- an outdated concept that only weakens the efficiency of the file browsing capabilities. Some, too, feel that its default themes are less professional-looking than GNOME's. And, like GNOME, KDE is often accused of code bloat -- an unfair accusation in both cases, considering their efforts to accommodate a broad variety of users and work styles.
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