Linux has a strong do-it-yourself tradition. Although new users are transitioning rapidly to the desktop, that tradition remains. Even on the desktop, users expect to be able to administer their systems directly, and to work in an environment customized to their tastes and needs.
But how do the latest versions of GNOME and KDE compare with each other? To find an answer, I divided the two desktop's configuration and admin tools into five main categories. The results, while sometimes murky, give a generally clear picture of the state of the mainstream Linux desktops.
For years, KDE has favored a one-stop configuration system that is tightly organized. In the KDE 4 series, the default has changed from a menu with separate panes for each item to a series of icons and hierarchical window views, but the general design is similar.
The exception are a few elements that are scattered through the desktop, such as the menu editor that opens in the menu's context window, or the folder views and activities that are part of the desktop rather than the system configuration.
KDE organizes most system settings in a single window.
By contrast, GNOME has favored a System menu of separate items. The exact contents of the System menu depends on the distribution, but usually it is divided into Personal and Administration sub-menus. This division can sometimes cause confusion, especially when similar items are in both menus, or where an item belongs is unclear. For instance, network configuration tools can be found in both sub-menus, while printer configuration could be justified as belonging in either.
GNOME distributes system settings throughout a menu system.
Glancing through the two sets of admin and configuration options, you soon realize that comparisons on several points are impossible, because one desktop has features that the other lacks. GNOME lacks a font installer and notification controls, while KDE lacks package management, and user and group tools. At first, you might imagine that KDE is also missing applications for setting applications that start with the desktop, Bluetooth connections, or power management, but you will find them on the Advanced tab of System Settings. However, with both desktops, less desktop-oriented tools can usually supply what's missing.
Verdict: Tie. Whether you favor centralize or distributed controls or can live with a particular list of missing features depends very much on your priorities and preferences. The perfect tool kit would include features from both.
Both GNOME and KDE have settings entitled About Me, and settings for applications that open in connection with certain file types, although KDE refers to Default Applications and GNOME to Preferred Applications. These applications can be used throughout each desktop, but they differ considerably in detail.
For example, both desktops' About Me application include an item for changing the password on the current account, and space for a user avatar. KDE's About Me, however, is focused on system-oriented information, listing name, organization, and offers choices of how your password is concealed as you type it. KDE also offers default settings for paths for various system resources and for downloading different types of files.
In the Advanced tab for KDE System Settings, you can expand this list by setting file associations. Usefully, while setting file associations, you can set the order of preference for multiple applications, ensuring, for instance, that KDE will try to open PDF files in Okular first and Xpdf second (or not at all).
In comparison, About Me in GNOME is more of an address book entry, with listings for multiple email addresses, as well as telephones, IRC, and street addresses. In addition, the Personal Info tab includes fields for a web page, blog, and calendar and job details.
The differences are just as great in default applications. In KDE, default applications include settings for email, text editor, file manager, instant messenger, terminal, file manager, and window manager. In GNOME, the Preferred Applications are browser, email, multimedia player, terminal, and accessibility.
Verdict: KDE. Both desktops have features that the other could use, but KDE's ability to set file associations nudges out GNOME.
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