ALSO SEE: KDE and GNOME: Seven Irritations in Each
Despite all the talk about the mythical Year of the Linux Desktop, somewhere in the last few years, free software passed a milestone without anyone noticing. At some point, after years of struggling to rival proprietary desktops, both GNOME and KDE have caught up in features and narrowed the gap in usability. We are now at a point where free software is often an innovator on the desktop.
Of course, GNOME and KDE have long had features that Windows lacked, such as multiple desktops and finer controls for customizing the user experience. However, in the last few years, both major free desktops have added features that show not only an interest in usability, but, at times, an effort to anticipate what users might actually want. The focus is by no means consistent, yet scattered here and there are features that can make any user glad that they're using a open source desktop.
Your list of such features might vary, but here's my shortlist for both GNOME and KDE:
In 2001, the GNOME Usability Study Report, sponsored by Sun Microsystems, made GNOME the first free desktop to examine the desktop experience. Since then, GNOME has codified usability in its Human Interface Guidelines.
These guidelines are sometimes applied too literally, or as though they were the only consideration. But over the years, they have given GNOME an understated look and a high degree of efficiency. Applied well, the guidelines have resulted in some welcome features:
The panel clock in GNOME can be configured to display the time in multiple locations. If you regularly deal with people in different locations, this feature is far handier than looking up time zones every time you want to arrange a meeting or a phone call. You can also access to do lists and calendars from the clock, although these are less useful since most GNOME users probably have Evolution open all the time they are logged in, anyway.
In GNOME, you can add an icon for any program to the panel. If you are icon-oriented, rather than menu-oriented, this ability makes the panel an ideal place for applications that you use too irregularly to put on the desktop, but still want accessible. However, this is a feature that is still missing in the KDE 4 series.
Sometimes, GNOME's Human Interface Guidelines oversimplify and take choices away from users. By contrast, the Appearance Settings dialog in GNOME is generally an example of the guidelines being applied successfully. Opened by selecting Change Desktop Background from the desktop context menu, the dialog consists of a number of tabs, most of which offer customization of a single feature.
The exception is for fonts, and complicated only by settings for different font locations. Unfortunately, in Ubuntu's Karmic release, the effect is spoiled by a Visual Effects tab, which oversimplified by describing three different levels of animation while failing to offer detailed choices, but the rest of the dialog balances simplicity with options.
OK, Cheese is a bit cheesy, with its filters to distort faces. Yet it's still the only easy-to-use controller for a web camera on any open source desktop.
Evolution, GNOME's email reader, supports multiple signatures that can be used with any configured account. Although you can set the default, you can just as easily choose one from the upper right corner of the Compose Message window and have it automatically appended to your email. If you want to share different bits of personal information with different recipients, or perhaps include a quotation in messages to friends but not to messages to possible employers, this simple feature is ideal.
A drawer is a GNOME applet that you can drop icons into, creating a rough and ready menu that you can keep open while you work. Its a convenient way to create custom sets of icons, and to keep the panel from becoming too cluttered.
With some patience, you might create the same convenience with the menu editor, but you'd take much longer to do so. The one problem is that neither drawers nor their contents support icon text, but you can overcome this problem by a careful selection of icons.
For some years, GNOME has emphasized two productivity applications that are not heavily tied to a specific desktop: OpenOffice.org and Firefox. Given the mature feature sets of both applications, this decision seems only sensible. GNOME still includes AbiWord and Gnumerics, the remnants of efforts to build an office suite, and some distros also include Epiphany, GNOME's default lightweight Mozilla-based browsers. But these applications are largely sideshows. By contrast, KDE still emphasizes both KOffice and the Konqueror browser, despite their relatively small followings.
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