When I tell people that I use Linux, they look at me with pity. In their minds, I have just confessed to being a fanatic who is willing to undergo daily hardship and inconvenience in defense of my beliefs.
When I go on to tell them that the KDE desktop is in many ways more innovative than Windows 7, the looks of pity changes to caution. I am not only a fanatic, they conclude, but delusional and potentially dangerous.
After all, everybody knows that Linux requires you to do everything from the command line. Such graphical interfaces as exist must be crude and awkward, and I can only be in denial.
All the same, it’s true. The few occasions when I venture into Windows 7 (these days, generally for a comparison article, or to help out a neighbor), I feel hamstrung by the absence or at best partial implementation of all the tools I take for granted. Compared to desktops like KDE, my experience on Windows seems defined largely by what I cannot do.
That’s not to say that KDE is superior in every aspect. In some cases, such as the menu or the system setup window that only display one level at a time, or the mini-icons used to tweak widgets, KDE has obviously borrowed ideas from recent Windows releases. Like most free software, KDE is nothing if not versatile in borrowing ideas from everywhere.
Nor am I suggesting that Windows is hopeless desktop. But if I want functionality comparable to Windows on the operating system of my choice, I can turn to minimalist desktops like LXDE or Xfce — all of which run with much less hard disk space or RAM than Windows 7.
What I am saying is that KDE far outstrips Windows 7 in features that enhance the way you work on the desktop unless you install third party add-ons like Stardock System’s Object Desktop (and sometimes not even then).
Here are the top seven features that KDE has but Windows 7 lacks out of the box:
1) Changing Icon Sets with FolderView
When the KDE 4 series was still being developed, Aaron Seigo announced in his blog that it would do away with icons on the desktop.
He was being deliberately provocative, because what he really meant was that users would no longer be stuck with a single set of icons on the desktop. By abstracting the desktop icons into a separate feature called FolderView, KDE makes it easy to maintain and load separate sets of icons for different purposes. If you take the time to setup FolderView to suit your work habits, it reduces the number of icons on the desk at any one time, and makes finding them much easier.
2) Running Multiple Activities
Activities are KDE’s successor to virtual workspaces. As the name implies, each activity tends to be based on a specific task. For instance, you might have one activity for programming, and another one for graphic design, each with its own set of icons and customizations. Other ways of organizing activities might be based on location, with one activity desktop set up for the office, and another for school or home.
3) Customizing Everything
Windows has customization and themes, of course. But the scope of what you can customize in Windows remains far behind what you can do in KDE.
Look, for example, at what KDE calls the panel and Windows 7 the taskbar. In Windows 7, you can lock the taskbar, or auto-hide it when a window on the desktop needs the space. You can reduce the icon size, and position the taskbar on any side of the screen.
By contrast, in KDE, you can do all these things and many more, including changing the panel’s height and length or its alignment. In addition, you can add additional panels, and any widget that can be placed on the desktop.
The same is also true of the other main components of the taskbar or panel. Most KDE implementations offer three styles of menu — the Classical, Kickstart, and Lancelot. Similarly, in KDE you can control what windows are minimalized and how, as well which notifications display and the style of the clock.
Some people argue that KDE goes too far in allowing customization, and new users can suffer from anxiety option. However, I have yet to hear of anyone who dislikes being able to setup everything exactly as they want. Besides, if you don’t want the bother, nothing stops you from staying with the defaults.
4) Shading Windows
Shading closes all but the title bar of a window. Once shading is enabled in the title bar’s right-click menu, moving the mouse towards the top of the screen shades the active window, and clicking on the title bar opens it.
Like minimizing, shading increases the space on the desktop. However, the advantage of shading over minimizing is that reading the title bar is easier than reading what’s docked in the taskbar. Shading also restores windows with fewer clicks than minimizing, because the title bar icons remain visible.
5) Grouping Windows
In the 4.4 release, KDE introduced grouping for windows. Instead of each window taking up desktop space, it becomes a tab in a single window. Grouping windows not only removes clutter from the desktop, but also simplifies finding windows that are related to one another. Although the feature takes some getting used to, once you remember to incorporate it into your workflow, it quickly becomes indispensable.
6) Creating Screen Edges Hot Spots
Following the lead of Symphony OS, KDE allows the creation of up to eight hot spots on the edges of the screen. Each of these hot spots can be configured to produce a different effect when you drag the mouse over them. For instance, you can use a hot spot to show the desktop, switch workspaces, or arrange open windows in a grid. You can have the option to maximize any window by dragging it to the top of the screen, or to tile them by dragging them to either side.
The one problem with screen edges is that the hotspots in the middle of an edge can be hard to find. Otherwise, the hot spots reduce the repetitive motions required to move windows about, and have no parallels in Windows
7) Desktop Effects and Compositing
When Windows 7 was released, Microsoft heavily advertised a handful of desktop effects called Shake, Peek, and Snap However, this tentative start did little to diminish the commanding lead that Linux in general and KDE specifically has in special effects. In fact, when news of the Windows 7 effects became widespread, the reaction of Linux developers was not envy, but to discuss whether they already had similar effects and, if not, whether implementing them would be worthwhile.
KDE is not the only desktop to have special effects of course. However, its effects stand out as being, for the most part, genuinely useful. While KDE’s effects do include some eye-candy — mostly to do with animation on the desktop — many are genuine enhancements. A half dozen improve accessibility, whiles others make it easier to see which window is currently active or otherwise help with window management. Some of these effects require 3-D acceleration, but many do not, which, unlike some other compositing effects, makes KDE’s usable by everyone.
Returning the Pity
Some of these features are not unique to KDE. In particular, virtual workspace-like activities are available on most free desktops, and other systems of compositing effects are becoming increasingly common. However, KDE is still one of the first desktops not to just to make these features part of the default install, but to integrate them in such a way that they change how users do their computing.
Nor is Windows totally without default features that KDE lacks. KDE requires neither defragger nor — usually — a virus checker — but most of the distributions that package KDE do not include tools for backups and drive encryption, the way that Windows does.
The difference, though, is that such features are easily installable if you need them. As part of Linux and other free operating systems, KDE benefits from online repositories with several options for most needs — any of which can be downloaded and installed in a matter of minutes without any cost. This system of software management makes the buying of software that Windows relies upon look inefficient and antiquated, even when you can download instead of going to the store. Consequently, although few default KDE installations include all the features of Windows 7, you can quickly download whatever you need.
Even more importantly, like the rest of Linux, KDE is released under a free license. Not only are the licenses involved more philosophically or politically desirable than Windows 7, but they also do away with restrictive license agreements and the nuisance of software activation.
With all these benefits, is it any wonder that I return the pity and caution that other people show when I mention that I use free software? The only difference is, my reaction is justified. The Windows users don’t know what they’re missing.