After a week of using GNOME, Eric Griffith concluded that GNOME was more usable than KDE, arranging features more intelligently and conveniently. Even a quick glance shows that he is right. In fact, considering the number of years that GNOME has focused on usability, the only surprising outcome would be if he were wrong.
However, usability is only half the story. What draws users to KDE is not usability, but the amount of customization it allows — and, in that category, KDE is as far ahead of GNOME as GNOME is ahead in usability.
Uncluttered vs. Customizable
You can see the difference without going into detail. GNOME gives users two choices: a working and an overview screen, or, with extensions, a single screen. Either way, the widgets in the panel are limited, and no icons are permitted on the desktop without gnome-tweak-tool. GNOME’s declared goal is to keep the desktop environment uncluttered, but the price paid to realize that goal is a lack of choice.
By contrast, KDE Activities offer as many desktops as you choose, each specialized for a particular task or project. Each Activity can have one of a dozen layouts, the most common being a classical desktop to a file manager-like view of a folder. Fresh from the install, KDE has the option of multiple panels, each with as many widgets as you choose. Similarly, the KDE desktop can hold any number of icons or widgets. The emphasis, in both content and design, is on choice — to a degree that even with extensions, GNOME cannot match.
Probe a little deeper, and the same contrast continues. GNOME’s settings include 20 categories. KDE’s System Settings, however, includes 30 — and those are just the top level ones. Open KDE’s top level settings, putting them on a level with most of GNOME’s, and KDE’s categories rise to over 65.
Of GNOME’s categories, by my count only three lack analogs in KDE: Privacy, which consists of several unspecified collections of settings; Online Accounts; and Wacom Tablets. At first, a few others appear unique, but can be found under different names and categories — GNOME’s Accessibility category, for instance, is matched in KDE by a sub-category in Desktop Effects.
In comparison, KDE’s System Settings include numerous features not found in GNOME. While GNOME limits possible behaviors, KDE includes settings for mouse gestures, locales, installing fonts, SSL preferences, default behaviors when external devices are plugged in, and at least a dozen more. Any time that you venture beyond basic settings, GNOME is almost guaranteed to be less accommodating to user preferences or control than KDE.
For example, in GNOME, the desktop is no more than a backdrop that application windows are placed upon. Users cannot even control the use of virtual workspaces unless extensions are added. But in KDE, the desktop becomes a tool for working the way that you want.
For example, in KDE, you control virtual workspaces without help from the desktop environment. Not only can you open any number, arranging applications as you choose rather than the desktop environment, but you can also set customize each virtual desktop separately, giving it both a unique name and wallpaper and its own set of icons and widgets.
In addition, eight hotspots on the edges of KDE desktops can be customized to perform actions such as locking the screen or showing the bare desktop. Similarly, instead of being mere eye candy, some of KDE’s desktop effects serve practical purposes, such as darkening non-active windows to distinguish them from the current one or magnifying a section of the screen. If you want eye candy, KDE effects do include options such as making the desktop a rotating cube, but a surprising number of them help to improve desktop navigation based on what is important to you.
In fact, KDE goes down to a level of customization that leaves GNOME far behind. For instance, in its options for windows, users can set everything from how windows interact with the mouse, to how accurate the cursor has to be interact and what combination of mouse buttons needs to be pressed to resize or drag a window. Nothing on the GNOME desktop comes close to offering such low level detail.
The Premise Determines the Conclusion
If anything, KDE is customizable to a fault. Users encountering KDE for the first time might easily suffer anxiety option, becoming overwhelmed by the array of choices, at least some of which they don’t understand. Fortunately, KDE’s defaults are reasonable ones, allowing users to ignore the more arcane possibilities until they are ready for them. Meanwhile, many appreciate a desktop environment that conforms to their preferences, rather than the other way around, and look forward to a slow exploration of the options as their experience increases.
The point is not whether GNOME or KDE is better. Comparatives only matter with narrow contexts. On the one hand, for those whose chief value is order and convenience, GNOME fills their needs exactly. On the other hand, for those who prefer doing things their own way, KDE is equally satisfactory.
For some, the ideal desktop environment would be one that balanced both extremes, such as Linux Mint’s Cinnamon. However, no desktop is better than the others in the abstract. In the end, your choice depends on what is important to you.