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The KDE 4 release series is nearly four years old. Yet many users still maintain that the KDE 3 series delivers a faster, more efficient, and more customizable desktop. However, their claims are rarely detailed, so the recent release of a new version of the Trinity Desktop Environment, the KDE 3 fork, seems a suitable time for an examination of the claim.
The last time I compared the two KDE versions, KDE 4 was still working out some of its rough spots, such as using Akonadi to manage personal information in a database. Similarly, although based on what was then eight year old technology, Trinity was still fine-tuning, adding such features as the ability to run KDE 4 applications.
Since then, however, both desktops have matured and added features. So how do they compare now in terms of speed, feature, and stability? It's time for a point-by-point look.
One of the main claims about the KDE 3 series is that it does everything more quickly than KDE 4. That claim seems more or less true, but depends on the apps that you are running.
On my main work station with sixteen gigabytes of RAM, the latest KDE desktop appears nine seconds after l log in. By contrast, Trinity is ready to use in five seconds. Logging out and returning to the log in screen usually takes nine seconds for KDE and seven for Trinity, but, depending on the apps I am running, either can take up to twenty-three seconds. What's more, Trinity seems more likely to have long delays than KDE (and to crash altogether during logout).
The speed that apps run at depends on the environment for which they are designed. With applications that aren't designed for a specific desktop, start times are inconsistent. In most cases, such as Firefox, the start times are equal. However, KDE opens LibreOffice in three seconds as opposed to Trinity's five. Yet KDE takes five seconds to open The GIMP to Trinity's three.
Both desktops open apps written for KDE 4 in about the same time. However, apps written for KDE 3, such as the Basket note program, seem to open twice as fast in Trinity than in KDE. However, comparisons may be misleading, because Trinity uses its own version of many programs, which may be tweaked for performance, and are not usable by KDE.
Verdict: Claims about Trinity's speed are exaggerated, but it is still faster than KDE in most cases. On an older computer with only one or two gigabytes of RAM, the difference in speed might be even greater.
Comparing desktop layouts is difficult, because KDE takes a more visual approach to customization features than Trinity, and a user accustomed to one may have trouble finding a particular feature in another. Moreover, KDE tries to extend the concept of the desktop, while Trinity's concept of the desktop remains largely unchanged from a decade ago. Much also depends on the options you choose.
Still, in general, Trinity seems designed equally for those who prefer desktop icons and menus. By contrast, KDE's default assumes users who start apps from the menus. Yet that said, by adding a Folder View, KDE users can have an icon-oriented desktop that functions similarly to Trinity's default.
In fact, if you choose, you can use several different icon sets at once, or else change them as you change tasks. The main difference is that Folder View controls are harder to learn than anything in Trinity; even after several years, I still fumble with them sometimes.
In addition, KDE offers far more features than Trinity. Unlike Trinity, KDE offers widgets on the desktop, which allows them to be considerably larger than when they are on the panel. As a result, you can easily create custom desktop views, such as an overview with a To Do and Calendar. If you are not adding icons to most of the desktop, such custom views are a handy way of using otherwise wasted space.
KDE also includes customizable hot spots, and a wide arrange of special effects for the desktop. Some of these are just eye-candy, but a number increase accessibility or add visual clues that reduce common irritations such as finding the active window among half a dozen.
Trinity does have an edge in some individual controls. For example, it allows you to select which file formats have a desktop preview, while KDE simply enables previews for all. But while KDE may lag in a few individual desktop controls, in general it allows a wider variety of work flows than Trinity.
Verdict: Some users might prefer the relative simplicity of Trinity, but in general the KDE desktop simply offers more possibilities. That means that in KDE, you have a greater chance of working exactly the way you want.
Unlike GNOME 3.x or Unity, both KDE and Trinity are designed with the assumption that panels are places to put frequently used small tools and notifications of various sorts. Taskbars, notification trays -- all the classic features users have learned to expect in a panel -- appear in both desktops.
So, too, do most of the configuration options, although the fact that KDE's are visually oriented and minimalist may disguise the fact. In both desktops, you can set the size and location of the panel, and whether it hides to give more space for displaying open windows. The main differences are that, to change the background of a KDE panel, you have to adjust the theme rather than changing it separately, and that Trinity has a number of pre-configured panels that you can choose that require considerable customization to reproduce in KDE.
Verdict: Trinity. Despite improvements early in the KDE 4 series, the KDE panel is still not as convenient to configure as Trinity's.
The menus in KDE and Trinity are mirror images of one another. For a default, Trinity offers a classic menu, with sub-menus that spread across the desktop, with the option of switching to a Kickoff style menu contained in a set-size window. KDE offers the reverse: the Kickoff menu with the option of switch to a classic style menu. Both Kickoff and the classic menu can be manually edited, although you might miss the KDE menu editor, which is hidden behind a right click on the menu button.
For me, this is a choice between two evils: opening a sub-menu in a classic menu often obscures what you are working on, while Kickoff is too cramped unless you resize it. However, KDE also includes an alternative called Lancelot that steers clear of these extremes, as well as KRunner, a minimal tool for users who know what is on the system.
Verdict: KDE, but just barely.
Virtual Desktops and Activities
Little changed in the options for virtual desktops between KDE 3 and 4. However, current versions of KDE also introduce Activities -- independently configurable desktops that you can switch between depending on what you are doing or where you are, each of which has its own set of workspaces.
Because of Activities, you can have more customized work flows, such as starting KDE with an overview full of widgets, then switching to a more conventional desktop as you settle down to work. They are more complex than anything offered by Trinity, but convenient and efficient once you are used to them.
Options for Personal Preferences
One of the claims made for the KDE 3 series is that it has more options for personal preferences than the KDE 4 series. This claim is hard to examine, because the KDE 4 releases began with few options and gradually added more. To complicate matters even more, KDE 4's System Setting window was extensively revised in the first few releases, although recently it has become more consistent between releases.
In addition, KDE 4 tends to minimize top-level menu items, while KDE 3 was more likely to add them. At other times, it seems to have dropped options that most users are unlikely to use. Consequently, while Trinity at first glance appears to have more options, in many cases it has simply organized the ones it has more loosely than modern KDE does.
Nor can you always make a direct comparison, because each desktop has options that only make sense within its own context. For instance, the Removable Dialog settings is only applicable in the context of modern KDE's Device Notifier for external hardware.
However, when all these differences are taken into consideration, KDE and Trinity seem almost identical in the choice of personal preferences. The greatest difference is that different themes are available for the two desktops.
Even the layout is not a major difference; KDE displays choices in groups of icons by default, but you can easily change to the tree view of Trinity's Control Center.
Verdict: Tie. I'm assuming that the choice between the System Settings and Control Center layouts is unimportant to most users.
System Configuration and Administration Options
System and Administration Tools suffer the same problems as personal preferences -- naturally enough, since they appear in the same windows. However, Trinity has specific controls for peripherals like Joysticks and PCI Cards, as well as more displays giving information about the computer hardware and configuration and useful options such as a default spell-checker that KDE lacks.
Verdict: Trinity. Average users may not notice such lacks, and administrators probably leave the desktop in favor of the command line. But, for intermediate users wanting to learn how to manage their system, configuration and administration tools remain KDE's largest lack.
KDE 3.5.10 was the last in a series of thirty-five release stretching over eight years. With this history, it had a reputation for being extremely stable and crash-free.
However, while Trinity's latest release, version 3.5.13, suggests a continuity, the continuity does not necessarily include stability. On my machine, Trinity has frozen several times, including once when I attempted to change the menu, when the only recovery was to delete the Trinity folder in my home directory. Similarly, changing the theme spontaneously adds a panel on the left side of the screen, and using the Monitor & Display to change the resolution causes it to crash without making any changes. In addition, twice in about thirty logouts, Trinity has hung.
In comparison, I have installed KDE half a dozen times on different computers, and twice as many times virtually, and never had the slightest problem in four years. The most I can say is that modern KDE runs best with at least two gigabytes of RAM.
Verdict: KDE. I have heard of difficulties with KDE, but never experienced them.
The Final Count
Before sitting down to this exercise, I assumed that KDE would have a large lead. I was never a fan of KDE 3, and I assumed that, for all Trinity's heroic efforts, the passage of time would not have been kind to its foundations.
The results, though, surprised me. Awarding one point for a win in each category and two points for a second place finish, I find that I've given KDE a total of 11 points, and Trinity 12 points -- technically an overall win for KDE, but by most standards a tie.
What is useful about this exercise is that it points to the strengths and weaknesses of each desktop. It allows the cautious confirmation of the myth of Trinity's speed, and a debunking of the myth of its stability.
However, each of these categories should probably not be given equal weight. Personally, I'd like to see proof of Trinity's increased stability before relying on it. Nor am I sure that, having adjusted to using KDE's Activities, that I'd like to work for any length of time without them.
Your priorities may cause you to give the categories different weights. But, if nothing else, the comparison shows that Trinity can still function as a modern desktop, and that KDE is not as a great a departure from the classic desktop as you might have been led to believe. Choosing between them may be a matter of tradeoffs, but, if nothing else, I hope I've given you the basis for an informed decision.