Despite the popularity of lightweight desktop environments, options like KDE have also had their hand in making desktop Linux a real pleasure to use. Recently, I wrote a distro comparison of Ubuntu vs. Debian, explaining that Debian presents you with various desktops from which to choose while Ubuntu provides only Unity. To take this a step further, I'll be exploring Kubuntu today so I can expand on that initial comparison.
Immediately after booting the ISO image, the Kubuntu install experience feels very KDE-centric. The install media offers the same choices as a standard Ubuntu installation, down to the option for installing third-party software and updates.
During the installation itself, you'll feel right at home trying Kubuntu if you happen to be an existing Ubuntu enthusiast. Aside from the cursor and the color scheme, the installer is exactly the same as Ubuntu's. Where you begin to see some small variations, however, is with the welcome text during the install. Instead of an introduction to Ubuntu/Gnome applications, the text is welcoming you to highly advanced KDE applications. Image, music and video applications are all discussed during this process at length.
Once Kubuntu has been installed is where the real differences begin to take shape. Even before jumping into the available applications, the desktop is already substantially different from what you would find on Ubuntu. There's no Unity or a Dash from which to get started. Instead you'll find a clean desktop with a single translucent box from which you can access the desktop icons.
Below that, you'll find the K menu, which allows you to access all of Kubuntu's settings and applications. Also, within the K menu is the option to search for applications or settings, even if you're not entirely sure what they're called. This feature is similar to Unity's own search feature, only it's much faster than what Ubuntu offers.
Without question, Kubuntu is more responsive and generally "feels" faster than Ubuntu. Both Ubuntu and Kubuntu, use dpkg for their package management. But when it comes to the GUI front-end used by each distribution, the differences between the two distros suddenly become quite apparent.
Ubuntu has both its software updater and software center applications. Kubuntu, by contrast, uses Muon exclusively for GUI package management. So when Kubuntu prompts you to update your packages, you're using the same package management tool that you would use for locating and installing new applications. Muon visually looks nothing like you'd find under Ubuntu and feels like it might have gained some of its design insight from other package managers.
Muon will feel very natural to anyone who prefers using Synaptic. The options provided are very similar, even down to features like saving package lists or upgrading/downgrading packages on the fly.
Another important area where Kubuntu sets itself apart from Ubuntu is with its widgets. By default, Kubuntu comes with a number of useful widgets that can be displayed on your desktop. Or if you'd rather, installing new ones is as easy as browsing through the widget menu and clicking install. This is one of things that really stick out about KDE—updates and installing new items never require opening up a browser window.
The two most used applications that come with Ubuntu are generally the browser and email client. For Ubuntu users, this means using Firefox and Thunderbird. Kubuntu takes a slightly different approach. On a new installation, Kubuntu offers a full Personal Information Manager (Kontact) in place of a simple email client like Thunderbird. And unlike Ubuntu, Kubuntu includes the rekonq browser instead of Firefox. I've found rekonq to be very fast, loading pages with speeds comparable to both Firefox and Chrome.
Another area where Kubuntu does very well is with its quality applications. From the Amarok music player down to K3b DVD burning software, these KDE applications reflect polish and quality in a way that gtk applications often fall short visually. And to make things even more compelling, Kubuntu remembers to include the little things, like a clipboard manager by default. This is an area where Ubuntu leaves you to your own devices, in that you'll need to install one yourself.
Both Ubuntu and Kubuntu offer the ability to detect and install proprietary drivers should you wish. Kubuntu relies on the older method of a standalone application for this, whereas Ubuntu has integrated this into their software sources dialog. In addition, both distributions are compatible with Ubuntu software packages and PPA repositories. This means you could quite easily run the same software on an installation of each distribution without any issues whatsoever.
Menus, Options and Settings
Despite the various tools that are available for installation, Ubuntu's Unity isn't known for its abundance of menus by default. Kubuntu on the other hand, takes a page from other distributions running the KDE desktop. Just to give you one example, you can browse into the Kubuntu System Settings and change your network management backend from NetworkManager to Wicd from within a very easy to follow GUI menu.
Another fantastic example is setting up different applications to rely on different sound cards. For example, if I have a USB headset and an internal sound card, then I can setup one to be used for games and the other for music and/or video. Bear in mind, this doesn't even rely on PulseAudio, this is simply using KDE's Phonon Configuration Module. I don't recommend using Phonon with PulseAudio's own control management as it can lead to issues, but if you're opting to run an ALSA-only setup, Phonon is pretty neat.
One issue I have with Kubuntu is that in some areas the menus feel like overkill. Three different settings paths for the same function can feel a bit excessive when it comes to making simple application setting changes. Sometimes these features are useful, but in other instances, they are a little more than the casual user might be looking for.
Kubuntu is a solid, responsive Linux distribution for anyone running Ubuntu-capable hardware. Some have even argued that KDE offers a more familiar experience than Unity for those coming away from Windows. And despite its differences from Ubuntu proper, Kubuntu users can rely on much of the same knowledge they may have gained from using Ubuntu.
On the flip side, however, KDE isn't for everyone. It's not uncommon for those who do enjoy using Unity not to enjoy KDE as much. After all, KDE is a very powerful desktop and its options are a lot to take in for someone who has never experienced freedom and desktop control to this extent before.
At the end of the day, my advice is this—try Kubuntu, but do so on a system no older than a couple of years in age. This way everything is going to be at its top performance and you won't frustrate yourself expecting it to behave like a lightweight desktop, such as XFCE or LXDE. Remembering this tip will lead to an experience which will empower to you to make the best decision for you and your workstation.