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A brief comparison of KDE 3.1 & GNOME 2.2

One observer's first impressions on the two heavyweight window managers

(LinuxWorld) — Believe it or not, it is not my intention to rekindle the KDE vs. GNOME desktop wars. I suspect the only way to avoid it, however, is to pretend that I like both equally. I don't. However, I don't want to leave you with the impression that these are the only choices, either. There are plenty of lightweight and middleweight window managers that you may prefer. Nevertheless, as far as the heavyweights go, KDE and GNOME are the ones to watch.

In this corner, we have the heavyweight champion of the Linux world, KDE 3.1, released on or about January 28, 2003. In the other corner, we have the challenger, GNOME 2.2, released on or about February 6, 2003. While I have not had time to explore KDE or GNOME in depth, my first impressions start with installation.

GNOME installation

Debian has been more faithful in its support of GNOME than KDE, but I found it even more difficult to install GNOME than KDE. All the necessary Debian packages were available, but no matter how many times I installed, reinstalled and reconfigured GNOME, I had numerous persistent problems with it. An important desktop icon, "Start Here," was always missing. Some desktop themes caused terrible graphics corruption. There was no obvious way to get to the GNOME control center, and when I finally got there, it was filled with duplicate icons for system settings.

I reinstalled package after package, and I even tried deleting every personal-configuration folder I could find. It was difficult to track down every potential problem because GNOME is a conglomeration of Nautilus, Bonobo, Gconf, GTK and more, and it was difficult to sort out which pieces could contribute to the various problems. In the end, nothing I did fixed my installation of GNOME, so I wiped it out and started from scratch. Installing it from scratch once again was more difficult than I imagined it could be, because Debian normally resolves dependency issues automatically. I'm sure the Debian maintainers will fix these problems, but the fact that I had so many dependency problems didn't improve my impression of GNOME.

The above solution felt disturbingly familiar to the solution to every Windows problem: reboot, reformat and reinstall. This was indeed the first time I felt compelled to clean off any application and reinstall it from scratch in order to resolve a problem, and I hope it is not an indication of things to come. Worse, once I had GNOME working, I realized that many of the problems were frighteningly like Windows problems.

One of the worst things about Windows is that various system processes have so many convoluted interdependencies that it is difficult — if not impossible — to track down the source of any given problem. Even Microsoft admits this problem in an internal Microsoft document that describes the difficulty migrating Hotmail to Windows (See Resources for link to the leaked report).

This convoluted set of interdependencies is precisely what I ran into here. What was the cause of the missing icon? A GNOME control-panel problem? A Nautilus problem? A gconf problem? A gconf daemon problem? A Bonobo problem? A configuration file problem? Where would that configuration file be located? The home configuration directories alone include ".gconf", ".gconfd", ".gnome", ".gnome-desktop", ".gnome2", ".gnome2_private", ".gnome_private", ".nautilus", and ".metacity" — pardon me if I forgot any!

It may seem unfair to pin all of the above complaints on GNOME rather than Debian. One could easily assume that if the Debian package maintainers simply improve the installer scripts, all would be well. They could make sure the scripts reset the configuration data to a sane starting point when you run dpkg-reconfigure, for example.

I question, however, whether that is feasible. Here's why. In retrospect, I believe most of the problems I ran into were related to the files in the /etc/gconf/ directory tree. This tree of XML files is the equivalent of the Windows registry, and the "Gconf editor" is the equivalent of the Windows registry editor. Despite the text nature of XML files, this registry equivalent is almost as convoluted as the Windows registry, and therefore it's almost as difficult to manage. It also seems to be as much of an Achilles heel to GNOME as the registry is to Windows. Remove or damage one of these files and there's no obvious or easy way to recover.

The bottom line is that the similarities between the growing weaknesses in GNOME and the weaknesses so familiar from my Windows days are scary. We're supposed to learn from those mistakes instead of repeat them, aren't we?

KDE installation

I had some problems with KDE 3.1, but not nearly as many as I should have had considering everything I have done to make the process difficult. I run two versions of KDE side-by-side. I run the default Debian version in all the default directories, and I compile my own CVS version, which I install in the directory /usr/local/cvskde. Both of these versions share the same, single home configuration directory, .kde.

Despite the recipe for disaster that comes with running conflicting versions based on the same configuration directory, the problems I've had with KDE don't even resemble those I encountered with GNOME.

The only difficulty I've had installing KDE stems from the fact that the Debian maintainers don't track KDE versions as closely as they do GNOME. The first drop of KDE 3.1 for Debian was on the KDE servers, and it did not mix will with the Debian unstable branch I use. Fortunately, the Debian unstable branch now includes its own KDE 3.1 Debian packages, although not every package has made it to the servers. The network- and personal-information-manager packages are still missing as I write this. While the desktop is incomplete on Debian, it isn't even remotely difficult to install or configure. The configuration files from custom-compiled versions don't seem to give the Debian KDE any trouble or vice versa.

GNOME look and feel

GNOME's look and feel is dramatically improved over the last version I tried. Some of my favorable opinion is entirely due to personal preference. Ironically, one reason I like GNOME better is because I can use a GTK theme called Geramik, which is a clone of the new default KDE theme, Keramik. That isn't the only thing I like about the new GNOME look. The default Nautilus explorer is polished and attractive, too. It's fast, even with thumbnails enabled, and the various folder styles are very appealing.

GNOME still fails to enforce even a fraction of the consistency you find in the KDE user interface, however. Some developers will say this is a good thing, but the kind of inconsistency I'm talking about is not conducive to making friends of average users.

For example, open a window for Galeon, Gnumeric and Nautilus. Right-click on the toolbar for each application, and you will get different results. With Nautilus, you get nothing. Galeon and Gnumeric give you almost the same options for configuring the toolbar, but they present the options differently. Menus for some applications can be detached, but not for others. The preferences dialogs are designed differently for each application. Even the file pickers differ from application to application, although they all share the lack of any interesting features. If you're not careful to use the same theme for GTK versions 1.x and 2.x, your applications won't even look alike; some of them use the older GTK and some use the newer.

I would caution GNOME fans against protesting that the differences are because not all applications associated with GNOME are truly GNOME applications. Fans of GNOME have been saying for ages that the best applications — such as Abiword, Gnumeric et al — are all written for GNOME, not KDE. It would sound a bit like sour grapes to make the excuse now that they are inconsistent because they aren't really GNOME applications.

KDE look and feel

As I said, my preference for the cosmetic appeal of KDE is personal, and I'm certain there are folk who find GNOME more attractive by default. Nevertheless, I can't help but say that KDE seems gorgeous to me. The translucent menus are better than ever with the drop shadows. The alpha-blending extends even to the background, so I can modify the look of a JPEG wallpaper with various blurs and other visual effects. This is pure eye candy, of course, and anyone can live without it. However, I still enjoy it.

If I try to be as objective as possible, then I'd have to say Nautilus is in some ways better-looking than the KDE equivalent, which is Konqueror in file-manager mode. Nautilus looks cleaner and simpler than Konqueror, and it is therefore less intimidating. The difference comes at a cost in features for Nautilus, but that cost is not going to be painful to a new user. One reason Konqueror may look busier is that the file manager doubles as the full-featured Web browser, and both support far more sophisticated features than Nautilus. You can break up the main window into multiple combinations of vertical and horizontal splits. You can link some or all these sub-windows so that one is a different view of another. You can have several tabbed windows, some of which contain the splits. And so on. These features are terrific for power users but can be difficult to master and confusing for new users.

There is one beautiful new feature for the file manager that will be of benefit to all users: the ToolTip views. If you let your mouse pointer hover over a file, a ToolTip will appear with an expanded preview of the file and loads of information about the file. If it is a graphics file, for example, the ToolTip will display things like the image size, color depth, the program used to create the picture and all the standard attributes, such as owner and read/write settings.

As for consistency, KDE buries GNOME. The features of one KDE application are generally identical in look and feel to the next KDE application. Right-click on any toolbar and you get the same results, sans any differences that are made necessary by the nature of the application. The file picker has been a dream ever since KDE 3.0.

The KDE control center gives one a remarkable amount of fine-grained control over the look and feel of KDE while making the process easy, even to a new user. Advanced users can take advantage of modules that make it easier to install and manage printers, install fonts, configure a kernel and even set up the boot loader. My only complaint about the control panel is a petty one. It still hasn't quite made up its mind what settings should go under some categories, such as "Appearance and Themes" and "Desktop." The division of categories in the control panel are more logical now than they have ever been, but I expect the items to be shuffled at least one more time.

Application teaser

That wraps it up for my initial view of KDE and GNOME. In my next article, I'll take a look at some of the KDE applications shipping with KDE 3.1, as well as some in-progress applications that fulfill predictions I have made. You'll have to wait for the details.

More Stories By Nicholas Petreley

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Asheville, NC.

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