Note: This was originally written in September of 2005. A lot has changed since then. For example, you don’t need to install SMEG to edit the Gnome applications menu, and I no longer dual-boot KDE and Gnome (right now I’m using IceWM, actually). Nevertheless, you may find this a helpful read to just get a sense of the different usability approaches and priorities that Gnome and KDE have.
One of the most common questions people new to Linux ask is “Should I use KDE or Gnome?” Unfortunately, the answers are usually useless—anything from “Just try each one to see what works for you” to “Gnome is much better.” That said, selecting a desktop environment should probably be one of the last things you worry about as a Linux “newbie.” Hardware detection, email set-up, etc. are far more important to day-to-day functioning than your desktop environment. It’s sort of like just learning how to ski and worrying about the color of your skis—learn how to ski first! Also, most versions (or distributions) of Linux have a default desktop environment (for example, Blag and Ubuntu default to Gnome, and Mepis and PCLinuxOS default to KDE), so if you’re really conflicted about what to use, just use the default one that comes with your distribution. If you’re later dissatisfied with it, you can always install and use another desktop environment on the same distribution.
Okay, I won’t avoid the question, though, because some people are actually curious, so I’ll give specifics based on my experience.
Please note: these are my limited experiences just to give new users a basic idea of the differences between Gnome and KDE. I haven’t used both desktop environments on every single Linux distribution out there, and I’m not a desktop environment expert. Also, I realize that new features in both environments get implemented with every new release, and a lot of these things will be obsolete probably within a few months of my writing this.
What Gnome and KDE have in common
A lot of people say that KDE is more Windows-like, but I have no clue what this means. Sure, it has something like a Start Menu, and it has a taskbar, but so does Gnome. They both have desktops that can have icons. They both can have launchers and window lists for multi-tasking. They both have screensavers and theme options. In general, they’re essentially the same for day-to-day functioning. If I’m in Gnome, and I want to launch an application, I click on the icon to launch the application or use a keyboard shortcut to launch it—same thing in KDE, though. They both have clocks (or can have clocks) on the taskbar/panel, and they both have themeable log-in screens. The theming part is important to take note of because if someone tells you Gnome or KDE “looks” a certain way, it doesn’t matter. You can always go to KDE-look or Gnome-look and download and install a new theme to change the appearance of your windows, your icons, and your login screen. I have both my Gnome and KDE desktops looking “aqua” in a Mac style with Mac-like icons.
What KDE is better at
KDE has more graphical tools that are helpful to new users. For example, in Knoppix and Mepis, there’s a “browse as root” button that lets you browse around and make a few folder changes as root (or administrator) while still logged in as a user. This is helpful to new users who may be a little intimidated by having to type commands to make administrative changes. You can, of course, in Gnome create a launcher similar to this, but I’ve never seen a Gnome default desktop on a distro that includes this button. You can actually make the entire taskbar transparent (I’ve found in Gnome you can make only certain parts of it transparent). KDE also offers you the option to change your settings to be a certain style (Mac-style or Windows-style, for example) that will affect the way windows and keyboard shortcuts behave.
Other stuff that seems to be important to new users that’s easier in KDE: you can, via a few checkmarks in the Control Center, choose to have your other partitions (say, your Windows partition) just show up on your desktop, whether it’s “mounted” or not. You can also, through the Control Center in KDE opt to have numlock turn on every time you boot up. You have a lot more control over customizing the KMenu. Some versions of Gnome don’t even include SMEG (the menu editor for Gnome), and SMEG itself is limited in terms of which menus it can edit.
Making keyboard shortcuts is easier for new users in KDE. You just edit the KMenu and click on “shortcut,” and you can create a shortcut for that application. In Gnome, you have to go to the configuration editor > apps > metacity > Global Keybindings and Keybinding Commands and get the command number to match with the keyboard shortcut. You also, in Gnome, have to type in the keyboard shortcut (the word shift instead of just pressing the Shift key).
Some random quirky stuff seems to work better in KDE. For example, when I try to open a .php file to edit it in KDE, it opens in a text editor right away. If I try to open it in Gnome, I get some warning about how the file is executable and so is prevented from opening and that I shouldn’t open it unless it’s from a trusted source, so I have to right-click the file and select “open with” and then pick the application to open it with—not the most convenient way to have to open a file. Of course, that applies to only particular files, but it’s still annoying.
I have to say, too, that KDE generally has some better native applications (this depends, of course, on what you want to use). You can use KDE applications in Gnome, and you can use Gnome applications in KDE, but I’ve found that using applications in their non-native desktop environments sometimes leads to them not functioning correctly or taking a long time to load up. For example, when I use AmaroK in Gnome, and I drag and drop a song from the library on to the desktop, it actually moves the song there instead of making a copy of the song. This doesn’t happen when I use Rhythmbox in (its native) Gnome or AmaroK in (its native) KDE. Kolourpaint is a sophisticated paint program that’s a lot like the MS Paint program from Windows, and it’s useful for those of who don’t need all the bells and whistles of the Photoshop-like GIMP but want to tinker around a little with images. KWord can import, edit, and export PDFs, in addition to being just a generally good word processor (by the way, OpenOffice is usually the default office suite Linux distributions give you, but the KOffice or the Gnome Office suites load up a lot faster in KDE and Gnome, respectively, than OpenOffice does in either KDE or Gnome). AmaroK is one of the coolest music players in the Linux world. You can have the name of each new song pop up on the screen as you begin playing it. You find the lyrics to almost any song that’s playing. It has some good playlist capabilities as well. I have, however, found it a bit buggy sometimes in terms of refreshing the directories it scans and in terms of its responsiveness to keyboard shortcuts (to move to the next song, say), so JuK (also a native KDE application) is a good substitute—minimal functionality but strong stability. Rhythmbox in Gnome is okay, but it really doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of AmaroK, and I can’t get it to manually refresh or rescan the appropriate folders where I store my music.
What Gnome is better at
I’ve found themes much easier to install in Gnome. If I download a theme from Gnome-look, I can usually just go to the theme manager, click “Install new theme” and have the theme ready to go. The same cannot often be said for KDE themes. I’ve often had to manually copy icons or folders to random places and edit config files or do a ./configure make make install on the folder after un-tarring the .tar.gz. Sound complicated? It is.
In particular login screen themes are much easier to install in Gnome. You just go to the login screen setup and click “Add Theme” and select the .tar.gz. In KDE, you either have to compile a theme manager or un-tar the .tar.gz and put it in the appropriate theme folder and then manually edit the theme configuration file to point to that location.
Gnome is also a bit faster. Sure, I’ve encountered a few KDE distributions that are super-fast out-of-the-box (PCLinuxOS and Kubuntu, for example), but once I tweak them and install all the software I want and change up the themes and load in the icons I want, KDE inevitably becomes sluggish. When I click on an icon, it can take up to around 10 seconds for the application to launch.
Gnome is also more stable. Sure, I’ve had the occasional freeze-up in Gnome, but it’s usually because of something I did wrong, and it almost never freezes up the entire screen—maybe just one program. I won’t say it happens frequently in KDE, but I’ve had at least twenty freeze-ups in KDE in the past five months, and they’re not recoverable. Control-alt-escape doesn’t help, and the mouse won’t even move. The keyboard shortcuts won’t respond. A freeze-up in KDE is a disaster worse than the blue screen of death in Windows ME. I also have had a lot more random errors and application crashes in KDE. Sometimes I’ll try to click on an application icon to launch it and it’ll look as if the application is going to launch but it doesn’t. I click on the icon again and it does launch. Weird. Sometimes I’ve encountered situations where I enter my password to do something that needs root privileges (use Synaptic, for instace), and the dialogue box will disappear and the application won’t start. I don’t want to scare people. This has just been my experience with KDE, and these issues, although recurring, don’t pop up very often. My point is simply that they almost never happen in Gnome or haven’t for me.
In Gnome, when you choose to rename a file, only the actual name of the file gets highlighted for editing. In KDE, the entire name, including the extension gets highlighted for editing. I prefer usually to rename only the file, not the extension—though, you can always highlight the extension in Gnome, too, should you choose to do so; it just doesn’t happen automatically.
Also, when you modify an image, the thumbnail gets refreshed the moment you save the file. This doesn’t happen in KDE, which will often use the obsolete thumbnail even after the image gets modified and saved.
One last random thing that Gnome has over KDE—though, this may be specific to my keyboard—is that it recognizes the multi-media keys on my keyboard (it’s the keyboard that came with my eMachines computer). It doesn’t recognize their functionality right away, but Gnome can at least be programmed to use those keys. KDE doesn’t even recognize those keys exist (and the eMachines keyboard is not in the list of keyboard layouts in the Control Center). Of course, KDE recognizes the Windows key as an actual auxiliary key (like shift or control), so that it can be used in conjunction with other keys for keyboard shortcuts (e.g., win + e), whereas Gnome thinks the Windows key is just a key by itself, so tha
t it can be assigned as only one shortcut (e.g. win).
I wish I had one. Honestly, at this point, I’m torn. I currently triple-boot Ubuntu Breezy (Gnome), Kubuntu Breezy (KDE), and Windows XP. I would say overall that I find KDE a more pleasant experience when it’s working and Gnome a more pleasant experience in general. Of course, you’re not limited to these two, either. You can use XFCE, too, or any number of window managers (Fluxbox, Blackbox, IceWM, etc.). For a complete list of window managers, you can go here. If you want to see what Gnome looks like, try this Google search. Use this Google search to see what KDE looks like.
P.S. Some people ask me why I have separate boots for KDE and Gnome. Theoretically you can have both desktop environments on one installation, but I’ve found that that clutters things up and sometimes (rarely) makes things malfunction. I just like my installations clean.