Monday, November 8, 2010

KDE versus GNOME

In all honesty, I have never truly made up my mind on which of the two most famous Linux desktop managers I liked the most. That aside, the inevitable comparison between the two is always there, though, subconsciously. In fact, considering the latest releases from both GNOME and KDE bring outstanding features and improvements, I thought it was the perfect time to put together an article on the subject and find out which gets first to the checkered flag.

Before I actually sat down and compared, I opened up a poll to get a better understanding of the community opinion on the subject.

Click on image to enlarge

As can be seen from the chart above, it seems GNOME is still a community favorite, but KDE seems to be catching up somehow.

Anyways, let's just jump straight into it: let the battle begin.

KDE SC 4.5.2 versus GNOME 2.32.0

I will break this comparison into categories, as follows:

1.- Look & Feel
2.- User friendly/Intuitive
3.- Application Catalog
4.- Connectivity
5.- Performance
6.- Energy Management


Most comments I read comparing both GNOME and KDE show a clear tendency to find the latter more visually attractive. Not surprisingly, KDE provides endless different ways to tweak colors and style, including a more polished default Look&Feel. There are some strange limitations to KDE in this area, though. For example, changing icon themes is still somewhat buggy and very few icon themes, if any, can substitute Oxygen properly. In addition, control themes are very limited and changing them from the GUI is anything but intuitive. Last but not least, font rendering, even if apparently more flexible that GNOME's, is not as sharp and fonts never look as good in comparison.

It almost "makes sense" that KDE should get this one, but scratching beneath the surface shows that it is still not fully ready to win the crown. Even if not offering the same level of flexibility or good looks out of the box, GNOME provides a solid set of features, all of which work as expected. I am sure KDE will get there eventually, but for now they are matched.

Result: DRAW


If we agree that most Linux users have previously used some way, shape or form of a misoperating system put together in Redmond, we should also agree that KDE probably feels closer to home to the average Linux newbie. A single lower panel, the menu on the left and a somewhat Windows reminiscent system tray should feel less alien than a double panel setup with an upper system menu split in three main categories. There are other similarities, like the KDE System Settings tool, which is also adamant of the concept of keeping all things configuration in one big spot, just like the Windows control center does.

Unfortunately, once past those subtle similarities, KDE no longer feels that intuitive and requires more time to get used to. As a simple example, GNOME users only need to right click on their desktop to access a wide array of appearance settings. Anything from icon themes to window decoration, fonts or wallpapers can be controlled from a single applet. Not only that, but installation of pretty much any kind of theme happens on that same window, so even if users didn't know about it, they would very quickly grasp the concept. A similar action for a user new to KDE would probably take longer as s/he finds which of the KDE System settings categories provide the functionality s/he is looking for.

Another area that plays against KDE is its unpredictability. In other words, some concepts follow a certain logic that is unfortunately not fully consistent throughout. As a simple example, a KDE user would go to System Settings in order to change an icon theme. Similarly, s/he would again go to System Settings in order to modify system keyboard shortcuts, color schemes, fonts or desktop themes. How about changing an application icon or adding a new custom keyboard shortcut? KDE System Settings again, right? Not so, users will need some luck to find those options as part of the main menu editor.

As a final thought, KDE is more actively evolving right now. Evolution implies change, and change always ends up bringing early confusion and requiring extra effort from users to adjust and learn new features. For instance, KDE SC 4.5 series brought changes in many areas, such as the KDE System Settings tool, which was rearranged a bit.

Due to its superior stability and a more intuitive design, GNOME still maintains a comfortable lead in this area. KDE must standardize its concepts so they consistently apply across the whole environment, as well as ensure that certain basic elements, such as icon theme management, work perfectly out of the box.



Both KDE and GNOME provide great applications as part of the default installation. Different distros usually decide which ones to keep and which ones to substitute, so it is sometimes becomes difficult to know which application catalog is best. For the purpose of this comparison, I will narrow things down to a bunch of common application categories that belong in the GNOME and KDE projects respectively:

Internet browserEpiphany vs KonquerorKDE
Audio playerRhythmbox vs AmarokKDE
ArchiverFile Roller vs ArkGNOME
Video playerTotem vs DragonGNOME
Text editorGedit vs KwriteGNOME
File ManagerNautilus vs DolphinKDE
eMail clientEvolution vs KmailKDE
Instant messagingEmpathy vs KopeteGNOME

Indeed, things are pretty even, both application catalogs are fabulous. Only personal preference can tilt the balance either way.

Result: DRAW


In this case, I will focus on how each desktop manager provides access to the most common connection media, such as Ethernet, Wireless, Bluetooth and 3G.

One interesting fact about the KDE network manager is that it is not that simple to test it in most popular distros. Some, like Fedora, include the GNOME network manager, while others like PCLinuxOS stick to the Mandriva one. Kubuntu is one of the few shipping with the default KDE network manager, but it is not unusual to see people recommending its substitution by GNOME network manager or WiCD. I believe this is already a relevant sign that KDE is not there yet, perhaps not mature or solid enough.

Ethernet: Both KDE and GNOME network managers work straight away as long as the hardware is recognized, not much to say here.

Wireless: A different beast altogether, user experience will depend directly on their hardware and how well their OS copes with it. I must say, though, that I LOVED the network manager in Kubuntu 10.10. In my experience, it works faster and just as reliably as its GNOME counterpart. In fact the KDE panel networking applet is a great piece of work with an easy to use interface that does provide lots of information, such as a small network traffic monitoring chart. The network manager applet in GNOME is a very solid and thoroughly tested application, and even if it may provide superior stability, it still lacks some pretty basic features (wireless network list manual refresh, anyone?) and its design could be improved to deliver more information and in a clearer way.

Internet Everywhere/3G: The GNOME network manager has supported this kind of devices for some time now, which makes it the more reliable and better working option.

Bluetooth: Similarly, bluetooth support is and has been more stable in GNOME for some time now. KDE is a bit of hit and miss, and configuring/managing devices can be a pain. Kubuntu 10.10 sports a correctly configured instance of BlueDevil, which does feel more robust. Having said so, I still experienced frequent issues when browsing external devices.

All in all, even if KDE is catching up quickly, it still lacks the stability that is key in such a critical area. The OS paradigm is quickly changing following the cloud revolution, and rock solid connectivity features are a must now more than ever.



I believe that performance benchmarks are very difficult in this case because desktop managers always sit on top of a particular Linux distro and Kernel combination, both of which do have an influence on performance. Even if we compared Kubuntu and Ubuntu, benchmarks wouldn't be 100% fair, for there are slight differences in how they are built and the number of features each offers.

In any case, based on my experience and even if KDE has vastly improved lately, this one still goes to GNOME. Startup times are generally faster, and so are standard actions, such as opening applications, browsing devices, loading icons, etc.

With all the above in mind, it is important to keep an eye on the evolution of the technology behind both GNOME and KDE. For example, QT 4.7 release was announced recently, stressing significant performance gains which should cascade down by the time KDE SC 4.6 goes live. It wouldn't surprise me if KDE matched or maybe even surpassed GNOME in terms of performance soon.



While desktop users will probably not consider this a key element, I believe it is for those using portable devices. Moreover, I believe it only makes sense that open software is not only conscious about freedom and other noble causes, but also about leading responsible and efficient use of energy.

The latest GNOME updates have brought some improvements to energy saving. Surprisingly, I have come to enjoy 15%-20% longer battery life since I installed Ubuntu 10.10. Naturally, that much improvement does not come from GNOME alone, the Kernel is also very much a part of it, but that should not demean what the GNOME developers have achieved.

KDE has also improved in this area, but even more importantly, its approach is much more flexible and powerful. The ability to configure the different energy saving profiles to the smallest detail is simply incredible. Once you get used to it, it really feels like you are missing something when you are on a different desktop manager. In my opinion, KDE is ahead of the game on this one.

Result: KDE WINS


Judging by the analysis above, it may look as if GNOME was a much better desktop manager than KDE, but that's really not the case. Both are evenly matched on most areas, but there are still some elements making a difference, specially in terms of reliability and ease of use.

The GNOME development community has lately invested many of its resources on the upcoming GNOME shell release. Because of that, the current GNOME desktop has not been experiencing the aggressive evolution that KDE is enjoying (and sometimes suffering from). As a result, GNOME has become more and more solid with each recent release, which I believe has played to its advantage. On the other hand, KDE is relentlessly evolving, and even if that aggressive development is risky at times, it is already bringing tangible results. I believe it just needs a small effort to rationalize all concepts and settle down a few features to more stable levels.

If I had to say which one is best today, I would have to go with GNOME, if only because I consider its superior reliability a critical element. Looking forward, though, the picture is anything but clear. The GNOME shell has been heavily criticized and suffers from never ending delays (which may explain why Ubuntu has decided to drop its use and go with Unity). The latest KDE releases are achieving the exact opposite, getting users excited with recent releases and the vast improvements that came with them. I believe that the final release of the GNOME shell and KDE SC 5.0 (which may coincide in the second half of 2011) will be the decisive point that may tilt the balance one way or the other.

I have to admit, my vote goes to KDE SC 5.0.

Thanks for reading


  1. There is no KDE 5 planned at the moment, and certainly not in 2011.

    -- sebas (a KDE developer)

  2. While most of this is subjective, there is one area where KDE totally outshines Gnome and that is applications. Why didn't you for instance mention KDE-edu, where Gnome has nothing? KOffice vs nothing? The KDE Games are very much better looking than the Gnome Games. Digikam vs F-Spot? and on and on it goes.

  3. Hehe, I've been using KDE for over a year now and never even heard about the Dragon player (been using Kaffeine, SMPlayer and VLC)

  4. Inge Wallin: it's a set of different projects of course, but then, KOffice is splitting into two projects now too.

  5. Gedit vs. kwrite? this should be kate! if you pick mostly the thinks who is gnome the better one, than gnome will be the better one. but you should try to see all over the both. ^^

  6. Come on gedit is not even comparable to kate! And really, I don't think it's a matter of taste. Anyway, nice article with some very good points

  7. Thanks all for your comments!

    @sebas: That was just me guessing that it would happen once KDE 4.6 reaches ends its cycle. I think the number is not all that important, it is the concept of the next generation after 4.6 I was referring to.

    @Inge: It is precisely that type of comparison I was trying to avoid, for it doesn´t really make much sense, I think.

    In my opinion, more does not necessarily mean better, specially when many of the apps you mention are not that commonly used. Marble versus Google Earth? KOffice versus OpenOffice? Perhaps GNOME didn´t start any such projects because there are very tough to beat standards already available?

    In my experience, only Fedora KDE (if my memory is correct) came with Koffice installed. PCLinuxOS KDE brings OpenOffice, and so do Mandriva KDE, Kubuntu, Linux Mint KDE, etc.

    In other words, it is fine that KDE is making an effort on those areas (although my personal opinion is that those efforts would be more useful elsewhere), but people will hardly know or even care if they don´t get to see the end products.

    As such, I thought it was more relevant to keep the comparison down to a few very commonly used apps. That´s why I used Kwrite instead of Kate, because I found that it is more common among popular KDE distros.

  8. Well every one have it's own taste.This is Linux and we all have the right to choose what we want and what we like.I use kde for quite a time,and my only complain is that my ppp conection doesn't work with knetwork manager ,but nothing is perfect in this world so i just use pppoeconf .If you like GNOME and GNOME make you happy then go on and use GNOME.If you like KDE,than KDE would be!

  9. I actually find this a fair comparison.

    My experience with speed is that they are equal, but since KDE's performance is more dependent on the hardware than GNOME's performance, i can see this one tilting slightly to GNOME.

    The one thing i can't seem to agree to in any way is, as mentioned above, comparing gedit to kwrite and letting gedit win. Apart from comparing it to kate instead of kwrite, all of the handful people using GNOME i know prefer kate over gedit. I do agree on the draw on applications overall though.

  10. It's not Gedit vs. Kwrite, but Gedit vs. Kate.

  11. I have been a gnome user. But I recently changed to KDE for my netbook, because the KDE netbook workspace is just beautiful.

  12. I've been a Gnome user for a while, but with Fedora 13 I've started moving to KDE.

    I do find Gnome easier to configure the desktop than KDE and easier to find things (in part due to familiarity), but I like KDE's "integrated" feel.

    It may be because KDE apps have the more similar menu structure, or that Kontact includes KMail and the other PIM applications, but they can be opened independently as well.

    One thing I find lacking is a Cheese-equivalent for KDE that works on my system with my webcam.

  13. I have a feeling gnome 3.0 will cause a rise in KDE users. But, it would be the same reason gnome gained users from the KDE SC 4.0 switch. No one actually (wanted) to use gnome as a replacement to kde 3.6, but they dealt with it.

  14. Hi Drew, use Kamoso for webcam on KDE4. It's good, it works. Cheers!

  15. While these comparisons are fun, I think you're missing one point.

    Say I agree with you and love the power management of KDE's Plasma Desktop, so I go for that. Say I also agree with your assessment of the apps (I don't, but nevermind). There is nothing to stop me going for Plasma Desktop while running Amarok, Totem, Gedit, Dolphin, Kmail and Empathy.

    It's not a simple one or the other choice and people should choose their favourite environment and choose their favourite apps individually. As you mentioned in a comment, a lot of people use OOo, Google Earth and the like that don't come under any kind of GNOME vs KDE choice.

  16. This article has significant problems.

    The poll may be biased depending on which DE you blog about the most. If you blog favourably to GNOME, it wouldn't surprise me that GNOME comes out on top.

    "GNOME provides a solid set of features, all of which work as expected"

    The single reason given for GNOME winning the look and feel round had nothing to do with look and feel and plenty to do with 'user friendliness' (which is a separate category).

    And a point against KDE in usability involved finding system settings in the System Settings application while finding application-specific settings in their respective applications. That must be extremely inconsistent and challenging for users(!)

    And of course, comparing the desktop environments based on the applications in each is just silly considering the degree of subjectivity. As well as the fact that you can use applications from each in either DE.

    The post is clearly biased towards preconceived notions instead of providing an objective overview. I'm especially looking at the user friendliness section with four paragraphs out of five on why GNOME is better (3 on why KDE is worse, 1 on why GNOME is better).

    I don't like this article but when all is said and done, my preference is GNOME.

  17. Hi,i like gnome in ubuntu i have tried kde but i couldn't find where things were. i found it more complicated personally .having said that gnome in opensuse 11.3 i could not find things in that either.Personally i found ubuntu the easiest linux os to use hope you find this interesting its purely my personal observation.

  18. Thanks all for your comments!

    @teapot: Appreciate that you actually took the time to complete such a thorough analysis! What can I say, you can't win em all!

    @Stu Jarvis: All of my articles have the unexperienced user in mind. I don't see any newbie even knowing what Amarok is if they start using Ubuntu, for example. I see what you are saying, but I think that's an advanced user perspective.

  19. Im writing this from my mom's Celeron based laptop which is running the latest KDE with no problems.
    She first moved to Linux with KDE3.5 and I switched her to v4 when 4.2 came out (I actually RTFA, tried out 4.0 and 4.1 and decided to keep using 3.5 which was still very good.). Now that PCLinuxOS has switched over to 4.x, Im moving her back because I prefer a rolling distro. When I first started switching people 3 years ago, PCLinuxOS 2007 w. KDE3.5 was the only one that just worked (and wifi was hit and miss in those days.)

    I was pissed off years ago when zealots like De Icaza started a competing project because Qt wasnt 'free enough.' (its funny that the same group of zealots have now turned 180 degrees and are pushing mono/net/C# into Gnome. the irony/hypocrisy is delicious.) That split hurt desktop development for a good 6-7 years but the past few years have proven that choice in FLOSS is a good thing after all. (and ive abandoned both for E17 with PCLinuxOS which is sleak, light and uses mainly KDE apps)
    Let me put this straightforward: GNOME was so ugly 2-3 years ago that the people I tried to convince to switch were turned off (Ubuntu 8.04....blecch!!!) but choice is a personal thing.
    THere is no better desktop, there is only a desktop which suits YOUR needs. You find the one that suits you, not the other way around. And DE is THE choice that you have to make because most distros using the same DE look identical and those debates are nothing but fanboi fodder.

    One stat that I have witnessed personally and at our LUG installfest is the choice people make when offered 2 0r 3 desktops (XCFE by default for older cpus).
    I must have installed Linux on about 20+ computers for friends and family and of those that didnt get XCFE default, I always offered both KDE and GNOME distros (more than half the people got my spare laptop with both distros in duat boot mode so they could make a choice others got to use it at my place over a few hours) and so far its been about 16 to 2 in favour of KDE. THe group is split between Windows users and people whonever used a computer before.
    At our installfests, when we offered people a chance to test drive both DE's, the numbers are 75/25 for KDE.

    Is it better? No. Better is a subjective thing (I think the KDE apps are superior, K3B. KDEnlive, Gvenview, Ktorrent, Digikam, amarok,..but thats opinion)
    But Windows users are more confortable using KDE and while it is not as close to Win in form as GNome is to Mac, there are similarities which makes transitioning easier. It took me a long time to figure out what people meant that GNome looked 'funny' or 'weird' and even with different fonts the GTK look and feel is different from what Windows users are used to.
    My sister said when she saw my Dell Mini 9 with Buntu that it was the most depressing thing she ever saw.

    As a developer, the choice between Qt and GTK keeps getting easier as GTK is showing its age.

    But as a newbie wrangler, I still believe that we owe people choice. We might prefer one DE over an other but I think we owe the users to find them what is best for THEM. And if happens not to be our favorite, we have to let them make that choice. We have to show them that defaults mean nothing, that you can have better themes and better windowing managers, that we can make fonts and taskbars as big as THEY want it.
    Not what some UI expert tells them they want.

    its a nice article, good points but in all honesty, it is totally meaningless. its like debating if vanilla or chocolate ice cream is better.

  20. Two cents on applications...

    Internet Browser: Who really uses Epiphany or Konqueror for their web browsing? Aren't most people using Firefox or Chromium?

    Audio Player: Of course Amarok wins. >:D

    Archiver: The most I use Ark is right click > extract here... done. So.. meh...

    Video Player: I don't like either Totem or Dragon... I always install VLC... and keep Dragon for that rare occasion when something will not play in VLC.

    Text Editor: Kwrite? But I (and don't most KDE folks?) use Kate... Which pwns Gedit.

    File Manager: Dolphin, of course.

    Email: You know what I love about Kmail? The fact that it doesn't store everything in yet another stupid black box thingy... All my emails are just text files in a hidden folder and dead easy to back up and restore. Even if something dire happens and its an emergency, all I need to read that important email is a text editor.

    Instant messaging: I kind of don't use either these days...

  21. I switch back and forth all the time, just for fun depending on my mood... man I agree with you point for point (a few false dichotomy there, but... whatever I'm sure some people use Epiphany or Konqueror) except, and I mean this... Dolphin? Dolphin has to be my LEAST favorite thing about KDE. I must be using it wrong? :)

  22. devshed wrote: "Dolphin? Dolphin has to be my LEAST favorite thing about KDE. I must be using it wrong? :) "

    @devshed: What is your favourite file manager if not Dolphin? And, do you use that preferred file manager in all your DE you are working with or do you have a preferred one for each DE?

    Best regards, mark

  23. I Think KDE is more responsive than Gnome. quickly opens files and transition on desktop are too nice to watch

  24. As much as I'd like to agree with you on this, it seems like you were beating around the bush and making some wide statements based on a whim. You basically handed the entire look and feel to Gnome because there are one or two spots where the 'feel' of Gnome seems to be more predictable. Also, a lot of this seems very subjective. Krunner, for instance, is not mentioned in the feel department, nor anywhere else for that matter.

    It would seem there are entire obvious elements to KDE that weren't included here for whatever reason, maybe because they're not entirely relevant to Gnome.

    I apologize for being brash, but I'd like to see some benchmarks to back up some of these assumptions. Nautilus vs. Dolphin, for instance, is one huge area where responsiveness should be taken into account. And the default KDE Web Browsers are also a good comparison to make for Gnome's side.

  25. Though this is an old debate of whether it is chocolate or vanilla ice cream that tastes better, I must say that while concise, this is the most clear explanation of both DEs (if totaled, there must be days that I have spent just researching the difference of existing DEs and/or WMs since I knew Mandrake years ago until now).
    I felt the same thing about virtually everything the writer said. From the inconsistency and roving around in KDE interface, to Gnome being more lightweight to hardware resources and limited in customization. Except that part when he (and many other people) said KDE looked and felt closer to Windows than Gnome. I always feel that Gnome looks and feels more similar to Windows... Maybe it's its consistency.


  26. It's clear that you are comparing something you know well (Gnome) to something you don't know as well (KDE). When doing this you invariably notice the things that are better in the thing you know because you are looking for them. Things that are better in the thing you don't know you won't notice or they will seem superfluous because you're not used to using them.

    Examples of things better in KDE that Gnome users might not appreciate: the *massively* better Alt-F2 launch dialog (krunner). The fact that you can search and install new themes without using a browser and untarring anything yourself, the fact that KDE actually has a working desktop search, Kwin has many more features than Metacity such as grouping and tiling windows, more customizable desktop including the ability to have different wallpaper on each desktop and launch applications from a right-click, the built-in netbook interface, and of course the desktop widgets some of which are quite useful. And probably more I forgot :).

    Also your comparison of applications left off huge areas where KDE is far better such as games, education, video editor (kdenlive), CD burning (K3B) and KDE applications that really have no Gnome counterpart like Kolourpaint, krename, kget etc.

    I can see not liking KDE if you have a very old computer, but in that case something like LXDE is much more appropriate than Gnome anyway. The only use case I can really imagine where Gnome is a better solution than KDE is for very young children, and the visually or mentally impaired.

  27. I am a newbie to Linux. The first i installed was Ubuntu Natty. Looks good, feels good and kind of had this feel about it that makes me want to shit on Windows (I was a Windows 7 user).... Then i heard about Linux mint 10 KDE (though an earlier version of Linux to compare with Ubuntu 11.04). It practically reminded me of the old annoying features found in Windows Vista... I tried to get around to some apps ,but they just weren't what i expected. As a matter of fact i felt really disappointed. As a result i removed it and replaced Ubuntu on the partition.... Linux mint KDE edition SUCKS.

  28. I like KDE using Win 7 but I really prefer GNOME with MAC OS. Yeah nice. Never used gedit but I use QBasic all the time in Unity.

    Experience: Commodore 64 apps developer.