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
6.- Energy Management
LOOK & FEEL
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.
If we agree that most Linux users have previously used some way, shape or form of a
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.
|Result: GNOME WINS|
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 browser||Epiphany vs Konqueror||KDE|
|Audio player||Rhythmbox vs Amarok||KDE|
|Archiver||File Roller vs Ark||GNOME|
|Video player||Totem vs Dragon||GNOME|
|Text editor||Gedit vs Kwrite||GNOME|
|File Manager||Nautilus vs Dolphin||KDE|
|eMail client||Evolution vs Kmail||KDE|
|Instant messaging||Empathy vs Kopete||GNOME|
Indeed, things are pretty even, both application catalogs are fabulous. Only personal preference can tilt the balance either way.
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.
|Result: GNOME WINS|
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.
|Result: GNOME WINS|
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|
GNOME SLIGHTLY AHEAD
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