Linux for a new user: Gnome or KDE?

So now that I have decided I’ll install Arch on Jen’s laptop, what DE should I install with it? I know I said I wanted to use KDE 4.2.1 (and I still do), but I’ve been thinking. Unfortunately. There’s a lot to be said for both of them.

Why KDE?

One of the main selling points of the KDE4 release is, undoubtedly, looks. Microsoft and Apple are really sexy-fying their OS, and KDE4 now looks just as good. Just look at these screenshots.

This is how the latest build of Windows 7 looks out of the box:

Windows 7 Beta: Default look

Windows 7 Beta: Default look

Now, you may argue about the quality of the OS, or non-free software, and I’d agree, but damn if that doesn’t look great.

Let’s have a look at the latest OS X (Leopard):

Mac OS X Leopard: Default look

Mac OS X Leopard: Default look

That’s polished, shiny, and professional. I don’t think Macs offer enough value for money, but Apple knows what’s beautiful and what’s not.

So how does KDE 4.2.1 measure up?

KDE 4.2: Default look

KDE 4.2: Default look

Very well, actually. You get the same sense of polished sleekness when you compare KDE to OS X and Windows 7.

By contrast, this is what the latest GNOME (2.26) looks like:

Gnome 2.26: Default look

Gnome 2.26: Default look

That doesn’t look good! And yes, I know that look is easily changed. I know that, because everybody does it. That screenshot of a default GNOME screenshot comes straight from the official homepage, because it’s the only one I could find. No-one in their right mind leaves their GNOME looking like that. I suggest having a look around the various screenshot threads in the distribution forums…there are beautiful GNOME screenshots everywhere. It’s easy to change the theme and the icons, but out of the box, it’s fugly.
Why is that important? Because alternative themes and icons are more often than not done by amateurs. Which means they can be incomplete, or have flaws where text is unreadable in certain cases, or not maintained anymore. I know, I’ve been there…I’ve changed many icon names or symlinks or .gtkrc files so that icons would show up properly. You can’t expect that from the average user.

KDE has other advantages too, not in the least that it’s more actively developed. Yes, KDE 4.0 broke almost everything, but every release since has been more stable, faster, and generally better. The GNOME devs on the other hand seem quite content with just polishing their DE a bit every six months. The biggest item in the GNOME 2.26 changelog is that Brasero is now included by default. Six months ago, the hot topic was the new tabs in Nautilus. The overal impression is that GNOME is lagging behind KDE, and that the gap is widening.


Ironically, GNOME’s biggest drawback is also it’s biggest strength. GNOME is a finished product. It works, it’s stable, and it holds no surprises. No matter how much KDE is improving, it’s stability is not quite at GNOME levels, nor is it as bugfree. Considering how young KDE4 is, it’s only normal that this is the case, but that doesn’t make it less true.

Another point in GNOME’s favour are the applications. There are tons of GTK-apps out there, with multiple choices for every possible purpose. Don’t like Rhythmbox? Try Banshee, or Exaile, or gmusicbrowser, or QuodLibet, or Consonance, or one of the many, many mpd clients. Nautilus does nothing for you? Thunar or PCmanFM or even emelfm2 can help you out. The list goes on and on and on.

And Firefox uses GTK, which is a huge point in GNOME’s favour. There has been talk of a Qt version of Firefox in August last year, but it has been dead quiet since.

Application support in KDE on the other hand is a bit spotty. When KDE switched to Qt4, all the third party developers of KDE software had to follow, and many of those still aren’t finished.  To name a few: Amarok and Ktorrent were rather fast, but have to keep updating to get the functionality at the same level as the previous versions, and to squash bugs; digiKam 10.0 has only just been released, Kaffeine is still in svn and taking longer than expected, and does anybody know what the hell is happening with k3B? The last entry on the website mentions a KDE4 port, but it’s dated May 2008. Of course it’s lead developer is very busy with Nepomuk, but considering k3b wasn’t just the best burning software in KDE, but the best in Linux period, this is a rather big gap in KDE’s application list.

In the end, it’s easy to have a desktop environment with just GNOME/GTK applications, but at the moment, it’s a bit of a pain to do the same with KDE/Qt. Worst scenario: you end up with a mixed GTK/Qt3/Qt4 desktop, which looks absolutely horrible.


I honestly have no idea. I find myself going back and forth on this one. The safe and easy choice would be GNOME, the pretty and challenging one would be KDE.

I think I’ll just take the challenge, and see if things work out. In five minutes, I’ll probably think something else.



15 Responses to Linux for a new user: Gnome or KDE?

  1. Trevor says:

    Personally I am a gnome user. I have looked at KDE4 and found it slower and more unstable than gnome.
    Last time I looked was 4.1. so it might be worth revisiting.

    I use Amarok (installs fine in gnome) but I prefer the old version to the new KDE4 version. Lots of changes for the worse in my opinion.

    I’d say install KDE3.5 if you must have KDE.

  2. DebianKDE says:

    Personally I’m a KDE user but I’m stick to 3.5.10 for now.

  3. I assume you know that you can make qt4, qt3, and gtk apps all look pretty much the same by using something like qtcurve skinning for all of them. I personally am just using it on qt3 and gtk, because I like oxygen better… and the gtk oxygen stuff just didn’t work out for me…

    I recommend smplayer over kaffeine it’s qt4 and imho, has the /best/ video player interface in linux.

    in general though I agree with you on what you say about kde4 (I personally can’t stand gnome). My opinion of it and it’s versions are this…

    4.0 was alpha, 4.1 is beta, 4.2 is release candidate, so 4.3 should be ‘stable’ and by 4.4 pretty much everything should be good to go as all the initial ‘stable’ bugs will be ironed out.

    as of 4.2.1 I have only 1 stupidly obvious bug on my list that I think should be fixed before I can declare kde4 regular user ready. I might be missing something though…

    as far as mixing gui toolkits… you’ll never get around it on any OS, not windows, probably not mac, not anything if you want to get real work done.

    I should mention browser wise I’ve noticed that it seems like a lot of webkit is being imported into konqueror. I wish I knew if any of that was the javascript engine… but I’ve seen stuff like svg come in.

    for apps not yet done, I’m waiting on konversation, and like you k3b. I expect the former will be a few years. they released their last kde3 version around the time 4.1 was being released.

  4. flammenwurfer says:

    I’ve been using KDE 4… exclusively for 2 or three months now and I love it. I’m using more qt3 and gtk apps than I’d like but overall it’s still a great experience. To me, the great looks and ease of use have easily outweighed the little annoyances from being a new version.

  5. Alex Fors says:

    Just try the KDE4 version of Fedora 11 alpha (I didn’t Fedora 10 so I can’t tell) and NOT the kubuntu one – it really doesn’t make it! Then install gtk-qt-engine and configure GTK Styles to use your default KDE style.
    Except k3b and kaffeine everything will look the same.

  6. […] Linux for a new user: Gnome or KDE? I honestly have no idea. I find myself going back and forth on this one. The safe and easy choice would be GNOME, the pretty and challenging one would be KDE. […]

  7. David Gerard says:

    In my experience: Windows users know how to work KDE3 with no further instructions, and they think KDE4 is gorgeous but don’t understand it.

  8. Marione says:

    Yeah shure…maybe KDE4.3 will be finished!That’s what you said when KDE 4.0 was recent ”KDE 4.2 will be really cool and finished”;they just broke KDE forever!

  9. celettu says:


    I have just searched the entire archive of my blog. A couple of remarks:

    – I did not make any statements about how KDE 4.2 would be before I tested it.

    – While my initial impressions of KDE 4.2 weren’t very positive, in the end I conclude that it was a joy to use.

    – I have never even mentioned KDE 4.3

    I also want to stress that this article wasn’t titled “KDE roolz, GNOME suxx0rz”. I believe I made a fair comparison of the two, without favouring one or the other.

    Feel free to disagree with me all you want, but don’t start putting things between quotation marks if I never said or even implied them.

  10. takeshi says:

    > you end up with a mixed GTK/Qt3/Qt4 desktop, which looks absolutely horrible.

    No it doesn’t. Clearlooks solved that years ago (even for Wine apps).

    Besides I can’t stand people that pick their apps based on the toolkit. If you judge apps by their look you’re going to miss out on some great software. There are also a lot of deluded people who think that running only apps that use the same toolkit will make their environment faster and more “optimized”. What a joke.

  11. celettu says:

    So basically, if I don’t like the look of Clearlooks, I’m screwed?

    My comment hadn’t anything to do with optimisation, or preference for a toolkit (even if it IS true that if you run KDE apps in GNOME you’ll end up loading KDE, therefor making the system slower), it was about looks. Mixing toolkits leads to a mish mash of styles, layouts and colours, except in two cases (QtCurve and Clearlooks). It ALWAYS leads to having to manage the style of the system twice instead of just once.

  12. susenj says:

    well..i personaaly a Gnome user! I had used KDE once upon a time in my Mandriva, but it was highly crashing!
    BTW, your article is good!

  13. Garrett says:

    I know this anxiety all too well. My favorite Distro is Arch, and I maintain it for some family and friends who want to use linux. (it’s mostly automated after it’s up and running)

    But when it get’s to the DE stage of installation, and I look to the prospection user and say, “Which desktop environment would you like to use?”… I usually just get a blank stare in return.

    We go all over the internet getting picks, reading reviews, booting live CDs… but in the end, this is something that the average user just doesn’t want to decide. They’ve never been given the choice before, and now that they have, they don’t know what to do with it!

    I personally have favored GNOME 9 times out of 10. Why? In about 30 minutes, I can have it looking prettier and running faster, more stable, and tweak it’s layout to their preference. Lastly, I just plant a vnc client on there and whenever we screenshare, I know exactly how to work with there DE.

    I have installed KDE a few times for a couple people because they either liked the look a whole lot better, or they were a linux user previously and were used to KDE.

    I personally choose GNOME because… well… it virtually NEVER crashes. KDE is better off than windows, but it’s still a fact of life that a lot of the K-apps out there are buggy.

    End of the day? I recommend a Mac to new users. (don’t flame please. If you’re a bottom level consumer who just wants to manage pictures, email, and surf the web… nothing does it better than the mac)

    If they don’t want it, I recommend Arch or Ubuntu with GNOME.

    If they’re a gamer… I tell them to go pick up any HP at Best Buy and leave me alone (b’.’)b.

  14. justaleaf says:

    Wow, just got an email update about this comment thread. So old now!

    Minor update, in case anyone still gets to this post.

    Gnome has moved to a new versions (Gnome 3, Gnome Shell) and has ceased to be the slick, stable, perfect desktop that it was. The new Gnome is a good netbook, or touch, interface. But it’s rather poor for desktop use. So very sad. Gnome 2 should be forked and maintained.

    In the meantime, since KDE 4.5, KDE has become a very effective and beautiful desktop, and I actually prefer it now. Once you get the hang of customizing it, it’s every bit as tweakable as gnome and can be simplified for the raging minimalists among us.

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