Features I Miss When Away From KDE

Wednesday Oct 21st 2015 by Bruce Byfield

Sometimes, losing a Linux desktop is the best way to appreciate it.

An overly enthusiastic attempt to upgrade using Debian Unstable has temporarily left me without KDE. As disasters go, it's a small one, since I can easily restore from backup, but until I have time for repairs, I've fallen back on Linux Mint's MATE. The experience is making me aware of all that I miss in KDE.

I'm no stranger to MATE -- my second favorite desktop -- so I am not reacting to the strangeness of the unfamiliar. Still less am I reacting to differences in themes and customization, which I long ago configured to my liking. Rather, the differences I am talking about are structural, and not easily altered.

The difference between KDE and MATE is that MATE is a classical desktop with a menu, panel, and workspace, while KDE is a classical desktop with additional features. Unlike MATE, KDE is designed for modern computing, which includes much larger hard drives, and therefore many more programs than were available in the heyday of the classical desktop. One consequence of this difference is that I seem to be clicking and scrolling two or three times in MATE for every once in KDE. The difference is unnoticeable when I use MATE for an afternoon, but over a couple of days, it becomes tiresome -- as well as hard on my repetitive stress injury.

This difference underlies just about everything in MATE. The menu is an old- fashion cascading one, which requires an average of one or two more mouse- clicks to start an application than the Lancelot menu I use in KDE.

Similarly, System > Preferences has over two dozen menu items, arranged only alphabetically, with no headings to help organize them. Admittedly, you can use System > Control Center instead, which resembles KDE's System Setting. But the Preferences sub-menu come at the top, and those familiar with MATE and its ancestor GNOME 2 are likely to stop there without noticing the availability of the Control Center. My general impression is of a structure trying to cope with far more items than it was ever designed to handle.

Clutter, Desktops, and Tasks

This impression is strengthened when I settle down to work. As you might predict from my physical desktop, I am not the tidiest of workers. On the computer, I often work with a dozen tabs open in the browser, and several applications open on the desktop, where I can refer back and forth between them when I need specific information, spellings, or functionality.

On KDE, I can get away with such clutter because I have tools to help me manage it. If I need several applications for a task, I can put them into a single tabbed window. If I use the same applications together repeatedly, I can use Activities to create a specialized desktop for each task, each a single click away.

However, like most classical desktops, MATE has only virtual workspaces to help to organize my clutter. The virtual workspaces help, but only a little. Unlike in KDE, I cannot associate an application with a particular desktop. Instead, I am left with a choice of wasting time shuffling through open windows and losing my train of thought, or else of stopping work to organize the windows, then trying to remember what I open in which virtual workspace.

In fact, MATE remains organized around applications, just as most desktops have done for the last two decades or more. But if you have set up your computing according to tasks, as I have been slowly doing for the past few years, then using an application-based desktop feels like a giant step backward. I can do it, but I feel much the same as when I type single-handed -- like an amputee making do with a setup that is vastly more inefficient than the one I am used to.

I mean, one desktop? And only one desktop layout? Really? I have no complaints about MATE's speed, which if anything is faster than KDE's. But like all classical desktops, MATE remains a general purpose environment, good enough for most purposes, yet ideal for none. All the time I am using MATE, I am aware of making do without the amenities I am accustomed to having. It is as though I am camping and trying to write an article on the touch screen keyboard of a tablet; I can accomplish my goals, but the effort is awkward, and in the back of my mind I never forget that there is an easier way of doing things.

Not Missing What You Don't Know

Much of what I say here could also be said of Cinnamon, LXDE, Xfce, or GNOME's fallback mode. The limitations I mention are also true of Unity, which, while not a classic desktop, simplifies to such an extent that it is inefficient for modern computing.

Few people complain of these desktop's limitations, because only some have ever known an alternative. The widespread use of classical desktops or their equivalent makes them seem an inescapable norm. For many, too, the gap between GNOME technology and KDE is an unbridgeable chasm that they never care to cross long enough to develop an informed opinion about how the two compare.

My trouble is that I have seen better. I can cope with the limitations of other desktop environments, but I can hardly wait for the weekend and a restored KDE system.

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