GNOME vs. KDE vs. Unity: Performing Seven Basic Tasks

Tuesday Nov 8th 2011 by Bruce Byfield

How do the top Linux desktops compare when you're doing basic tasks? The answers may surprise you.

When users talk about the latest generations of Linux desktops, almost always they report general impressions. They say that GNOME 3 seems needlessly complex, or that Unity seems too basic, but they're vague on the specifics. In the past, I've been guilty of dealing with impressions myself.

But what, I wonder, is the real story? In the hopes of providing some substance, I've to compare GNOME 2 and 3, KDE, and Ubuntu's Unity, using seven basic tasks that anyone using a desktop is likely to do. The comparison is not just a matter of mouse-clicks -- although that metric is sometimes revealing -- but, in some cases, a matter of design as well.

I haven't included KDE 3 because, despite last week's release of the Trinity Desktop, nearly four years after the start of the KDE 4 series, KDE 3 no longer seems a major desktop. Probably, however, its results would be similar to GNOME 2's.

In each category, I've awarded points according to how each desktop ranks, with the lowest score being the best. The results suggest something about the design philosophy behind each desktop -- and also produce some unexpected results.

Launching an Application

GNOME 2 and KDE are the easiest desktops from which to start an application. Both support icons on the desktop, which are launched with one or two clicks, depending on your configuration choices. If an application is not on the desktop, then both average three clicks to open it from the menu. GNOME 2 edges out KDE because the default KDE menu may require some scrolling, which slows the launching.

By contrast, the effort to launch an application in GNOME 3 varies considerably. If the application is on the dash, launching requires two clicks and a change of screen to the overview. Otherwise, you have to click Applications. With a fourth click, you can open some popular applications, but otherwise, you'll need a filtered search and another click to start the application. As the application starts, you return to the main screen, which may be confusing for new users.

In Unity, you need one click if the application is on the dash, plus some scrolling if the icon is collapsed. If you've created folders on the desktop, you can start an application in two clicks using a document launcher. Otherwise, you need to click the Dash Home, and either click a common task or select another category, where you need another click and possibly some scrolling. Alternatively, you can search if you know what's likely to be available.

Verdict: If you only consider defaults, GNOME 2 is the winner, followed by KDE. GNOME 3 and Unity can match the performance of the others, but only if you're lucky, so they are tied for third.

Finding an Application or File

In GNOME 3, Unity and KDE, a search field is only one click away. Each has automatic completion, which can be convenient, but sometimes requires scrolling before you make a selection. Unity's automatic completion is particularly annoying, because if the last results don't form a complete line, it simply indicates "See more results." GNOME 3 includes buttons for Wikpedia and Google searches, which seems pointless considering that you are searching your hard drive and home directory.

Provided you have enabled Nepomuk and indexing of files, KDE's search results are by far the most powerful, returning results for anything on your computer. The weakest is GNOME 2, which has only file searches and a list of recent documents, and whose menu has no way to search for applications except visually.

Verdict: KDE, GNOME 3, Unity, GNOME 2.

Making an Application Easy to Find

All four desktops have features to make regularly used applications more accessible. In GNOME 3, you can add favorites to the dash (although it is a screen away), in Unity to the launcher. In KDE and GNOME 2, you can add desktop launchers for favorites, while KDE's menu includes Favorite and Recently Used filters.

Verdict: KDE gives you the most options for retrieving favorites quickly. The rest are more limited, so I've declared a three-way tie.

Working with Menus (and Equivalents)

GNOME 2 uses a classic menu, in which sub-menus expand over the desktop. With a large number of menu items or levels, this design can be cumbersome, although it has the advantage of being easy to navigate.

At the opposite extreme, GNOME 3's launcher and Unity's dash offer a limited number of basic and favorite apps on the left side of the screen, leaving complete menus to full-screen displays that take the user away from the windows in which they are working. Unity's dash has a slight edge over GNOME 3's launcher, thanks to the collapsible menu items, which allow you to store items efficiently while still seeing what they are.

Between these opposites, KDE offers a compromise, confining the menu to a single window. The scrolling this arrangement requires is less than ideal, but you can click on the menu button to get a classic menu, or select Lancelot from the set of widgets for a compromise between the default and classic menus.

Verdict: All these approaches to menus have their problems, but KDE wins first place by offering a choice. After that, GNOME 2's classic menu is the most usable, followed by Unity and GNOME 3 in a tie.

Manipulating and Arranging Windows

GNOME 2's and KDE's use of windows are more or less what experienced users expect: minimize, maximize, and close windows on the right side of the title bar, with a task manager in the panel that displays minimized apps.

In both, too, the window manager tries to avoid completely covering opening windows with new ones, but if more than a few windows are already open, this arrangement is not always possible. However, KDE partly compensates by letting users set a hot spot on the edge of the desktop that displays all windows or all windows on the current virtual workspace when the mouse clicks it.

Unity sidesteps the problem of arranging windows by opening most apps maximized -- although you can minimize a window to the dash, where an arrow on the left indicates its status. Infamously, Unity also moves the title bar button to the left side of the window, a move that puzzles many users until they acclimatize.

Of the four, GNOME 3 is by far the most innovative in window manipulation. It automatically arranges windows into different virtual workspaces to avoid crowding, and the overview offers an image of each workspace that shows the open windows all neatly aligned. This image has no relation to how the windows are actually arranged on a given work space, but can be useful for navigation.

In addition, GNOME 3 offers only a close button on the title bar. To minimize all windows, you use a hotspot in the upper left corner, while to maximize, you click one of the minimized windows.

Verdict: GNOME 3's window management is unconventional, but successful enough that you have to think less about window placement. For that reason, I give it first place. KDE is less innovative, but enough to give it second place. GNOME 2's familiar arrangements are third. Unity comes fourth, because, unless you are on a tablet or a netbook, you don't always want every app to open maximized.

Working with Virtual Workspaces

A virtual workspace widget is available in Unity's launcher and GNOME 2's panel, typically with a default four workspaces. KDE has a similar widget in its panel, but adds the closely related concept of Activities, each of which can have its own workspaces, as well as customized icon selections and customizations.

The odd desktop out is GNOME 3, which has virtual workspaces, but manages them for you, creating new ones to avoid clutter. This arrangement is ideal for window management, but can frustrate users who want to create workspaces for their own purposes.

Verdict: The ideal desktop would have KDE's Activities plus GNOME 3's automatic arrangement of applications. For this reason, KDE and GNOME 3 tie for first in this category. GNOME 2 and Unity, neither of which gives workspaces much thought but whose implementations are otherwise acceptable, tie for second.

Customizing the Desktop

GNOME 3 and Unity have a basic set of customizing features, starting with the ability to change the desktop background and working up to administrative apps for setting the date and time and creating user accounts. However, you need to search for "system settings" to find most of the configuration tools. In GNOME 3, you will also have to install GNOME Tweak if you want to change the default theme.

In comparison, GNOME 2 devotes most of the top-level System menu to personal and global configuration tools. KDE's main configuration tools are only slightly less obvious, usually showing up by default in the Favorites menu. Unlike GNOME 3 and Unity, both GNOME 2 and KDE have customizable panels, and KDE lets you add the same widgets that go into the panel in larger formats on the desktop.

Add these desktops to KDE's Activities, and you can create your own overviews of your account. Then, when you are ready to work, you can switch to another Activity, with its own customized icons and widgets. This level of fine-detail far exceeds anything available in the other three desktops.

Verdict: KDE, followed by GNOME 2. Unity takes third place by virtue of slightly more customization options than GNOME 3, which finishes fourth.

Next page: The Final Verdict

The Final Verdict

Tallying my verdicts, I find KDE in first place with 9 points, with five firsts and two seconds. Second is GNOME 2 with 15 points, closely followed by GNOME 3 in third with 16 points. Unity is fourth, with a score of 20.

Of course, this is not the whole story. Memorizing keyboard shortcuts improves the performance of any desktop, but I haven't included them because, in my experience, most people begin working on a desktop with a mouse. Nor have I included extensions that improve the workflow and features of GNOME 3 in particular. My main concern has been how easily users can accomplish common desktop tasks using the default settings

Obviously, personal preferences and priorities affect the scoring. I've never made any secret of my preference -- with some reservations -- for KDE, or my doubts about GNOME 3 and Unity.

All the same, the exercise leaves me with some surprises. I honestly didn't expect that KDE would have such a strong lead over GNOME 2. Nor did I expect GNOME 2 and 3 to be so close to each other, although that doesn't mean they are interchangeable; the advantages of each are very different from the other desktops.

Still less did I expect Unity to trail GNOME 3 so much. The explanation, I suspect, is that GNOME 3 is a re-conception of the traditional desktop, while Unity is a simplification aimed at new rather than existing users. But the results do suggest to me that both Unity and GNOME 3 have often over-simplified rather than made simple -- a choice that existing desktop users are unlikely to appreciate.

Possibly, you might disagree with my scoring. However, I've given my reasons for the scoring, so, if you want, you can award points yourself and see what totals you come up with. Like me, you just might come up with some unexpected results.

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