Can a free Linux desktop actually rival Windows 7?
For several years, I've been saying that KDE is no longer trying to catch up with Windows, but surpassed it several years ago. However, last week a reader challenged me to prove it.
I immediately told him that, if he didn't believe me, he should open KDE and Windows 7 side by side. Even a casual comparison shows that not only does KDE generally have more features than Windows 7, but that, conceptually, KDE has a healthy lead.
While KDE is consistently extending the metaphor of the desktop, Windows 7 is different only in a few minor ways from its first ancestor Windows 95. Moreover, many of these differences are more a matter of fashion, such as displaying icons on the taskbar rather than application names, as they are genuine improvements.
I can say this, despite the fact that Windows 7 comes in several editions, because the differences between these editions is largely in additional applications, not the graphical interface. So far as I can see, the only major exception to this observation is that the Starter edition that ships with notebooks lacks the tools to change the wallpaper or desktop theme.
Otherwise, KDE and Windows 7 invite comparison far more than Windows and GNOME or Unity. Both are oriented towards what might be called a classic desktop, consisting of a panel with a menu, task manager, system tray, clock and calendar, and a workspace for displaying open windows as you work that can be customized with icons and small applications (called "widgets" in KDE, and "gadgets" in Windows 7). These are concepts that are greatly reduced or modified in GNOME and Unity, both of which are deliberate attempts to move away from the classic desktop.
The two may even have some cross-influence, such as a panel of mini-icons for configuring and positioning each widget, and a menu constrained to a window of fixed size.
All the same, whether you are judging by details or conceptually, the pattern is consistent: by any criteria, KDE not only generally equals Windows 7, but offers users more. The comparison is so rarely close that even a pretense of objectivity is soon discarded.
On the Panel
The default contents of panels on classic desktops haven't differed in years. As a result, users moving between KDE and Windows 7 won't find many differences in basic navigation. However, the differences in how features are implemented are obvious as soon as you start configuring.
In both Windows 7 and most implementations of KDE, the panel is placed along the bottom of the screen -- exactly where Windows 95 placed it years ago in an effort not to look too much like Mac OS. In both environments, too, you can lock and auto-hide the panels, reposition them on any side of the screen, add widgets to them as you please, and add extra panels. The most that differs in these basic features is their names.
KDE, though, goes beyond these basics. It allows you to change the width and length of the panel -- to morph it into a dock, in effect, and align it to the left, right, or center of the screen as you please.
Similarly, KDE and Windows 7 have editable menus that display in a fixed window. But Windows 7's gives space mostly to favorites and commonly used applications, leaving only drop-down menus for a list of all programs or shut-down options.
By contrast, KDE's menu offers a series of filtered views, presenting a much less cluttered look without reducing functionality and making the search field more visible. In addition, like earlier versions of Windows, KDE offers a classic menu whose sub-menus open across the desktop, as well as Lancelot, a kind of compromise between the default and the classic menus.
On the other features of the panel, KDE shows the same pattern of matching Window 7's features and adding extras. Because of virtual desktops and Activities (see below), KDE's task bar is potentially more complex than Windows', but you can set what is displayed where exactly as you prefer.
In the same way, while both can display multiple clocks and sync your system time with an Internet site, only KDE allows you to adjust the fonts used in the display, or the option of using text-to-speech to announce the time, or setting the calendar to display the holidays of different countries or regions.
The only feature that Windows' panel has that KDE's lacks is toolbars for addresses, links, and desktop icons -- features that I have never seen used, and that KDE users who want them can duplicate with the selection of the right widget and a bit of organization. In all other cases, KDE's panel equals or excels Windows -- never in a major way, but in dozens of small ones that add up to greater user control of basic functionality.
On the workspace
The differences are greater yet on the workspace itself. While both environments let icons and widgets be added to a workspace, KDE lets you not only change the size of icons or sort them, but also to preview graphically the contents of folders on the desktop without opening them. And while with some searching you will probably find as many gadgets as KDE has widgets, what you won't find is a single repository as large or as varied as KDE's default one.
But KDE also introduces far more to the classic desktop. Unlike Windows, KDE also lets you set eight hot spots on the edges of desktops. Although Windows 7's advertising emphasized its three desktop effects -- shake, peak, and snap -- KDE offers several dozen, some of which don't require 3-D hardware acceleration. In KDE, you can also shade windows, rolling them up like window blinds, or else group them into a single tabbed window, placing related applications where you can switch between them without searching the desktop each time you switch.
Even more importantly, KDE is conceptually different from Windows 7's desktop. Although you can run KDE as a classic desktop if you choose, it also offers far more. By default, it includes virtual workspaces, giving you the potential to increase screen space indefinitely without the trouble of buying and setting up additional monitors.
Alternatively, you can set up your KDE installation by tasks with Activities, setting up a different set of icons and widgets for each one. Increasingly, you can even set up different views on different Activities, creating a different navigation set for each one.
None of these features has a counterpart in Windows 7 -- and are unlikely to in Windows 8, either, if the current development is any indication.
True, you can add some of KDE's functionality with small utilities and freeware. Yet to do so requires effort and often money as well. Every user may not want to use every innovation in KDE, but KDE's potential upon installation remains undeniably greater than Windows 7's.
The Basic Advantages
So far, I have been talking only about features. But like other free software, KDE has other basic advantages that Windows 7 can never have.
If you buy Windows Ultimate edition, you have far more applications than if you buy the Starter edition. Yet even these additions can't match the selection and variety of the thousands of applications available in any Linux distribution, both in general and specifically for KDE itself -- each available for download in a matter of minutes with no need of a credit card or a PayPal account.
Moreover, because of KDE's free licenses, KDE only needs to be downloaded once. Then it can be installed on as many computers as you like, without any concern for licenses or activation.
These advantages have been available for free software for over twenty-five years, of course. But in the past, they haven't been as attractive as they might have been, because the software didn't equal its proprietary alternatives.
However, now that software like KDE development is outpacing proprietary choices like Windows, these basic advantages are more compelling than they have ever been. Increasingly, we are now in an era in which free-licensed software like KDE is not only an ethical choice, but a pragmatic one as well.