Who Needs Windows 7 When You've Got KDE?

Monday Oct 19th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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Yes, you can point to a genuine Windows advantage here and there. But you can also find examples where KDE had features first, or has superior ones.

As a devoted free software user, I'm almost as likely to stick my hand down a running garbarator as buy a copy of Windows 7. In fact, so far, I haven't tried Windows 7. But if its features list is any indication, I'm missing little that I don't already have with the latest version of the KDE desktop.

Of course, exactly what Windows 7's new features are can be difficult to tell. The features list is as much a marketing document as a technical one. In places it's more apt to give you an overdose of adjectives than any specifics. Nor is every feature available in every edition of Windows 7.

Then, too, a few listed features, such as 64-bit support, are so far from new that I wonder why they are mentioned.

Another difficulty is the sheer scope of the comparison. A desktop is a big place, and you can easily miss features because on one desktop they are part of a default installation and on another they are an option squirreled away beneath several layers of menus.

Still, when such matters are taken into account, in terms of features, Windows 7 appears a minor upgrade at best. Judging from the advertising, it has no killer apps that outperform KDE, and its few unique features may turn out to be oddities rather than genuinely useful features.

Windows 7 bests KDE mainly in administrative tools, and even here the advantage is counter-balanced by standard features that KDE has had for years.

Desktop experiences

The most important feature that Windows 7 has and KDE lacks appears to be BitLocker, a utility for driver encryption. By contrast, while a feature for directory encryption is just being introduced in an unpolished form in Ubuntu, so far, no corresponding tool is standard with most distributions, let alone with KDE.

Otherwise, the difference on the desktop is slim. In fact in many cases, Windows 7 is just catching up to KDE.

Translucencies? Animations? Thumbnail previews of applications on the taskbar? KDE already has them, although Windows 7 does add to the usability of previews by allowing you to view them full-screen.

The same goes for widgets -- or gadgets, as Windows 7 calls them. The feature lists boasts that these minor utilities are no longer confined to a taskbar and can now be placed anywhere on the desktop, but that's old news to KDE users.

Ditto for running applications from the taskbar. As for measurement conversions, the only difference is that KDE has been doing them in KRunner and Windows 7 does them in its calculator.

Move on to applications, and in many cases Windows 7 is still behind. Why would anyone consider the clutter of Windows Media Player when they could use the rich feature sets of Amarok or Digikam? Windows Media Player would have to be utterly transformed to compete seriously against applications that are the ultimate in their categories.

And use Internet Explorer instead of Firefox? Whether you are talking in terms of native features or the ecosystems of extensions built around them, Internet Explorer is barely in the running, especially if you want to do things exactly your way.

Admittedly, much is being made in Windows 7 reviews of Aero Peek, Aero Shake, and Snap.

Yet, despite all the attention they are receiving, these sound like small features: Peek turns all open windows translucent, so that you can see the desktop, while with Shake you can jiggle the mouse to make all except the active window disappear. Yet another solution for desktop chaos is embodied in Snap, which allows you to drag windows to the edges of the desktop to resize and position them.

While such features may astonish Windows users, for KDE users, these are only specific implementations of features that they already know -- translucencies, mouse gestures and hot spots on the edges.

The features may not be available for exactly the same purposes as in Windows 7, but they are recognizably the same technology -- for instance, you can make a window translucent as you move it to see what is beneath.

Nor are they the only ways to move and organize windows, as browsing through the wealth of settings in KDE's Windows Behavior settings soon proves. You might very well be better able to organize your desktop just as effectively without Peek, Shake, or Snap.

I suspect, too, that Shake and Snap in particular are going to alarm users who move the mouse in a careless moment and see their open windows disappear or change size. But even if that is not so, the point is that Windows 7 is advertising nothing on the desktop that KDE either does not have or could not easily add if anyone cared to make the effort.

Administration Tools versus Still-Missing Features

In some cases, such as wireless connections, Windows 7 and KDE offer almost identical tools. Still, there is no denying that, compared to earlier releases, the KDE 4.x series is still light in administration tools. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that Windows 7 has parental controls and location-specific printing, but KDE does not seem to be even working on parental controls, and is scheduled to introduce geolocation features over the next couple of releases.

Next Page: Gnome, Rival Desktops

However, you can borrow administration tools from GNOME if KDE lacks them, and, in its next release in January 2010, KDE should allow you to change not only printers according to settings, but icon sets and other desktop features as well.

In other cases, Windows 7's main advantage is more in the interface than in actual features. In particular, Windows 7 has a habit of slapping a wizard on top of routine tasks, such as configuring a printer, or accessing remote desktops.

For example, Windows Easy Transfer is a wizard to assist switching from an old computer to a new one. Similarly, Windows 7 includes a Getting Started window for configuring a new computer. Other examples of this kind of repackaging include Jump Lists (separate favorite lists for applications) and Libraries (collections of links on the desktop). While these tools are trivial refinements, you might legitimately argue that KDE would benefit from more such features for first-time users.

However, many such interfaces -- especially the administrative ones -- are likely to be used occasionally at best. For most users, I suspect they matter far less than the number of features in KDE that are still not standard in Windows.

I am thinking now of features like multiple desktops and activities, or a multiple-entry clipboard for the entire desktop (MS Word has had one to itself for some time), or an external device manager. I'm thinking, too, of customization options for everything you can imagine, including three separate menu designs, and dozens of compositing effects.

While Windows 7 seems to have made some improvements in customization, such as configurable notifications, I see no signs that it has caught up to KDE. Although some of the areas in which KDE has the advantage are non-essential, I suspect they are far more important to many users than a lack of occasionally-used administrative tools.

Rival Desktops

I don't pretend that I am unbiased in this comparison. If nothing else, Windows 7's proprietary license would keep me away from it. But if that is all that you take from my comments, then you’ve missed the point.

The point is that, contrary to widespread belief, the free desktop is no longer struggling to equal its proprietary rivals. Instead, it is approximately equal and in some ways ahead.

Yes, you can point to a genuine Windows advantage here and there. But you can also find examples where KDE had features first, or has superior ones. Nor, where Windows 7's advertised features are ahead of KDE's, do they have such a lead that KDE could not implement equivalent features almost immediately. I suspect that the same would be more or less true of GNOME, although I judge it slightly behind KDE in features.

Of course, I might change this opinion after actually using Windows 7. However, I don't think so. The point of advertising is to put the product in the best light, and, if the hype can't make Windows 7 enticing to a KDE user, I doubt that hands-on experience would do any better.

I don't know about anyone else, but I plan to celebrate Windows 7's release day acquainting myself with some of the lesser used features of KDE. Or maybe I'll mark the day by trying a completely different window manager, in recognition of the free desktop's diversity. Either way, I suspect I'll be making better use of my time than exploring Windows 7.

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