What's the best Linux desktop environment?

Examining the usability of Gnome and Unity

KDE

Meanwhile, KDE has been chugging along nicely. It's come a long way since its 4.0 release caused a user revolt similar to the one we're witnessing now with Gnome Shell and Unity.

Over three years and seven point releases later, KDE 4.7 has the best mix of cutting edge software and the stability that users are missing with the latest releases of Gnome Shell and Unity.

For those who stuck with KDE 4.x as it stumbled onto the Linux desktop in 2008, it proved itself long ago. But its latest release has more than enough features, not only to satisfy existing users, but also to shelter those looking for refuge.

Something for everyone

KDE settings

As with every KDE release, 4.7 has a lot of visual polish that extends beyond its themes and icons to key areas of the desktop, such as the notification areas. The release also incorporates new design methods to accommodate users on touchscreen and mobile devices.

As part of that strategy, the KWin window manager has received a lot of developers' love. The revolutionary addition in KDE 4.0 was Plasma Activities, which foxed more users than it amazed. But the developers have been chiselling away the rough edges and it's ready to hit the limelight again, which is why it has a much more prominent place on the desktop in the new release.

In terms of apps, Kontact, KDE's PIM, rejoins the official baggage of KDE software after all its components were migrated to the Akonadi storage back-end, which was another core feature of the 4.0 release.

And there's a lot more to come. For starters, there's the new Telepathy 0.1.0 release that will integrate instant messaging into the KDE desktop. Though functional for a couple of IM services, such as GTalk and Facebook Chat, along with widgets to manage your online status, it's still under active development and isn't bundled along with SC 4.7.

Also expect to see KDE on a whole range of devices soon. This was a major talking point at this year's Desktop Summit, along with the activity-centric Plasma Active interface designed especially for tablets, that's currently under development.

The overall response from our testers was that KDE felt familiar. Whether it was the layout of the desktop or the Kickoff app launcher, users of other desktop environments as well as other OSes all felt at home with it. No one batted an eyelid at the desktop and almost instinctively headed to Kickoff.

We were amazed by the level of comfort the users experienced with KDE. Even new users were navigating the desktop as though they'd been using it for years.

Guarino has had a similar experience: "For me and for my customers, KDE 4 is currently first choice. Its well thought-out interfaces allow a user to feel at home with little effort. Users of Windows and OS X have also commented on its polish and ease of use. Business users feel at home in the common desktop metaphor that KDE so beautifully creates. This, coupled with its well-integrated applications, means KDE wows almost every business user I present it to."

Experienced KDE users made note of the breadcrumbs in the Kickoff app launcher, especially when they had to make their way back from a deeply-nested menu.

The first thing they noticed after using the desktop for a while was KWin's improved performance, effortlessly juggling between several windows and apps. For others, the fact that you can experience KDE's graphical richness without a graphics card was really humbling. Some users even thought KDE's interface was more polished than either Gnome 3 or Unity.

Power users were also amazed by the indexing capabilities and diversity of KRunner. It would be unfair to call it a simple application launcher, and many used it for executing simple Bash commands, such as moving files. Newbies generally stayed away from launching apps via Alt+F2 on other desktops, but weren't afraid of the keyboard thanks to KRunner's accuracy and speed.

One for all

KDE icons

KDE also ran flawlessly on the touchscreen laptop. Some users had trouble finding KDE's virtual keyboard, which isn't listed in the Accessibility settings as it is in the other environments. Others found it via Search in the Kickoff menu.

Once launched, it behaves like the always-visible virtual keyboard in Unity. Users liked the fact that it's easily resizeable and quite configurable and that the Maximise and Minimise window buttons were adequately spaced and far enough from Close to avoid accidents.

Of the three desktop environments on test, only KDE ships with different interfaces for regular screens and netbooks and doesn't force the user to stick to either. Some users even preferred the netbook workspace on a laptop.

The only "gotcha" moment was with Activities. Despite its prominence on the desktop, few could intuitively understand its usage. However, once explained, those that required different environments were blown away by what it promised, and quickly assimilated it to enhance their workflow.

Many users liked the improvements to the Dolphin file manager, which now allows you to rate and tag files, although they didn't discover it until they right-clicked on the files to check their properties. After meticulously tagging and rating files, they were aghast that they couldn't use this information to search for them.

One major improvement of this KDE release is the improved integration of GTK apps with Plasma Workspaces. This was apparent when users installed and used the Cheese webcam app without realising that they were using a Gnome application in KDE.

Experienced users tested the integration with a few other Gnome applications, all of which blended seamlessly with the KDE desktop.

Step-by-step: Using the Plasma Desktop Activities

1. Add virtual desktops

plasma 1

Head to Applications > Configure Desktop > Workspace Behavior. Increase the number of virtual desktops and click on Different Widgets For Each Desktop.

2. Create the Activity

plasma 2

Go to Activity > Create Activity. You can base your Activity on a template, such as Desktop Icons. Click the Wrench icon to edit the name and icon of the Activity.

3. Customise the Activity

plasma 3

That's it! Now it's time to customise its behaviour. You can add widgets by going to Activities > Add Widgets, and you can also change the wallpaper.