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Linux Desktops KDE 4 vs Unity vs Gnome 3 in the real world.


If you’ve chosen one of the major Linux distributions chances are (unless you’re a Mint user) you’ve come across the three big Linux Gui’s KDE, Gnome 3 and Unity.

The problem with any post like this is it’s an opinion piece, and with out a shadow of a doubt my opinion is probably going to vastly different to a lot of people out there. Linux users can be ferociously protective of not just their choice of distro, but their choice of Desktop as well.

So where am I coming from?

Well I’ve been a Linux user since about 1998, happen stance or opportunity depending on how you look at it pushed me to the OS and I’ve stuck with it in one guise or another since then. I’ve used most of the major Linux distros at some point in time, Red Hat, Fedora, CentOS, OpenSuse, Suse Linux for Enterprise Desktops, Ubuntu, Gentoo, Sabayon, Linux Mint, Knoppix, Puppy and when i say used i mean used, these have been work related, personal and over periods of time. I’m also a Mac user I have had a couple of Macbook Pro’s and still have a Mac Mini.  I’ve been a Windows user and sysadmin user since it first came about, MS-DOS before that and i’ve even had OS/2 Desktop on PC’s in one company for over a year.

The point I’m making is I use technology, I have a myriad of experiences with different desktops and systems so I know what I like and what i don’t like..

What about the other desktops?

You are right, there are plenty of other desktops out there Mate and Cinnamon are getting some good ground, XFCE is popular, however as these projects stand right now I personally don’t think they are quite there for my needs. I find them very basic and missing some key options. Which with a bit of Google time you can fix, just not there yet.

Its worth noting at this point I do work with people who use these desktops, and do so quite happily, so don’t be put off by my ramblings, have a look.

What am I testing these on?

I’m testing these on an Acer Aspire S3, its got 4Gb of Ram, 20Gb SSD disk which I have the OS installed on and a 500Gb disk which is my /home partition. My underlying OS is Ubuntu 13.04 and I’ve got the latest Intel Graphics Drivers installed.

I’ve also been testing on a Lenovo Z580 which has a Nvidia Optimus graphics card in it..

I’m using these GUI’s as my core work systems, so i’ve been using them for about 4 months across multiple PC’s in a Sysadmin role, on a Mixed platform system.

So the GUI’s



Lets start with the most hated GUI in the world, well it is if you listen to the wrath’s of unhappy Linux users who are more than happy to announce with gusto and bravado just how much they hate Ubuntu Unity..

The simple fact is, once they have had their moment on the soapbox, and you ask them “why?” they more often than not become very sheepish and unable to string a coherent statement more than.. “I like my menus in a different location” or “I want to be able to personalise my desktop”

Ubuntu took a huge leap of faith with Unity launching it instead of going down the Gnome 3 path there was obviously a decision that something different could be done, and done better. However the earlier releases of the OS were slow, buggy, memory hogs which were prone to crashing. However that could be said of any of these 3 in their early days.

Unity id designed from the outset to be simple, flexible and scalable as Ubuntu have plans to get this GUI on a Phone a Desktop or a TV. It’s interface is intended to be very simple. Which for new Linux users is a huge thing.

Compared to the other two I’d also go as far as to suggest this is the interface most ready for touch right now.

The latest version of Unity has made huge leaps forward when it comes to speed and memory usage and i’d think its a safe bet that each subsequent release will get leaner and less RAM hungry, however on a modern machine you’re really not going to notice any lagging.

The argument that the interface is too simple is in my opinion an example of just how jaded some people can be, from a workflow perspective having the icons you use in front of you, and a consistency of interface is important when working on a Desktop OS. Also as the underpinnings of Unity are based on Gnome it has the same built in apps as Gnome does.

Unity is not the worst interface in the world, and looking at how Apple and Microsoft are going with OSX and Windows i’d suggest that Canonical are on the right track for a consumer OS which coupled with other devices sharing the same interface means for a wider non Linux Audience this GUI is going to go far.

Its also worth mentioning here, of the 3 GUI’s Unity is the one which when put infront of Non computer users of various ages people get to grips with the quickest.

Gnome 3


If Unity generates “I hate Ubuntu” comments, then Gnome 3 generates for the rest of Linux a problem compounded because his royal Linux Creator Linus Torvalds was quoted as saying

In the comments of a Google+ posting by Linux kernel hacker Dave Jones to air his true feelings about Gnome 3: “it’s not that I have rendering problems with gnome3 (although I do have those too), it’s that the user experience of Gnome3 even without rendering problems is unacceptable.” People care what Linus thinks, and when he ditched KDE for Gnome a couple of years ago, people took note. Now he’s using Xfce.

However Torvalds is a tad fickle when it comes to his GUI’s and is a perfect example of an opinionated Linux user and covered his beefs with KDE in depth with in a 2009 interview with Computerworld:

“I used to be a KDE user. I thought KDE 4.0 was such a disaster, I switched to GNOME. I hate the fact that my right button doesn’t do what I want it to do. But the whole “break everything” model is painful for users, and they can choose to use something else. I realize the reason for the 4.0 release, but I think they did it badly. They did so may changes, it was a half-baked release. It may turn out to be the right decision in the end, and I will retry KDE, but I suspect I’m not the only person they lost.”

This is of course after, in 2005, saying:

“I personally just encourage people to switch to KDE. This ‘users are idiots, and are confused by functionality’ mentality of Gnome is a disease. If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it. I don’t use Gnome, because in striving to be simple, it has long since reached the point where it simply doesn’t do what I need it to do. Please, just tell people to use KDE.”

Like Unity, Gnome 3 is a huge change from Gnome 2, so much so that the Cinnamon and MATE projects sprang up to keep that Gnome2 look and feel and Linux Mint has done quite well on the back of it.

Gnome 3 is all about real estate, its based on a 2 layer concept, the top layer of your screen is empty, free of clutter, icon’s with no toolbars, just a task bar at the top of the screen.

Press the Windows Button and an “under screen” kicks in with a toolbar with Icon’s on it, application icons, desktop search and access to virtual desktops. Launch an application and you are taken back to the desktop and can use this application with as much real estate as possible.

Like Unity it’s not overly customizable, you can change the wallpaper, the look and feel of the Windows add a few extensions to enhance the taskbar at the top of the screen.

While using this desktop I liked the expanse of screen real estate, i keep a clean desktop on whatever OS i use. and I founf the switching between the two planes of user area and application area very intuitive. I love not needing to have the app in the toolbar and just typing the name brings it up in the middle of the screen.

The parallels between Unity and its Dash and Gnome 3 are there to see and having the same apps do help.

Going under the hood, as someone who used to rip Gnome 2 apart I do find the underlying file structure a bit difficult sometimes and counter intuitive however for General day to day use, this is again, on my Aspire S3 a quick easy desktop well suited for new users.



When KDE went from 3.5 to 4.0 a few years ago bad things happened, firstly what was actually Beta release was installed and used by all the big distros trying to get an edge. this really was  buggy, crash prone mess of a GUI and put the whole KDE project in a terrible light in many peoples eyes for a long time. I put myself as one of these users and have tried KDE 4 over the years and its only with 4.10 the current release I believe I have found a stable, usable version of KDE.

Much like Gnome’s transition from 2 to 3 the transition of KDE 3.5 to 4 was a huge change in layout, work flow the lot. However while Gnome has always been about the simplicity KDE is about customization and KDE 4 does have this in bucket loads.

If Unity and Gnome are for beginners and provide a simple usable clean interface then KDE provides a clean interface with more bells and Whistles than you can shake a cat at. You can configure just about everything on the interface, there are options for everything. That however has always been what KDE is about.

There is also a harking back to Windows 7 with the basics of the layout which i’m sure would be a boon for anyone migrating over from Windows to Linux. However its a bit like Windows on steroids.

The Plasma interface is a complete rewrite and on the 4Gb machine is as smooth as Unity or Gnome.

Its also probably worth noting I didn’t install kubuntu-desktop on my install I installed kde-full from the KDE 4.10 PPA over the top of Ubuntu 13.04 and this did make a huge difference, KUbuntu is a bit of a dog speed wise, but the KDE4.10 packed from the PPA do run faster.

So what does this all mean?

What this means is the future of the Linux Desktop GUI is as strong as its ever been, be it the apex desktops above, or the growing Cinnamon, Mate there is a huge choice out there, which also means that while you may have downloaded Ubuntu with Unity or OpenSuse with KDE you are not stuck with it. Finding the sweet spot is just as import and as finding the right tool for the job. While I’m currently using KDE 4 on my home laptop I’ve got Unity running on my HTPC because its big icons and easy interface make sense on that interface. If all you are doing is coding then minimal tasks or using an an older machine then seriously you’d do a lot worse than XFCE or E17 as interfaces.

And this is the singular most important thing Linux as an OS has to offer, this huge amount of choice, you are not suck with OSX or Windows when you make the Linux choice you can argue which is better but for someone each GUI is the right tool for the job. There is a Desktop for you.

The future..?

What does concern me however in the world of the Linux desktop is the future, I’ve used all 3 of these interfaces on a Tablet in the last 6 months and one thing is for sure. When you change the platform way from the mouse and keyboard there is right now a clear GUI which worked head and shoulders better than the others and its Unity. It works like a dream as a touch interface, Gnome 3 isn’t bad however KDE falls a long way short unfortunately. there is a KDE GUI layout which was designed for netbooks which works quite well and is a step in the right direction. However that’s essentially a different GUI.

While the desktop PC isn’t going to be replaced over night, the future for consumer driven devices is Touch based and the Unity interface is a good example of what can be done with a little thought. It would be good to see both Gnome and KDE get more touch based and see what they can do. Maybe they are and I just missed something. The ability to have the same interface on a Tablet, Phone and Desktop shouldn’t be underestimated in its power.. if done right


the choice is yours, i can’t make it, i like all three interfaces, i see pros and cons good and bad design in all, i use all of them. have a play, stick to one or another for a month.. see what sticks.. but one lesson I will share, don’t write off anything due to a bad experience..


3 comments on “Linux Desktops KDE 4 vs Unity vs Gnome 3 in the real world.

  1. Pingback: OTR Links 07/04/2013 | doug --- off the record

  2. Sunny Peacefullboy
    August 6, 2013

    KDE just sucks

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