I have been using KDE under openSUSE for a while now, and for the first time in my life started to love KDE. Last night I went on a test driver and installed couple of KDE centric distributions including Mageia and Mandriva just for the sake of comparison.
These two distributions showed what wonders can be done with KDE, if integrated well. The moment I booted into Kubuntu, I realised why Kubuntu is so low in Distrowatch (at 27). This is ironic because the 26 spots are dominated by KDE centric distros such as Mageia, PCLinuxOS, Chakra, Mandriva, etc.
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I have started to love KDE and there are practical reasons behind it. The reason why moved away from Unity is well expressed in various articles. So, when I was playing with different distributions last night I thought of giving Unity a try and see how useful it is for me when it is only a month away from an LTS release. Here is what I found. I reached out to Nekhelesh Ramananthan, our Ubuntu editor, to counter some of my points. His comments are included in this articles.
After playing with Unity for a while I can clearly see that Unity is shaping up as a great shell. It is one of the most polished shell. The integration with the rest of the OS is amazing. The team has done a great job in sanding the rough edges and turning it into an appealing product. Now I know what Mark Shuttleworth meant when he told me, “We have seen people who did not like Unity initially are coming back and saying how fantastic it is. We have polished a lot of rough edges that held people back.” I really like Unity for what it is.
That said, Unity has some inherent problem which are not going to go away due to Canonical’s grand scheme of taking Ubuntu beyond desktops. How much changed since I last used Unity? Will 12.04 with Unity cut it for me? Here is what I found when I compared Unity with KDE. Note to be made: These are my findings based on my preference and my use case. It has a lot to do with my muscle memories. None of this may apply to you so don’t take it as a benchmark of a perfect UI. It’s perfect ‘only’ for me. It’s not a Unity vs KDE death-match. It’s a simple comparison of what may work for ‘me.’
Unity fails miserably when it comes to customizing the UI according to one’s own preferences. The location of Launcher and Dash is etched in stone and can’t be changed. I totally understand the decision made by the Canonical team. This may be an ideal solution for a tablet or a smartphone which has limited screen real estate, but Desktop is not a dumb hardware, it is used for variety of different things and it should be totally customizable. The only customization available for Unity is the ability to resize the launcher bar. [Here I am talking about the integrated and not through third party tools such as MyUnity].
KDE excels at customization. You can change almost every aspect of KDE. Since KDE has different versions for netbooks, tablets and desktop a user is not forced to use a UI not optimized for a particular hardware. Use the appropriate version of KDE and get most out of your hardware.
Under KDE one you can add as many panels as you want and wherever you want on your screen — top, bottom, right or left. You can resize them, change their locations, hide or display them as you please. If you like the placement of Unity Launcher you can easily replicate that look in KDE, but not the vice-versa.
Global Menu ‘in my case’ is nothing less than annoyance. I have huge monitors and I use tiled windows and GM makes it very painful to access menus of each application or window. I have to go to the top bar to access the menus of an app which is at forth spot in the tile. In addition to that it is also increasingly painful to guess where the menus will be as they auto-hide.
Global Menu do save some pixels but it doesn’t matter on any monitor bigger than 21-inch and I have 27 and 32 inch monitors. Yes, it does matter on netbooks where you use one app at a time and every pixel matters. Unity with Global menu is an excellent solution for netbooks.
KDE comes with the traditional style which makes it extremely easy to access the menus from the application windows itself. I feel extremely comfortable working in KDE, especially when using applications like GIMP, than in Unity. At times I noticed some lag in the appearance of Global Menus which simply frustrates me. Suddenly the thing that should not be of any importance (accessing menus) need all my attention. It’s more like you have to look where the brake pedal is every time you need to apply breaks in your car. I think Ubuntu team needs to offer some settings to turn off Global Menus. I think it was proposed but was later dropped. I am curious how LTS users will respond to such a dramatic change in the UI. I think Ubuntu teams must include some kind of demo with 12.04 which lets users know about all these new and cool features. The demo can be added as a link on the home screen so that a user can watch it.
Nekhelesh: You are right about the global menu issue. However LIM might land as an update to Precise. Or you can disable/Enable global menus using a 3rd party app. I am about to write a review about it soon.
Minor annoyances: Notifications
Under Unity the pop-up notifications are sometime extremely annoying. They stay there for a certain period and won’t disappear no matter what you do. That is increasingly painful when you have to access or read sometime at the spot where they appear. On the contrary KDE’s pop-up notifications come with a close icon and you can close them as and when you want. You can easily disable such notifications on KDE, just by removing them from the tray (it’s only a right-click away). I think Unity must offer something similar so that a user can control notifications. There must also be an option to disable notifications completely.
Nekhelesh: Completely Agree! They need to really implement “Do not Disturb Mode” or a close option
The gap widens
The gap between KDE and Unity widens the moment you switch to a multi-monitor setup. Unity has close to zero customization for multi-monitor setup. In fact using Unity on a multi-monitor setup is more of a pain than comfort (in my case). The Launcher appears on all the monitors and there is an irritating lag when you move your mouse from one monitor to another and it crosses the Launcher of the second monitor. Many time the app that you want to open in A monitor opens in B monitor. Second windows of applications sometime open on other monitors.
Nekhelesh: This has been fixed in Unity 5.8 which will land in another 2-3 days.
1. You now have the option to choose on which monitor you want the launcher.
2. The irritating lag has also been fixed.
KDE’s advantages on a multi-monitor set-up
KDE is extremely customizable when you are looking at a multi-monitor set-up. Here is how you can customize KDE for a multi-monitor set-up.
1. You can add independent panels on each monitor
2. You can add independent widgets on each monitor. For example, I use second monitor to watch movies so I have added a folder view on the second monitor which is configured to show the partition where I keep all my videos. You can have as many folder views you want on each monitor.
3. You can pin different apps on the panels of different monitor and thus have access to the apps that you would want to open on that monitor. For example, I use GIMP and other editing applicatiosn on my second monitor. So I have pinned such apps on the panels of that monitor. The first monitor has Firefox, Thunderbird and Chrome pinned to its panel.
4. You can have different wallpaper for each monitor. Yes, you can set different wallpapers on different monitors.
Nekhelesh: SOme of this will land in Ubuntu 12.10 with the new unity spread with the ability to assign a wallpaper for each workspace.
These capabilities of KDE makes me feel as if each monitor is an independent OS. These capabilities are missing from Unity.
This capability of KDE is one of the reasons (in addition to the lack of customization and global menus) why I chose KDE over Unity. There are no emotions or liking here. It’s purely based on a use case.
Unity rocks in its own capacity
As I said above with Unity Ubuntu has started to look beautiful and appealing. I have converted a lot of users from Windows to Ubuntu and they loved Unity. With Unity Ubuntu has joined the ranks of highly integrated distributions such as Mandriva. Unfortunately a KDE fan doesn’t get the same level of integration in Kubuntu that we see in Mandriva or openSUSE. It is unfortunate that we don’t have a highly integrated distro like Mandriva, Mageia, Chakra or Arch which is based on Debian. I think integration and design is an area where Kubuntu and Linux Mint team may want to focus on. We do need a highly integrated Debian based KDE distro.
Should I consider Unity with 12.04?
In my opinion and use case KDE is far more advanced and ‘useful’ than Unity is. I have pointed out some areas where KDE excelled over Unity. I know that the design decisions which Canonical has taken don’t and won’t allow such flexibility and customization. Not much is going to change with 12.04. Which unfortunately also mean Unity can never become as customizable as KDE is. I don’t know about future, may be Unity will gradually evolve into a much more customizable shell. May be Unity will learn from KDE and implement such features. If that happens, I will surely switch back to Unity.
Nekhelesh: With 3rd party apps, it becomes configurable although not as much as KDE.
So, after my 24 hour long stint with Unity, I am back to KDE. I strongly believe that Kubuntu can be an answer to Windows 8, but the team needs to work a bit on polishing it and integrate it well. Most of the users that I talked to and who didn’t have a very good impression of KDE were the ones who tried it with Kubuntu. I have yet to come across any openSUSE, Mandriva, Chakra or Fedora user who hates KDE. The reason is simple – tight integration and polish. So, the goal for Kubutu team is simple and easy.
I will heavily recommend KDE to a user. KDE has been kept out of the limelight and hype that it truely deserves. Unity is a great project and it is shaping up really well but if you are looking for complete control over your computer, you should consider KDE. That doesn’t mean KDE is for everyone. It’s not meant to be. You should be perfectly fine with Unity. I will prefer Unity on my netbook, but for my laptop and main PC it will only be KDE.