In a very short while, I have had the opportunity to try three new desktops. KDE 4 (not new but completely unknown to me previously), Unity on Ubuntu Natty (not a new desktop, but a novel shell nevertheless), and GNOME 3. In the coming few days, I shall describe my experiences in a big review of each, in three parts.
I have always been a GNOME user. By “always”, I don’t mean I never used anything else. There always wasn’t a GNOME to use. I mean as long as GNOME has been around, I have used GNOME. Red Hat 6.0 was the first distribution to ship a full GNOME release, the much-rushed, buggy, and quite ill-received GNOME 1.0. Yes it was buggy, but I used it. It was still more to my liking than the AfterStep that Red Hat 5.2 sported, even if AfterStep worked better. In retrospect, I suppose I just fell in love with GNOME and wanted it to work. I wanted it to be awesome, and by god, if it works at all I’ll use it come hell or high water.
For context, this is what GNOME 1.0 looked like on Red Hat 6.0:
Yes, it was a mixture of Windows 95, fvwm, and indeed, KDE designs. But it was GNU, it was Free, and it was consistent. And it had Enlightenment as the default window manager. I had never met E before, and it blew me away. Fortunately, GNOME stabilized quite quickly, with support from Red Hat and others, and GNOME 1.4 was already a wonderful desktop to use. So much so that start-ups like Eazel and Helix (later Ximian) were building businesses around it, and Sun was testing it as a potential replacement for their aging CDE desktop on Solaris.
Why such a lengthy digression into history? I want to make clear that I have always appreciated improvements and innovation in the desktop space, even if it is the applications that I have to actually work with. I believe that your environment has a great effect on the quality of your work and well-being, and when working on a computer, the desktop environment matters just as much as the smell in your office.
So now that I have tried three entirely new desktop concepts, I thought someone might be interested what I think. If not, stop reading here. This is going to be a long post, and this is only going to be Part One. :)
How I used to work on GNOME 2.x
Like many (most?) old computer users, I’ve developed a rather idiosyncratic desktop setup over the years. On GNOME 2.x, I removed the bottom panel with its taskbars, workspace indicators, and whatever used to be there, I forget. I also tend to remove pretty much everything else. I have a top panel with a drop-down window list on the left, and the clock and the notification area on the right (and the indicator applets on the latest iterations of Ubuntu). For a couple of years, a global menu applet has been available, so I’ve been using that too. Here’s what my set up has settled into, more or less:
I think this is GNOME 2.24 or so
I’ve always relied heavily on search to find old files, templates for creating new files, and on keyboard launchers like the Deskbar, GNOME-Do, and most recently Synapse. No menus, they’re too slow.
Browsing my old posts, I seem to have had most of what I then called ‘the Non-Interface‘ in place in late 2006. I was ranting about our application-based mindset in 2008 and advocating more focus on tasks and the actual objects of our work.
How this review came to be
I’ve been working primarily on an EeePC 701 ever since it came out. Really. It’s been quite enough for me, and it does what I need. Sure, I use a big external monitor and keyboard, but I threw away my desktop machine for the Eee and never regretted. However, I do suppose it looks sort of pathetic for a real work machine. So when Jussi, my favorite Kubuntu Personality and Co-Conspirator in Community Bureaucracy, realized he had no use for his nice LG X110, he offered it to me as “a loaner for unspecified time”. I gratefully accepted the offer. After all, it has a very nice keyboard, and the screen is an upgrade to a whopping 1024×600 (from the Eee’s 800×480).
But there was a catch, as there always is. “You must install Kubuntu, and give it 30 days. You may then do what you wish,” he said. So nice is the keyboard, that I still accepted the offer, even in this modified, more evil form. So now that I by chance got thrown away from my familiar environment, I thought I’d document some of my feelings. Without further ado (because that was enough, wasn’t it), let’s dive into the first part of my Grand Review.
Finally! The actual KDE Review
I know KDE 4 isn’t exactly new, but for me it is uncharted territory. Therefore I was rather excited to install Kubuntu Natty Beta, as it was at the time. Is it prettier than in the screenshots? Will I learn to use it? I had somehow built an idea of KDE being very complex, full of buttons and sliders, and every application a GNU Emacs with tons and tons of features I’m not interested in, even if the application were just an image or PDF viewer. The idea had no basis in actual experience or other study, but that’s the idea I had developed in my GNOME-induced mind.
Short version of the review: Kubuntu with KDE 4.6 is amazing.
The Plasma Desktop simply looks so good it almost made me cry. After poking about the desktop and familiarizing myself with some of the key concepts in the excellent documentation provided, i realized that the basic architecture behind it is also brilliant. Just like everything is a file in Unix, in the Plasma desktop everything is a plasmoid. Everything. This makes the desktop pretty much infinitely configurable, and I realized there is no way I can not fall in love with it. Whatever you don’t like, you can change.
And no, I did not like the defaults although I tried to use them for the first week or so. Eventually I realized that my Plasma desktop looks, and indeed, also works pretty much just like my desktop always did.
The desktop itself did not make me miss GNOME at all, it was all there. For a while I felt conservative and switched the desktop into “Folder view”, in order to get an old-school “real” desktop back, but I eventually realized the default Folder view as a plasmoid is enough, and allows me to add other widgets on the desktop as well.
KDE 4.x also introduced Activities. For example, I can work on my thesis and have all the usual windows and apps open on the desktop. When I get bored, I’ll leave all that stuff open and save it as an Activity called “Thesis”. I can then switch to the default “Desktop” activity and play moon-buggy, chat on IRC and look at lolcats for the rest of the night. When I feel like working again, I can switch back to the “Thesis” activity and everything will be there as if I never left. Brilliant.
However, I must admit I never really managed to get into the habit of actually using this feature. I found myself using the virtual desktops more, and inevitably losing my neat arrangement at each reboot. I blame myself for this more than the system though. Building, saving, and switching Activities is easy enough, and when your poor netbook starts to cough under the load of too many apps, you can “stop” a background Activity and free up the resources. I don’t know how many KDE users do use Activities, but I eventually gave up for some reason. I wonder if the KDE designers have done research on this, produced usage numbers, and maybe identified problems that trigger some psychological problem in an average topyli.
The Plasma desktop also has a pretty cool netbook mode, and you can even switch between the desktop and netbook modes on the fly. The “Search and View” Activity template used in the netbook mode isn’t very intuitive to configure, and I found it difficult to change desktop shortcuts for example. I also disliked the panel arrangement and never really managed to forge it to my liking. Then again, I did not use the netbook mode very extensively, as I’ve always preferred to run full desktops even on the tiny Eee screen.
As mentioned previously, I don’t use launcher menus, I find them rather cumbersome and slow to use. Fortunately, krunner is insanely, life-alteringly awesome. I have never tried a better launcher on any system. Launching apps, searching for files (kindly indexed for you by Strigi), searching the Web, anything I managed to think of is all right at my fingertips. It probably does much more than I’ll ever manage to discover. Krunner quickly took its rightful place at the center of my workflow.
Finding and adding currently installed plasmoids could be easier. The plasmoid picker that pops up when you ask for it is sort-of cool and futuristic, but also looks corny to me in some weird, unidentifiable manner. I was also annoyed by an obvious bug that the search field in this widget seems to be focused (as it should be), but actually isn’t. I couldn’t enter text before clicking on it. Finding and installing new plasmoids on the web is a joy however, with the tool provided handily at the same interface.
It’s in the applications that I started discovering phantoms of my old prejudice against KDE. Most apps seemed overwhelmingly complex, with far too many buttons and configuration options that were not useful to the average topyli in any obvious way. Oftentimes, I simply did not understand what a certain option or feature means. This is, of course, a double-edged sword. The developers drawn to the KDE ecosystem seem to be inclined to make powerful applications, and indeed that’s what they do. But I was now clearly out of my comfort zone. Being used to Eye of Gnome, which simply displays an image to me when I click on one in the file manager, I was overwhelmed by the richness of Gwenview, for example.
The above probably tells more about me as a user than about KDE apps as products. We don’t match. After a decade of GNOME, I’ve gotten used to the soothing simplicity of its design. I expect the basic functionality up front, with the more advanced functions hidden from eyesight and for me to find, either somewhere in gconf, in an extension somewhere, or another application altogether. KDE apps prefer to slam the whole smorgasbord in front of me, and it’s up to me what features I use and what I leave untouched. It’s a matter of style.
I did find a few wonderful apps however. The same Gwenview I just criticized turned out to be a rather wonderful application once I took the time to learn my way around. At first I had installed Digikam to handle my image collection, but in the end I realized that Gwenview is enough.
Kaffeine must offer the easiest TV setup I have ever encountered, be it a digital TV card in a computer or even a real TV. Simply the friendliest TV tuner ever. (As an aside, I have never, ever gotten gnome-dvb-daemon and Totem to work. At all. Easily or otherwise. I use dvb-tools to create a channels.conf and watch TV with VLC, when in GNOME.)
Jussi also half-forcibly introduced me to Quassel, which is an amazing IRC system. I use the core on his server and I’m always up to date. It’s like using irssi like I always do, with the added benefit of a friendly desktop client that properly integrates with the desktop notification system, monitors the availability of the network connection from network-manager, and looks good. There is also an Android client in (heavy) development that is quickly approaching usability. irssi might be history for me soon.
Akonadi sync to Google stuff is a pain. After a few attempts I was convinced I will never get the calendar to sync. I browsed the web, read bug reports and HOWTOs, and failed time and time again. At some point it suddenly worked, using the same steps I swear I had tried before. It is still a mystery to me. Imagine my disappointment when the newly synced calendar still did not show in the clock plasmoid’s calendar, like Evolution calendars do in GNOME. The calendar also seems able to show local holidays. Well, at least I’ll know when I will not have a meeting. I also found the KDE PIM apps to be quite confusing and unnecessarily complex in general, and soon gave up, moving to Google’s web apps.
Being used to GNOME’s instant apply introduced early in the 2.x era, I hated having to hit ‘apply’ all the time. Again, just a design decision that I’m too used to like the alternative. Related to this, the “Cancel” and “OK” buttons are in KDE apps and configuration dialogs are in the “wrong” order, making me make mistakes.
All in all, I really enjoyed life in KDE land. Despite the complexity of some of the configuration dialogs and the apps being too advanced for an average topyli, I was relatively happy and rejoiced the freedom, good looks, and great workflow afforded by the Plasma desktop itself.
However, after the month I had promised Jussi, I decided to return to my comfort zone and install a GNOME distribution. Naturally, that distribution was Ubuntu Natty, now fresh out of beta.
I shall describe my adventures with the Natty desktop, featuring Unity, in the next installation of this Grand Review. The third and final installation will describe my foray into vanilla GNOME 3 on Debian Sid.
Stay tuned! :)
 Note the super-witty reference to GNOME 3.0, five years ago. Yes, we were talking about ToPaZ already :)
Edit: adding links to the rest of the series.
Part 2: Unity
Part 3: GNOME Shell