This article introduces new Linux users to the advantages and disadvantages of the two most popular desktop environments in the Linux world, GNOME and KDE.
One of the first things any new Linux user learns is that the Linux desktop environment can look in various ways. The second thing a user discovers is that in Linux, you can have multiple entirely independent working environments.
This is where the confusion begins, and the first words that appear on the horizon are usually GNOME and KDE. For a range of reasons, these two desktop environments are the most popular in the Linux world, and before we go any further, we’ll provide our readers with a quick historical overview.
A Brief History of GNOME and KDE
On October 14, 1996, about three years after the first Linux distros began to emerge, Matthias Ettrich announced the creation of Kool Desktop Environment (KDE), a graphical interface for Unix systems.
The acronym KDE was a pun on the proprietary graphic environment CDE (Common Desktop Environment) of the time.
For the KDE project, Ettrich picked Trolltech’s Qt framework. Other programmers rapidly began creating KDE/Qt-based applications. As a result, KDE 1.0, the first version of the desktop environment, was published in July 1998.
Over the past 25 years, the project has undergone many transformations going through versions K Desktop Environment 2 (2000), K Desktop Environment 3 (2002), and KDE Software Compilation 4 (2008).
And these days, what is now known as KDE Plasma 5, first released in 2014, is an actually a compilation of three separate sub-projects:
- KDE Plasma: A graphical desktop environment written in Qt 5 and KDE Frameworks 5 that supports virtual desktops and widgets and has customizable layouts and panels.
- KDE Frameworks: A set of libraries and software frameworks based on the Qt toolkit, used for developing graphical user interfaces.
- KDE Gear: A set of apps and other software created and maintained by the KDE Community.
So much for KDE. Let us now turn our gaze to GNOME.
When the KDE project arose as a genuine attempt to produce a functional Unix desktop environment, many people were concerned about its license.
As already mentioned, the KDE team chose to build their project on top of the Qt toolkit, which was not truly free software at the time. Although Qt’s licensing terms have subsequently been modified, and it now qualifies as free software, many people felt its use at the time was a step backward for software freedom.
As a result, not everyone was happy with KDE. So, in response, Miguel de Icaza and Federico Mena began work on a new Linux desktop in 1997 named GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment).
GNOME, like KDE, has gone through several changes throughout its existence, the most prominent of which was the launch of GNOME Shell in 2011. As a result, the working environment familiar to GNOME 1 and GNOME 2 users was significantly altered in the GNOME 3 version.
As a result of this transition, the MATE Desktop Environment emerged, which to this day maintains the legacy of the familiar user interface from GNOME versions 1 and 2.
This concludes our brief history of these two desktop environments and leads us to the main point of this article: GNOME vs. KDE – Which Linux desktop environment to choose.
KDE: It’s All About Customizability
First and foremost, KDE is a gorgeous Linux desktop environment. And no, we’re not referring to the wallpaper in the above screenshot. Instead, every aspect of the desktop environment has been carefully polished to a gleam.
And now I’d like to share an intriguing impression. While KDE first attempted to follow the design model imposed by Windows on the organization and handling of the work environment, things now seem to have turned around.
When initially encountering Windows 11, anyone who has dealt with KDE Plasma 5 can’t help but draw parallels. However, I can’t help but notice the obvious design similarities. Of course, I could be mistaken. You will say.
The average computer user will find everything they are used to and expect from a desktop environment in KDE. This includes a taskbar with an intuitive start menu, a dock with the currently used apps, a system tray area, windows with minimize, maximize, close functionalities, etc.
However, the differences begin here, and they are almost entirely positive in sign. First, KDE is primarily about the freedom to design and customize your work environment. That is, practically every feature of the desktop environment may be adapted to meet the specific requirements and preferences.
We won’t detail on what you can change in KDE because there are so many options that a book could probably be written on the subject. But we’ll get to another essential point: do we really need all of this?
Paradoxically, KDE’s biggest advantage, its ability to customize, is also the environment’s greatest drawback. I mean that a regular desktop user unaccustomed to so many customization settings available out there can quickly become lost in this ocean of options.
However, if you’re a Linux desktop enthusiast who enjoys messing about for hours altering this and that, you’ll be amazed by what KDE offers.
On the other hand, if you just want a working out of the box desktop environment where you don’t have to think, for example, “Am I OK with a 150 ms reaction time delay for reaching the mouse to the corners of the desktop, or should I increase it to 200 ms?” then KDE is probably not the way to go.
Of course, you could never use these options, but that doesn’t change that the desktop environment feels overly complicated.
But don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to diminish KDE’s flexibility. After all, the freedom to choose is at the heart of Linux. It’s just that I think all of those configuration options and desktop effects come in a bit more.
GNOME: It’s All About Simplicity
The GNOME desktop environment is unrivaled in terms of popularity and usage in Linux systems. A variety of reasons have contributed to this status.
For example, it has been pushed as the default desktop environment by some of the largest players in the Linux market, like Ubuntu, Red Hat, and others, putting it a mile ahead of the competition even before the race has begun.
I’m trying to say that a novice user touching Linux for the first time by installing Ubuntu gets GNOME, learns GNOME, and works with GNOME until he reaches a particular point in his personal growth in the Linux field. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just stating a fact.
The primary purpose of the GNOME work environment is to simplify and make the user experience as simple as possible. Unfortunately, in this pursuit, the environment’s developers went to the other extreme attained by KDE. But let me use an example to demonstrate what I mean.
I recently invited a close friend of mine, an avid user of Windows with zero experience with Linux, to visit me at home. I was drafting one of these articles at the time, and my desktop was running a virtual machine with vanilla GNOME 42 installation.
I’ll be frank with you. After less than a minute, he said, “Hey man, this here is no sense.” Then came three seemingly childish questions: “Where is the menu?“, “How do I get back to the browser?” and “How can I minimize this?“
The sad part is that, after all these years of using GNOME as my primary desktop environment, I agree with this statement. So, GNOME Shell is a fantastic desktop environment, but only after installing all the GNOME extensions we need to get things back to normal.
Furthermore, the GNOME developers have an interesting insight into user habits and behavior. Of course, that’s a complete science in and of itself, but I don’t think it’s rocket science to consider some aspects before integrating them.
For example, the logic of going to the top left corner of the screen with the mouse and clicking on the Activities menu results in something else at the opposite bottom of the screen, where you have to go back with the mouse to launch the third thing, is beyond my understanding.
So, if you are a new Linux user, prepare yourself for the initial shock of encountering GNOME. You won’t find things like a start menu, a visible panel, a system tray area, the ability to minimize or maximize windows, or icons on your desktop.
Fortunately, most of these features are available by installing special plugins known as GNOME extensions. So, GNOME Shell extensions are a great way to add functionality to your Linux desktop.
The good news is that there are a plethora of them. That will allow you to personalize your GNOME desktop environment’s appearance and functionality to your personal preferences.
And when you do, GNOME transforms into a very stable, reliable, and predictable work environment that will serve you flawlessly for years.
Of course, you may bypass all of this by installing a distro like Ubuntu. Canonical’s developers have taken care to pre-install most of the extensions mentioned above, making GNOME much more usable.
GNOME vs KDE: Which One Should You Choose?
Well, we come to the main question mark: GNOME vs KDE. Which desktop environment should I use? Here’s my take on it.
If you are new to Linux, especially if you are coming from the Windows environment, I advise sticking with KDE. You will feel at ease in your environment.
Furthermore, I am confident that these new customization options will keep you engaged for a long time as you hunt for the “perfect” setup.
On the other hand, you’ll want to taste the vanilla GNOME experience and enhance it with all the capabilities you require at some point on your Linux journey.
So, strange or not, the desktop environment with considerably more sophisticated settings, such as KDE, fits much better for beginning Linux users, in my opinion. In contrast, GNOME, which seeks simplicity and ease of use, is more suited to advanced Linux users who are prepared to face its challenges.
In addition, optimizing the use of system resources is frequently used to determine the quality of a piece of software. However, given today’s hardware, it’s unlikely that the end-user will see any difference between the two desktop environments in terms of performance.
But we will highlight that KDE came out as the desktop environment that consumed the fewest system resources instead of GNOME in all of our testing.
And finally, if you’re an experienced Linux user, you’re probably aware of all of the above mentioned and have already chosen the desktop environment that’s best for you.
- Well-known for its stability and bug-free system
- Excellent community support thanks to a large userbase
- Supported by some of the biggest names in the Linux industry
- Thousands of extensions are available to change the environment to suit your needs
- For new Linux users, its use is difficult to understand
- The environment’s overall behavior deviates from the most logical user habits
- It is hard to use for daily work without the use of extensions
- Provides a visually appealing modern interface
- Highly customizable
- It uses fewer system resources than GNOME
- A good option for users moving from Windows to Linux
- Customization can be overwhelming
Finally, we provide a shortlist of the finest Linux distros that use GNOME or KDE as their default desktop environment. There are Red Hat, Fedora, Debian, Ubuntu, AlmaLinux, and Rocky Linux on the GNOME side. KDE is used as the default desktop environment in openSUSE, Kubuntu, Slackware, KDE Neon, and KaOS.
This brings us to the end of our analysis of GNOME vs KDE. I’m convinced that you will agree on some points and object to others.
Many of you have chosen a desktop environment other than GNOME or KDE, and that’s great. Because that’s what makes Linux so remarkable; the right to make choices and the freedom to follow them and build on them.
Whether you agree or disagree with the above arguments, I want to thank you sincerely for being here and taking the time to read this article. It’s a privilege to have you as a reader. Thank you!
I’d appreciate it if you could give your thoughts in the comments section below.
Dear Mr Borisov,
I actually very much agree with your overall and detailed evaluation of GNOME and KDE. 3 comments though.
1- You wrote
If you are new to Linux, especially if you are coming from the Windows environment, I advise sticking with KDE
I would advise a new Linux user coming from the Windows environment to use MATE desktop environment or even the latest LxQT (version 1.1.0) desktop environment.
2- You wrote (about KDE)
practically every feature of the desktop environment may be adapted to meet the specific requirements and preferences
There is one exception. Customization of width of vertical scrollbar and removing/disabling transient (fugitive, disappearing after 6 seconds unless the mouse cursor hovers over the scrollbar area) scrollbar.
Before (in KDE4), scrollbars were not transient and scrollbar width could be customized. Users (mostly desktop users) are
annoyed and upset by transient scrollbars and narrow (6 pixels wide) scrollbars.
a close friend of mine, an avid user of Windows with zero experience with Linux, to visit me at home (…)
Linux desktop developers should do that often just like you did.
In the beginning I tried red hat/gnome. It was painful. Next was knoppix/kde. That was smooth fast could adjust desktop for my slight vision problem. A rather hard to in gnome-just no option. Now I do pure debian/kde.
As I see it, the problem that most people have with Gnome is that they insist on using it like other desktop environments, instead of using it the way it is designed to be used. The experience of your friend exemplifies that. “Where’s the menu?” The problem is exactly that he expects a menu. Gnome hasn’t a menu because it is not designed to be operated like that.
Gnome’s interface is like that of a smartphone. Smartphones haven’t a menu either, but I’ve never heard people complain about that. It’s all about expectations. People expect that computers have menus because they’ve grown that habit. They don’t have the same expectation for smartphones, so they have no problems learning and using a different interface, and many actually find it easy and fun to use.
I like to think of Gnome vs. menu-based interfaces like bikes vs. cars. Bikes have handlebars, cars have wheels. It would be silly to buy a bike and then ask “Where’s the wheel?” Bikes haven’t a wheel because they aren’t designed to be driven like that. If you want a wheel then you simply shouldn’t be riding a bike. The fact is, once you accept that you must drive your bike through its handlebars, it just feels natural and you never find yourself thinking that it’s missing a wheel. Granted, not everybody likes bikes. But if you don’t, you should just get a car. If you insist on buying a bike and trying to reconfigure it into a car, you’re always going to be disappointed because, well, it isn’t a car.
Similarly, Gnome isn’t a menu-based environment and trying to force it into one will never succeed 100%. If you want a menu then you shouldn’t be using Gnome. But if you’re open to try a different way to do things you may actually like it. I do.
I should not have to adapt to a desktop, a desktop should be customizable to my wants and needs. Win 8 proved convergence with smart phones was a failure. Ubuntu’s Unity also proved convergence with smart phones was a failure. I was a huge fan of gnome two, but since then I have tried it twice for extended periods of time but still find it unusable.
With bikes and cars your wrong !! Bikes have 2 wheels ( tires ) Cars have 4 wheels ( tires ) !! Bikes have a set of handle bars to to turn the front wheel left or right and keep you straight .. You said car has a wheel.. That is a steering wheel that does the handle bars do !!
As much as I like many aspects of GNOME, I do feel there should be much more user research done. Especially using it on Fedora as opposed to Ubuntu is not a good experience overall in terms of usability (and having to “complete” Fedora with GNOME extensions and tweaks doesn’t make so much sense, since the words “Extension” and “Tweaks” seem to imply “extended/specialized functionality”, which is in many cases not what they’re used for: adding a maximize/minimize button, tray icons, etc., is not anything remotely “extended” nor is that something truly “customized” when I’m not alone in having the need to have those features). Unfortunately, looking at the way some GNOME developers speak about what they do (“the concept is this and not that, so expect/do this instead of that”), shows that they have little understanding of user research (and of research in general). Being user-friendly means also knowing the user, which is something that in some regards they simply don’t do and impose instead a certain “concept”, which for the arts is okay, but for a desktop (which has a practical value as opposed to art) is not. Ubuntu on the other hand has very likely done some more user research and it shows.
My answer, neither.
Neither. The day when I won’t be able to use MATE as a desktop is probably the day I will stop using Linux as my desktop… and Linux is my desktop for about 20 years already.
PS: even 20+ years ago KDE had a Windows feel (Windows 9x at the time), while GNOME for a while (2.x) had an OS X inspiration.
I’ve tried Debian/Gnome, Arch/Gnome and now I’m running Slackware/KDE. While I appreciated the others I love the latter. I think it’s mostly up to personal preferences, unless you need a very specific feature. I just like the look and feel of KDE and the options I have, even though I don’t do much tinkering. Just knowing the knobs and levers are there makes me calmer, just in case… 🙂
I’ve tried and used most of the DEs in use today. First, never could get used to Gnome (I kick its wheels every now and then). Not my style of desktop computing though. When KDE first came out, it was great. Then they messed with it, and I moved away from it to LXDE. Then Mint with Cinnamon which worked well with my work flow. When I went to Ubuntu (when Ryzen processors first came out), I thought I’d try KDE again. Wow, they have done wonders. Stuck with it ever since. Only gripe was the default menu, put then found I could change it back to ‘classic’ feel which I prefer. So back on KDE … until they screw it up again 😀 ha…. When I changed my dad’s laptop over from Win10 to KUbuntu 20.04, he took right to it. He’s 82 and he is not a computer jockey… has his rabbit trails to follow… Anyway, I always recommend Linux Mint or KUbuntu now when asked what DE to try.
That said it is all a personal preference. All depends on your workflow. Mine happens to be KDE/LXDE/Cinnamon style.
I use Raspberry Pi OS (LXDE) and Manjaro (Plasma KDE) but come from a background of RISC OS. Of course it is pointless to compare Linux desktops with something as retro as RISC OS, but nevertheless there are features of RISC OS that I miss. 1) In RISC OS the window with the input focus is not necessarily the one on the top of the window stack. It is useful to be able to continue inputting text into a window you may not be able to see, because reading information from other windows may have over-riding priority. 2) RISC OS expects a mouse with 3 buttons. The middle one brings up a context-menu. The left/right buttons offer a convenient duality, so that the right button often does the inverse of the left – scrolling in the opposite direction, for example, so no movement of the mouse is needed for changing direction. Closing a filer-window with the right button will replace it by its parent, so right-clicking does not alter the number of windows open on the desktop. 3) RISC OS uses drag and drop between windows (copy left, move right); an invisible clipboard is a clumsy alternative. You can SHIFT-drag an object’s pathname into a text window.
Sadly the ROX desktop seems to be supported no longer. RISC OS was designed to minimize use of the keyboard and movements of the hand; perhaps it is not surprising that no Linux desktop has adopted such a heretical aim.
GNOME is really good on portable pc with touchpad (excellent) and for multitasking and virtual desktop. It is easy to use and on the eye. The search feature is advanced. The elastic behaviors of apps is awesome.
KDE is good, the file engine is better. And it suit better for use with pc and another one. And android. The customizability is fine. But feels unpolished at time. It is lightweight on ressources now. Also Kapps suite is excellent.
So, I use weither gnome or kde.
Gnome is just good for the implementation of modern features, but as desktop environment is limitated. Every time, I had installed Fedora or Ubuntu in a partition I deleted it just after 2 or 3 weeks. Gnome desktop environment is easy as appearance, but it forces the users to make useless step to get any application isn’t in the dock. Then, the upper taskbar is almost useless and steady as well. Now… the expert enthusiasts know the trick but the new end user mentally refuse this environment, because it seems stupid for a desktop. One of the most clever tools in a desktop is the hamburger menu, the other is the unique taskbar in which get the used applications…. gnome needs 2 Taskbars… why? To seem different. The upper Taskbar occupies uselessly space🤔. For what purpose? Likely, gnome environment is more suitable for the tablets or mobile 📱. KDe is the right choice for the desktop environment. It is much more efficient and intuitive.
By the way, I switched to KDE when PLASMA 5 was developed. It has a polished and refined graphics and a good management in the resources. I like its modern appearance. The previous releases were rather overwhelming and the appearance rather coarse.
@Gérard: I managed to get those scrollbars back by using the Oxygen Application Style.
I wish Firefox was that easy, it took using the Mint-Y-Pop GTK3 theme, and about:config to change “widget.gtk.overlay-scrollbars.enabled” and “widget.non-native-theme.gtk.scrollbar.allow-buttons”