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New Desktop Face-Off: Gnome 2.20 vs KDE 3.5

by Judith Myerson


With the new features that Gnome and KDE (K Desktop Environment) are adding, each desktop environment is challenging the other for a larger share of the market. If Linux-like operating systems come with one desktop environment, the user has the option to add to the other. Because of the ever-increasing sophistication of the new features, some latest versions of the operating system are including packages for both desktop environments, allowing users to have the option of switching from one desktop environment to another. In this article I will briefly talk about the new features of both Gnome and KDE, and then look at some similarities and important differences between the two desktop environments.

Gnome's New Features

In September 2007, the Gnome Foundation released the latest version of the GTK+ widget toolkit. More significantly, the foundation has launched the Gnome Mobile initiative, along with a software development platform to create user experiences across a wide range of device profiles. This initiative will allow you to use, develop, and commercialize Gnome components on a mobile and embedded user experience platform.

Let's take a look at the major changes for the users, administrators, and developers of Gnome 2.20.

What's New for Users

Want to be notified of a new email while you do other tasks? Evolution, Gnome's email and groupware client, can do this for you by sporting an icon in your panel's notification area when you get email. Evolution's Microsoft Exchange support includes access to Exchange's delegation feature, so that a colleague can handle your work while you are away.

Need to get help faster? The Gnome help browser (yelp) pages now appear more quickly, as individual pages are now loaded on demand instead of the entire manual being parsed unnecessarily. In Epiphany, the integrated web browser, you will find inline completion in the address bar is now more intuitive. When you select an item from the drop-down list, you will see your selection in the entry box.

Need quicker access to basic information and metadata for your images? You can do this with the new properties dialog of Gnome's image viewer. It includes XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform) data that your camera or software may store in your image files, along with the existing EXIF data. You can easily open an image in another application, such as the GIMP, by using the new "Open with..." menu item. When you've made your changes and saved the file, then your picture will be updated in the image viewer automatically.

Ever wanted a viewer to allow you to enter information into an interactive PDF form? Try the Evince viewer, which also can save and print the resulting form. To make it easier for you to find keywords in your code, Gnome's simple text editor, gedit, has a new syntax-highlighting system for scripting languages such as PHP and Ruby, even when embedded in HTML. It highlights text such as "TODO" or "FIXME" inside code comments, and gtk-doc source code documentation

You can synchronize notes between your machine and remote servers to relieve you of repeating the task of copying notes. The note-taking application Tomboy can now do this for you. Tomboy allows you to use WebDAV or SSH to connect to a remote server.

Your wish not to enter passwords over and over is fulfilled with the Gnome Keyring system. It remembers your passwords for networked servers and web sites. The keyring is unlocked automatically when you log in and when you unlock your screen. You can now also change your keyring's master password via the Encryption Preferences control panel.

The Power Manager now saves profile information about your batteries, so you can look at it later. It even knows about many battery models that have been recalled by their manufacturers. Your screen is locked and you want to let other people leave you a note? The screen saver can now do this for you, by allowing others to click the "Leave Message" button. You'll see these messages when you log in.

What's New for Administrators

Suppose a live, interactive, nested Gnome session is running. You, as the administrator, want to set up user profiles inside a session. The Sabayon User Profile Editor is here to do the job. When you create or edit a profile, a nested Gnome session is started up. The editor allows you to change configuration defaults and mandatory keys in their own Gnome session. Gnome Display Manager now uses RBAC (Role Based Access Control) to control access to the Shutdown, Reboot, and Suspend features.

What's New for Developers

Want to create third party applications? The Gnome 2.20 Developers' Platform allows independent software developers to develop applications for use with Gnome. It uses version 2.12 of the GTK+ UI toolkit API, which adds new features and important bug fixes. The largest changes are a new volume button widget, for use by media players, a new recent action class to provide recent-files menu items and the new Builder API to build user interfaces from XML descriptions. You can right-click on widgets to make changes more conveniently. The new Accessibility Explorer allows you to check whether your application provides the information needed by accessibility tools such as Gnome's Orca screen reader.

Gnome has a new documentation web site, It lists all the latest tutorials, manuals, and API references. For offline documentation, you should use the built-in DevHelp utility, particularly when searching for function or class names.

KDE's New Features

KDE is similar in nature to desktop environments found on the Macintosh and Microsoft Windows operating systems. Since KDE is a X11-based environment, a GTK+ application can run on top of the desktop if the libraries the program requires are installed. Kdevelop uses an external compiler such as GCC to produce executable code and supports many programming languages.

Let's take a look at some of the major changes for the users, developers and administrators of KDE 3.5. Then we will talk about KDE 4.0, which will include KOffice 2.0 with innovative features.

What's New

Ever wanted interactive weather forecasts? This can be done by clicking the weather widget in SuperKaramba, a built-in feature of KDE. This program provides other widgets that you can use on your desktop to perform other tasks. Some examples are a system monitor showing CPU, RAM, hard drive usage and kernel version, new mail notification and news tickers. If you can't find the widgets you want, you can get them from the site in the Karamba section.

Have you found Kopete, a software instant messaging client, limited? No more. Kopete is now multi-protocol, supporting audio and video devices, and thus MSN video conferencing. It adds support for Yahoo! messages in Rich Text format, AIM chat rooms, .Net Messenger Service, AOL Instant Messenger, and Novell Groupwise. It has a new toolbar (widget) in the main window to edit your global identity.

Want to block ads on your web browser? Konqueror, the core part of the KDE, now has adblock features. Along with being a web browser, Konquerer is a file manager and file viewer designed as a core part of the KDE. Full Microsoft Windows support is planned for Konqueror 4.0, which will be a part of KDE 4.0.

Kmail has a new feature: Lotus Notes structured text import filter for your email. A FAX-Viewer plugin is available for the KviewShell (document viewer).

Looking for new applications for education? KGeography, a geography learning program has been added. Kalzium is also available, it can be used to calculate weight of molecules and solve chemistry equations.

What Do We Expect in KDE 4.0?

As you can see, new features in KDE 3.5 are few. That's because effort has mostly been expended in developing many new features for KDE 4.0, scheduled to be released for deployment in December 2007. KDE 4.0 is delivered in two portions: the KDE Development Platform 4.0 and the KDE Desktop 4.0. Highlights of KDE 4.0 are a new visual appearance through Oxygen and new frameworks to build multimedia applications, and improved user experience, and tools for developers and administrators to make their jobs easier. Full Microsoft Windows support is planned for Konqueror 4.0, which will be a part of KDE 4.0.

KOffice 2.0 is a free office suite of productivity, creativity, management, and supporting applications. Productivity applications include KWord, KSpread, KPresenter, and Kexi (an integrated environment for databases). Supporting applications includes KChart, KFormula, and Kugar (to generate business quality reports). At the time of this writing, KOffice 2.0 is in the alpha stage, and will be part of KDE 4.0 when it is ready for release

The KDE games developer community has considered which games should stay in the kdegames modules for KDE 4.0. Those that can be resized and scalable on high resolution have been kept. Those that cannot resized have been discarded.


Both Gnome and KDE are aimed at achieving the goal of making the desktop environment more user-friendly and the development tools more accessible and more modular. They also try to help administrators perform their tasks without overrunning their budget and time. Gnome and KDE offer the same functionality: theming, file management, device management, email management, web browsers, and so forth. It's up to you to pick the desktop environment that works for you. It's also possible for you to choose both, so you can switch from one desktop environment to another.

KDE's SuperKaramba's widgets are similar to gDesklets for Gnome (as well as Yahoo! Widget Engine for Windows and Max OS X, DesktopX for Windows, Dashboard for Mac OS X, and also the gadgets subset of Google Desktop for Microsoft Windows).

A GTK+ application for Gnome can run on top of KDE. Just make sure the libraries the programs required are installed on the KDE.


Generally, KDE focuses on offering as many features as possible with as many graphical ways as possible for configuring those features. KDE with its KOffice, is more "Windows-like" than Gnome. Gnome is becoming more scalable on high-resolution screens.

KDE highlights the functionality it has. However, the KDE menus lack the simplicity that Gnome has. Gnome often hides certain configuration options in order to achieve the simplicity that allows the user to get stuff done. However, it lacks certain functionality that KDE has. In Gnome, user preferences and configuration are done through the System menu, user preferences are in the Preferences menu, and system-wide administration is done through the Administration menu and usually requires your super-user password. Unlike Gnome, KDE has one place where all your settings live, it's called System Settings.

Gnome has tabs for each category of removable drives and media, with checkboxes for the behavior you want and fill-in-the-blank slots for commands you wish to execute for that media device.

KDE has a storage media drop-down menu for each type where you can add and remove various action types; each action (Open a New Window, for example) has an accompanying command and a set of options for which it will be available as an action type.

In Gnome's file manager, called Nautilus, you can rename files by doing two spaced-out single-clicks on the name. Gnome's renaming will focus on the name of the file, but not the file extension. In KDE's file manager (Konqueror), since it defaults to single-click behavior, you have to hold down the Shift key and then do time spaced-out clicks to rename files with your mouse. You can, of course, change KDE to double-click behavior if you want. KDE will highlight the entire file name, including the file extension.


You'll have to decide which tradeoffs between the KDE's functionality and Gnome's simplicity will make your work easier, in isolation or by collaborating with others. The type of collaboration you choose; email, instant messaging, or chat rooms; will influence the desktop environment you are running. If you need the features of both desktop environments, you can always switch between KDE and Gnome.

There will always be competition for market awareness between the two desktop environments, as new technologies, such as higher resolution screens and USB portable physical disk of much higher capacity, become more prevalent. Each desktop community is attempting to increase market awareness of its free programs. For instance, KDE focuses on creating market awareness for KOffice 2.0 for KDE 4.0. Meanwhile, Gnome is pursuing a Mobile initiative, as an attempt to catch up with KDE's instant messaging client, Kopete.

Judith Myerson is a systems architect and engineer. Her areas of interest include enterprise-wide systems, database technologies, network & system administration, security, operating systems, programming, desktop environments, software engineering, web development, and project management. You can contact her at

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