A long-time Gnome user takes a week to try out SimplyMepis to see what all the hubub is about. The result is not only a favorable look at a capable Linux distro, but an examination of the state of the Desktop Environment landscape, and the areas in which KDE can tempt even a dyed-in-the-wool Gnome fan.SimplyMepis 2004.06 or: Gnome Guy goes KDE
Most of the readers here probably know from my previous reviews that I am an avid Gnome user. Thus I prefer Gnome-centric distributions like Ubuntu and Fedora. This time, however, I wanted to give KDE another try. So the first thing I had to do was choose a proper distribution. I hesitated between Novell/Suse, Mandrake and Mepis, but finally decided to settle for SimplyMepis 2004.06. This review is kind of split: it is a review of SimplyMepis 2004.06, but it is also a look at a tested and proven implementation of KDE from a Gnome-user perspective. I am fully aware that SimplyMepis 2004.06 has KDE 3.2.3, an already outdated version of the KDE desktop. I still chose this distribution, mainly because I was interested in the small hype around Mepis Linux.
Part 1 – The review:
Initially, I had planned to install SimplyMepis on my main workstation, replacing Fedora Core 3 completely and test it for around a week. However, I, err… decided to cop out and just install it on my secondary computer: this is a pure workstation (and a pretty loyal one at that), a 500MHz Pentium 3 with 256MB RAM, IDE and SCSI hard drives, some old 4MB graphics card and some more 1999-standard hardware. I did not expect to have any hardware compatibility problems, as I never had any with other Linux installations, and, as expected, everything worked right out of the box. SimplyMepis 2004.06 is a full-featured Live CD, I just put it into the CD-ROM drive and booted the computer with it. I logged in with username and password “root” started KDE with the “startx”-command and installed SimplyMepis with very few easy clicks on my primary hard drive. You’ll need basic knowledge about Linux terminology but on the whole, the installation process is very straightforward and I really like the idea of installing my operating system after I have already successfully booted it. This minimizes unexpected installation issues. I proposed such a routine in Fedora’s Bugzilla a long time ago. I really think this installation method is superior and should become standard for all modern operating systems. I hope that others will, over time, adapt a similar installation routine.
Regarding the software: SimplyMepis comes with a slew of packages (ca. 950 vs. ca. 450 on my Ubuntu system), most of which are a bit outdated. That is perfectly fine because 2004.06 is a maintenance release that targets maximum stability. The (for me) most important pieces are Kernel 2.6.7, XFree 4.3.0, KDE 3.2.3, Mozilla 1.7.2 and OpenOffice.org 1.1.2. Just as with Ubuntu, most of my install was English even though I chose German during the installation. This was not unexpected because SimplyMepis comes on a single CD. I found out that I had to install Synaptic (via apt-get of course), which is probably a shame because this program is a worthy addition to every Debian-based distribution. Then I installed the packages kde-i18n-de, openoffice.org-l10n-de, openoffice.org-hyphenation-de, and mozilla-locale-de-at. That solved the issue mostly, but there were still missing pieces: the printer configuration dialog showed up in English and there were a few English words and texts scattered all over the distribution (not a real problem for me). Then I added Juk, because I am a regular Rhythmbox user and planned to compare these two.
I have used SimplyMepis for more than a week now and I am quite pleased with it. The transition from Gnome to KDE was easier than I thought, I do not miss any specific application. SimplyMepis 2004.06 lived up to my expectations to be a “KDE Ubuntu”. Being based on Debian you never have to hunt for a specific package on the internet – if it’s not available via apt-get and Synaptic, it probably doesn’t exist. While the software is a little outdated, the system is very stable – in fact, not a single application crashed for me during the test period. Also very nice: SimplyMepis 2004.06 comes with all the delicate stuff pre-installed: Java Runtime Engine, Flash Plugin, MP3 playback, Videoplayer. There’s probably an application for every possible task included in SimplyMepis. The problem is, you sometimes have to search through the slew of packages and the complex menus for quite some time until you find the right application for the job you want to get done. SimplyMepis includes three distribution-specific tools, Mepis System Center, Mepis Installation Center and Mepis User Utilities. The latter does not have many features, but you can do two small jobs: clean userspace of logs, history and cache and align Mozilla’s fonts with KDE. The Mepis System Center is a central place where you can set some preferences that the Mepis team wants to have in one location. You can, for example, set your apt-repositories and some apt-preferences here. I didn’t quite understand the purpose of these two tools. They’re just two more tools, in a distro that already has a big KDE Control Center and every other configuration tool available because it’s Debian based. The third utility however, the Mepis Installation Center, proved to be quite good. Also, I see the need for this application as SimplyMepis has its special installation procedure – thus neither the Debian installer nor Anaconda is an option.
A small conclusion: SimplyMepis 2004.06 is an astonishingly bug-free, stable distribution. I’d recommend it to everyone who likes KDE. You get a distribution that has the power of Debian behind it, comes on one handy CD and, overall, makes a fine, polished impression. All the software included, though a little outdated already, is of top quality and will get the job done. Installation is extremely hassle-free, probably one of the main strengths of SimplyMepis 2004.06.
Part 2 – The KDE-Gnome shootout:
Here comes the delicate part of this article. I have not used KDE for more than 2 years now. I used the KDE 2.2 series back in 2002 on Suse and Mandrake but jumped ship as soon as Gnome was getting usable (probably around Red Hat 9). I have followed the Gnome development ever since version 2.0 and used it with growing satisfaction. In the meantime, I’ve read through a lot of KDE reviews, but the screenshots that I saw were quite a turn-off to me. As Gnome got simpler and more straightforward (and a lot of people are arguing that it became too simple), KDE seemed to get more messed up from version to version. On second thought, that’s not true: KDE probably improved the “messy situation” from version to version a bit but with Gnome becoming slicker at a rapid pace all the time, KDE looked worse in comparison. As if two 120 kilo people decide to lose weight and, a year later, one of them has 70 kilos and the other has 100 and everybody only seems to compliment the slim person. I would have loved to test a more recent version (read 3.3.1) of the desktop environment, but it was much easier to use what was included in SimplyMepis 2004.06. Well, let’s jump right into it and start comparing applications:
The KDE Winners
Let’s start with the KDE applications that I preferred to their Gnome counterparts. JuK is a better music management application than Rhythmbox. I have major gripes with Rhythmbox, because it lacks essential features. The most important thing for me: JuK includes a well-designed and perfectly usable tag editor. It even displays the compression setting, so whenever I find a bad quality mp3, I can rerip it now with good quality. Another welcomed feature that Rhythmbox is missing: JuK can sort my music by year (O.K., it’s not THAT important, I admit…). A minor bug: when I sort by year, JuK fails to keep the correct order of complete albums, instead sorts by song title. But that’s really a small issue. On the whole, JuK is a very nice and clearly laid-out application. In fact, JuK looks so polished, I thought I was looking at a Gnome HIG-ified application! There’s not much optical difference between these two music management applications. I just hope Rhythmbox’s next version has the features JuK has right now. Way to go, Juk-team!
Next jewel in KDE: Quanta Plus. Quanta Plus has no direct competitor because Bluefish and Screem are not official Gnome applications. On initial startup Quanta Plus looks pretty bloated and the first thing I did was close a lot of small windows and remove some – for me – unnecessary toolbars. After that, it was a pleasure to work with Quanta Plus. It is as close to being “feature complete” as a web development application can get. HTML Tidy is integrated, preview works fine, syntax highlighting is perfect. I normally work with Bluefish and Screem and they both do not feel as feature complete as Quanta Plus.
Next up we have K3B: again there’s no direct competitor in Gnome and that’s a very unpleasant blank spot in the Gnome Desktop. K3B does a decent job at burning data, creating Audio and Video-CDs/DVDs, and copying discs. I don’t really like its design but everyone who has worked with Nero and the likes before will be able to handle K3B. K3B especially helps to make KDE a “feature-complete” desktop today. As I said, I prefer Gnome, but I really have trouble recommending it to everyone because I know that you can’t even burn an Audio CD with it.
Close Race – Tie!
Next matchup: gedit vs. KWrite: both applications serve the same purpose: easy text editing. While gedit looks a little more polished, its syntax highlighting feels a little rough: it highlights words like “for” and “and” in php-files, even when they are part of the plain text. And, worse, syntax highlighting has a nasty bug when it encounters a ‘ (also in php-files). KWrite on the other hand does a better job at syntax highlighting, but fails to highlight entites (&…;) which is quite handy in gedit. Kwrite uses nicer colors, but I guess here beauty completely lies in the eye of the beholder. One more word on text editors: I compared KWrite to gedit – and not Kate or KEdit – simply because SimplyMepis opened this editor when i clicked a text-file. I believe having three different text editors is kind of redundant, but this matter has been beaten to death by other authors before me.
On to the “instant messengers” Gaim and Kopete: a clear draw for me here. One can use Kopete as a drop-in replacement for Gaim when switching from Gnome to KDE. Both applications are very simple, clearly laid out, yet mighty tools. Both are integrated in their respective desktops nicely and can connect to all the established networks.
gThumb vs. Kuickshow: another draw. I like Kuickshow, just as much as JuK. It’s a well-designed and optically pleasing application, just as its Gnome counterpart. gThumb stills looks a little more polished to me (probably because I am used to the Gnome desktop, I admit, but I tried hard to view them as objectively as possible). I don’t like that Kuickshow opens a new window when I click on a photo. But also gThumb has its weak spot: rotating pictures, a very commonly used option is not easily accessible, but a matter of four clicks (yes, I am quite picky when it comes to Gnome usability…). Altogether, as I said, a draw.
To be honest, I didn’t test the mail application KMail much. I don’t use Evolution either, I’d go for Thunderbird anyway just because I am very used to it. I played around with KMail a bit however and I was not pleased with the account setup. Every mail program I know sports an easy wizard to guide me through creating an e-mail-account, adding name/e-mail address/incoming and outgoing server and password. In KMail I had to set up account and respective servers independently. The setup process is definitely more complicated than in other mail applications.
Where Gnome shines!
Konqueror vs. Nautilus and Epiphany. It’s difficult to compare these applications. Konqueror acts as a hybrid between file manager and web browser, just like Explorer for Windows. Gnome took another route and split these two tasks between the file manager Nautilus and the browser Epiphany. I guess it’s completely impossible to compare Konqueror, the file manager and Nautilus because both handle this task completely differently (read more about this here). The browsing capabilities, however, show a small advantage for Epiphany, mainly because it uses Mozilla’s rendering engine, which has, due to the tremendous success of Firefox right now, more support. I took Konqueror on a couple of small surfing sessions and visited all my bookmarked sites. It had severe problems with two out of 28 websites, all the others displayed flawlessly. I understand that these sites are composed in old-school, bad HTML (and I would help rewrite them today). When I do web design, I never have problems with KHTML. I guess Konqueror just has to improve its routines to handle HTML in compatibility mode (a programming job that’s probably quite a pain in the ass, so to say). I hope that Apple’s cooperation will bring KHTML on par with Gecko fast.
The main advantage of Gnome over KDE is definitely the better menu structure and the rigid rules on interface design that the Gnome Human Interface Guidelines impose. KDE’s menu structure is a big mess compared to Gnome’s. Just compare the screenshots over at osdir.com between Ubuntu Warty (screenshots 26-32) and SimplyMepis 2004.04 (screenshots 52-65). The KDE team has to do something about this because it effectively worsens the usability of KDE. Take JuK or Kuickshow as positive example and throw some more bloat out of the other applications. The KDE Control Center, for example, is a nightmare. I definitely think Gnome’s way of handling things is better here: the Gnome team tries to reduce all programs to their most important tasks so you have easy access to these most important functions. All the other options can be changed too, for example, through the command line or the GConf-Editor. Many KDE applications on the other hand try to present every possible option to the user, but that doesn’t make sense to me: that just diminishes the usability convenience for all users, experts and novices alike, because it takes longer to find the few important, everyday features that are so clearly presented in Gnome applications. So, adding more features to an already “full”, if not supercharged user interface offers nothing but diminishing returns. Also, who is the targeted user audience? Experts are able to edit text-files or use the command line anyway, novices are just scared away by too many features.
Let’s stop here because these are the applications that I use regularly. There are of course a lot more applications, but as I don’t use them I did not feel qualified to write about them. I intentionally left the system configuration tools out: if you’ve made it this far, you probably know that I don’t like the KDE Control Center, and the Gnome System Tools, as presented in Ubuntu Linux 4.10, are nice, but far from being complete. I also left out one program that I use all the time, the GIMP because I think that it does not have a KDE competitor. Additionally, the GIMP is also not a real Gnome application.
So what’s my final verdict? Well surprise, surprise, KDE 3.2.3 won’t win over a Gnome aficionado like me. But I was impressed by a lot of things in KDE and I think I’d be able to switch to a KDE-based distribution pretty easily if I had to. Now that I’ve seen how applications like JuK or Quanta Plus have evolved, I see Gnome’s problems more distinctly. I’ll hope that Gnome 2.10 solves some of these issues. If not, I might take a close look at KDE again.
Finally, a prediction for 2005, since it’s the end of the year and everybody around me is making predictions too: desktop environments will become even more important. We will pick our distribution of choice even more because of the flagship desktop they include. Distribution makers will be well advised to pick either KDE or Gnome and throw their entire force behind making their selected environment as polished as possible. This is probably the best way to produce a really well integrated distribution. At the end of the 2005, we will not have the “Linux Desktop”, but the “Gnome Desktop” and the “KDE Desktop”, both Linux, GNU and X powered, with a highly modified and integrated OpenOffice.org as Office Suite (and maybe Firefox as browser). Many people will choose inferior programs because they come with their desktop environment instead of a mixture of the best applications available (just the way every single Rhythmbox user effectively does right now). And I don’t think that this will be necessarily a bad development because this will hopefully boost development speed until KDE and Gnome both are full featured, nicely usable desktop environments, each with its own set of quality applications for every major task, each on par with, let’s say Mac OS X. That also means we will see less graphical applications that don’t “belong” to either desktop, thus probably even less commercial 3rd party applications. And the ones that do survive (Firefox, OpenOffice.org) will do their best to integrate with Gnome and KDE. In other words, happy times ahead, folks!
Christian Paratschek, 28, likes living in his Gnome cave, but eventually comes out to examine the wooden huts that the KDE Neanderthals have built recently. Then he mumbles something about UI design and goes back to sleep in his fully HIG-ified cave.