Switching from KDE to WinXP

by Chris Spackman, posted 18 September 2006 (Updated October 1st)


I apologize for the MS Windows XP screenshots in this article. As you will soon see, they are all in Japanese. The only MS Windows XP machines I have access to are Japanese language ones and unfortunately there is no way to change them to English. So the screenshots are all in Japanese.

I refer to “Microsoft Windows XP” as “WinXP” throughout this article. This is just a convenient shorthand and no offense or insult is meant. Also, I use “Linux” or “Linux with KDE” rather than “GNU / Linux / X(org) / KDE” for the same reason.


For the last several months I have been using Microsoft Windows XP (WinXP) at work after years of using Linux almost exclusively at home and work. In late December 2005 the computers in my section were replaced with new ones that run WinXP and unfortunately this time installing Linux was not an option.

Many pundits review an “operating system” by looking at things like how easy it is to install or how well their hardware is supported. I am not going to do that. In fact, I am not going to review the WinXP or Linux operating systems. This is a review of “desktop environments”.

By “desktop environments”, I simply mean the GUI that users interact with to get work done. Getting work done is the real measure of a desktop environment — it should enhance the user's productivity. One part of doing that is accommodating the way that the user prefers to work, which requires (among other things) a rich feature set that users can take advantage of, or not, as they prefer. Obviously, the environment must also be reasonably customizable.

In my experience, coming to Windows after using Linux and KDE for years, WinXP has fewer features and is less customizable than KDE. I am not just talking about “eye candy” either. I am less productive when using WinXP. Instead of working in the way I prefer, I am forced to modify my work habits to match WinXP's limited feature set. WinXP is the Model T of operating systems — any color as long as it is black.

Want But Don't Have

“Want but don't have” accurately describes the WinXP feature set. For example, one extremely useful Linux / KDE feature that WinXP doesn't have is multiple desktops. Basically, multiple desktops is exactly what it sounds like — instead of just one desktop, you have several and can switch between them either with the mouse or with a keyboard short-cut. (Multiple desktops is common on Linux and is not KDE-specific.) Multiple desktops is one of the many features that I take for granted when using KDE and wish I had when using WinXP.

At home, in KDE, I use six desktops. Usually a web browser and a Konsole are open on Desktop 1. Chat software is on Desktop 2. Desktop 3 is where I do my writing. Bittorrent and file sharing software is on Desktop 4. Email is on Desktop 5 and music is on Desktop 6. I do not always have all of those programs open of course, but usually I will have at least four or five programs running in addition to whatever software I am actively using at the time.

If you have only one desktop, as with WinXP, all of these programs are either taking up space and getting in the way or they are minimized to the task bar or maybe the system tray. However, when you have several desktops, you can put the programs where you want them, in a way that fits your work style.

Multiple desktops may not be a “must have” feature for every computer user but there is a huge difference between “wanting and not having” and “having but not wanting”. In too many cases, the former describes WinXP.

Update (October 1st)

Several people wrote to tell me about a WinXP “PowerToy” called “Virtual Desktop Manager”. “PowerToys” are unsupported add-ons to WinXP that Microsoft makes available for download.

Another reader pointed me to the OSSwin project, a list of FOSS for WinXP. One of the programs listed is “Virtual Dimension”, which provides multiple desktops for WinXP.

I am currently writing up a short review & comparison of these two and how they compare to KDE's multiple desktops. As for the article you are currently reading, I stand by my original statements regarding WinXP and multiple desktops. The MS PowerToy is a separate download that is unsupported, is “not part of Windows”, and that MS claims will only work with the English language version of WinXP. Therefore it is cannot be considered as part of the WinXP desktop environment.

General Complaints With WinXP

Logging In

When you log in, why doesn't WinXP show a splash screen or a progress bar or something that gives a clear idea of when it is finished loading? The desktop comes up right away but you cannot actually use it yet. How long it takes WinXP to finish loading will depend on several factors, many of which are not under Microsoft's control. I am not interested in how long it takes to get to a usable state, I care about knowing when the computer has reached that state.

When you log into KDE, it shows a splash screen that tells you what it is doing and roughly how much of the loading is finished. When that splash screen disappears, your desktop is ready. WinXP gives me no information at all while it loads and makes me guess at when it is actually finished loading everything.

The Panel

The panel is the bar that is usually across the bottom of the screen in WinXP and KDE. The panel is where the start menu button (“K menu” in KDE — neither desktop environment wins points for naming here), the task bar, and the system tray (among other things) live.

The panel in KDE makes sense. You right click on it and get a menu with clearly named options like “Add Applet to Panel”, “Add Application to Panel” and “Move (the icon you clicked on)”. WinXP doesn't seem to have many applets or even panel options.

Applets are small programs that run in the panel and are used for a variety of things: watching network activity, tracking the phase of the moon, controlling a music player and a whole lot more. Some run in the system tray and some run in the panel main itself. KDE comes with plenty of applets. Here are a couple that I use a lot:

Klipper is a clipboard tool. It remembers the last 100 or so things you have copied to the clipboard. Clicking on the icon brings up a list of them. Click on an entry and it is back in the clipboard, ready to be pasted somewhere again. This is very handy and I use it a lot. WinXP doesn't have this.
Volume control. WinXP has this.
Very useful tool. KWallet is similar to the tools that browsers have for remembering login names and passwords for web sites. The difference is that KWallet is available for any program to use. The user can also add their own data if they like. It is all protected by a master password. WinXP doesn't have this.
You may have noticed a K fetish in names. KLaptop is the battery monitor. WinXP has one too. KLaptop also has options for things like shutting down the computer when the battery gets low. I have not really looked at the WinXP one but am sure it is probably similar.
You tell KAlarm when you want to be alerted and it will pop up a message, play a sound, send an email, or run a program at that time. Great for reminding yourself of just about anything. I use it for to remind myself of everything from birthdays and important meetings to the beer in the freezer. WinXP doesn't have this.
A simple network traffic monitoring tool, KNetLoad resides in the system tray so it is easily visible all the time. In WinXP, the network monitoring tool is a part of the system monitor program, which some fool decided should default to always being on top when it is open.
Why look out the window when you can just check the panel? WinXP doesn't have this.
(Oddly, it is “Clock” and not “Klock”) WinXP has a clock also but KDE's is much more configurable and useful. In addition to changing the appearance, you can also set up time zones. The screenshots below show the time zone and other information that appears when you hover over the clock.

You can also add special buttons to the panel:

Access your bookmarks from the panel; very convenient. I assume you can do this in WinXP but I haven't found it.
Adds the trash can to your panel. You can do this in WinXP.
System Menu
Opens a menu of common places, like trash, your home folder, hard drives, and removable media. Similar to what you get when you open “My Computer” in WinXP, but as a pop-up menu in the panel. WinXP doesn't have this.
Konqueror Profiles
A menu of Konqueror profiles, which are like bookmarks but more powerful. I will talk more about these in my next article. Nutshell version : Very useful and WinXP cannot do it and thus doesn't have a panel button for it.

The KDE clock can show you the time around the world in a big, easy to read window.

WinXP cannot. (Can you see that little tiny thing down there in the bottom right corner? That is the date.)

KDE includes many other applets and special buttons that can be added to the panel. You can even add more panels. KDE gives you the tools and the configurability to set up your desktop to match the way you work. WinXP doesn't, unless you happen to work in the same way as WinXP.

The Pager

Basically the pager just shows you all of your desktops. Since WinXP doesn't have multiple desktops, it has no pager.

On my desktop the pager is in the middle of the panel. See the numbers 1–6? Those are the pager representations of my desktops. Each desktop is shown, complete with each application window on it. They even include the application's icon. Take a look at the information bubble that pops up when you hover over a desktop:

The pager pop-up info, showing me what I have open on Desktop 3. (Actually, in this screenshot the applications are shaded, so their windows are not visible in the pager window.)

BTW, you can move a window from one desktop to another by dragging the icon in the pager. Cool and useful.

Window List & Taskbar

WinXP doesn't have a button for showing all windows. Just the task bar. No need for a window list button perhaps since everyone uses the task bar. But what if you don't want to use the task bar? As you have probably noticed by now, I prefer to have the panel vertically on the right side. Screens are wider that they are tall, so I don't like wasting vertical space. Using about 50 pixels on the far right is a much better use of available space.

WinXP with the panel vertical, on the right side.

Having the panel vertical means the task bar text is either also vertical (and no fun to read) or only a couple of letters will fit in horizontally (as in the screenshot above). That makes it hard to use a vertical task bar in KDE or WinXP. But KDE has other options, like the window list button, the desktop pager, and the always fun Komposé. In KDE, the task bar is just one option.

In WinXP however, if you get rid of the task bar you have no way of switching among windows aside from the ALT-Tab keyboard shortcut or finding the actual window on the desktop. And if you minimize one you have no way of getting it back. No wonder everyone uses the task bar.

Again, the result is that KDE, with its features, lets me setup my desktop and work how I want to. WinXP forces me to work the same way as my grandmother.

Transparent panel vertically on the right side. I don't use a task bar because KDE also has the window list button and the pager. KDE = flexibility and choice.

The “Window List” button. Easy to find and go to the window you want, where ever it is.

Opening and Saving Files

Here I am talking about the file chooser dialog that comes up when you select a file-related menu item such as “open” or “save as” Both KDE and WinXP have the left side menu with common places like Desktop and Home / My Documents. KDE however makes it easy to add more places to that menu. In the KDE screenshot, you can see two folders — “shared” and “storage” — that I added. This is not possible in WinXP. Or maybe it is if you hack the registry. In KDE you just drag the folder you want added and drop it on the menu. Easy, intuitive, and very useful.

KDE's file chooser dialog also has bookmarks. They are accessed through the familiar bookmark icon. These are a huge time saver — no need to go clicking through directory after directory to get where you want to go. Well, not more than once. WinXP does not have bookmarks here.

The KDE file chooser includes one more thoughtful touch. When you create a new folder through the chooser dialog, it asks for a name and then automatically moves you into the new folder. Realistically, it is much more likely that I am making the folder because I am going to immediately use it. So moving me into it just makes sense and saves me a click or two.

The File dialog in KDE. It has bookmarks and you can add folders to the left side menu.

The File dialog in WinXP. No bookmarks and you cannot add folders to the left side menu.

Open with ...

In KDE, the applications menu for choosing programs — whether it is accessed through right clicking on an icon and choosing “open with” or through the “add application to panel” menu or through the “file properties” menu — is always 99% the same as the K menu. It looks familiar. The programs are all right where they should be. It is logical and easy to use.

In WinXP the various menus for these actions are all different. In WinXP, when you click on “open with program” you get an alphabetical list of a huge number of programs. True, you get a list of likely applications first. In KDE this list is in the right click menu. If you still chose “Other...” anyway, then you probably don't want one of those common ones.

In WinXP many of the choices have confusing names. What is a “WordPad MFC Application”? WinXP's “open with” menu looks to me more like a list of mime-type associations. The WinXP way is inconsistent, confusing, and wastes my time for no good reason.

KDE's “K Menu”.

The “Add Application to Panel” menu. Look familiar?

“Open With” in KDE. The menu layout is almost identical to that of the K Menu.

“Open With” in WinXP. It looks nothing like the start menu. Or anything else for that matter.

Weird Behavior by WinXP Control Panel Apps

The WinXP control panel is confusing. For example, The option to set the default icon view in Explorer is buried in the folder options menu (which cannot be resized and is generally just an abomination). Also, when running, many WinXP control panel apps do not appear in the task bar — but some do. Further, control panel apps open with a single click, not the usual double click. This kind of inconsistency is annoying and is only “user-friendly“ if it is all you know.

As you can see in the screenshot below, only the control panel itself and Windows Security Center show up in the task bar (not counting the regular apps Firefox and the GIMP). The other open control panel apps that don't show up in the task bar are: Windows Update, keyboard properties, display properties, language and region settings, and one or two others that are hidden below those.

Look at all of those apps filling the screen but not showing up in the task bar. Good luck switching to or finding the one one you want.


Now for some miscellaneous complaints with WinXP and ways that KDE is better.

→ Many windows in WinXP cannot be resized — copying & moving windows, control panel apps, and option windows being the worst offenders. This is really annoying because often you must use scrollbars to see all the options or text in the window because it is hardwired to be 300x400 pixels. There really is no good reason for this.

→ Locking the screen — for example, when I go to get a drink and don't want anyone to see that I have Slashdot open — is accessed through a right click on the task bar. How intuitive! In KDE, it is in the K menu and also in the right-click menu when you click on the desktop. The latter is about as (un-)intuitive as clicking on the task bar, but at least it is easier since the background is bigger than the task bar. In KDE, you can also add a “log out & lock screen” applet to the panel, if you like.

→ The WinXP screenshot program is unusual. Unlike most WinXP apps, it has no GUI, gives no feedback, and has no dialogs of any sort — for example asking where to save the file. Most unusual for a platform that goes out of its way to give feedback or advice. In fact, you would never find the WinXP screenshot program if you didn't know it was there.

KDE's screenshot program is called KSnapshot. It has a GUI and includes some useful options such as a timer before taking the screenshot and choosing what part of the screen to take a picture of. Best of all, it is right there in the K Menu, under “Graphics”

[Updated Oct. 1] Thanks to Sean Artman for suggesting an ingenious way of getting a screenshot of KSnapshot — open a second instance of KSnapshot. So we now have a useful screenshot here.

→ In WinXP, the right-click menu for program icons includes an option to “run as a different user”. It is a useful feature but it doesn't work with control panel apps! [Edit — a reader informed me that actually, it does, but for some reason you have to press shift and right click to see the “run as a different user” option.]

→ The registry makes you realize how good an idea using plain text config files really is. On WinXP, anything even remotely advanced seems to involve the registry minefield. I will take text files any day. For example:


# 1. Server Naming Options:
# workgroup = NT-Domain-Name or Workgroup-Name
workgroup = MSHOME
; workgroup = DOMAIN

# netbios name is the name you will see in "Network Neighbourhood",
# but defaults to your hostname
netbios name = Tux

# server string is the equivalent of the NT Description field
server string = Samba Server %v

That is from the SAMBA configuration file. Notice the comments that explain what each option is. (And no, you do not have to make changes through the config file. Most everything can be done through KDE's GUI.)

Now take a look at a couple of registry-esque snippets. Scary looking stuff. Notice there are no comments to explain what TypeLib, NumMethods, ProxyStubClsid32, or anything else is.


The above example is from a WINE config file that I found on my system. (It probably is not current since I have not used wine in years.) To my untrained eye, the WINE version looks similar to the actual WinXP registry. Similar enough for our purposes.

I know which of the two approaches above I would prefer to work with. Remember too, that like hacking the registry in WinXP, hand editing text config files in KDE is usually not necessary. But if you had to deal with a worse-case scenario, which would you prefer?

→ WinXP cannot shade windows. “Shade” means that the window rolls up like a window shade, until only the title bar is left. This is an easy way to get a window temporarily out of the way without minimizing it. I shade windows a lot more often than I minimize them. But if you don't, that is okay too — KDE can be configured to do something else when you double click a window's title bar. WinXP? Nope. No can do. In WinXP, double clicking a window's title bar is not configurable.

A shaded window on Desktop 3.

→ Speaking of minimizing windows, I never, ever maximize a window. Never. I never use the maximize button, don't need it, don't want it. So in KDE, I removed the maximize button and moved the minimize button to the left side. (You can see the buttons in the shaded window screenshot above.) But in WinXP? That's right, you cannot remove or even move buttons. Every WinXP desktop must look the same.

→ I touched on this above with KWallet but it is worth mentioning again: WinXP doesn't have a wallet feature, to save passwords or just any data you want to keep protected but easily accessible. This really is a show stopper for me.

KDE has KWallet and I use it many times each and every day. Without it, I would have to remember master passwords for the browser, the email program, the chat program, Skype, SSH, and a bunch of other programs as well. And not just for myself, but for my wife's accounts as well. No thanks. In KDE, KWallet takes care of all of that for me. One master password. WinXP? Can't do that.


Individually, some of the points I have raised here could be dismissed as of only minor importance. Taken together, however, they demonstrate how horribly underpowered and under-featured WinXP is. The WinXP desktop environment does not make me more productive. In fact, it hinders my productivity. KDE is not perfect of course, but the difference in features and customizability, and my resulting productivity, is huge.

You probably do not use your computer in the same way I use mine. That is exactly why a rich and configurable feature set is so important — everyone will have different situations, different preferences, and different ways of using their computers. A feature-rich, configurable desktop like KDE allows people to work how they want to work. The MS Windows XP desktop is more of a “one size fits all” or “any color as long as it is black” desktop. One with limited features. Some people may not mind that; I do. Surprisingly, I have yet to find any feature in WinXP that made me say “Wow! I wish KDE could do that.”

Thank you for reading this far. If you have any questions or comments about this article, please email me at <osugi_sakae at yahoo dot com>.

In my next article I will take a detailed look at WinXP's file manager, Explorer, and KDE's file manager, Konqueror.

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[Edited on September 22 to correct minor mistakes regarding WinXP features, including the network monitor, “run as a different user”, and the screenshot program. My thanks to the people who emailed to set me straight.]

[Edited on October 1st with new information about multiple desktops and a screenshot of KSnapshot. Many thanks to everyone who emailed.]

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