November 21, 2000

Usability comparison: Windows Whistler vs. Gnome 1.2, KDE 2.0, Mandrake Update

Author: JT Smith

By Jeff Field

Microsoft's next version of Windows, called Whistler, makes an
attempt to put a friendlier face on the mainstream version of Windows (now called "Windows Whistler Personal Edition"). Microsoft has made quite a number of interface changes to this home user version of Windows 2000, some drastic. Whistler's beta has been released, and we've compared the interfaces and features of Whistler to those of Gnome 1.2 and the recently released KDE 2.0.

(For a full review of Whistler Beta 1, check out Paul Thurrott's Whistler Review).

Updated 11/21/00 - 8:57PM

Start Menus

Despite their underlying differencess, all of
these products use an approach familiar to users of Windows 95, 98, etc. use -- a start menu of some sort, be it the actual word "Start," a foot, or a big "K." Whistler is the only one that departs from the traditional start menu idea. As you can see in this
screen shot, when you open the start menu in Whistler, it opens a "taskpad" that contains links to your default mail program, recently used programs, and many of the commonly used Windows functions, such as Control Panel, Run, Recent Documents, My Computer, etc. In order to get to the menu where your programs are, you have to hit "More Programs". This may at first not seem to differ much from having to click on "programs" in a traditional Windows 95 setup, in this case the users are confronted with many graphical "opens," and in order to get to their programs they have to click on a small text link at the bottom of this new start menu.

KDE and Gnome use similar approaches, each with their own take on the Windows 95 start menu. When you open their menus, a list of options come up that includes recently used documents and contains a list of menus that contain certain categories of programs - Office, Internet, etc. This means that when users click on these menus, they will immediately see where their programs are, rather than having to go down another level. This seems more user friendly, although a "recently used programs" option would be quite nice, and is a good idea on Microsoft's part, if not a completely original one (as the feature was present in MacOS for some time).

However, the way you get to these menus takes away from their usability. I'm sure Microsoft would be pretty unhappy if Gnome or KDE completely copied the "Start" button design, and something besides KDE's and Gnome's logos ought to be used on this menu, because your average user isn't going to think, "Oh, I'm using Gnome, whose logo is a foot, so I bet I should click on the foot to find my programs." This is a design flaw that will hopefully be fixed in future versions, should Gnome/KDE want to cater to less-advanced Linux users.

A related feature that changes in Whistler is the way multiple, similar tasks are managed. Under Gnome, KDE, and previous versions of Windows, multiple instances of a program or multiple windows from the same program were listed in individual taskbar cells. Now, under Whistler, these multiple taskbar entries are gathered into single buttons which, when clicked,
expand to reveal all the similar windows
. This feature is one that, while extremely useful to people who know what they are doing, may initially confuse new users. However, once uers realize what happens they will find it quite useful. Hopefully, Gnome and KDE's taskbars will evolve to include such a feature, or to eliminate the idea of a taskbar altogether, in favor of some other form of task management.

Virtual Desktops

When I first published this article, me being a regular Linux user actually put KDE/Gnome at a disadvantage, because there are some features I take for granted. The most prominent of these features is virtual desktops. Under Gnome and KDE (and most X windows managers, for that matter) you may have a number of virtual desktops, each containing running programs. So if you run out of visible space in one, you can switch to another to run programs. This feature is exceedingly useful, and one I miss when I have to use Windows. Virtual desktops can greatly increase productivity and reduce time wasted switching between applications. Here, Gnome/KDE are clear winners because Microsoft has yet to implement this feature under Windows, despite many add-on programs that attempt to do this. Clearly it's a very useful feature that
doesn't seem too hard to implement in Windows, because shareware and freeware add-ons apps can do it.

Control Panels

Unlike their menu interfaces, these programs each take distinctive approaches towards their configuration programs. With Whistler, Microsoft took a minimalist approach to its start menu, keeping the most-used options on the main control panel. Other less frequently used or more advanced options are another level in, so that users don't need to look through many different icons. KDE takes a more verbose approach to its configuration options. KDE gives you many options, from desktop configuration to hardware configuration information. KDE gives users one place they can go for information and configuration. Even some things you wouldn't expect are integrated into KDE control center, including SAMBA configuration information. Gnome, on the other hand, provides only configuration options. Both KDE and Gnome use a list of options you can go through to choose what sort of items you want to configure (keyboard shortcuts, desktop settings, etc.) This method has both good and bad points. Its good because you have one place where you can change all sorts of settings. The bad? Even though you have one place to go, once in that place there are a lot of options to search through, so if you aren't sure where the setting you want is, you might have trouble finding it. However, in this case neither style has a huge advantage over the other.

File Management

Windows Whistler's default view of drives/resources in My Computer has changed so that all the resources accessible from there are sorted into categories, such as a "My Documents" folder, network drives, local fixed disks, and removable devices. This display is an easy way for users to locate the devices they want to access. Under KDE and Gnome, these same links are usually on the user's desktop. Under Mandrake 7.2, the Gnome configuration doesn't have links to your drives, but KDE does. This is a curious, if distribution specific, error. Once you've gotten to the files, there isn't a whole lot of variation in their methods of dealing with the files. As you can see, Gnome, KDE and Whistler all use similar methods to manage files. Whistler has a new option to view thumbnails of images, which can be quite useful when browsing large number of pictures. This brings Whistler up to speed with KDE which I only today found out has had this feature for a good while. KDE and Gnome both use a tree-based view while Whistler uses a single Window view with forward and back buttons, much like a Web browser. Again, we find that overall the three are more similar than they are different.

Update Utilities

One of the few really new features to be introduced into Windows in Windows 98 and up was the Windows Update utility. Windows Update allowed users to go online and get updates for their version of Windows automatically. With Whistler's Windows Update, we find that little has changed. What users may not know is that similar utilities are available for Linux, depending on your distribution. Debian users have apt-get, a simple command line utility that takes all the fun out of fighting with program installations, as well as RHUpdate and, as shown in this article, Mandrake Update. Mandrake Update is similar to Windows Update. It grabs a list of updated packages, and lets you choose which you wish to install. It also tells you which version you have installed and which the new one is, and has an interesting option which lets you install developmental packages, which while not as well tested might provide a quick fix to a bug you find in a particular package. As far as usability goes, I would say Windows Update and Mandrake Update are on equal footing.


There is no clear winner or loser. Each interface has its advantages and disadvantages. Windows doesn't have a bad interface -- and it shouldn't, because Microsoft has put millions upon millions of dollars into making sure Whistler isn't the next "Bob." Gnome and KDE, on the other hand, have managed to put together very useable interfaces without millions of dollars behind them. All three interfaces need work to become as user friendly as possible, and all three can learn from each other.

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