KDE Explained: A Look at Linux’s Most Configurable Desktop Interface

Bertel King 12-12-2016

What does Linux look like? That’s a difficult question to answer. Unlike Windows and macOS, Linux doesn’t look like any one thing. Oftentimes, though, it looks like KDE. What does that mean? Let me explain.


KDE Is a Desktop Environment

KDE makes up most of what you see on screen. It’s the panel that runs along the bottom. It’s the launcher that opens your applications. It manages the desktop wallpaper that you may or may not have changed already. It’s the entire desktop environment.

kde explained desktop

A desktop environment handles what you see and click, but it can’t function alone. The Linux kernel serves as the bridge between what’s on your screen and the hardware you’re typing on What Is a Kernel in Linux and How Do You Check Your Version? Linux is an operating system, right? Well, not exactly! It's actually a kernel. But what is the Linux kernel? Read More . Neither is very useful without the other.

If you’re coming from Windows or macOS, you’ve never had to give thought to which desktop environment you use. Both only offer one. Linux has many, and KDE is one of the most popular The 12 Best Linux Desktop Environments Choosing a Linux desktop environment can be difficult. Here are the best Linux desktop environments to consider. Read More . It’s also one of the most configurable. While KDE look similar to Windows by default, it only takes a few clicks to make the experience resemble a Mac’s. And that’s without installing any extra software or figuring out complex hacks.

KDE’s History

KDE has been around since 1996, when Matthias Ettrich wanted an alternative to the Common Desktop Environment available for Unix. The K in KDE was originally suggested to stand for “Kool” (this was the 90s, after all) but that was a brief idea. The K ultimately stood for nothing, with KDE being short for the K Desktop Environment.


KDE used the Qt toolkit, a decision that inspired others to create GNOME as an alternative desktop environment GNOME Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Popular Desktops You're interested in Linux, and you've come across "GNOME", an acronym for GNU Network Object Model Environment. GNOME is one of the most popular open source interfaces, but what does that mean? Read More . KDE’s contributors didn’t stop with the desktop interface. They created countless applications designed to integrate with the K Desktop Environment.

Following a rebranding effort in 2009, none of the three letters stand for anything. KDE now refers to the entire community that has built up around the project. The interface is referred to as Plasma, and it has expanded from desktops to include tablets and phones.

How KDE Works

There are several ways to get KDE. The easiest option is to install a distribution that offers the Plasma desktop by default 5 Ways to Experience KDE on Linux KDE is an increasingly popular desktop environment, but are you getting the most out of it? If you think it's time to maximize your KDE experience, consider these five distributions, Read More .

The initial setup will show you a panel along the bottom of the screen, an icon in the bottom left that opens the application launcher (or Start Menu in Windows terms), and system icons in the bottom right. Application windows sport titlebars with minimize, maximize, and close buttons. KDE developers want the default interface to be familiar so Windows or Chrome OS users should feel at home.


Configure your desktop by manipulating the panel. You can change the height, width, or side of the screen the panel resides on. You can add, remove, or reorder widgets. Plus, you can add additional panels. With this much freedom, you can make KDE resemble macOS, classic GNOME, and anything in between. Or you can come up with an interface that is uniquely yours.

The customization isn’t limited to the desktop. You can tweak most aspects of application windows too. Change which buttons appear in the window frame. Prefer your buttons on the left? Move them… or get rid of them entirely! Want to roll your windows into the titlebar like in the pre-Mac OS X days? You can do that too.

Meanwhile, KDE applications let you hide and show toolbars, and change which buttons appear on each. In short, KDE software is as customizable as they come.

KDE applications are a big differentiator between it and other desktop environments. A large amount of the software in your distro’s repositories is designed with KDE in mind. These programs will run on other desktops, but they won’t integrate as nicely. Even if you don’t fall in love with the Plasma desktop, you may stick around just to keep the tools.


Downsides to KDE

Does having this much freedom sound perfect? Well, there’s a catch. This much configurability can make applications confusing. GNOME’s gedit and KDE’s Kate are both powerful text editors Advanced Linux Text Editors Compared: kate vs gedit Any Linux user will tell you that a good text editor is a vital component of a computer system, no matter if you're a new user or a seasoned pro. While using a Terminal text... Read More , but the latter has significantly more options tucked away in its menubar. This can make it challenging to find the setting you want.

The situation isn’t limited to apps. You might think the ability to change your panel and application themes would be in the same section of System Settings. You would be wrong. At a glance, how am I supposed to know the difference between Look and Feel, Desktop Theme, Widget Style, and Window Decorations? The difference between Workspace Appearance and Application Appearance may seem obvious after you’re accustomed to KDE, but at first, the learning curve can be steep.

kde explained system settings

While there’s a ton of KDE software out there, many of the most popular open source applications were not designed for KDE or written in QT. Think Firefox, LibreOffice, and GIMP. This can create a sharp difference between KDE and non-KDE applications. Menus are different, toolbars aren’t configurable, and pop-up dialogs have different looks. Plasma 5.8 provides a consistent theme across QT and GTK applications, but even if they look similar, they don’t feel the same.


Who Should Use KDE?

KDE is quite possibly the most customizable, feature-rich, all inclusive interface available for any operating system.

If you can’t stand how unconfigurable Ubuntu’s Unity interface is, the Plasma desktop may be for you. If you were outraged when GNOME took features out of your favorite apps, KDE tools might be your dream come true. If you can’t wrap your head around why anyone would want to have fewer options, stop right here. You’re in good hands with the KDE developers.

So whether you’re a power user who wants complete control over their PC, or you’re a free software lover with an appreciation for integrated software, there are plenty of reasons to adore KDE.

Do you use KDE? What attracted you to desktop environment? What are your favorite features? Are you pleased with the direction the project has taken over the years? I have thoughts, but I want to hear yours!

Related topics: KDE, Linux Desktop Environment.

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  1. Gorrn
    August 23, 2019 at 3:22 am

    When KDE switched to 4 from 3.5., that was simply disaster. Everything was ruined, I tried some time to use that disaster but finaly I switched to Xfce. You mentioned "Look and Feel, Desktop Theme, Widget Style, and Window Decorations? The difference between Workspace Appearance and Application Appearance". Well, that was ruined in that transition from 3.5 to 4, because in 3.5 everything were perfectly logicaly organized and well placed, and since 4 nothing was right anymore.

  2. tesset
    June 22, 2019 at 1:24 am

    KDE has a wealth of great features, for sure, but I could be sort of satisfied with the more limited features of other desktops except for one thing: I've been using KDE since I found it back in the version 3 days almost solely because it's the only environment (and I may learn otherwise, here) that allows me to activate a window without raising the window. When using a terminal window or 3rd party plotting software, I often need just a sliver of the window visible to type my commands. I value being able to continue viewing other windows that are the reason I'm typing the commands without having to re-raise a window after typing each command.

  3. Zolko
    April 19, 2019 at 7:48 am

    You should mention that one main reason to use KDE is the integrated KOrganizer, which is the best mailer-calendar-addressbook combination out there for Linux. It's not 100% MacOS level, but KMail is very good, Kalendar is able to interface to CalDav servers (Zimbra, SoGo...), has LDAP integration, can import-export ics files, heck: can even interact with your own FTP server to store your own ICS files, what no other organizer in Linux can do.

    Apart from the best look'n-feel for any Linux desktop and the very good stability, KOrganiser is the main reason I use KDE.

  4. Gary Barnett
    April 18, 2018 at 2:27 am

    Hello Bertel, this was a great article for the time. It would be great if you would do an update on the KDE Plasma 5.12.4 LTS release explaining all the new features and bug fixes. Thank you much.

  5. Matheen
    February 9, 2017 at 3:36 am

    I have tried almost all DE and major distributions. Finally I use KDE now. In my experience, my friends are willing to try out linux if it looks like Windows OS and they are ready to try KDE. I like both philosophies of KDE and Gnome. I think in some situations we need both customizability and simplicity just like as said in the article about Kate and Gedit.

    As a software developer, now I have configure my desktop to fit my needs which I couldn't do it in Gnome and Unity. That's the beauty of KDE and that's what the entire linux system has to be. Users should be able to configure the way they want it to be.

    Whatever it is, at the end a user wants his/her work to be done. So it is better to stop developing more DE and distributions and focus on developing high quality apps with best user experience.

  6. Joseph Pollock
    December 15, 2016 at 1:44 am

    I've been using KDE for a couple of decades. It's the first DE I used. Now I stick to it because I know how to get it to do what I want. (I'm a tinkerer too.)

    That being said, here are some of my beefs with it.

    There seems to be much more of an emphasis on new features as opposed to bug fixes.

    Getting support is often difficult. Sometimes, I get answers (on the official KDE site), but often silence. This is exacerbated by their manual style which essentially puts all of KDE in one big manual and then only lets you search for things in the current page. Then, if you try a site: search using google or duckduckgo, you get results for all of KDE, not just the part you're interested in.

    I have never found documentation for kstart (other than its own help function) - or even more than a few mentions on the web. It's a tool I really like which allows you to control how an application is started. You can specify things like virtual desktop, window size, and location.

    KDE session restore is a great idea (if they ever get it to work). I recently upgraded to kubuntu 16.04 and most things that used to restore don't any more and those that do show up on the wrong virtual desktops. I had to write my own startup script to get things back in order.

    I keep hearing that KDE is very popular and that lots of people use it, but I don't know where they hang out. There are only one or two other users in the two lugs I belong to.

    There's nothing like a stackexchange community for KDE (that I'm aware of).

    Despite these details, I do really like KDE and plan on continuing to use it.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      December 16, 2016 at 5:15 pm

      I don't think I've tried to do a single one of those things, so thanks for giving them a mention.

      I've only met a few Linux users in person, and none of them were using KDE. But that isn't really saying much in my case.

  7. ShoNuff!!!
    December 14, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    After coming from Openbox, I can still feel a difference in responsiveness. It's not bad... just notable when at initial start of some applications/games? Not an issue just noticeable but I guess when you have a manager with so many bells and whistles running it can tax performance in some way.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      December 14, 2016 at 8:35 pm

      I have a similar experience. KDE is very fast, but the visual effects slow things down somewhat. That said, you can turn much of that off to gain a speed boost.

  8. Kev Quirk
    December 14, 2016 at 10:56 am

    I've used KDE a few times (Kubuntu and OpenSUSE) but never really gelled with it. It has too many options for my taste. It is gorgeous though, and I haven't tried it for quite a few years. So maybe it's time I gave it another shot.

    Are there any distros that are packaging KDE 5.8 yet?

    • Ferdinand
      December 14, 2016 at 1:38 pm

      You could look at KaOs or KDE Neon, which spezialize in KDE.

  9. Gavin Phillips
    December 14, 2016 at 10:45 am

    Nice, Bertel. Interesting use of "oftentimes" in your intro. Don't really see that in use.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      December 14, 2016 at 8:21 pm

      Ha, didn't give that any thought. But I'm happy to bring it back!

  10. spyjoshx
    December 13, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    KDE is an awesome DE. The only problem is, my computer is a bit to slow for it. That's why I use XFCE. It too is very customizable.I just feel that there is a bit TOO much eye candy in KDE. Don't get me wrong, it is a great DE, my machine is just a bit too slow for it.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      December 13, 2016 at 6:44 pm

      I do like how customizable XFCE is. It was the first desktop environment I played around with because at the time my laptop was very old and underpowered.

  11. JM Hardin
    December 13, 2016 at 4:47 am

    I've run KDE for several years after getting sick of some of Ubuntu's changes. I started running Linux Mint with KDE and when SolydK launched I switched immediately and have never looked back. I love launching things with the Run Command Interface (Alt-F2, although I changed it to Super-Spacebar), and the multiple virtual desktops are great for running multiple programs at once, switching between desktops to reach each program that's running.

    I'm running KDE 4 but I can't wait to run KDE 5. I'm just waiting for SolydK to get it from Debian so I don't have to go too deeply into the Experimental toy box.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      December 13, 2016 at 2:10 pm

      For this article I ran the latest version of the Plasma 5 desktop on KDE Neon, and I found it to be very stable. But sometimes I miss the Oxygen theme from the Plasma 4 days. Sure, I have the option to switch back, but it doesn't feel the same.

      I'm fond of switching Alt-F2 to Super-Spacebar too, though I also love the new ability to open the Application Dashboard by pretty Super alone.

  12. Kelsey Tidwell
    December 13, 2016 at 2:04 am

    This is pretty interesting. I'm not a Linux power user by any means, but I did install Mint (Cinnamon) on an older laptop many months ago, and I've enjoyed using it. Next time I have a chance I'll download Mint KDE and see how it compares. Thanks for the info, Bertel.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      December 13, 2016 at 2:05 pm

      Let me know what you think! I like KDE, but I often fall into the trap of tinkering with everything just because I can, rather than getting work done. It's not usually my primary desktop, but I love what the community has done.

      • Kelsey Tidwell
        December 13, 2016 at 11:24 pm

        I'm a chronic tinkerer too, and it shows in my frustratingly slow progress at times.

        I installed Mint KDE and unfortunately it wasn't nearly as accommodating on my old Acer as Mint Cinnamon was. Mint-C recognized and automatically set up wireless, where KDE didn't. No biggee, but why back up, right?

        I thought maybe it was just Mint's problem, so then I tried OpenSUSE KDE, which I'd been wanting to try the next time I had a chance anyway, but no joy. It was even clunkier in the setup department, requiring me to search for and download even a module to display the wifi status!

        All in all, Mint-C has been a super-easy setup for me, the Linux noob. And really, that's what I'm after. I don't necessarily mind digging for treasure, initial setup ought to cover all the basics in my opinion. I've got other things to be doing.

        Like tinkering with my desktop. :)

        I won't say I won't try it again, but I'm going to give it a while. work.

        • Bertel King, Jr.
          December 14, 2016 at 8:25 pm

          That's a shame. Sounds like a driver issue, which I've been fortunate not to have to think much about in recent years. Most distros and desktop environments detect my hardware just fine (even before I switched to a System76 laptop).

          I hope you have better luck next time.