The second main area that you can customise in KDE is activities. In some ways these are like far more customisable virtual desktops. They allow users to switch between highly customisable views for when they're performing different activities on their computer. As with most parts of KDE, in order for it to be useful, you have to spend time customising it to your workflow and use-cases. For many people, this is a bit too much effort and it's a feature that's rarely used.

Of course, a desktop environment, as we said at the start, is about the complete package, including several utilities. While many of the others we look at here use similar GTK utilities, KDE uses Qt based ones. Typically these continue the KDE philosophy of ultimate configurability. There are enough of them that you could conceivably do all your computing in the KDE apps from the Konsole terminal emulator to the Calligra Office Suite to Konqueror, the web browser.

This means you have a full set of applications that all share the same design principals, and have the same look and feel. In theory this should mean you have a consistent desktop, though it doesn't always work out as well.

Verdict

Best for: Customisation
Avoid if: You like GTK
Try on: OpenSuse, Rosa or Mageia
In a nutshell: Tweaker's heaven

Unity

The new contender has made friends and enemies

Unity
Ignore the superficial similarities, Unity and Gnome 3 are very different to use

After the demise of Gnome 2, the Gnome team, as we have seen, created Gnome 3 with a completely redesigned desktop. Ubuntu, previously the leading Gnome distro, decided not to use the new Gnome but to create its own desktop and called it Unity. There have been cries of it being near-identical to Gnome 3, but these seem to be from the superficial standpoint of the bottom panel going, and most of the action happening in the top-left corner.

Unity doesn't have the same philosophy of maximum simplification, and the two desktops are actually quite different to use. The Unity desktop, though tidy, is busier than in Gnome 3. There's a Launcher and Window List on the desktop, so you don't have to switch to a new screen to access basic functions.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the Launcher is that you can pin web apps to it as well as native applications. Sceptics claim that these are little more than links to the web address, which have been available in other desktop environments for years. These sceptics have a point, but the 'little more' can be important.

For example, it allows web apps to access the notifications area. While not everyone feels comfortable using the cloud, this makes things like web mail a little nicer to use for those that do.

Strong functionality theme

Heads up display
Unity's Head-Up Display (HUD) demotes the mouse slightly by enabling you to use an application's menus without having to take your hands off the keyboard

Perhaps the big showdown between Gnome 3 and Unity is in the Overview vs Dash. These are roughly equivalent to the menus on traditional desktop environments. Places where you can launch apps (that aren't in the launcher), and search for things.

Like Gnome 3's Overview, Unity's Dash is accessed through the top-left corners. Unlike Gnome 3, though, it doesn't have a Window List or a 'favourites' bar, since these are included in the main desktop. Again, we see the differences between the different philosophies shine through. Gnome 3 is as simple as possible, while Unity's has more functionality.

By default, it allows the user to search through their applications, files stored locally and products on Amazon. The idea is to create a single point where the user can search for anything: just open the Dash and type what you want. The inclusion of the online results has upset some privacy campaigners, and it is possible to turn it off in the Settings panel.