KDE, Windows 8 And The Changing User Interface

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I use a wide variety of operating systems in the lab from Linux to Windows. In general, switching between systems used to require a minor adjustment to adapt to the user interface for each one. That was a couple years ago. These days the variety can be confusing and Microsoft's new Windows 8 has a new user interface too.

Some of the Linux platforms I use include Ubuntu, Fedora and Centos. Ubuntu comes with Canonical's Unity user interface. Fedora now comes with Gnome 3 while Centos uses Gnome 2. Gnome 2 had a system memu button like the older Windows Start button. Gnome 3 does not.

Gnome 3 used to have a fallback mode but that has gone away. One of my main machines ran Fedora and Gnome 3 but I found that it slowed me down because I like the Start button functionality. I could have chosen Linux Mint that has a menu/Start button but I decided to stick with Fedora and use KDE instead. KDE is very configurable and has a menu/Start button that I was looking for (Fig. 1).

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Figure 1. KDE is very configurable and defaults to Start-button style interface.

One nice thing about most Linux distributions is that changing user interfaces is relatively easy. You can even have multiple user interfaces installed switching between them when you log in. I could have gone with Xfce but Xfce is a bit stripped down for me. I found KDE's customizability and support for virtual screens to be superior so I'm happy.

Windows 8 was more of a shock when I tried out the beta awhile back. The Start screen (Fig. 2) is made up of tiles that are easy to click on. It is great for a touch interface on devices like tablets and smart phones. There is even the usual Windows desktop behind it (actually just a different view) but even there it lacks a Start button.

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Figure 2. The Windows 8 Start screen is very different than Windows 7. Getting the popup menu on the right side requires moving the mouse cursor to the lower right.

I tried using Windows 8 on a regular basis and found it usable. Tiles can display dynamic information but that was a feature that Windows had ages ago although the Windows 8 tile interface is more consistent and easier to use. I can also see how it could be more useful to the average user but I suspect power users that have mastered hot keys and organized their menus will want to check out some of the alternatives.

Luckily there are lots of alternatives and articles that talk about these replacements (read How to get the Start menu back in Windows 8). I found the free Win8 StartButton to be very useful.

So how are you faring with all these new user interfaces? Are you finding it as frustrating as I do having to learn a new UI just to make use of the latest operating systems? The problem we all encounter is that new software and updated software is targeting the latest operating system.

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Bill Wong covers Digital, Embedded, Systems and Software topics at Electronic Design. He writes a number of columns, including Lab Bench and alt.embedded, plus Bill's Workbench hands-on column....
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