In May of this year, our project to place refurbished computers into the homes of disadvantaged kids will turn nine years old. Aside from an extremely short-lived and disastrous trial with Microsoft Windows in the beginning, Reglue (formally HeliOS) has depended on Linux to power those computers and we’ve used a number of distros over the years.
We initially made a deal with Jon Danzig at Libranet to supply us with their fantastic Debian-based distro, but when that project ended we were split on what to do. I had flirted with SimplyMEPIS on and off and since it was based on KDE 3.X, it became our mainstay. In 2008, when it became evident that KDE 4.0 was going to be controversial, we made the move to Ubuntu. And there we stayed until staying there became untenable for our organization.
History has a, uh…history of repeating itself, albeit usually with different players. It seemed odd that GNOME decided to “evolve” with the same type of sweeping, disruptive changes that had KDE users scrambling for the exits just a few years earlier. I know, because we were one of them. We stayed with Ubuntu until the 10.4 LTS was no longer supported. Ubuntu was our favored distro simply because of UCK, the Ubuntu Customization Kit.
UCK allowed us to add and remove apps and configurations and ultimately make a tailored Linux distro. What made it even nicer is that it uses a virtual Synaptic environment so even volunteers with little Linux experience could work with it. Even though it made our jobs easier, the Unity Desktop did not. We had installed about 25 12.04 Ubuntu systems for our Reglue kids when it became apparent that most everyone strongly disliked Unity. “Strongly disliked” is close enough to the intended meaning. It’ll work in place of the many expletives we experienced.
Personally, after I got over the white-hot-hate and bothered to explore it a bit, Unity really isn’t bad. The problem is, younger school kids, or older school kids for that matter, don’t want to have to invest a lot of time figuring out what should be intuitive. Like “where the bleep is the application menu?” Again, the average Reglue kid used an assortment of words to describe Unity. I’m relatively certain that “intuitive” wasn’t one of them.
ZorinOS was a great next step. For much younger kids, we still deploy the educational version. While it is touted for its Windows-like interface, that wasn’t the reason we picked it as our main distro. It’s stable, relatively simple for a new Linux user and it seems to have a strong community behind it.
The trouble is, it’s a small distro highly dependent on the lead developer. No matter how resolute the developer is, life happens. People get married, get divorced, get a more demanding job, have children, maybe experience a personal crisis or just plain lose interest in the project. Tying our effort on any one-man operation could be extremely problematic for us. But that’s when you realize…
Ya Gotta Love Free Open Source Software
I’ve always favored Linux Mint, which could also be considered a one man show except that the main developer makes his living producing Mint, which took away one of the major what-if’s. I had also
come crawling back looked into KDE again after several years, finding the rumors were true. KDE is back and better than ever.
So I approached good friend and fellow Google Plus guy, Randy Noseworthy, and negotiated a project contract. He took on the job of creating a specialized kids’ educational version of Linux Mint KDE LTS, better known as “Maya.” He had to piece together several older tools that once worked for Mint respins but which had fallen into disrepair. Randy hacked and worked until he got a command line tool to his liking and created our Mint KDE educational version. It took him a week to get it right, but when he presented us with the download link, we couldn’t have asked for more.
It’s geared toward younger kids and those entering high school. For our high school upperclassmen and college kids, we use either the Uberstudent distro (with Xfce environment) or the Evergreen (think LTS) 13.1 release of OpenSUSE Edu Li-f-e.
The acid test was not how much we liked it but on whether our Reglue Kids liked it. Working with a small sampling of 14 installations and different partition boot options, we gauged how well our KDE version did when compared against GNOME 3/GNOME Shell and Cinnamon. Each one of the 14 kids were asked to use all three environments and give us some feedback.
We got that back in spades.
This is nowhere near scientific and I’m not going to claim the findings are of any use to anyone but Reglue. For us, it settled the question of which DE was preferred and why.
KDE Is King
This is where a statistician would start lining up pie charts, with graphs and lots of stuff in the footnotes. That’s not gonna happen, since I’m not a statistician and I don’t feel like doing all of that for numbers that really don’t mean anything outside of our organization. Consider this just interesting stuff to know.
Ratings were given by awarding each overall category up to five penguins. Those penguins were based on a number of factors.
- How easy the new system was to use.
- How completely and easily it was able to be configured to personal needs.
- Overall opinion of aesthetics.
- Default applications available.
- Overall stability of the system.
We set the partitions up with three different distro environments. We chose to use Linux Mint on all three with the differences being that each one presented a different environment. Again, they were Cinnamon, GNOME 3 and KDE.
The only coaching any of the kids received was in how to choose the different system partitions upon booting. All of the students were given the same release of each DE in which to work. The desktop environments were what came as stock on each. Of the 14 kids that worked with us, ages 15 – 19, nine of them gave the KDE option the strongest score hands down. Not surprisingly, Cinnamon was the second choice and GNOME 3 fared poorly.
Keep in mind, the kids weren’t allowed to practice or “learn” any of the environments. They were given the same tasks to complete in 30 minutes in each of the three desktops. Those tasks were:
- Change the auto login to user name and password login and change the password for the system.
- Place the icons or shortcuts for Chrome, Synaptic, their chosen music player, a disk burning application and their chosen office application into the panel and to remove Firefox from their respective menus.
- Change the default font to any other font they choose. (Of the 14, three of the kids used the package manager or the software center to install a different font.)
- Change the overall theme/style of the desktop to include downloading and activating desktop wallpaper not currently on their computer.
- Demonstrate the ability to utilize at least 4 virtual desktops/activities.
When many of these kids discovered the different ways that virtual desktops could be configured in KDE, with each having it’s own wallpaper and settings, that pretty much put KDE ahead in all of the configurability and aesthetics votes. They were uniformly surprised that this wasn’t possible or easily done in any of the other environments.
While I’m not sure why, the kids all complained that some of the tasks were difficult to figure out in Cinnamon and an exercise in futility within GNOME 3. I’ve always liked the Cinnamon layout and found it easy to navigate to make system changes. Of course, I’m a computer guy so there’s that. The best I could gather at the time is that KDE offers a superior toolset to make these changes. That opinion was held by nine out of fourteen kids.
And don’t discount good looks from being an intangible in making decisions like this. We’d dressed each distro to the nines, but by far the most positive remarks about good looking systems were delivered to KDE. Incidentally, those who found KDE the most attractive offering also voted heavily in overall favor of KDE
One other thing stood out in the time I spent with these kids is the absolute joy and excitement many of them had in discovering something new. I can relate, especially with KDE. The configuration possibilities are amazing and it seems I am always finding a new way to make it the way I want it. I don’t know why that surprised me in kids this age, but it did.
One of the biggest complaints from almost all of the kids using GNOME 3/GNOME Shell was about the sluggishness of the system overall and the lack of intuitive measures for making changes. All of the computers used were 2.4 – 2.6 Intel Core Duos with 2 gigs of RAM. In the GNOME environment, many of them discovered they had to install “extensions” to make it do some of the things they wanted it to do. That was a big factor in the low opinion of GNOME 3. When compared to KDE and even Cinnamon, the GNOME 3 environment seemed “barren,” according to one Round Rock High School junior.
So what has this proven? Nothing beyond the fact that in our relatively small sampling of kids, the majority preferred KDE. Who knows? When we do this again in 2017 the results might be completely different. I’m honestly perplexed that Cinnamon didn’t show better than it did. We dressed it in the “Void” theme and it looked astoundingly good.
It’s fair to say that the status of any Linux project is fluid at best. Developers decide to change things to their liking and users either leave or enter the user base. There doesn’t seem to be any reliable means of predicting particular outcomes. Given that, our Linux Mint KDE LTS (Maya) will be our prime mover over the span of its lifetime.
If you have questions or would like to take a look at our respin, leave us your name and a way to contact you in the comment section and we will make it so.
Ken Starks is the founder of the Helios Project and Reglue, which for 20 years provided refurbished older computers running Linux to disadvantaged school kids, as well as providing digital help for senior citizens, in the Austin, Texas area. He was a columnist for FOSS Force from 2013-2016, and remains part of our family. Follow him on Twitter: @Reglue