The perspective from working in a custom cabinet shop, compared to just buying cabinets is a little different. In the old days, most cabinets were made in a custom shop and the styles options were pretty basic. They make either face-frame cabinets or European. There is, of course, a whole world of choices within these designs. But, at least these distinctions tell you right off the bat whether or not the order requires frames to be built. Face frames will mean that the cabinet will have a frame that holds the doors and drawers, and adds to the aesthetics of the front. Usually, with a matching theme to the cabinet doors themselves.
European cabinets rely on the doors and drawers of the units themselves for the appearance of them. If the doors are taken off altogether, all you would see is the cabinet boxes themselves. These will require a different type of hinges, ones that attach to the box instead of the frame, and they will require different types of handles. These are usually located on the top or the bottom of the door, usually dependant upon whether it is an upper or lower. European cabinets offer a look that is very popular with the straight lines and smooth surfaces of many modern kitchen designs.
Both European and Face frame cabinets rely on the veneers and laminated panels they are made from for their color and other features. A lot of European cabinets have been sold over the years with simple white glue down laminates, while face framed units claimed the wood grains with various stains. Both use the hardware that is installed to help define what style they are.
Over the years, the laminates and veneers used have become more adventurous. White is now one of the least expensive options, and laminates have come to show off exotic wood grains, simulated rock, or even other modern artistic designs. The basic rules of Euro’ get this, and face frames get that, have been morphed so that they are now selling styles within the styles. What is significant is that the basic differences, being frame or no frame, is still used as a starting point for many popular designs.
Face frame cabinets are still the starting point for most of your classic designs. This includes colonial, and country kitchen styles and most versions of glass doors. Rules are being broken however, and what used to be exclusive to one style can often be utilized in the other.
As a cabinet buyer, people may never need to know the difference between the two. The styles they are choosing from are really just distinctions given them within the company they are purchasing from. When they open up the cabinet, however, they will still find the same major distinction. It is either a face frame or European.