January 14, 2008

KDE 4 revises the desktop

Author: Bruce Byfield

After more than 30 months of planning and development, KDE 4 was released on Friday. The new version of the popular desktop environment is an ambitious revision on almost every level, from the performance and design to the applications and system tools. While it sometimes shows the influence of other desktops, most users should find something to like in the hundreds of new features. However, users' overall verdict may well depend on their tolerance for new layouts and logic.

Today, KDE 4 packages are available for Kubuntu and in Debian Experimental, but have not yet appeared in most other major distributions' repositories. Those who wish to see the final release without compiling the source code themselves can take advantage of the live DVDs offered by a number of distributions, including Fedora, Kubuntu, and openSUSE (which replaces some of KDE's own system management tools with Yast2). Users may also want to open the KDE 4.0 Visual Guide on another computer while they investigate the live DVD, so that they don't overlook some of the less obvious features.

Behind the scenes, KDE 4 has employed new applications for interacting with hardware and multimedia, switched to the Qt4 widget set, and rewritten large sections of the core libraries. The combination makes for a noticeably faster desktop, even on a live CD -- one that rivals Xfce, the previous leader in speed among the major desktops.

Even more noticeably, with the new release, KDE takes a giant leap forward in visual sophistication, with transparencies, abstract wallpapers, and the clean, three-dimensional icons of the default Oxygen theme. Of course, you could always customize earlier versions of KDE, but the common complaint that the default KDE desktop looked unbusinesslike compared to GNOME is now obsolete. The new version of KDE is built to impress, and it succeeds.

The desktop


As you start to work with KDE 4, numerous changes to the desktop become obvious. The panel has the expected start menu, task manager, virtual desktop pager, notification tray, and clock. To these, KDE 4 adds a New Device Notifier to track external disks. However, the panel in KDE 4 is less flexible than in previous releases or in GNOME. It is now fixed at the bottom, its size is unchangeable, and its color cannot be customized independently of the desktop themes. Gone, too, are the panel applets and subclasses of panels available in earlier versions. You can still add icons from the start menu to the panel for standard programs, although you have no control over how they are positioned.

The upper right corner of the desktop is now a desktop manager where widgets -- the equivalent of applets -- can be placed directly on the desktop as floating windows. In some distro-specific incarnations, these widgets include panels that make up for the loss of the subclasses of docked panels. These widgets are variously sized, which makes for a cluttered look on the desktop, especially if you add icons from the menu. Each is surrounded by what might be called a control collar: a set of mini-icons that become visible when the cursor passes over it, which are used for configuring, resizing, repositioning, and deleting the widget.

The start menu is similarly overhauled. Instead of listing all available programs, it now displays an uncustomizable series of views -- Favorites, Applications, Computer, Recently Used, and Leave -- topped by a search field. Submenus for a view do not open in their own attached window, but instead replace the top-level view, with an arrow icon for toggling between levels. If you find -- as I did -- that this arrangement gets you lost, you can add a traditional KDE menu to the desktop as a widget.

Other changes affect how the desktop is used. Click in the lower right corner and a calendar pops up; click in the lower left and the start menu appears. You can also use a number of keyboard and mouse shortcuts, such as Alt-LeftButton to move a window, or Alt-Right to resize one with the mouse anywhere in the window.

KDE's developers, in making these changes, seem motivated a wish to simplify and organize, and make better use of underutilized parts of the desktop. However, at times, these efforts seem to conflict; for instance, the space saved by having submenus all appear in the same menu is lost by the large default sizes of some of the widgets.

The success of the interface changes is going to take a while to sort out. Already, during development, some experiments, such as the placement of icons on the desktop for minimized windows, were quietly dropped. I suspect that in upcoming releases, the inflexibility of the panel is going to be changed due to user demand.

Standard applications

KDE's applications have undergone changes only slightly less radical than those in the desktop's design. Although Konqueror is still usable as a file browser, KDE 4 promotes the use of Dolphin instead. Dolphin is a far more flexible tool, especially because of its extensive options and the ability to display two directories at once.

KDE 4 also reorganizes the viewing of major file types. The new Okular application is a document viewer that supports a number of different formats, including PDF and OpenDocument, which greatly reduces the number of necessary viewers. KDE 4 also promotes the use of Gwenview for image formats. Gwenview includes a full-screen view, which is not only a necessity for viewing large files conveniently, but also provides a simple but adequate slide show program.

Another basic application that has undergone major revisions is Konsole, the KDE virtual shell. Developers have reorganized Konsole's menus and added more keyboard shortcuts. As with Dolphin, the new Konsole includes a split view that allows you to work on related operations without opening separate instances of the application. Other new features in Konsole include automatic changes of the title of a tab to reflect the program that is running, and a history for search results.

Configuration and administration tools

In KDE 4, the KDE Control Center is now a thing of the past, replaced with the Systems and Setting window, which is a far more organized tool. It's a tree of setting panes with icons arranged in groups of four and divided into General and Advanced tabs. Moreover, the layout of Systems and Settings is far more consistent than that of the Control Center.

The one puzzling feature is that some tools, such as the printer configuration tool, are banished to the general settings menu, while others, like the KDE menu configuration tool, were not added to Systems and Settings. Even given KDE 4's efforts to reduce the options presented to users at any one time, these choices seem arbitrary.

KDE's configuration tools have been complete for several releases, so there are few additions to functionality in KDE 4. However, KDE 4 has added tools to control the Splash Screen, to set Preferred Applications, and to activate and deactivate sets of fonts, a feature that graphics designers have wanted for years.

A delayed verdict

This is only a sampling of the changes in KDE 4. A complete list would make a long set of bullet points. The real question is: How well does does the new version succeed?

In one sense, given the scope of its changes, KDE 4 succeeds remarkably well. Although it includes some inconsistencies of design, those can be addressed later. What really matters is that so many sweeping changes seem to have been added with a minimum of performance problems. One or two of the versions of KDE 4 I looked at crashed a few times, but whether that was due to KDE 4 or to the hurry to integrate it into a live DVD is impossible to determine.

But, in another sense, KDE 4 includes so many changes and so many challenges to our traditional sense of the desktop that the first reaction for many will probably not be whether the release is effective so much as simply that it is different. Some will reject it for that difference, and others embrace it for the same reason. Only when you have used the new desktop daily over an extended period of time will you be able to come to your own decision about KDE 4.

The one thing that's clear is that KDE 4 is ambitious, and its developers deserve credit for trying to extend the concept of the desktop. Some of the ideas have been borrowed from other desktops, ranging from Mac OS X and Windows Vista to GNOME and Symphony OS, while others appear unique to KDE 4. Personally, I am far from sure that all the experiments succeed, but they intrigue me enough that I plan to switch my main machine from GNOME to KDE 4 as soon as possible, and use it until I can give a more definite answer.


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