Seven Things You Can Do in KDE (But Not on Other Linux Desktops)

Monday Oct 21st 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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If you don't know KDE, you don't know what the Linux desktop can do.

Today, Linux desktops have diverged to the point where exchanging one for another can feel like switching to another operating system. KDE is no exception. Although it remains the single most popular desktop, a higher percentage of desktops use GNOME technology, and for many users of GNOME, Linux Mint, or Unity, KDE might hardly exist.

At most, users of GNOME technology might have a vague impression of KDE. If pressed, they might say that KDE is configurable to a fault and offers a daunting array of features, in contrast to GNOME's minimalist approach. Too often, they dismiss KDE as being concerned only with eye-candy, claiming that GNOME is all about efficiency.

However, the awareness rarely goes further. Faced with a problem to solve, users of GNOME, Mint, or Unity will rarely think of KDE as an alternative, despite the fact that most KDE apps run almost as well in these interfaces as in KDE.

This limited vision is unfortunate, because KDE includes many features that have no counterpart in any corner of the GNOME ecosystem. For example, you can:

7. Configure Virtual Desktops Separately

Virtual desktops are standard on the major Linux desktops. In most cases, a similar widget, configurable by rows and columns, is used to manage them. However, only KDE allows you to configure them separately.

Go to the menu, and select Settings -> System Settings -> Workspace Behavior -> Virtual Desktops -> Different widgets for each desktop box. Immediately, you'll be able to give each workspace its own widgets and wallpapers. You'll have no trouble telling your virtual desktops apart, and you can customize them for different purposes. In effect, you'll be able to use Virtual desktops in much the same way as you would Activities.

6. Choose Desktop Layouts

In KDE, interfaces are a separate sub-system. This arrangement makes it easy to change the desktop layout. From Desktop Settings -> View -> Layout on the desktop's right-click menu, you can select a traditional desktop, a Search and Launch menu (originally Plasma Netbook), a Newspaper Launch designed to arrange widgets in columns, and several more.

Unfortunately, desktop layouts lack documentation, so you'll need to experiment with them to learn exactly what distinguishes them. However, once you learn about them, you can set up Virtual Desktops or Activities differently for each of the tasks that you do.

For example, you can set up one Newspaper Launch desktop for news, time, and weather, and another one for monitoring your hardware. Another could be a Folder View set to display the directory where you keep your working files. A fourth could be your main desktop, set to display the Desktop directory.

5. Swap Icon Sets

Many other desktops are de-emphasizing the desktop, limiting the icons you can place on them to templates and documents assuming that you can add any at all.

By contrast, KDE not only continues to allow any sort of launcher on the desktop, but allows you to exchange icon sets quickly.

To take advantage of this feature, right-click on the desktop and select Desktop Settings -> View -> Layout -> Folder View. Drop down to the Location tab, and you can display any folder in your home directory. If you want a traditional desktop, select Show the Desktop folder.

To use multiple sets of icons, you have two choices. The simplest is to create additional top level folders to which you add icons for a specific task. The only drawback of this method is that each icon displays with a suffix of .desktop.

The second method is add each set of icons to the Desktop folder with a distinguishing suffix or prefix, and then reveal or hide each set using the Filter tab.

Either way, you can easily change icons within ten seconds.

4. Choose from Three Menus

KDE defaults to a menu confined within a single window. However, it also comes with a classic menu and Lancelot, which is best described as a compromise between the other two. All are available as widgets, without any need to hunt out an extension. KRunner, which is best described as a menu for advanced users combined with utilities and controls for running processes, is also part of the standard install.

Incidentally, this kind of selection is characteristic of many KDE features. For example, the System Settings window defaults to a series of icons divided into categories, but with a few clicks users can view the same features in the tree view that was standard in the KDE 3 release series.

3. Configure Multiple Item Clipboards

Clipboards for cutting, copying and pasting must be as old as computing. Yet on most desktops, the clipboard of today is identical to the clipboard of twenty years ago.

The exception is KDE's Klipper, which has been a standard feature for over a decade. Not only can it store multiple items, but its behavior is fully configurable by right-clicking on the notification tray.

2. Manage Fonts from the Desktop

The earliest users of Linux desktops were developers. One of the few remaining signs of this origin is the lack of desktop tools for developers. To this day, a surprising number of users load fonts specifically for LibreOffice, but not for the system as a whole.

As with the clipboard, KDE is the exception. For years, its system settings have included a Font Management dialogue. From this dialogue, you can install fonts for the current user accounts, or for all of them. It's a basic feature, but one that's essential for any design work.

1. Use Multiple Desktops

Activities are one of the most under-sold innovations of the KDE 4 release series. Activities are a super-set of virtual desktops, each of which can be configured with its own icons and widgets. Instead of having one desktop, with Activities you can have as many as you want.

Activities can be arranged in several different ways. You can have a separate Activity for work, school, and home. Alternatively, you have one for each of your most common tasks, such as programming, playing games, or designing graphics. If you are a professional, you could have a separate Activity for each active client, each displaying a different directory. Some Activities can be highly organized, with specific launchers, widgets, and links. Others can be a dumping ground for material you mean to read later, or arrange as sources for an article or essay.

If you make use of Activities, look at the widgets you can add to your desktop to switch between them. You may also want to set up keyboard shortcuts, either so you can jump directly to specific desktops, or else cycle back and forth between them.

The Minor and Once Unique

This list includes only the most useful features. I could easily have mentioned another half dozen minor features, such as Account Details that include password setup and shortcuts for the Konqueror web browser, or configuration mode that appears only when you unlick the desktop, preventing accidental changes.

The list also includes only unique KDE features. A few other features, such as desktop hot spots and on-desk widgets, were unique a couple of years ago, but are starting to appear on other desktops.

Yet even now, KDE generally offers more choices with features that are no longer unique. For example, Cinnamon offers four hot spots compared to KDE's eight, and offers two responses per hot spot to KDE's seven (twelve if you have hardware acceleration).

Similarly, while Cinnamon offers three desklets, KDE offers ninety widgets, ranging from standard utilities and monitors to alternative menus and links for social networking. And while Ubuntu uses a flashing icon background as launch notification, for years KDE has offered a choice of launch notifications, including the option to shut it off altogether.

Some users might consider KDE's options overkill. But you can pick and choose the ones you want and ignore the rest -- which is very much the point. KDE's perspective on innovation is to offer features that extend the desktop metaphor without forcing you to adapt them.

Still, even if you are satisfied with a traditional desktop, consider giving KDE's unique features a thorough survey. The odds are, you'll find a feature or two that will immediately become essential for your daily activities.

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