KDE 4 and the User Experience

Wednesday Nov 7th 2007 by Bruce Byfield
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Clearly, this rewriting of the desktop is as ambitious as rumor has it. And equally clearly, it'll have users thinking about desktops in ways they usually don't.

Following the development of KDE 4 can be daunting for casual observers. With all the colorfully named sub-projects like Oxygen, Solid, and Phonon that comprise this major rewriting of one of the main desktops for GNU/Linux, you can rapidly feel overwhelmed -- especially since the names rarely have relation to purposes.

Fortunately, with the release of beta 4, KDE 4 has come a long way since my last look at the project. While pieces still seem to be missing, the look and feel is starting to emerge strongly enough that you can forget the jargon and start to get a sense of what the finished KDE 4 will be like to use.

And clearly, it's a makeover so extreme that it should have its own reality TV show. Breathtaking at first glance, it's also full of basic changes that will probably be debated for months after the official release in January 2008.

Meanwhile, you can preview KDE 4 in one of the many live CDs that distributions are releasing to showcase the beta without requiring uses to compile from source. In particular, I recommend OpenSUSE's KDE Four Live and Debian's KDE4 live CDs. Just be sure, if you're using the Debian live CD, to note that you login with the username "user" and the password "live."

First impressions

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"This is KDE?" That was my first reaction when booting one of the live CDs. Although earlier versions of KDE have been highly configurable, the default settings for KDE in many distros have always struck me as unsophisticated -- perfectly adequate functionally, but somehow falling short of the high gloss finish you expect in a modern desktop. Usually, I needed considerable tweaking of themes, widgets, icons, and fonts to give KDE a look which matched GNOME's.

By contrast, KDE 4 is high-gloss fresh from the CD. With a color palette that is a little bit Vista, and widgets and icons that are a little bit GNOME or OS X with their shading and perspective and clean lines, KDE 4 is a radical departure visually from its predecessors.

Start moving around the desktop, and you'll notice the same scalable vector graphics used for the icons have also started transforming KDE applications, including many of the games. You'll also notice a considerable increase in speed, apparently thanks to the new 4.3 Qt libraries -- even when running from a live CD.

Interface Changes and Questions

Looking more closely, you'll also notice some changes to the basic interface. Some of these changes are unremarkable, such as the System Settings dialog, which replaces the rather daunting list of tabs in the venerable KDE Control Center with a series of icons organized into several categories. However, others alter how you interact with the KDE desktop, and are likely to provoke some discussion.

The panel is still at the bottom of the screen, with the main menu on the left, but now it's been joined by the Desktop Toolbox, a rounded icon in the upper right corner that allows you to zoom in and out on items selected on the desktop, and to add to the desktop either a program launcher or the sort of applets that in earlier versions were dropped on the panel, such as an analog clock or battery manager. Beside the toolbox are icons for background applications that once sat in the panel's system tray, such as the clipboard manager.

Next page: What's with the applets on the desktop?

Some people may be tempted to dismiss the idea of adding applets to the desktop as an imitation of Vista's sidebar, although KDE 4's are more versatile, and can be positioned anywhere on the desktop. Still others may question the point of moving applets and the system tray off a panel, where they are neatly tidied away, and on to the desktop, where they mingle -- potentially, with some confusion -- with the icons you deliberately put there. By definition, applets and system tray icons are features that you want easily available, but not all the time. In these days of wide screen monitors, do you really want to give up the desktop space by diverting icons from the panel?

Others, too, may note that the system tray icons obscure the toolbox menus, making them impossible to use.

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Another obvious set of changes occurs in the main menu. Instead of the traditional menu with its list of programs, the main menu now defaults to a Favorites view with a list of most commonly used applications and a search field for finding others. Still another view lists Recently Used programs, while another with the Windows-like name of My Computer contains links to your home folders, partitions, external drives, and -- for no apparent reason -- system settings as well. The list of views is rounded off with a Leave button and Applications, which gives the traditional complete menu, which can be edited by a comprehensive menu editor.

This seems a gallant attempt to reduce complexity, even if it is borrowed from Vista, but it might as well borrow further from Vista and allow users to configure the view so they can turn off the Favorites and Recently Used views if they choose. Some, too, might note that GNOME has managed to simplify its menu without radically changing the basic design.

Within the Applications menu, you will also notice that sub-menus no longer display in a separate pane. Instead, to get to the sub-menu, you click an arrow, and the sub-menu replaces the top level menu items. This arrangement is tidier than opening up a separate pane, and reduces the amount of space used by the menu, but at the expense of making navigation more difficult: Descend a level or two into the sub-menus, and you can easily lose track of where you are. It is also the opposite of the changes for applets and system tray icons, confining the menus instead of allowing them to use desktop space temporarily.

Conclusion

The effect of some of these changes may be alleviated by more configuration choices in the final release. For instance, the obscuring of the toolbox by the system tray icons can probably be solved by allowing one or both to be moved on the desktop. Some, too, will no doubt consider the default settings too slick and want to modify KDE 4 so it looks more like earlier versions of the desktop.

Other changes are not necessarily better or worse than how earlier versions of KDE do things -- just different. While some users may react strongly just because the changes are new, after they use KDE 4 for a few weeks, familiarity may breed acceptance. Moreover, those that seem inspired by Vista may come to be accepted simply because they are familiar to newcomers.

Whatever you eventually decide about the changes in KDE 4, clearly this rewriting of the desktop is as ambitious as rumor made it. And, equally clearly, it's going to have users thinking about desktops in a way that they usually don't -- and, very likely, arguing passionately about the details as well.

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