Nine Improvements Needed in KDE

Monday Apr 7th 2008 by Bruce Byfield
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Until KDE 4 settles down, potential users should be aware that it continues to be a work in progress, with a large share of unfinished features.

KDE 4 is a radical overhaul of the popular desktop. It offers broad improvements like the Oxygen desktop theme, SVG graphics, and enhanced speeds thanks to the latest version of the Qt 4 toolkit. It also offers specific improvements such as the font manager and the Dolphin file manager. In short, there's a lot to like.

But, as might be expected, not all the changes are equally successful. Nor is the situation helped by the fact that KDE 4 was a preliminary release, and the project intends the upcoming 4.1 as the production-ready version -- as you might expect, most distros have rushed to include the early minor releases as soon as possible.

After a week of regularly using KDE 4.0.2 and 4.03 releases on my laptops, these are the improvements that would enhance KDE the most:

A more customizable panel

In the rush to get KDE 4 out the door on time, the first version came with an unresizable panel stuck firmly at the bottom of the screen. Minor releases quickly added the ability to change the panel's width and position, but using the top of the screen still isn't an option unless you want to cover the desktop manager button in the upper right corner. Nor can you change the length of the panel, autohide it to give yourself more screen space, or use any except the most basic of the panels found in the KDE 3 releases. Equally annoying is the inability to move icons on the menu as you please.

A better menu

KDE 4 replaces the classic KDE menu with Kickoff. Apparently based on the Windows XP and Vista menus, Kickoff is an improvement in that it adds a search field and a variety of views that help to simplify the menus for newcomers. However, its replacement of sub-menus that open up like an accordion with sub-menus on sliding panels is a step backwards, because remembering your location can be difficult if you go more than a level or two down. Nor can you jump between menus without laboriously retracing your steps.

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You can revert to the classic menu if you right-click, but that only brings you back to the complicated menus that justify the experiment with Kickoff. With separate top-level menus for Settings, System, and Administration, and for Science and Math and Education, to say nothing of the mysterious Lost and Found, the traditional menu can make tracking down an application nightmarish.

What is needed is a blend of the two, with the different views and search field of Kickoff and a reordering of the traditional menu to make unaided searches less of an exercise in guesswork. But the need to edit the original does not justify an overly-complex redesign.

Remove the mini-icons

In KDE 4, icons and widgets -- the name given to desktop applets -- come with a collar that includes four mini-icons for configuring and manipulating them. The trouble is, these mini-icons are not supported equally by all icon themes in every distro, and can sometimes be reduced to a few blurred pixels. Yet, even when they are clearly displayed, they can be hard to pinpoint with a mouse-click. At times, too, accidentally clicking the Delete mini-icon can be all too easy.

The mini-icons add an appearance of complexity that may intimidate new users, and are redundant when each icon already has a right-click menu with the same choices. They serve no useful purpose, and wouldn't be missed if eliminated.

A preview for images in the file manager

Dolphin is a more agile and efficient file manager than either KDE classic Konqueror or GNOME's Nautilus except for one thing: It doesn't show previews for common graphic formats. How was this oversight allowed to slip through? Granted, not everybody wants a preview under all circumstances, but having to click to start Gwenview before you can see files is an extra step that should be unnecessary.

Improved accessibility

KDE has a system setting for a speech synthesizer and some extra sound and keyboard settings for people with disabilities, a magnification effect for selected areas of the desktop -- and not much more. What it lacks is an extensive screen reader like GNOME's Orca, which is coming close to equaling proprietary solutions and already makes computer use possible for thousands, particularly through its Braille support.

GNOME has done a thorough job of making its programs accessible through the Assistive Technology Service Provider Interface (AT-SPI), most recently through cooperation with Mozilla. Given the cross-platform cooperation that goes on at Freedesktop.org, I have to wonder why there's so little visible effort to get AT-SPI to support the Qt toolkit on one hand and to make KDE more accessible on the other hand.

Granted, accessibility is a long-term project. It took Orca three years to reach its present status, and that was with corporate support from Sun Microsystems. Yet the longer accessibility is delayed, the more its relative absence is going to become obvious and the harder it will be to implement. A redesign like KDE 4 would have been an ideal time to give such considerations higher priority.

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Drag and drop between menus, the desktop, and the panel

In Classic KDE, you can not only drag and drop an icon between all the major parts of the desktop, but choose whether you wanted a new copy of the icon, or simply a link to the original. So far, the same functionality is missing from KDE 4.

Instead, you have separate menus for adding widgets or icons to both the desktop and the panel, with the option of selecting from the main menu as well. The system feels redundant and clumsy compared to what KDE offered before.

A broader selection of widgets

KDE's default widgets have always been fewer and more utilitarian than GNOME's applets, and, while the selection varies between distros, to date KDE 4 seems to have even fewer.

While the new KDE includes the multiple clipboard Klipper by default, its selection is usually limited to such widgets as a color picker, a battery charge indicator, a dictionary, and start menus. The only really standout upon them is the file watch widget, which allows you to track the use of your files of choice. By comparison, GNOME comes with a brightness control for desktops and for inhibiting power management (which can crash some machines), as well as such everyday tools as the Deskbar search tool, Force Quit for removing malfunctioning programs, and Show Desktop for finding your way through a tangle of multiple windows or full-screen programs.

Even when less choices are considered, KDE's widgets seem sparse compared to GNOME widgets. Nothing in Extragear or SuperKaramba comes close to the functionality of GNOME tools like Tomboy, many of which started life as simple applets and are now far on the way to becoming full-fledged utilities.

KDE 4's one innovation is to permit larger version of widgets that fit on to panels on the desktop. This change is welcome enough for a few widgets such as an analog clock, and, if you add such items as a task manager or a system tray, you can partially compensate for the inability to use more than one panel. Otherwise, why clutter your desktop with minor applications that you only occasionally want? Like the side panel in Vista, the only purpose seems to reclaim the extra space gained by wide screen monitors on behalf of developers.

Better organized configuration tools

One of the advantages that KDE Classic had over GNOME was an initial wizard that allowed you to choose in a matter of seconds how much eye candy you wanted to run. If you insisted, you could make individual choices, but the wizard was a perfect tool for those who wanted to optimize performance without the tedium of wading through window after window of check boxes.

Lacking this feature, KDE 4 presents instead a series of individual settings. Most of them are available in System Settings, the replacement for the KDE Control Center, but some configuration options are also scattered in through the Settings, Administration, System, and Utilities menus.

Then, just to make the layout more confusing, many configuration choices for system hardware are in Administration. But some, like the keyboard and mouse, are in System Settings, while others, like mobile phones and palm pilots, are listed under Utilities -> Peripherals. You can justify a move away from the Control Center on the grounds that it was becoming massive, but some organization is needed simply to make configuration easier.

Moreover, if you care about your work environment at all, you will almost certainly want to move through them, despite all the time you will need. Lacking the classic wizard, in the distros I've seen, KDE 4 generally installs with mid-ranged settings. Among other things, this choice means that font anti-aliasing, is not nearly optimal, and could be hard on your eyes over long periods of use.

Improved interface word choices

While KDE has shown an increased interest in usability in design, that interest has yet to reach the text on the desktop. Some jargon might be understandable in the remote regions of the system settings on the grounds that only experts are likely to venture there, yet how many average users are likely to understand such choices as "subpixel rendering" or "Setup Samba relisa and the ioslaves," particularly without a serial comma.

Similarly, the new KDE insists on calling its new applets "widget" -- a term that will sound vague to lay users, and inaccurate to developers for whom a widget is part of a graphical interface.

The interface language is muddied even further by KDE's habit of referring to both an application and its function in the menu. Instead of just listing "File Manager" or "Page layout," it uses "Dolphin File Manager" and "Scribus page layout," which is simply too much information. In contrast, GNOME menus, although not entirely consistent, tend to refer only to the function, and are therefore clearer and quicker to read.

GNU/Linux Columns
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Possibly, this use of language reflects that KDE is less Anglo-centric than GNOME. Yet finding an English-speaking usability expert should not be that difficult. As things are, the impression is of an unthinking geekiness that is at odds with the goals of user-friendliness.

Waiting for 4.1

Some of the problems mentioned here have already been alleviated since KDE 4's initial release a few months ago. Others are listed on KDE 4.1's feature plan as being scheduled to be added or improved.

All the same, mentioning what needs to be improved remains worthwhile. Improvements are more likely to be made if people are urging them, and, meanwhile, people may want to consider delaying a switch to KDE 4 until the features that they consider essential are added or improved.

When you look at all the bold, new approaches in KDE 4, the question should not be why it needs so many improvements so much as how developers managed to make so many changes all at once. Still, until KDE 4 settles down, potential users should be aware that it continues to be a work in progress, with a large share of unfinished features.

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