KDE 4: Key Improvements and User Tips

Monday Apr 14th 2008 by Bruce Byfield
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The new version of KDE pushes at the borders of usability and desktop design from every angle imaginable.

After three weeks of using KDE 4 on my laptop, I continue to find new features and changes. I am aware of the dictionary of special names that make up the back end of the new KDE -- Oxygen, Plasma, Phonon, and the rest -- but just as often as the major features, it's the little items that I find welcome as much as the large ones. Increasingly, I'm looking at KDE 4 as a statement about what a desktop should be, and contrasting it with my own ideas on the subject.

Last week, I talked about the defaults that didn't match my concepts of usability (and I meant defaults; I'm well aware that many settings can be changed, including the ones about which I complained, but the point is that even experienced users can miss the customizing tools). The result was exactly the sort of detailed discussion I was hoping for, when Aaron Seigo gave a detailed critique of my comments in his blog.

This week, I'm taking the opposite approach, and listing the items, big and small, that impress me about the latest release of KDE 4, in the hopes of offering some starting points for others' exploration of the new desktop. I have left out long-established features, such as virtual desktops, to focus on the new ones.

Eye Candy and Visual Display

The default desktop themes can play a large role in the acceptance of a new desktop. KDE 3 could be tweaked into a thing of beauty, but out of the box, it seemed garish and primitive in almost every distribution I tried it in.

By contrast, KDE 4 starts with the subdued colors and clean lines of Oxygen themes and photo-realistic icons, and uses scalable vector graphics. You can examine the result in detail in some of the games like KGolf or Klines, or in the Marble desktop globe, but the difference is obvious from the moment you log in. Like me, you might prefer to think that you are only concerned with functionality and scorn eye-candy, but with its understated elegance, KDE 4 will prove you wrong.

The Font Installer

KDE 3 was the only major desktop for GNU/Linux that included a font installer. That alone made KDE the desktop of choice for graphic designers. The main drawback was that each typeface was treated individually -- that is, the font installer would treat the regular, italic, bold, and bold italics of the same family as separate entries. This practice made finding a font more difficult. It also made font management more challenging, since designers often load fonts, then unload them when they're not needed in order to avoid swamping system memory with thousands of fonts.

The KDE 4 font installer has eliminated these problems by automatically grouping typefaces by families, so they can be deleted either by family or by individual typeface. In addition, while offering a brief preview in the main window of the installer, KDE 4 also gives you the option of a longer preview in which you can choose which Unicode characters you want to view.

Improved Utilities

Some of KDE's utilities, such as Klipper, KInfoCenter, and Knotes are largely unchanged in the new version of the desktop. However, some like Konsole have undergone an interface revision. Others have added functionality, including, KCharSelect, which now not only shows the glyphs for a typeface, but also gives information about how each character is encoded in Unicode and its various manifestations, as well as alternative names for a character (such as "bang" for exclamation mark). Other utilities are completely new, including Marble, a 3-D geographical search engine.

One new utility that seems to have gone largely unnoticed in the reviews is Sweeper. Sweeper is a utility that cleans unnecessary flotsam from your user account's files. If privacy is your concern, it can remove the contents of your clipboard, your recent document list, and thumbnail cache. Similarly, in your web browser, Sweeper deletes cookies, web caches, and stored form completions. All you need to do is select what you want removed, then click the Clean Up button. It's a basic tool that seems so simple and so needed that you wonder why no one had written Sweeper years ago.

System Settings

The venerable KDE Control Center inspired mixed emotions in many users. On the one hand, having configuration options in a single window was convenient. On the other hand, the number of panes had grown formidably long by KDE 3.5.6, and finding the right one increasingly difficult.

KDE's developers have rethought system options with the Systems Setting window, which is available in the Favorites view of the default menu. This window divides configuration options into four categories, and replaces the Control Center's panes with icons that open their own separate views. Within these views, advanced options are tidied away to reduce complexity further.

The view in System Settings is still monolithic, but now it preserves the convenience of centralized configuration while making settings easier to find. In fact, it is so successful that I wonder why many hardware items -- but not all -- were shunted off to the Administration menu.

The Device Notifier

In KDE 3, plugging in a flash drive popped up a list of possible actions, taking the focus away from the active window. This was annoying if you were multi-tasking and not particularly interested in dealing with the new device immediately. Also, the choices -- Open in New Window, Download Photos with digiKam, and Do Nothing -- presuppose a set of activities that don't fit every user; you might, for instance, want to download music, or transfer files.

KDE 4 takes the less obtrusive course of including a device notifier in the system tray on the panel. There, you can ignore the new device until ready to use it. This course of action is a marked improvement, not only on KDE 3, but also GNOME, which adds an icon on the desktop's upper left which always seems to be buried under at least one open window.

Active Corners

Taking a cue from SymphonyOS, KDE 4 now includes active corners -- hotspots from which you can activate commands simply by moving the mouse cursor. The option is hidden away in System Settings -> Desktop -> ScreenSaver -> Advanced Options, and is so far limited only to two actions -- Lock Screen and Prevent Locking, but the basic functionality is there. Perhaps it will be configurable for more than screen saving in later releases.

Default Applications

Like GNOME, KDE now has settings for the applications to start for particular purposes. For example, if you want to open a Web browser -- perhaps to access online help for an application -- you can set what application to use.

In GNOME, you can set the preferred Web and mail browsers and terminals. In System Settings -> Default Applications, KDE offers the same choices, plus text editor and instant messaging. Naturally, the preset options favor KDE applications such as Kmail and Konsole, but you can use a list derived from the menu to select alternatives. Despite some inconsistencies in the interface, with the text editor and instant messenger settings differing from the rest, this new application is still a welcome step forward in customization.

Views for the Classic Menu

By default, KDE 4 uses the Kickoff main menu. This menu consists of a search field and a series of views, such as Favorites, Applications, Computer, and Recently Used, as well as a Leave button for exiting the menu. When you display a sub-menu, it slides over the top level menu, rather than opening up accordion-style.

While the Kickoff style has the advantage of not overwhelming new users with options, more experienced users may prefer to switch to the Classic menu, where they can see all the installed applications. Fortunately, they can easily do so by right-clicking the stat menu and selecting the appropriate item on the menu.

However, in their relief at being back in familiar territory, they may either miss the second item on the menu, Application Launcher Menu Setting, or wonder how this awkward noun phrase might apply to them. Either way, they are missing a utility that the Classic menu badly needs. The item opens a small dialog in which you can edit whether menu items list application names, functions, or both. Even better, the dialog gives the Classic menu the same views as the Kickoff menu.

The dialog would be enhanced by a search field, and by being visible in the Classic menu. All the same, together with the menu editor -- available from the same right-click menu -- the dialog allows you to do the edit of the Classic menu that KDE 4 should have come with.

Desktop special effects

Since compositing window managers are the latest craze for dragging down system performance, perhaps no one should be surprised that KWin, the KDE windows manager, adds its own special effects in the desktop's newest version. Available from System Settings -> Desktop -> Desktop Effects.

The available effects tend to be under-documented, but, as the hint at the top of the window suggests, you can usually figure out what each does by its settings. The effects vary from the cosmetic (Dim Inactive Windows, Translucency) through the frivolous (Explosion, Fall Apart), to the practical (Magnifier, Zoom).

Many effects require a keyboard layout with a meta key (an additional control key), and enabling special effects is a noticeable drag on system, even with a gigabyte of RAM. Still, I suspect that more will be written as KDE 4 moves through its release cycle. Meanwhile, KWin has made a good start in variety and usefulness.

Just the beginning

This list only begins to describe some of the features of the new KDE. A desktop by definition is a large application. And when as many changes have been made as in KDE 4, you can fill two thousand words just listing them. I could easily have replace some of the items here with mention of the Lancelot menu widget, the Gwenview graphics viewer and the Okular document viewer, the Dolphin file manager, or any of dozens of other possibilities.

But why spoil your fun? KDE 4 has lot of room for improvements, and the odds are that it won't completely fill its potential until about version 4.3. Meanwhile, what's already in the new version pushes at the borders of usability and desktop design from every angle imaginable. Besides being a polished environment for routine work, KDE 4 is probably the most interesting program to explore since OpenOffice 2.0, so enjoy your own journey on the route. You're sure to find things that annoy you, but even more that you'll appreciate.

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