KDE 4.1 is supposed to make everything right with the recently troubled desktop. Everyone agrees now that KDE 4.0 was a mistake. However, what the mistake was -- and whose -- is a matter of opinion. KDE developers blame distributions for rushing to include a release that was never intended for everyday use, while users blame developers for changing everything.
On the Fedora list, some are calling for keeping KDE 3.5 as an option in future releases of the distro, while one reviewer has suggested that KDE development should be forked, so that no one has to use the 4.x version. To these reactions, which seem as much a fear of the new as legitimate criticism, KDE speakers have replied by encouraging everyone to wait for the improvements coming in 4.1.
However, if the second beta of 4.1 is any indication, it will be only partly successful in quieting user dissent. On the one hand, KDE 4.1 includes the first 4.x versions of several major KDE applications, which goes a long way toward improving the user experience. And, in both other programs as well as the desktop, the second beta sports countless improvements in functionality and design. On the other hand, not only are many of the interface changes that people complain about still there, but the new Folder View raises a whole new set of issues about how users organize their desktops.
The second beta is still prone to unexplained crashes, so you probably do not want to compile it from source, or install it on any of the distributions that have packages for it, like Debian and Ubuntu. Instead, the simplest way to investigate KDE 4.1 is to download and burn the latest openSUSE KDE Live CD.
In KDE 4.0, new games and some utilities had new versions, but many standard KDE programs did not. KDE 4.1 continues the porting of applications, notably with 4.x versions of KGet, a versatile download manager, and the KContacts, the KDE personal information suit. According to reports, a series of new widgets are also part of KDE 4.1, including a special character selection, an alternative menu, and a moon phase applet, although none are available in the KDE Four Live CD. The Live CD does, however, include the latest release alpha release of KOffice 2.0, a project technically separate from the desktop but naturally closely associated with it. All these additions go a long way to making KDE 4.1 more usable than its predecessors, especially since backwards compatibility with 3.x KDE programs could be haphazard.
In addition, 4.1 sees some fine-tuning of both the desktop and basic programs. The desktop has the same general layout as earlier 4.x releases, with the main menu and panel on the bottom and the desktop toolbox in the top right corner, but many of these features are more finished in 4.1.
A small example: in earlier 4.x releases, placing a panel on the top of the desktop obscured the toolbox and made it unusable, while in 4.1, each panel has a small icon for the toolbox on the far right. Similarly, the panel, which was essentially uneditable in 4.0, now has a graphic configuration tool that appears temporarily above the panel while you make changes. Judging from the menu, in the finished release, you may also be able to add widgets to the panel, although that feature isn't implemented in the second beta.
Individual programs also have that extra bit of functionality. For instance the Konqueror Web browser now has an Undo feature and the Dolphin file manager tabbed views.
Lingering design questions
Unquestionably, the general usability has improved in 4.1. However, like earlier versions of its release series, KDE 4.1 still offers fewer customization options than KDE 3.5.x. You cannot, for instance, install most of the types of panels that were available in the previous series. Nor can you drag and drop between the panel and the desktop, although you can add icons to either one from the menu. As for aligning icons and widgets on the desktop, you had better have a good eye, because KDE 4.1 cannot automatically organize them.