KDE 4.1 Review: The Rocky Road of the New KDE

Tuesday Jul 29th 2008 by Bruce Byfield
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Whether the new KDE 4.1 release will silence user complaints depends very much on your tolerance for change, willingness to customize, and the degree to which the available programs fit your needs.

With its 4.1 release, KDE is taking few chances. While the 4.0 release's announcement emphasized excitement and significance, the tone of the announcement for 4.1 is more subdued. This time, the announcement talks about maturing technologies and underlying improvements, and the only claim is that the 4.1 desktop "can replace the KDE 3 shell for most casual users."

The change of tone seems a direct result of the numerous complaints about KDE 4.0, which somehow reached end-users' hands despite warnings that it was a development release. However, whether the 4.1 release will silence the complaints depends very much on individual users' tolerance for change, their willingness to customize, and the degree to which the available programs fit their needs. Only after these considerations, I suspect, will users get around to exploring everything that is new in 4.1, much less to appreciating it.

KDE 4.1 desktop

The KDE 4.1 Desktop

Working with the desktop

In general terms, the 4.1 desktop offers only minor obstacles to those using it for the first time. Despite obvious changes, navigating the desktop shouldn’t offer any serious problems. The upper right corner displays a desktop toolkit, and some changes, such as the replacement of the Control Center with a settings dialog, may be momentarily puzzling. But in general, all the expected desktop elements are present, including the panel and the menu.

Take half an hour to explore the changes, and you should soon become familiar with them. Although the Control panel is edited in a temporary panel that appears above it rather than in a window dialog, and with icons and buttons rather than menu items, the basic concept remains the same, even if the look hasn't.

Perhaps the largest change is Folder View, which has been falsely rumored to eliminate icons on the desktop. But, once you grasp that folders are containers for icons, you shouldn't take long to see the possibilities of using this feature to organize projects and improve your workflow.

However, one remaining obstacle to 4.1 acceptance is that, despite some improvements compared to 4.0, the customization options are still more limited than on the 3.5 desktop. For example, although you can edit the applications view of the menu, you cannot alter the basic views in the menu. Similarly, while you can add icons and widgets to the panel, you still cannot autohide it or change its background. Nor can you have a floating panel. And, while you can move icons on the panel, rather inconveniently, you can only do so when in Panel Settings mode. This lack of some customization features does not affect basic functionality. But considering GNU/Linux users' high expectations of being able to do things their own way, it may be enough to make some users reject KDE 4.1 out of hand. The absence of even a small feature can loom surprisingly large if you are accustomed to having it.

By contrast, if you dislike some of the innovations on the 4.1 desktop, customization is advanced enough that you don't have to live with them. If you dislike how the menu cannot show a menu and sub-menu at the same time, you can right-click on the menu icon in the panel and choose Switch to Classic Menu Style. In the same way, if you can't live with Folder View, you can close all its instances and right-click on an item to copy it to the desktop or the panel. Or, if you dislike Dolphin as a file-manager, you can still open Konqueror instead.

Admittedly, some of the customization options can be hard to find. In fact, I confess that, until this article was published and the errors pointed out to me by readers, I missed the almost invisible arrows in the Panel Settings that changes the length of the panel. (In my own defense, the lack of obviousness of this control has already been registered as a bug to be fixed in KDE 4.2.) But the only serious customization drawback is that you cannot remove or hide the desktop toolkit.

Also, you can remove the small control icons around desktop items by selecting Lock Widget from the toolkit, but only at the cost of locking them into one position -- and, even then, the semi-transparent collar around the icons remains.

However, none of these customization options seriously interfere with your work, unless, perhaps, aesthetically.

KDE 4.1 desktop

Dolphin's new treeview allows faster access across directories. (It's disabled in the default setting.)

Programs Old and New

Another factor that will affect whether KDE 4.1 is ready for you to use is whether the KDE programs you use have been updated yet. So far as I know, all applications written for KDE 3.5 will continue running on 4.x, but, sooner or later, you will want versions that can take advantage of the new release's features.

For this reason, the release of new versions of KDE PIM, with Kmail, KOrganizer, Akregator, and other personal information management tools may be a major influence on whether you migrate to KDE 4.1. K3B, the popular CD/DVD burner, is also available now in a 4.1 release. In much the same way, many of the individual applications in KOffice have reached a usable beta stage, although the office suite as a whole seems perpetually frozen in alpha release, with nine so far since last fall. By contrast, the music player Amarok is still in its second alpha release.

NEXT PAGE: New programs in KDE 4.1

Even if a particular program has a version for KDE 4, you should also spend some time examining some of the changes in it. You may notice, for example, that the Kate text editor now has a desktop widget (that is, applet) for starting it in different ways. Dolphin, too, has undergone some changes from earlier versions, including the ability to navigate a version repository, encrypt folders on their contents, and use the contents of a selected folder to run a desktop slide show. Some will find these new features welcome while others, no doubt, will find them unnecessary clutter.

Still other programs are entirely new. Introduced in version 4.0, Okular and Gwenview, the new document and picture viewers, bring a much-need consolidation of viewers to KDE, while 4.1 introduces KSCD, a CD player, and Dragon Player, a DVD player, as well as a number of games such as KDiamond and KBreakout. Few of these new programs are essential to most people, but you should scan the 4.1 release notes to see whether any of them might affect your decision whether to migrate to the new release.

KDE 4.1 desktop

Nepomuk provides tagging and rating in KDE -- and thus in Dolphin.

General features

With all these changes, it will probably take a few days before you overcome your sense of the news and get an accurate impression of KDE 4.1 as a whole. In some cases, you may not notice much at all -- for instance, the ability to tag and comment on files will only come into its own in later releases as other features are added to allow you to take full advantage of Nepomuk, the semantic desktop layer. However, the general appearance and performance should become obvious to any user.

To start with, KDE 4 marks a major change in appearance for the desktop. In the KDE 4 releases, the desktop has finally struggled out of its late Nineties look with photo-realistic icons and desktop themes, and a compositing effects for those whose video cards and drivers can run them. Eye-candy may not be everything, and no doubt some will complain that KDE looks too much like Windows Vista or Mac OS X, but this changed appearance should gain KDE new respect in many circles.

In addition, the desktop is rendered in scalable vector graphics. Besides enhancing the eye-candy, this change has the practical effect of allowing you to rescale windows quickly without distortion. This feature could very easily be considered an accessibility feature, and even users with normal eyesight may welcome it at the end of a long day in front of the screen.

Another point that has been overlooked is the growing consistency of interfaces in the KDE 4 series. KDE has always had less variation in its menus and windows than GNOME, but now, with programs like Dolphin and Konqueror drawing on some of the same utilities, such as the Find File tool, the consistency is more obvious than ever. In fact, it may make KDE 4's innovations easier to learn than you might initially imagine.

Most importantly, general performance in 4.1 seems brisker than in KDE 3, and stability is considerably improved, not only only compared to KDE 4.0, but compared to the beta releases of a few weeks ago.

From this high level view, much of the controversy ceases to exist. So far as look and performance goes, KDE 4.1 is not only ready for use but can lay a serious claim to setting the standard for all modern desktops.

KDE 4.1 desktop

You can browse directories with images with Gwenview. Hover actions put common tasks at your fingertips.

Ready or not

KDE 4.1 has enough gaps in customization and supporting applications that it will probably not stop the controversy that surrounded KDE 4.0. However, it does offer enough features and stability that it should reduce the ferocity and number of complaints enough that more serious assessment of the changes in KDE 4.1 can begin.

Speaking as someone who has used KDE 4 intermittently since January and almost daily in the last month, I suggest that this stage is long overdue. One of the most unfortunate aspects of the recent user revolt is that it has all but obscured how ambitious and innovative the KDE 4 series actually is.

That is not to say that some complaints were unjustified, or that every experiment in KDE 4 is equally successful. But it does mean that serious assessment has been lost as emotion and rumor have taken on a life of their own.

With luck, KDE 4.1 will provide enough breathing space that more thoughtful criticism can start to emerge. If it does that, then KDE 4.1 will be a successful release -- even if it doesn't offer everything that every user wants.

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