KDE 4.2: Usability Makes a Comeback

Wednesday Jan 28th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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The just released KDE 4.2 is a major improvement that should generally satisfy most users, with only some minor additional enhancements needed.

Linus Torvalds may have switched too soon from the KDE 4 desktop because of usability problems. Less than a week after he made his off-hand comments, KDE 4.2 has been released, adding many of the customization settings that Torvalds and others complained were lacking in the KDE 4 series.

Customization isn't the whole story in KDE 4.2, of course. Developers may appreciate the new support for writing desktop widgets in Ruby and Python. Average users can find all sorts of enhancements in individual applications, from the ability to open tabs in the Dolphin file-manager to the ability to use Vi keybindings in the Kate editor, and the addition of PowerDevil for power management, especially on laptops.

All users, too, can appreciate the wealth of new applets, such as the Blue Marble Globe or RRSNow. There is even Bball, a red bouncing ball for the desktop that fulfills the apparent obligation for GNU/Linux desktops to have at least one useless widget.

But even these changes -- which easily run into the hundreds, if not thousands -- are usually aimed at letting users work in their own way. And nowhere is this tendency more obvious than in the general desktop options. Although usability began to creep back in with the 4.1 release last summer, with 4.2, concern with usability has become the dominant theme, with new configuration options to FolderView, Krunner, and the various sections of the panel.

KDE 4.2 will likely take some time to trickle down to the stable repositories of many distributions. Meanwhile, you compile it from source, or preview it using the KDE4 Live CD from openSUSE. The first packages, often still in the experimental stage, are also available for Debian, Kubuntu, SUSE, and Magic Linux. Other distributions should follow shortly.

FolderView reaches maturity

The quickest place to see KDE's regained usability is on the desktop. Many users have been puzzled by the introduction of FolderView, worrying that the joke that it was to remove icons from the desktop was actually true. And, in earlier KDE 4 releases, the point of FolderView seems to have been lost on many users. This was true even though its floating window of icons is actually far more versatile and easily changed than traditional icons.

Now, with version 4.2, KDE makes more room for individual preference. If you choose, you can have a traditional desktop with icons by right-clicking on the desktop, then selecting Appearance Settings from the context menu and setting the Desktop Activity Type to FolderView. The result is a transparent FolderView that covers the entire screen except for the panel. If you choose, you still have a floating FolderView, or else maintain several sets of icons for different tasks, choosing between them in Appearance Settings.

Just as important, 4.2 adds increased options for each FolderView. While in earlier KDE 4 releases you could only choose the folder to display and apply filters to set the type of files shown, in 4.2 you can set icon size and arrangement, as well as the preview and text options for each individual FolderView.

Filters, too, are enhanced, with a dialog that allows you to pick file types without having to remember what different extensions mean. With this flexibility and added options, FolderView comes into its own for the first time.

KRunner becomes a desktop command center

KRunner has always been one of the more deceptive features in KDE 4. At first glance, it looks like nothing more than an applet that runs a single command, and then closes -- something moderately useful, but hardly earth shattering, especially if you were a user who shunned the terminal.

However, even in earlier versions of KDE 4, this appearance was deceptive. While you could use KRunner only for entering commands, you could also use it for desktop searches, switching virtual desktops, converting from one measurement unit to another, and viewing or killing active processes owned by the current account.

For those in the know, these features were enough to keep KRunner constantly ready on the desktop. However, in 4.2, KRunner adds a host of new tools. Now, you can use KRunner to find and open individual sessions of Kate, Konqueror, and Konsole, to access power management tools, spell check documents, find shortcuts in Konqueror, and search your browsing history.

You also have the choice of a command or task-oriented interface. The command interface is the one used in earlier KDE 4 releases, and is best suited to experts with some understanding of their operating systems. However, the task-oriented interface allows you to start typing and choose a completion either to find a specific application or to do the task you have entered. Quietly, without much attention, KRunner has evolved into an alternative to the default menu that is more efficient and easier to use, and that claims a smaller footprint on the desktop.

On the panel

However, the desktop panel is the place where KDE 4.2 sports the most changes. The sole exception is the menu, where the restrictive Kickoff remains the default, although you can still replace it with the Classic menu or with Lancelot, if Lancelot is included among the widgets in your distribution. But elsewhere, the panel has become far more configurable.

To start with, panel settings now include controls for the screen edge and height -- characteristics that you could change in earlier KDE 4 releases, but that users had no indication existed. Just as important, a More Settings menu has been added to the panel settings display. From this menu, you can maximize the panel length with one item choice, instead of dragging on the easy-to-overlook arrows for resizing, or chose the alignment for the panel.

New options in the menu include settings to autohide the panel, or to allow other windows to overlap it, so that you can maximize screen space -- an option that is particularly useful if you have increased the height of the panel for easier reading.

Other improvements include better control of how widgets are added to the panel. In at least some distributions' versions of 4.1, some widgets -- the Calculator, for instance -- spilled out over the desktop rather than adding a small icon to the panel. Now, in 4.2, that has been corrected, and all widgets are added to the panel in a consistent and suitable way.

In much the same way, notifications and messages appear in a more consistent way, displaying just above the system tray in contrast to earlier releases, in which some messages caused confusion by appearing in other places.

On the task manager, which displays open windows, KDE also adds options for adding multiple rows and grouping when you have lots of windows open. You can now stack applications in as many rows as you choose, or group them automatically by program name. In addition, you can list all the contents of the task manager by desktop or alphabetical order, or manually or not at all.

The system tray has also changed, adding the ability to hide icons. Mercifully, this ability is not run for you by the desktop, as it is on Windows, but instead is a feature that you can configure as you please, either to save space on the panel, or else to ignore tray contents that you are not particularly interested in. You might, for example, prefer to hide the update notifier if you prefer not to be bothered by notifications of new updates.

Right across the panel, you find much the same as you do on the rest of the desktop -- more power, more control, and more ease of use.

KDE 3.5, KDE 4.2

If you were a KDE 3.5 user, you might not be very impressed by these new features. Many are neither impressive nor innovative -- and, after all, you had most of them before you started using KDE 4.0. However, as you use KDE 4.2, you may find that the cumulative effect is that, for the first time in KDE 4, you are working the way that you prefer, instead of adjusting your habits to the limits of the desktop.

That's not to say that KDE 4.2 couldn't use a tweak or two. Users could more easily find alternatives to the KickOff menu like Quick Launch if they were added to the main menu's configuration choices, instead of buried in the list of widgets. Similarly, some users might appreciate the ability to change the panel background without searching for the way to change desktop themes, or to move the panel to the top edge of the screen without obscuring the desktop toolkit (or "the kidney bean," as I have heard several users call it). But, in general, 4.2 is a major improvement that should leave most users generally satisfied, and wanting only minor additional enhancements.

The KDE Project has had a rocky year since KDE 4.0 was released. It has faced a barrage of criticism, some of it justified and much of it not -- and some unfairly abusive, no matter how valid. But, with the release of 4.2, the pressure should be off. KDE can still use additional enhancements, but, after KDE 4.2, almost all of the criticism is going to sound increasingly petty and spiteful.

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