KDE 4.2: Ten Tips for Getting Started

Tuesday Feb 24th 2009 by Bruce Byfield

Helpful guidance so you’ll be comfortable moving around the KDE 4.2 desktop.

Over the last year, the KDE 4 releases have suffered frequently hostile receptions. Part of that hostility was due to a widespread failure to understand that the first release was not intended for general use, and therefore was missing some of the features that KDE users took for granted. Another part seems to have been the sheer number and novelty of some of the changes. However, improvements and familiarity have taken much of the edge off the hostility, and, with last month's release of version 4.2, users finally seem to be warming to the new KDE.

All the same, KDE 4.2 is full of new design concepts and features that take a while to appreciate. Sometimes, these changes are simply a repositioning of familiar features; yet just as often, they represent a rethinking of everyday tools. Once or twice, the features even overlap or conflict with existing ones.

To help bring you up to speed, here are ten tips for understanding and working with KDE 4.2. They aren't exhaustive by any means -- but they should be enough to make you comfortable moving around KDE 4.2 so that you can discover other changes on your own.

1) Going in and out of customization display

Probably the first thing you should know about KDE 4 is that it has separate views for customizing desktop and panel options.

On the desktop, you cannot add widgets (or, depending on the distribution, icons) until you go to the desktop toolkit -- the cashew or kidney-shaped icon in the upper right of the desktop -- and select Unlock Widgets. When this selection is chosen, any widget or icon you add has a collar of four mini-icons. From the top to the bottom, these mini-icons allow you to resize, move, configure, and delete the widget to which they are attached. After you are finished adding a widget or icon, select Lock Widgets from the desktop toolkit to prevent further editing. You can still right-click on the desktop and select Icons to sort and align icons.

The panel works the same way, requiring you to select Unlock Widgets from its right-click menu before you can customize anything. Once you have done so, select Panel Options -> Panel Settings to get into customization mode. A configuration panel appears above the actual panel that allows you to move the panel to another edge of the screen, adjust the height, add widgets -- the same set as on the desktop -- and autohide the panel. Below the customization panel, you’ll also find slider arrows for changing the width of the panel.

Note that you also need to be in customization mode to move icons on the panel, or to add a new panel. KDE 4.2 still does not have four of the five panel types found in KDE 3.5.9, but you should be able to create rough equivalents of the missing four by a careful selection of widgets.

The only thing about the panel that you cannot customize directly from the panel is its color. Instead, the panel's color is set by the theme you choose from Main Menu -> Configure Desktop -> General -> Appearance.

2) Swapping desktop icons with Folder View

KDE has gone beyond the traditional desktop by introducing a new concept called Folder View. Contrary to what you may have heard, Folder View represents not the elimination of desktop icons, but, rather, the expansion of the concept.

In its simplest form, Folder View is a semi-transparent widget that displays the contents of a designated folder, and can be moved around. However, if you right-click the desktop and select Appearance -> Desktop Activity -> Type -> Folder View, then a Folder View becomes a transparent overlay of the entire desktop. Either way, you can have as many Folder Views open as you want.

You can also create Folder Views, store each collection in a separate folder, then choose which one to display by right-clicking and selecting Folder View Options -> Location -> Specify a folder, selecting an icon collection that matches a specific task. Alternatively, you associate different Folder Views with different Activities (see below.)

In addition, you can customize the icons in each Folder View, or filter the icons that each displays by right-clicking in it and selecting Folder View Options.

3) Using Multiple Desktops and Activities

Multiple or virtual desktops have been a feature of KDE for years. They still exist in the KDE 4 series, and you can switch between them using the pager on the panel. However, KDE also includes an identical feature called Activities.

To add an activity, select Desktop Toolkit -> Zoom Out. The first time you do so, you will see only one desktop that occupies about a quarter of the screen. However, if you select Add Activity from the toolbar, you can create another Activity. Each Activity can have its own colors, widgets and -- if you want -- Folder View, and can be given a separate name if you click Appearance Settings on the tool bar.

While you are zoomed out, you can return to a full-screen view by selecting an Activity and clicking the Zoom In icon. Once you are in a full-screen view, you can use Shift + Ctrl + N or Shift + Ctrl + P to change the current Activity.

Why both multiple desktops and Activities co-exist is a bit of a mystery. However, given that multiple desktops cannot have separate wallpapers or colors in KDE 4.2, I suspect that they will eventually disappear, making for one less tool on the panel.

4) Selecting Desktop Effects

Kwin, the KDE window manager, includes three dozen desktop effects that you can use if you have at least a couple of megabytes of RAM and a video driver with 3-D support. You can choose the effects you want to use by selecting Main Menu -> Favorites -> Configure Desktop -> General -> Desktop -> Desktop Effects.

Like other desktop effects, KDE's vary from practical ones like the Magnifier and Zoom, which can improve desktop accessibility, to the convenient, like Dialog Parent, which darkens a window when a sub-window pops up, to pure eye candy such as displaying virtual desktops on a cube or having windows fall to pieces when they are closed. Many of the effects have their own settings to fine-tune how they start and operate.

You also have the option on the Screen Edges tab of activating effects by moving the mouse cursor to one of eight points at the edge of the screen. However, currently, you are limited to assigning six effects to the edges, most of which are more decorative than practical.

The distributions that I've seen are set by default to use OpenGL as the compositing type. However, you may have to go to the Advanced tab and select XRender to enable some of the effects.

5) Choosing a menu

KDE 4 introduced the Kickoff menu. This menu features a search field on the top, and five views: the default Favorites, and Applications, Computer, Recently Used, and Leave. Kickoff shows only one menu level at a time, providing right arrows on the right to descend a level, and left arrows on the left to ascend a level.

Many people consider Kickoff an improvement on the old accordion-style menu, in which all menu levels are visible at once, spilling out across the desktop. However, just as many seem to dislike the change.

If you are among those who dislike Kickoff, you can right-click the menu button and select Switch to Classic Menu to get an accordion-style menu.

Alternatively, if your distribution includes the package, you can install Lancelot, an alternative menu that displays several menu levels at once, but confines all levels to a single window -- a sort of compromise between the Kickoff and Classic menus. Lancelot's top level is divided between Favorite and Applications columns, and includes Documents, Contacts, and Computer views, with logout options along the bottom.

To install Lancelot, right-click the panel, and select Panel Options -> Add Widgets -> Lancelot Launcher. The icon appears on the far right of the panel, so you will probably want to right-click the panel a second time and select Panel Options -> Panel Settings, then drag the icon to the left side of the panel. You can right-click on the Lancelot icon to further customize the menu.

No matter which menu you choose, you can right-click and select Menu Edit to alter and re-arrange contents. However, you can only edit the applications menu. Top-level views, such as Favorites, are still uneditable.

6) Hiding System Tray Icons

On most operating systems, the system tray can quickly fill with icons, many of which you don't care about and have to pass the mouse over to know what they are. Windows will hide little-used icons, but KDE allows you to right-click on the tray and set the icons to hide for yourself. If you click the arrow on the left of the tray, you can view the hidden icons if necessary.

7) Customizing the Task Manager

The task manager is the list of open windows. In earlier versions of KDE 4, the task manager was rather basic, but in 4.2, it comes with a variety of options. Right-click on the task manager, and you can set how many rows it uses to display windows, how or if windows are grouped and sorted, and whether windows from every desktop are available.

Another useful way to customize the task manager is to select Main Menu -> Favorites -> Configure Desktop -> General -> Desktop -> Desktop Effects -> All Effects -> Taskbar Thumbnails. This desktop effect will display a thumbnail of a window in the task manager when the cursor rests on it.

8) Choosing Notifications Options

Most desktops give you the option of selecting whether to play a sound or have a popup window notify you of different system and program events. KDE 4.2 not only gives you these options, but also the choice of logging events (which can help you to track problems), marking a taskbar entry, running a custom speech file, or turning off notifications altogether. If you are one of those who despise sounds or popup notifications, you should be able to find some option that satisfies you at Main Menu -> Favorites -> Configure Desktop -> Desktop.

9) Using KRunner

Remember the single row command lines that main menus and file managers used to have? KRunner is their highly evolved descendant. Started by pressing Alt+F2, KRunner can be used simply for entering a command, but includes over twenty plugins for such tasks as doing simple calculations, converting from one unit of measurement to the next, spell-checking, and searching bookmarks, address books, and Konqueror's history.

Using many of these plugins require learning some simple syntax. For example, if you wanted to start a web search for Datamation, you would enter "gg:Datamation," while if you wanted to know how many centimeters there are in four yards, you would enter "4 yd in cm." However, the syntax is easy to learn, all the more so because of KRunner's typing completion.

KRunner also features a choice of command and task-oriented views, and a summary of all current running processes that you can use to kill misbehaving ones.

The best way to think of KRunner is as a main menu replacement for intermediate and advanced users. In many ways, it combines the flexibility of the command line and the ease of use of the graphical desktop, offering all sorts of utilities in a very small footprint.

10) Selecting Profiles and Sessions

Folder View is not the only part of KDE 4 that allows the quick loading of different profiles or sessions. If you look at the list of available widgets, you'll see that you can add widgets to launch different profiles of Konsole and Konqueror, and different sessions of Kate as well.

These profiles and sessions are basic when you first start to use KDE. For example, the only profile for Konsole in openSUSE is a root shell, while Konqueror's profiles include File Management, Web Browsing, and Tabbed Webbed Browsing. However, you can add new profiles from within each application, and use the widgets to save time by going directly to the one you want to use.

KDE: Lots to Discover

These are only the most basics for settling down to work comfortably with KDE 4.2. Probably, you will want to right-click on the desktop and choose Appearance Setting to configure your desktop wallpaper and themes, and to browse Main Menu -> Favorites -> Configure Desktop for other ways to tweak your system. But, in general, these tools differ little from earlier versions of KDE -- or from most other desktops, for that matter.

You will also find individual programs have been redesigned. For instance, Amarok now sports a very different interface, while the KDE-PIM suite now uses Akonadi, a common storage server that requires a MySQL database for storing information. Such changes will take some readjustment, and introduce many new concepts and functionality, but are far too numerous to mention here.

However, once you are aware of the basic changes mentioned here, you can set up a desktop on which you feel comfortable, and use it as a starting point for other explorations. KDE 4 has been a long time arriving and gaining acceptance, but, with KDE 4.2 it has finally arrived -- and, with it, lots to discover.

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