The KDE 4 Series: Pro and Con

Wednesday Aug 12th 2009 by Bruce Byfield

KDE 4.3 has room for improvements, yet is far from being the step backward that some detractors claim.

The KDE desktop has been the center of changes and controversy for the last eighteen months. However, with last week's release of version 4.3, the majority of users finally seem to accept -- if not necessarily love -- the changes. At this point, it seems fair to ask: How successful are the KDE 4 series of releases?

Personally, I was snared at the 4.0 release. It seemed to include the most interesting innovations on the GNU/Linux desktop (and still does). But the 4.0 release was not ready for everyday use, and I waited over a year for KDE 4.2 before switching to KDE for my main desktop.

Inevitably, that switch brought a degree of disillusionment. After all, following innovations is very different from using a piece of software every day. You need daily use over several months to appreciate a feature fully, or to become thoroughly irritated by it. I eventually found that I had growing lists of both pros and cons -- some minor, and some major, but all of which affected my reaction to the KDE 4 series.

What I like in the KDE 4 series

In theory, the KDE 4 series has all sorts of features that could transform the user experience. For example, Nepomuck, the metadata manager, should add a whole new dimension to desktop searching and sharing of information. Similarly, geolocation, whose basics are introduced in 4.3, opens immense (and sometimes ominous) possibilities.

However, for various reasons, none of these features has fully materialized yet. Instead, it is relatively minor features that shape my everyday appreciation of KDE:

  • Translucent windows: If you open the menu and select to Favorites -> System Settings -> Desktop Effects -> All Effects -> Translucency, then windows on the desktop are transparent in certain situations. Because I usually work with every possible window open, the most useful of these situations is when I am dragging a window to a new position on the monitor, so that I can see what else is on the desktop. Your work habits may not make this desktop as useful to you as it is for me, but, in general, KDE 4's effects are some of the most practical that I have seen. Instead of being novelties, they are genuinely useful.
  • Previews of desktop folders and tasks: In the latest KDE release, hovering the mouse over a minimized task or a folder opens a popup preview of the item. While this is a small feature, it makes locating the right item on a crowded desktop or task bar far easier than maximizing or opening an item.
  • Alternative choices: The KDE 4 series introduces dozens of changes, some of which are more controversial than others. While some users are demanding change, others don't want key features to change drastically. To their credit, KDE developers seem to go out of their way to provide for both sets of users. For instance, if you don't like the default menu, you can right-click and use the Classic menu instead. Similarly, in KDE 4.3, the System Settings window now has a tree view that resembles the KDE Control Centre of the KDE 3 series.
  • The control of notifications: Modern desktops, including ones on GNU/Linux, suffer from a bad case of overshare. They want to tell you everything that they are doing, a habit that can break down your concentration. But in KDE 4, you can right-click on the system tray and choose what notifications you receive. Admittedly, the classifications of notices are a bit vague (for example, what sort of notices do you get from System Services?), but the control is there. If nothing else, you can temporarily turn off all notifications when you don't want to be disturbed, and that is a treasure that I have found nowhere else.
  • Folder Views: When first introduced, Folder Views were supposed to be the end of icons on the desktop. Instead, the rumors claimed, we were all going to be forced to open our applications via the menu. But in practice, those of us who insist on icons on the desktop have never had a better tool than Folder View. Thanks to Folder View, instead of being stuck with one set of icons, we can maintain several, swapping them in a matter of a few seconds. Not only are the multiple icon sets efficient, but they eliminate the need for clumsy workarounds that are required in other desktops.
  • Activities: Activities are the next generation of virtual desktops. You can zoom out via the desktop tool box (more generally known as the cashew), and see and define activities, and switch between them. Add Activities to Folder Views, and customizing your desktop to your immediate needs becomes easy. In 4.3, you can also associate Activities with virtual desktops, although, fairly clearly, they are eventually going to replace virtual desktops altogether
  • Completist applications: Every once and awhile, you find a piece of free software that is so crammed with features that you can't imagine any other application surpassing it. Such applications are a little awe-inspiring, and KDE has at least three of them: Kontact for personal information management, Amarok for music, and digiKam for image management. Amarok has recently released a new version specifically for the KDE 4 series, and digiKam is just about to. Although Amarok in particular has suffered something of the same reaction as KDE 4.0, all these programs are a joy to use if you take the trouble to learn them -- although, strictly speaking, Kontact is a central organizer for several related programs.

Next Page: Downside of KDE 4 series

The Down Side of the KDE 4 Series

For some users, what is wrong with the KDE 4 series is that it isn't the 3 series. By contrast, my misgivings tend to center on ways of doing things that are minor, but become irritating because I can't avoid them:

  • The location of settings for Folder Views: Choices for such features as the size of the icons or the color of the text that accompanies icons are available by right-clicking on the Folder View and selecting Choices for Folder View. That positioning makes sense, but I wish it was duplicated in System Settings where most of the other configuration options are -- and where I have wasted long moments searching for where to adjust the Folder View.
  • Configuring Panel Backgrounds: Options for panels have come a long way since the 4.0 release, when panels were confined to the bottom of the screen and could only be configured in one or two ways. However, in 4.3, the one way to change the background of a panel is to change the general desktop theme. The ability to choose a color, gradient, or image for the panel background should be available from the panel options, where most people are likely to look for it.
  • Profiles for Konsole and Kate: One characteristic of native KDE utilities is that you store multiple configurations for them. However, in my experience, few people do. That means that the widgets you can add to the panel that display a list of configurations for applications like Konsole or Kate are largely wasted. They just add another step to opening a command line or text editor.
  • Apply and OK Buttons for Configuration: When you change a setting, you press the Apply button to bring the change into effect, then the OK button to close the dialog. This setup is uncomfortably reminiscent of Windows, and redundant besides. Half the time, I am not sure which button to press.
  • The Device Notifier: KDE keeps a separate list on the panel of external drives plugged in to the system. This list is handy, but awkward. To actually do something with an external device like a camera or a USB drive, you have to click to bring up a dialog window with the available options, where you select from the list of possibilities. Then, when you want to remove the external device, the control for ensuring that all operations it is involved with are finished is not in the list of devices, but on the file manager window. If the Device Notifier is supposed to manage external devices, then I wish that it would do that, and not farm out operations to unnecessary dialogs and windows.
  • The Menu: The default Kickoff menu is supposed to provide a rational alternative to the classic accordion-style menu that sprawls across the desktop when it is opened. That goal is a worthy one, but, by confining the display of menus to a single window, Kickoff displays only one level of menus at a time, and can quickly confuse users. It is so awkward that I don't know anyone who uses it; every KDE user I know replaces Kickoff with either the Classic menu or the Lancelot menu available from the widgets.
  • Menu and Option Organization: Very few KDE 4 applications (or KDE 3 applications, for that matter) put as much thought into how items are organized than the average GNOME application. Often, not even alphabetical order is observed. The result is that, when using a new KDE application or trying to find a little-accessed feature, I often have a prolonged search. The few conventions that are observed, such as looking for configuration options in the Settings menu, frequently limit the search only to a degree. I wouldn't want KDE applications to limit the options they offer, but I do wish they would organize them.

Overdue for Recognition

Looking at these lists, I notice an important difference between them. On the one hand, the Pro list mentions ways that I can personalize the KDE 4 series, or applications that I use several times a week. On the other hand, except for the menu or option organization, the Con list consists of minor or occasional annoyances. While I have no trouble generating ways that the KDE 4 series enhances my user experience, I can think of only one way that seriously interferes with my daily work. More than anything else, I think that contrast shows how KDE 4.3 has become an efficient and user-friendly desktop.

Or, to put things another way: Shortly before the release of KDE 4.1, I suggested nine ways in which the KDE 4 series could be improved from a user's perspective. I mentioned a customizable panel, a better menu, image previews in the Dolphin file manager, and five other points. Of those eight points, only one -- accessibility tools comparable to GNOME's -- remains unaddressed. Another, drag and drop between the desktop and the menu and panel is partly addressed, since in KDE 4.3, you can drag from the menu to the desktop, but not from the panel to the desktop. Clearly, the KDE 4 series has been making steady progress towards greater usability with each release.

Even KDE 4.3 has room for improvements. Yet I think the overall tendency is clear. Instead of being the innovative abomination that some detractors claim, the KDE 4 series is a significant contribution to the free desktop, and one long overdue for recognition.

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