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.