KDE Review: KDE 4.4 Comes in from the Cold

Monday Feb 15th 2010 by Bruce Byfield
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KDE 4 got off to a difficult start, yet the Linux desktop interface has improved steadily, and its recent release finally reaches maturity.

Between radical changes and limited functionality, the KDE 4 series got off to a rough start. However, with each release, KDE 4 has improved steadily and silenced more critics. Now, with the KDE 4.4 release, the series has reached first maturity.

Those who expect everything to behave exactly as it did in the KDE 3 series may still struggle with 4.4. But, for those willing to accept change, 4.4 has no shortage of new features to offer, ranging from the implementation of several long-term directions to enhanced usability on the desktop -- including Plasma Netbook, a new interface designed specifically for netbook computers.

Released a week ago, KDE 4.4 is rapidly finding its way into distributions. Guides are already available for installing the new version in many major distributions, including Fedora, openSuse, and Ubuntu.

KDE Concepts New and Old

For several releases, KDE has been implementing the concepts of the social desktop -- an interface that incorporates online services -- and the semantic desktop -- a full index of home directory content whose first implementation is to simplify searching on the desktop.

Now, with the 4.4 release, these concepts are at last becoming more accessible. The social desktop is being realized through a growing number of widgets, including general ones for Incoming Messages and Microblogging and specific ones for ones for KDE's KnowledgeBase as well as OpenDesktop.org and Google Calendar.

kde 4.4, linux desktop

KDE 4.4

Similarly, the semantic desktop is becoming more user-friendly, with integration into the Dolphin file manager. It also has simplified configuration in the Advance tab of System Settings that allow a choice of what folders to index but eliminates the redundant option of what to exclude, and sets a limit on the size of the index file.

The configuration could still use improvement -- in particular, the removal of the names of Nepomuk and Strigi, the engines that power the semantic desktops, from the interface, and a rewording of the advice that, the more memory allocated to Nepomuk, "the more performant it will be.” However, finally, the semantic desktop is becoming more than just a buzz word.

At the same time that these old concepts are being phased in, KDE 4.4 introduces the concept of desktop widgets that can be shared over a network. This is a concept that brings both promises and security risks, so I wish that configuration options were more clearly written: The difference between “Share this widget on the network” and “Allow everybody to freely access this widget” is likely to take a moment's thought for anyone to distinguish, no matter what their level of expertise. Still, this is a concept that is apparently unique to KDE, and its development over upcoming releases should be worth watching.

Enhancing the KDE Desktop

The most obvious changes in KDE 4.4 are in the interface. Many of these changes are small, such as a simplification of the default display in Kontact address books, the display of widgets by categories, or the ability to control which widgets display in the panel's notification tray. However, the largest improvements are to the behavior of windows on the desktop.

The KDE 4 series has always had six hotspots on the edges of the desktop that you can click to change what the desktop displays and how. Now, KDE 4.4 expands the hotspot options, adding a variety of special effects that you might not want to keep enabled all the time.

The Show Desktop option is especially useful, for restoring order to a cluster of windows -- especially since, unlike the panel icon that provides the same option on other desktop, you only have to remember a general area, not squint at a few pixels to decipher them.

KDE 4.4 screen edges

KDE 4.4 screen-edges

Another way to order windows is to dock one against any side of the desktop. Alternatively, by dragging a window to the top edge, you can maximize it while reducing the repetitive strain that comes with mouse clicks.

But, by far the greatest desktop innovation in KDE 4.4 is one that is also the simplest -- the ability to group windows by tabs. This feature is implemented by a single item added to each window's menu. Yet the implications for easing users' workflow is immense.

Consider, for example, a graphic designer, who might want to have a font manager open to choose fonts, a rough sketch of a design to refer to, Inkscape to create a vector graphic, and the GIMP to produce the brochure that they are working on. Instead of fumbling through an array of windows to find each resource, in KDE 4.4 the designer can arrange all their resources in tabs of a single window, where they are easily found.

Next Page: KDE progress in usability

Similarly, imagine a business discussion via IRC, in which you have office suite documents and web pages you want to refer to. Instead of looking for information when you need to be following the conversation, in KDE 4.4 you can organize the relevant material in a single window.

kde tabbed windows

KDE 4.4 tabbed-windows

Developers working from Konsole have had tabs for years. But until now, other users have lacked this simple but important advantage. It should appeal especially to OpenOffice.org users, many of whom have been lobbying for years for tabbed windows within the office suite. KDE's Plasma Netbook

KDE 4.4 also introduces Plasma Netbook, so-called because it is an adaptation of KDE's Plasma desktop rather than an entirely new desktop. You can start the new interface by selecting from the menu System Settings -> Desktop -> Workspace -> Form Factor -> Netbook.

kde plasma netbook

KDE 4.4 Plasma Netbook

Plasma Netbook consists of two tabbed desktop views -- or "containments," in the jargon of KDE developers. Page One, the first view, is a collection of widgets you might want when first logging in, such as new feeds, a weather reports, and links to openDesktop.org and the KDE Knowledge Base. The second, labeled Search and Launch, is essentially the menu transferred to a series of icons on the desktop, with a favorites bar across the top and a search field.

This arrangement is more flexible that it might first appear. You can easily add a folder view to Page One if you want a specific set of icons, although you might have to scroll to find them. Should you decide not to use Plasma Netbook, you can easily return to System Settings and select Desktop instead. These are advantages that would not be possible if Plasma Netbook was completely separate from the standard desktop.

Like any new interface, Plasma Netbook takes some adjustment. However, the finished release manages to simplify the interface of its beta, and overcomes the problem I observed in the beta of having some windows open at less than optimal sizes. Of all the GNU/Linux netbook interfaces I have tried, it makes best use of space, and is the first that I would consider using.

Meanwhile, I am considering mimicking Page One by dedicating an Activity to widgets -- an idea that is so simple that it seems obvious.

Progress in Usability and Innovation

This overview does not come anywhere close to describing all the features in KDE 4.4. Besides applications like the blogging tool Bloglio or the Palapeli jigsaw puzzle, the new release also includes a number of much needed administration tools, ranging from the general User Management to the KDE-specific Login Manager and K3B Setup.

Individual applications also show changes, such as the addition of a Favorite pane for email folders in Kmail or the ability to search for Plasma widgets in Krunner. Behind the scenes, the first use of the Akonadi engine promises to allow the easier sharing of personal information across different applications.

Those who want a complete list of features can refer to the KDE TechBase page for the release.

However, this overview does give some sense of how KDE has progressed with a number of long-term goals, including usability. I don't know how long KDE's developers can sustain their efforts. But just now, they seem to have a knack of introducing small innovations to make life easier for their users and for designing efficient and original interfaces.

Personally, I can't wait to see what they will do next.

ALSO SEE: The KDE 4 Series: Pro and Con

AND: 65 Open Source Downloads That Could Change Your Life

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