KDE 4.6 Beta: Finding New Directions

Wednesday Dec 8th 2010 by Bruce Byfield

KDE 4.6 falls short of the dramatic changes of early KDE 4 releases, yet it lays the groundwork for the desktop’s future development.

KDE 4.6 will be slightly more ambitious than the last couple of releases. Judging from the recently-announced first beta, it will include the usual behind-the-scene enhancements, and additions of interest to developers. But it will also include some concrete improvements to the desktop, especially with the changes to the Dolphin file manager and the so-called re-introduction of Activities.

You can download the source code for the beta from the usual mirrors. However, the beta, officially numbered 4.5.80, has already been packaged by many distributions, including Kubuntu (Ubuntu's KDE distro), openSUSE, and Fedora.

The Kubuntu packages were prone to crashes when I tested, but that will probably change by the time you try them. By contrast, the live image for Rawhide, Fedora's development repository, was slow to load but stable.

Behind the scenes

Many of the changes in the beta are of interest mainly to developers and not directly observable to casual users, although the changes may affect development in future releases.

Some of these changes are designed to extend the use of KDE to mobile devices. The beta supports QML, a language for developing interfaces for mobile devices. Similarly, Solid, KDE's engine for hardware interaction, is moving away from reliance on HAL, the Hardware Abstraction originally developed for workstation desktops and adds support for such replacement technologies as upower and udev.

kde activities panel

KDE activities panel

The beta also supports the use of device targets, and makes PowerDevil, KDE's power management system more customizable. However, the benefits of these changes are unlikely to be realized in the 4.6 release, and many will probably go largely unnoticed by average users when they do come into play.

Only slightly more noticeable is the completed deployment of Akonadi, KDE's personal information management (PIM) engine, which in previous releases was confined to supporting a few applications like KMail and KAddressbook. Since this change unifies PIM storage in a single database, in theory it should increase the efficiency with which PIM applications interact, but the greatest benefit will probably be to developers working on future releases.

On the Desktop

One improvement on the desktop not emphasized in the release notes is the continued growth of widgets for the desktop or panel. When the KDE series was first introduced, the selection of widgets was sparse, but their number has increased with each release, and the 4.6 beta appears no exception.

The available widgets varies with the distribution, so distinguishing those just be introduced from those just added by the distribution can be difficult. However, if I am correct, the beta introduces a number of monitors for hardware, a Facebook widget, and a keyboard locale switcher -- all welcome additions to the growing ecosystem of mini-applications.

Moreover, the pop-up panel for adding widgets has also been partly redesigned, with all the category filters placed into a single drop-down list, and a button added to toggle between widgets and activities, which saves several keystrokes when you are in the midst of customizing a desktop.

Another ongoing improvement in the KDE 4 series is the Dolphin file manager, which gains in versatility and convenience with every release. The latest beta is no exception.

Changes in the latest version of Dolphin now include a plugin for the version control system Git and the ability to search within files. An automatic adjustment of column widths in the Column view to accommodate long file names is yet another small but welcome enhancement -- although why the Detail and Icon views lack the same feature is puzzling, since they could use it, too.

But the largest change in Dolphin is what the release announcement calls "faceted browsing" -- that is, a panel for filtering the files and directories displayed. Opened by selecting View -> Panels -> Filter, this feature allows you to filter by such characteristics as file type, time stamp, and rating. My only question with this feature is why other filters, such as directories, are not included on the Filter panel. All the same, those who do file management from the desktop should find this improvement to Dolphin, like all the others, very welcome.

Renewing Your Acquaintance with Activities

One of the greatest efforts in the beta is to reintroduce the task oriented virtual desktops known as Activities -- in other words, to make Activities easier to use and to encourage people to use them.

Introduced in KDE 4, Activities were supposed to be a major feature of the current release series. Lead developer Aaron Seigo has talked many times of the potential in them, suggesting, for example, that future releases might tie in Activities with geolocation, so that a laptop automatically opens to the appropriate workspace, complete with its customized icons and widgets, depending on whether you are at home or the office. Even now, the ability to maintain multiple settings for different tasks, such as writing and video editing, make Activities a useful innovation.


KDE's Dolphin

Unfortunately, only a minority of users seem aware of Activities at all. Part of the problem is that the distinction between Virtual Desktops and Activities is so slight that retaining both only confuses. The explanation in the KDE community appears to be that Virtual Desktops are for giving users more desktop space, while Activities are for organizing by tasks -- but since both can be used for either purpose, the distinction escapes many users. Since Virtual Desktops have a visible icon on the panel, that is what most people use.

Another part of the problem is that Activities originally displayed in a zoom out view that was convenient, but whose function seemed to puzzle many users. The zoom view was replaced in the 4.5 release with a sliding panel, like the one used for widgets, making the interface more consistent -- but that, in turn, puzzled some of those who had finally become accustomed to the zoom.

Under these circumstances, the talk of the "reintroduction" of Activities becomes understandable. For some users, I suspect that the beta might be their first introduction to Activities.

Besides the sliding panel, KDE 4.5 added other efforts to make Activities more noticeable, such as an Activities Bar widget for switching between them. However, these efforts are minor compared the overhaul of Activities in the 4.6 beta.

Unfortunately, the 4.6 beta still includes both Virtual Desktops and Activities. Otherwise, though, Activities are more versatile. Activities could already take different Folder Views, allowing each to maintain its own set of icons, but now each Activity can have its own set of widgets. The release announcement also mentions being able to start and stop applications as you switch to and from an Activity, although that feature is apparently unimplemented in the beta.

To further encourage the use of Activities, their panel now includes the option to clone the current Activity, or to either choose an existing template, or to download a new one. In addition, Activities on the panel now have a set of mini-icons for removing or configuring Activities, making them more closely resemblance icons elsewhere on the desktop. All these changes should go a long way to helping Activities become part of users' awareness at last.

Finding Direction

KDE 4.6 falls short of the dramatic changes that characterized the early releases in the KDE 4 series. All the same, its additions show KDE developers laying the groundwork for future development, and making changes to enrich the user experience. The changes to Activities are especially interesting, since they seem to show the development team learning from its mistakes and trying to correct them.

The early buzz is that 4.6 will become the defining version in the KDE 4 series. Personally, I would not go so far -- not with the potential that the behind-the-scenes improvements hold for future features. Undeniably, though, the release shows KDE finding new directions, and for the first time in a year, I find myself looking forward to an official KDE release.

ALSO SEE: 7 Things You Can Do in KDE, But Not in Windows

AND: The Linux Desktop: Nine Myths

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