Dig beneath the surface of the open source desktop to get the most from it: virtual desktops, customizations, multiple clipboards, and more.
Back in the late 1990s,when the KDE and GNOME desktops were getting started, KDE had the reputation of being the most suitable choice for new GNU/Linux users, especially those migrating from Windows. Whether this generality is still true is debatable (personally, I could never see much difference between the two desktops), but KDE remains one of GNU/Linux's most popular graphical interfaces, as well as one of the most easy to learn.
Still, whenever you're dealing with a piece of software as large as a desktop, some features are going to be hard to find. To help new users get up and running, here are twelve tips for getting more out of KDE. Many are available from the KDE Control Center, a centralized configuration window with a daunting array of options, but others are located elsewhere.
Similarly, if you're read my earlier article, "12 Tips for GNOME Users," some of these features will be familiar to you already. However, KDE has its own unique take on many of these shared features, as well as one or two advantages that are all its own.
1) The Add Printer Wizard
Among the many configuration settings in the KDE Control Center, you'll find the Add Printer Wizard at Peripherals > Printers > Add. Designed for use with the Common UNIX Printing System (CUPS), which nearly all modern versions of GNU/Linux use for printing, this wizard is the best printer installation tool I've seen on any operating system. Starting with the selection of the printer's location -- whether it is on a network or attached to your workstation via a parallel, serial, or USB connection -- the wizard steps you through selecting your printer's manufacturer, model, and driver. You then have the option to test the results, set limits to the resources users can devote to printing, or restrict some users from printing altogether. Once you are finished, the printer is available to any other program on the desktop.
2) Locales and Keyboards
If you work with languages other than English, KDE is particularly easy to configure. From the list of options under Regional and Accessibility in the KDE Control Center, you can set the language, currency, date format, and other characteristics of a locale using a series of well-organized, instantly understandable tabs.
After setting the locale, you can move down the menu another couple of items and set the keyboard options, including the mechanism and configuration settings for switching between languages. However, these options are probably less obvious for the uninitiated, so chances are you'll need to click the Help button before you make your choices.
While in the same menu of the Control Center, you may also want to take the time to customize the keyboard shortcuts, so that your hands don't leave the keyboard as you work. You can choose from nine saved schemes for shortcuts, including one that imitates Windows' settings.
Alternatively, you may prefer to Input Actions, and configure mouse gestures. Although many users are unaware of them, mouse gestures are combinations of minute mouse movements -- up, down, left, right -- that perform a command that you would otherwise have to type or click. Mouse gestures are especially useful for those with impaired coordination, since they reduce the effort required to make a choice, but anyone can appreciate their efficiency.
Next page: virtual desktops and customizations
3) Virtual desktops
Desktops -- called Workspaces in GNOME -- are virtual screens. They are an option to dual monitors, allowing you extra space in which to work with only a click on the desktop manager on the panel. In fact, they're better than desktop managers, since they're easier to configure, and you can set up as many as your system's memory will allow -- assuming, of course, that you can stand the performance hit. But KDE is a responsive desktop, and on most recent systems, you can use the default four desktops without any noticeable slowdown.
How you use desktops is up to you, but one useful approach is to put applications that are always open, such as your web browser or chat program, on separate desktops, and reserve one desktop for windows that you are constantly opening and closing. If you're a chronic multi-tasker, once you start using desktops, you'll wonder how you ever did without.
4) Desktop Customizations
GNU/Linux fans appreciate the power to do things their way, and KDE delivers all the options most of us could want. In fact, with its reputation for eye-candy, KDE probably offers more customization options than GNOME or any other available desktop.
Most of these options are available from the Appearances and Themes and Desktop menus in the KDE Control Center. From Appearances and Themes, you can select the desktop background, apply and customize themes, fonts, icons, widgets, and screen savers. You can even customize the use of what KDE calls Launch Feedback -- the bouncing of an icon when you select it that indicates that a program is loading. And if you really want to fine-tune, from the Desktop menu, you can adjust the behavior of the mouse and windows in KDE, right down to specifying custom settings for individual programs.
You don't have to make all these choices -- in fact, at first, you're probably better off not doing so, since their sheer number is overwhelming and if you hurry through them, you'll probably make a mistake. However, if you dislike the way that KDE looks or functions, there's usually no excuse for enduring. Probably, with a little digging, you can change it.
5) The Font Installer
Located under System Administration in the KDE Control Center, the Font Installer is the most convenient way to manage system fonts in GNU/Linux. Unlike Fonty Python, its only real graphical rival, the Font Installer supports not only TrueType, but also Bitmaps, Type1, and OpenType format as well. From a graphical designer's viewpoint, the only drawback is that the Font Installer does not allow sets of fonts to be activated or deactivated, a technique that prevents system resources being consumed by fonts that you don't currently need.
6) File Manager / Web Browser
You can correctly date the origin of Konqueror to the late 1990s from the fact that it attempts to treat the Internet as an extension of your hard drive -- a paradigm that was common back then. Although this idea never really caught on, Konqueror is probably the best example of it. It provides adequate, though not outstanding file management, with almost every aspect of the display customizable, including a handy interface for associating file types with particular programs for viewing.
As a web browser, Konqueror compares favorably to FireFox. It is quicker to open, and, although few plugins are written specifically for Konqueror, it can use many of Firefox's. It also includes all sorts of useful built-in features, including ad blocking, advanced cryptography settings, and the ability to register on sites that require a specific browser although it is another one.
Next page: Panels and the multiple clipboard
Panels are the KDE equivalent of taskbars in Windows: A place for notification icons, menus, important icons, minimized windows, and clocks. However, KDE panels are much more, with controls for virtual desktops, and a selection of applets or small utilities to enhance functionality. As in GNOME, they can be positioned on any side of the desktop, with options to be hidden or always visible and always on top of either items on the desktop or not. You can add as many panels as you want to the desktop, too.
If that weren't joy enough, besides the main panel, KDE offers 4 panel extensions -- really, alternate types of panels:
A Universal Sidebar, which serves as a file manager for common folders, a history of visited folders and a history of sound files played via Amarok, and bookmarks for the desktop and del.icio.us, the public bookmark site.
Kasbar, a taskbar in a floating window.
The Dock Application Bar, included so that users can dock programs designed for the WindowMaker window manager.
The External Taskbar, a dedicated taskbar that shows all open windows and has a wider variety of options than the main panel
8) Menu Editor
At a glance, you might conclude that you have no way of editing the KDE menu. In fact, it's hidden in the right-click menu of the main panel under Configure Panel -> Menus. From this window, you can choose from pre-defined sub-menus, or else add your own items to the desktop menu. You can also configure the menu to show any number of recently used or most frequently used items.
As in GNOME, the KDE panel includes a calendar that drops down when you click the data display. The calendar defaults to the current month with the current day highlighted. You can use the arrow keys at the top to change the month or year displayed. At the bottom of the display, the KDE version has two additional tools: one to display the month for an exact date, and another to change the display by the week of the year -- an option that might be useful in some businesses, depending on how they do their accounting.
10) The multiple clipboard
Remember the multiple clipboard in MS Word? With KDE's Klipper, you can have the same functionality for your entire desktop. Better yet, you can not only save multiple items to the clipboard, but you can set the number of items it saves at one time, whether items are saved when you log out, and whether the clipboard opens by the mouse cursor or above the notification icon for the program. You can also define actions for regular expressions, so that Klipper will pass the copied material to a program to open it -- for example, you could set the regular expression ^mailto:. to open your mail browser. These features make Klipper so useful that why GNOME and other desktops don't have their own multiple clipboard is a minor mystery.
Next page: KOffice, Plus: Looking Ahead KDE4
11) Arranging windows
If your desktop is hidden by all the windows you have opened, KDE offers you two solutions when you middle-click on a blank space in the desktop to open the right-click menu. Selecting Unclutter Windows disperses open windows equidistant around the desktop. Should that not be enough, select Cascade Windows to arrange in a neat stack that starts in the upper left corner of the desktop, with every subsequent window indented more from the top and left sides.
Although technically a separate project from KDE, KOffice is so closely associated with the desktop from which its name derives that it should be mentioned here. Besides the usual trio of a word processor, slide show program and spreadsheet, KOffice includes eight other programs, including a data base, rasterized and vector graphic editors, and a project manager. If you are an advanced user of such programs, you may find that KOffice programs too basic for your needs, but, for beginning or intermediate users, they are probably more than enough.
KDE is currently undergoing a massive rewrite, due to be released in mid-January 2008 as KDE4. When that happens, you can expect even more configuration options and special features, as well as several changes. For example, from the KDE4 beta, it looks as though Konqueror is going to cede its role as file manager to the more capable Dolphin. Similarly, the font installer is supposed to receive the enhancement of being able to activate and deactivate groups of fonts.
Until then, these tips should be more than enough to keep you going. Learn the details of current KDE now, and you'll be ready to take advantage of the new features coming in January.