This Thing We Call KDE 4: The Wow Factor

Wednesday Feb 27th 2008 by Kenneth Hess

While it may not be fully ready for production systems yet, this latest version of the K Desktop Environment is one sharp-looking interface. Our reviewer takes a zippy test drive.

Plasma, ZUI, Oxygen, Dolphin, Okular, and Phonon are terms that seem more at home in a science experiment than in a Window Manager. But this is one science experiment that didn't go bad.

You're going to love KDE 4. The much-anticipated new version of KDE is finally here and it has arrived with a bang. Fitted with a new desktop shell, application launcher, artwork, and desktop widgets; the first word out of your mouth may very well be wow.

The first thing you'll notice is the refreshing speed at which KDE 4 loads. The components still load individually but the speed at which they load is impressive (less than five seconds in a virtual machine with only 384MB of RAM). Once presented with the fully loaded desktop, the changes are subtle but surprising.


Perhaps the biggest change from KDE 3.x to KDE 4.x is the Plasma desktop shell interface. Plasma isn't just a pretty new face for KDE but is actually a complete rewrite and modernization of your desktop experience. Plasma mainly replaces your three old familiar KDE friends: KDesktop, Kicker, and SuperKaramba. Making these replacements required a thorough overhaul of the way users interact with their desktop and applications.

Plasma employs components or widgets called Plasmoids. Plasmoids are applets that you can resize, rotate, drag and drop from the taskbar to the desktop, and allow to interact with each other. The desktop itself is also a Plasmoid, which means you can move and situate it in ways that suits your needs and conform it to your way of working.

You may believe, after seeing KDE 4, that you have completely switched operating systems and that you are now using some morphed version of another operating system and not Linux at all. In fact, for some, using KDE 4 is as disorienting as moving from Windows to Linux. The only hint that you are using KDE at all is the familiar KDE icon in the bottom left corner of your screen. For example, the new application launcher Kicker (see Figure 1), while neater and more efficient than the old style menu system, takes some getting used to. The menus don't cascade like the old ones, leaving you with a breadcrumb trail of where you've been. Each time you select an application group, you pass completely into the next menu, and the only way back is the back bar on the menu (shown in Figure 2). You openSUSE users are already familiar with this newfangled application launcher and will have no trouble making the transition.

Plasma Components

kde 4, linux desktop

The new KDE 4 app launcher

One of the most compelling new Plasma components is the Zooming User Interface (ZUI). The ZUI allows you to create virtual desktops, insert specific widgets into them, and then zoom them in or out depending on your current needs. You can see what this looks like at KDE Desktop Grid. You can zoom in on the virtual desktop that you need to work with, zoom out again and select a different desktop, zoom in and get to work with that set of widgets. Plasma and ZUI are both in their developmental infancy so stay tuned for increased functionality in this exciting area of a new generation of desktop software.

Oxygen is the new artwork project associated with KDE 4. Though mostly concerned with icons, the project focuses on creating rich artwork to represent folders, applications, hardware, etc. that have a unified theme and a specific set of colors. Icons have a default size of 128x128 instead of the usual 16x16 which provides more opportunity for detail and realism. The use of Scalable Vector Graphics gives the icons the ability to retain their crisp detail regardless of size. To learn more about the Oxygen Project, go to The Oxygen Project Site.

KDE 4 breaks with the traditional Konqueror browser as the default file manager. Dolphin now takes over in that coveted spot in KDE's latest version. Dolphin is similar in look and feel to Thunar, the new XFCE file manager, with a new navigation bar, split views, panels, and properties views. Windows users who are converting to Linux will feel comfortable with this file manager as well since its navigation bar is comparable to the Windows file manager (see Figure 3).

Okular is a universal document viewer for KDE 4. It supports a wide variety of file formats including PDF and ODF (Open Document Format). The coolest feature of Okular is that you can not only view documents but also add notes (annotate) to them as well.

Phonon is KDE's platform-independent multimedia API. What does Phonon do for you, the end user? It provides an easy way for developers to incorporate media rich applications to enhance your desktop experience. Phonon and Solid (a project focused on providing support for wireless hardware) also make it easier for you to use multimedia hardware.

Wrapping Up

KDE 4 is in a word, cool. You don't have to take my word for it, though. You can download your own test drive copy from KDE 4 Live CD. This is a live openSUSE 10.x CD with KDE 4.x on it. If you like what you see, you can install the live CD snapshot onto your hard drive by going to System->Administrator Settings->Miscellaneous->Live Installer. You can customize the installation by selecting the Change button or you can click Accept to use the default parameters and begin the install process immediately.

KDE 4 promises to provide a dynamic and customizable desktop experience. The idea of a living desktop has been the goal of developers for years and now technology has opened the door for it to become a reality. It is an ambitious project that will pay off abundantly for the end user.

Although I really like KDE 4, I strongly suggest you wait until it has an opportunity to mature a bit more before using it on production-level systems or, for that matter, any system that requires stability. Currently, far too many applications and features don't completely work or are still in development. If you decide to use KDE 4, stay current with fixes and new releases as they become available. The 4.1 version is due out mid 2008 and will be well worth the wait.

This article was first published on Linux Planet.

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