By the standards of previous releases in the KDE 4 series, KDE 4.5 is tame. It has few new applications, and introduces no new technologies. Yet with its combination of small innovations and interface improvements, KDE 4.5 still manages to be a release worth installing. Although it does not try to expand the concept of the desktop, it does make KDE easier to use in dozens of small and satisfying ways.
Released August 10, KDE 4.5 is already packaged for many major distributions, including Fedora, Mandriva, openSUSE, and Ubuntu, although in some cases you will have to look in the developmental repositories rather than the main ones. Source code is also available from the project. Those who want to try it before installing can download the latest CD from openSUSE's KDE Four Live site.
Small innovations that add up
You need to search carefully to find new applications in KDE 4.5. I may have missed some, but the only new ones I can find are a Bookmark widget for the desktop and panel, and a new Mahjongg game (the traditional Rummoli-like game for four, not the tile-matching game made popular by computing).
Each is welcome in its own way. The Bookmark widget, being customizable by design, is a welcome navigation aid around the desktop and computer system, and deserves to be installed as a standard feature of every panel. Similarly, although true Mahjongg is a far more absorbing game than tile-matching, for some reason it is hard to find on any operating system or desktop.
However, new applications are overshadowed by enhancements of existing KDE elements. The entire desktop benefits from increases in speed due to improved caching, and many applications, especially the Konqueror web browser, benefit from the increased speed gained by using Webkit to render pages. The result of such improvements is that KDE 4.5 is by far the fastest of the KDE 4 series so far. The exact gain is hard to calculate, but KDE 4.5 running as a guest operating system is at least as fast as KDE 4.4 running on the host system -- and possibly faster.
Other desktop-wide improvements have been made to KWin, the KDE window manager. In KDE 4.5, you can now move the window in which any Qt4-based application is running by dragging with the mouse on any blank space, such as an empty section of the toolbar, and not just by the title bar. Disappointingly, support for non-Qt4 applications, such as the GIMP, is still being worked on, but anyone who works with a large number of windows open might agree that this is at least a promising start.
Just as usefully, when windows are open, KWin tries to position them so that they do not overlap. This is a major improvement over the default behavior in previous releases, which appears to be simply to open new windows to one side or other of the screen's center. Obviously, though, the behavior breaks down when four or five windows, or a couple of large ones, make it impossible to implement.
Other enhancements are scattered throughout KDE's standard applications. For example, Konsole gains a context menu for tabs, which places functions available in several menus in a convenient place. Similarly, the context menu for tabs in the Dolphin file manager now includes an item for detaching a tab and opening it a separate window.
One by one, none of these innovations is likely to seem significant. But, taken together, their effect is very obvious: in the latest release, the KDE 4 series has become easier and more efficient to use.
The user experience in KDE 4.5 is further enhanced by several improvements to the interface.
Perhaps inspired by Ubuntu's recent work on notifications, KDE has improved its own notifications in several ways. One very simple improvement is that hidden icons now display vertically instead of horizontally when expanded, and no longer take up valuable panel space. You can also configure notifications for applications like Kopete and KMail from within the applications themselves.
Open the notification tray configuration dialog, and you will also find that the tabs and entries have been rearranged and renamed to make them easier to use -- generally, with success. In addition, the device notifier, which shows the external drives currently on the system, is no longer a separate widget on the panel, but a tray icon (as it should be).