KDE and the Expansion of the Desktop

Thursday Sep 9th 2010 by Bruce Byfield
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New KDE features are designed to make desktop icons more efficient and reduce the clutter when using multiple windows.

Last week, when I wrote "7 Things You Can Do in KDE, But Not in Windows," I assumed that anyone who was interested in the KDE 4 series had already explored it.

However, the email I received and a few web searches soon convinced me that I was wrong. Apparently, many people do not use the innovations added to KDE over the last two and a half years, and do not see the point of them. Nor is the situation improved by tutorials that stick to basic directions without explaining the relevance of the features they describe.

That means that at least some of the KDE 4 series' detractors are probably judging it by what they expect to find, rather than by what it is intended to do. It also means that a basic primer is needed on such features as Folder Views, Workspaces, Activities, including an explanation of why anyone should care about them. Such issues are not only relevant in themselves, but highlight some of the current limitations on desktops as interfaces.

The Problems in Need of a Solution

So far as I can see, the new features in the KDE 4 series are intended as answers -- or, at least, as palliatives -- to two basic problems with the modern computer desktop: How to make icons on the desktop more efficient, and how to reduce the clutter on the desktop when multiple windows are open.

KDE developers do not seem to have articulated their purposes so succinctly, but those are the general tendencies in KDE 4. The goal seems to be to add features without straying too far from the basic metaphor of the desktop and making radical changes.

Desktop icons are intended to put applications within easy reach of users. However, in most desktops on any operating system, one of two problems arises: either you settle on a general set of icons that works reasonably well when you are doing most tasks, but is not perfectly suited to any specific task, or else you add so many that finding the ones you need becomes difficult. In either case, you lose the convenience of desktop icons.

You can, of course, rely entirely on the menu -- and many do -- but that can add substantially to the number of clicks needed to start an application. A Favorites menu can help, but, like a desktop covered with icons, it loses efficiency when more than about nine items are placed in it.

The second problem is clutter on the desktop as you work. Although some people have only one window open at a time, the speed and multiple cores of modern computers mean that many people have half a dozen or more windows open at one time. If you are doing a task that involves switching constantly between multiple windows, you can easily find yourself losing time to search for the windows you want. The traditional taskbar helps, but, the more windows that are opened, the more the window titles are obscured and the less useful it is.

Many of the features introduced during the KDE 4 series seem designed to overcome these two problems. In some cases, the same feature helps to relieve both problems at the same time.

Folder Views

Folder Views confuse many people because they first appeared in KDE 4.0 only partly implemented and with no explanations. Basically, though, Folder Views allow you to quickly change the icons on the desktop, which allows you to set up quickly different sets of icons for specific tasks or even settings. For example, you might have separate Folder Views for graphic design and social networking, or perhaps for Home and Office on a laptop.

To create a new Folder View, select the desktop toolkit (or "cashew," as many prefer to call it), then Add Widgets and Folder View. A transparent window opens, showing the visible contents of your home directory. Right-click on the window and select Folder View Settings, and you can change the display to the directory of your choice. If you want desktops with icons, you might want to create empty sub-directories that you can use to display icons rather than files.

Any desktop can have multiple Folder Views that you can move around as needed while you work. Alternatively, right-click a desktop and select Folder View Activity Settings -> Location, and you select a Folder View to fill the entire desktop.

Either way, you can right-click and select Create New -> Link to Application to add the icons that you want to Folder View. But the best part is that, because you can create Folder Views so easily, there is no need to develop a general set of icons that may not be suitable for a specific task, or to cram your desktop full of icons. Instead, you can create Folder Views for most purposes of seven to nine icons. Any time that you need to change the set of icons, return to Folder View Activity Settings -> Location.

Virtual Desktops and Activities

Virtual Desktops or Workspaces are a long-standing feature of free desktops. They provide multiple surfaces for opening windows in, reducing the clutter on any one desktop.

A Virtual Desktop widget is available by default on the panel of KDE. Right-click the widget, and you can set the number of Virtual Desktops and name each one for convenience.

Typically, uses reserve each Virtual Desktop for a specific application or set of applications.

For instance, if you are an administrator or a developer, you might have one Virtual Desktop with a command line always open. Another might have your web browser always open, and another your email reader, while a fourth might display other applications. With this setup, a shell, email and Internet are always a click or a keystroke combination away, so you never have to search for them.

However, as implemented by KDE, Virtual Desktops have one problem: You cannot have different sets of icons on each desktop, nor give each desktop a separate wallpaper to make it instantly identifiable as you move around.

Activities are essentially a more sophisticated version of Virtual Desktops. In addition, they can be used independently or in association with Virtual Desktops, so it is easy to confuse the two. I would suggest that users consider Virtual Desktops as a deprecated feature, unless they are used to them. Otherwise, if you use Activities exclusively, you can remove one source of confusion from your computing -- to say nothing of the Virtual Desktop panel widget.

You can create a new Activity by clicking the desktop toolkit, and selecting Activities -> New Activity from the horizontally scrolling window that opens (in earlier versions of KDE 4, you zoomed out to a view of all Activities, which was confusing and often difficult to control because of the small size of the display).

To associate an Activity with one Virtual Desktop, right-click on the desktop and select Folder View Activity Settings -> Activity. By changing the Activity associated with each Virtual Desktop, you can customize its icons and wallpaper to make it more readily identifiable and useful.

However, if you decide to ignore Virtual Desktops entirely, you can select Activities from the desktop toolkit and make a selection from the horizontally scrolling window. More efficiently, you can scroll through all Activities by pressing Ctrl+Shift+N (Next) or Ctrl+Shift+P (Previous).

In a sense, Activities (and, to a lesser extent, Virtual Desktops) do for desktops what Folder Views do for icons -- they remove the restrictions and give users more flexibility.

Other Useful Features

These are just the most obvious solutions in KDE for the problems of the modern desktop. Many other features also help to address these problems. In particular, the ability to put multiple windows on the tab of a single window, which is available from the menu of any window, is another way to reduce clutter on your current desktop. So is the ability to tile windows by moving them to one side of the screen; you can enable it by selecting Menu -> System Settings -> Window Behavior -> Screen Edges.

Other KDE 4.x features have the same purposes, but are less successful. For instance, the default menu seems designed to reduce the extra clutter created when sub-menus spill out across the desktop as you descend them. However, in this case, the reduction of clutter makes navigating the menu harder, since only one level is visible at a time, which solves one problem while creating another.

Probably the biggest question about the KDE innovations is how necessary they are. For undemanding users, they may be only a needless complication, and something to ignore. Similarly, those long accustomed to the average desktop may feel no restriction in its limitations.

And even if you see what the innovations are supposed to be doing, you may take a while to forget old habits and learn new ones -- I certainly did.

But no wonder what you think of these features, they are what makes KDE 4 distinctive, and not just a refinement of KDE 3. In the end, I suspect that, more than anything else, the verdict on them in particular will determine the verdict on the KDE 4 series in general.

That's assuming, of course, that users can ever understand how they work.

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