Seven Improvements Needed in KDE

Monday Nov 29th 2010 by Bruce Byfield

The KDE desktop has come a long way in the last two years, yet still requires some fixes to be its best.

For the past eighteen months, KDE has been my primary desktop. I use it about two-thirds of the time, with the rest of my desktop usage divided between GNOME, Xfce, and occasionally other desktops like LXDE. You could call me a generally happy user -- but, as with any desktop not designed for me personally, KDE has one or two quirks or deficiencies that make my computing less than ideal.

To be sure, KDE has made many improvements since the last time I complained about its shortcomings, in 2008.

That last commentary was made when the current release was 4.0, which its developers never intended for general use. In the five releases since then, several of my complaints have been eliminated or made less urgent by the addition of more panel options and widgets, and some improved wording of items on the interface. Accessibility options have also improved, mainly through the desktop effects, although KDE still lags behind GNOME in this area.

However, new features and my own growing familiarity with KDE mean that there are still improvements that I would like to see. Here are the seven top improvements I would suggest for KDE:

1) Eliminate the Desktop Toolkit

The Desktop Toolkit is the small widget that sits on the upper right on the edge of the screen. Originally shaped like a cashew, it now looks like a tab. Click on it, and you find all sorts of useful tools: Add Widgets, Add Activity, Lock Widgets, and others. However, some users never seem to have looked at it, considering that Fedora has a package called kde-plasma-ihatethecashew whose sole purpose is to remove it.

What people have noticed is that the Desktop Toolkit gets in the way. Place a panel at the top of the screen, and it overlays the similarly shaped panel customization button so that you can never be sure what you are clicking.

You can drag the cashew to some other place (mine is on the bottom left), but many people haven't noticed that, either. At any rate, no matter where you place it, the Toolkit looks like a menu, but doesn't close when you click elsewhere on the desktop; instead, you have to click on the button again.

The time seems overdue to admit that the Toolkit is an idea that has failed. Its functions could be demoted to a menu, a panel widget, a context menu, or anywhere else they would be more noticeable.

2) Merge Workspaces and Activities

KDE 4 introduced Activities, a kind of improved Virtual Desktop, each of which can have different icons and containments (layouts). These are welcome additions, but, for no apparent reason, a widget for Virtual Desktops still exists.

Perhaps this duplication of function was intended to minimize confusion amid all the changes in KDE 4. However, if the users I've heard talking are typical, what the duplication actually does is create uncertainty about which function to use. Since Virtual Desktops are at least familiar, many people end up using them and not taking advantage of the improvements offered by Activities. Possibly, future development plans justify the duplication, but, from a user's perspective, nowadays it seems to create more confusion than it resolves.

3) Finalize the Organization of System Setup

System Settings is the software and hardware configuration dialog for KDE. Its problem is that, in five releases, the KDE 4 series has yet to settle on a standard layout within the dialog. The changes aren't minor, either -- between releases, top level items have been demoted, and lower items promoted, and the names of categories and items have changed, all of which can make finding a particular feature time-consuming after you've upgraded.

KDE 4.5, the latest release, offers some hope in the fact that it finally eliminated the Advanced tab for System Settings, which in earlier releases was a dumping ground for configuration items that didn't fit anywhere else. But whether users can hope that existing items will stay where they are for two consecutive releases remains to be seen.

4) Add Background Customization to Panel Settings

Yes, I know that you change the panel's background color by changing the Desktop Theme. But I suspect that most users will look for this item by right-clicking the desktop and choosing Panel Options -> Panel Settings, because that's where the other panel configuration choices are found. To the extent that users are aware that they need to go to System Settings, they are only going to be peeved at the extra fumbling about.

And while changes are being made, why not add options to add an image or texture to the panel?

5) Make the Default Menu More Flexible

Designing a menu to fit the needs of modern computer users is difficult. But after two years of use, my opinion aboutKickoff, KDE's default menu, has not changed: It's simply not the answer.

In trying to restrict the desktop area covered by the menu, Kickoff makes navigating up and down the levels of the menu structure far easier than moving between sub-levels. This structure means more mouse-clicks, and a higher chance of getting disoriented. This disadvantage is serious enough that Kickoff is a step backward from the classical menu with cascading sub-menus that it was meant to replace. Lancelot seems a better choice, since it displays several menu levels at once -- or, if you're really concerned about the menu taking up desktop space, the minimalist KRunner.

Fortunately, KDE does make both Lancelot and the classical menu easily available if you want to replace Kickoff. But, all the same, KDE should have a stronger default.

6) Indicate Window Groupings on Task Manager

For me, one of the most welcome innovations in recent KDE 4 releases is the ability to group applications in tabs in a single window. Although I took a while to integrate it into my work habits, I now find it an ideal way to group related applications together so I can find them more easily and reduce the clutter on the current desktop.

The only difficulty is that the task manager on the panel does not show group windows unless they are from the same program. It's as though grouped windows and the task manager have been developed with no sense of how they are supposed to interact.

7) Add Tools and Help for Configuring the Akonadi Server

Akonadi is the KDE sub-system for personal information management. It abstracts information such as address books and appointments from any specific application, and stores it in a database, where it can be efficiently accessed by any software that needs it.

The Akonadi Configuration application in KDE 4.5 offers tools to help users ensure that paths are properly set. However, server configuration remains a black art. You can run a test to be reassured of such things as "Akonadi control process registered at D-Bus" (if you happen to know what that means), but if one of the test items fails, you can only fall back on trial and error to figure out how to correct it -- neither your KDE installation nor the online the KDE KnowledgeBase gives you precise information about what you have to do.

To make matters worse, while you are scrambling to get the Akonadi server functional, basic productivity applications like KMail are unusable. Consequently, I consider this defect by far the most serious one in KDE.

KDE: The Improvements in Context

If I were writing a few years ago, I know how some KDE developers would respond to this list. "Where are your patches?" they would say, and, when I confessed that I was hardly a coder, they would snicker and suggest that I therefore have no right to complain.

I have some sympathy for this response. Commenting on someone else's programming is far easier than actually programming, after all. But, these days, KDE, along with the rest of free software, is listening more sympathetically to users, so perhaps these comments won't be rejected out of hand.

Moreover, most of these suggestions would not require radical revisions. Most are minor tweaks at best, although the effect some would have on users' experience would be considerable.

Overall, KDE has improved steadily in the fourth series of releases, to the point where I now consider it to be leading desktop innovation in both free and proprietary software. But even a leader can benefit from a few improvements.

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