Getting Excited About KDE4

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A year ago I was really excited about KDE4, but the lack of some basic features I found whenever I tried a release candidate soured me a bit. I still loved the vision, it was just that it was hard to maintain excitement for an extended period of time. As a result, I tried the final release, discovered some of the same deficiencies, and went back to KDE3.

When the February update showed up in Kubuntu I decided to give it another go. Certain aspects still frustrated me: like the inability to reposition icons in the toolbar and the inability to add a folder to Places in Dolphin. Eventually I decided that I could live with the icon location for now and started spending more time playing with KDE4.

Now I'm happy that I did. Despite KDE4 still having a ways to go before being complete and polished, I love using it.

Dolphin

In the beginning I used the KDE3 version of Dolphin from within KDE4, but I was still wanting to get to some of the new Dolphin features. It was while looking through the bug reports that I discovered right-clicking on the folder I wanted did work (I had previously tried dragging a remote folder). And with that, all of a sudden one of my major pains in KDE4 was solved. It may seem like a minor issue, but much of my work in Dolphin is through smb:/ and fish:/ and those long paths are a pain to reproduce every time.

Overall I find Dolphin to be a joy to use. Splitting the screen is easy and it evenly divides the available space (unlike KDE3), it looks great (thanks to Oxygen), supports tagging, and it's fast! You may have heard about KDE4's improved performance and reduced memory footprint, but regardless of the reason, I definitely notice a difference. I'm running Kubuntu in a virtual machine on top of a laptop with only 1GB of RAM and running Windows. Because of this my memory is at a premium and disk accesses are painful. KDE4 has made it much easier to switch to Kubuntu without waiting forever while my hard drive finishes thrashing.

One feature I am looking forward to in the 4.1 release of Dolphin is integrated Strigi search. For me that's the biggest feature that's still missing. Although minor quibles like switching focus to the terminal when loading is by pressing F4 would be nice. I did discover that a Tab after F4 will do it, but it seems like an unnecessary step.

KWrite

In developing and updating the backend for Linux App Finder I do a lot of scripting and despite Kate being available, I find that KWrite does everything I need. It's nice that KWrite plays a more prevalent role in KDE4, although Kate is still available for those who prefer it. One of the nice improvements comes from the new find implementation. Instead of the dialog in the middle of the screen a bar appears across the bottom to it doesn't obstruct any of the text that you are searching through.

Plasma

Plasma is one of the most celebrated and most maligned aspects of KDE4, and for good reason. Much of the functionality that could be found in Kicker is still missing and there are bugs, but that's only part of the story. Plasma is meant to be so much more than a Kicker replacement and the foundation is already apparent.

I've always been somewhat mixed on the benefits of desktop widgets, but that's starting to change. With two young boys it's nice to have pictures around and the Picture Frame widget is great. You can create any number of them on your desktop and point them to either a single picture or a folder for a slideshow. And like everything else in KDE4, they can be resized and scale perfectly. My only wish item for the Picture Frame right now is picking the photos at random for the slideshow.

The total number of widgets in KDE4 right now is pretty sparse, but that will grow over time, and I've read that Mac OS X Dashboard widgets will be supported in the future which should greatly enhance the selection. Once feature addition I'd like to see is the ability to assign widgets to specific virtual desktops rather than having them applied to all.

I briefly mentioned scaling widgets above, but it's something that shouldn't be overlooked. One of the strengths of KDE4 is its use of SVG (scalable vector graphics) for the icons which allow clear, crisp artwork at any resolution. Because of this I can envision Plasma being a great solution for many interface types. A touch screen interface seems like it could be easily designed in Plasma and used on multiple screen sizes from phones to laptops. The scalabilty of each item in the interface could make it happen.

Application Menu

KDE4 replaces the old cascading menu with Kickoff. SuSE users are already familiar with it, but Kickoff is a new addition for the rest of it. It's not perfect and can take a little getting used to, but it's definitely an improvement. Adding Favorites and search was long over due. I would like to see something done about the Leave menu though. I don't understand why I have to explicitly select Logout only to have a dialog pop up in the middle of the screen with new options rather than a confirmation. This behavior makes it so it doesn't matter what menu item is selected because the real choice comes later.

KWin

KWin's most user noticable new feature is support for Desktop Effects. The list of new features and optional plug-ins looks pretty cool, unfortunately I haven't been able to try it yet because hardware acceleration can't be done from a virtual machine yet. Once I get it installed natively on another machine I'll definitely give it a try.

Krdc

Because I do a lot of work from a laptop I sometimes find myself in need to directly accessing my desktop as well. VNC tends to be my protocol of choice because it allows me to connect to an existing login, and in KDE that means Krdc. The KDE3 version worked, but left a lot to be desired. Fortunately Krdc has seen some love an is reborn with KDE4. It now features a tabbed interface, bookmarks, and a cleaner overall design. My two small nits are the window doesn't seem to retain its size between uses and the show local cursor selection isn't maintained between sessions so I have to reenable it every time.

Summary

Despite the growing pains, I'm really excited about KDE4's future and can't wait for Plasma to continue to add features and more of the apps to catch up. Amarok (still in pre-alpha), Adept, Katapult, Quanta, K3b, Basket, KNetworkManager, Network Settings, and KDE Guidance are the ones I'm looking forward to the most, but the great news is that the KDE3 versions are still fully useable in KDE4 so there's not reason to hold back while waiting.

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