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KDE 4 Isn’t Too Bad, After All

Date: October 2, 2009
Author(s): Rob Williams

When KDE 4 was first released, I didn’t care much for it, and I thought I never would. But due to recent circumstances, I installed the latest version to see if things changed for the better, and to my surprise, they have. That might be an understatement, because as I see it, KDE 4.3 is easily one of the most polished desktop environments out there.


In late 2007, I was getting antsy. KDE 4.0 was right around the corner, and I wanted it there now. Sure, I’m impatient, but all throughout the beta and RC period, I tried to ignore as much KDE 4.x related speak as I could, as I wanted as much of the OS to be a surprise as possible. Sure, I might be different that way… but I find it a lot of fun to sit down in front of unexplored territory, and take it all in at once. When the release happened on January 11, 2008, I immediately downloaded a Live CD of some distro to take it for a spin before committing to a install on my own machine.

Well, after all that waiting, as sad as it was, I was ultimately disappointed with KDE 4.0. As I spoke about many times back upon its launch… I felt like the desktop environment was going backwards. The reason I chose KDE 3.x over GNOME 2.x wasn’t just because of a familiar Windows-like layout, but rather because of the insane amount of customization that the former desktop offered. I am not sure what the KDE developers were going for, but it could be that they were going after GNOME’s users by making the desktop as a whole easier to use. At the same time, though, it made things frustrating for power users or those who like to hack their OS.

Whenever a new piece of software is released that I use on a regular basis, I usually waste no time in upgrading it. But with KDE 4.0, I was left so disappointed, that I decided to hold onto KDE 3.x for as long as possible, even if the support was to end soon. Well, that happened last August, so I’ve essentially been using an unsupported desktop environment since then. Recently, I’ve been itching to upgrade my PC, so I’ve been holding off on a decision, but it came down to this… either make the switch to GNOME, which I really didn’t want to do (no offense to fans of the desktop… it’s just not for me), or put up with all that I didn’t like about KDE 4.x.

Rob’s KDE 3.5.10 Desktop – September, 2008

Thanks to certain events that occurred the other day, I was essentially forced to make a decision. The main hard drive in my machine crashed, so I had no choice but to start anew. Thankfully, since I have such a robust backup scheme, I lost nothing, but that still doesn’t take away the burn from the time lost to troubleshoot and reinstall my OS’, Linux and Windows. Just earlier that day I was talking to my colleague Brett Thomas, who was telling me what he liked about KDE 4. He happened to have been testing it that day himself, so it was in all regards a coincidence.

During that conversation, I told him straight out that I couldn’t see myself moving to KDE 4, because I found it to be going in the wrong direction, along with my favorite music application, Amarok. Joke was on me. Never in a million years would I have seen myself installing both that very evening. Before I get into my new-found thoughts on KDE 4.x, allow me to first explain what I didn’t like before.

KDE 4 Didn’t Float My Boat, Because…

I don’t in any way consider myself to be a minimalist, but I do like a clean and rather straight-forward interface. I customized my KDE 3 environment to be as clean as possible, and it was very easy to do given the insane number of customization options. With KDE 4, I found that a lot of the control had been taken away, and even today, I find that KDE 3 beats the pants off of KDE 4 any day where that’s concerned. But, KDE 4 seems to have gotten better with age. At least, that’s how it appears to me.

One common complaint I tell people when asked why I don’t care for KDE 4 simply comes down to widgets. In KDE 4, everything is a widget. You create a shortcut on the desktop? It’s a widget. I just found that absurd, and it essentially amounted to “bloat” for me. There wasn’t a true desktop… rather, everything is just one huge widget comprised of many smaller widgets. While nothing has changed since KDE 4’s initial launch, I personally have come to accept the design and actually now find more pros than cons.

Official KDE 4.0 Screenshot

Back to customization. In my OS, I use keyboard shortcuts to launch applications a lot. Each time I boot up, I hit Ctrl + Shift + F, for example, to load up FileZilla. In KDE 4… I was stumped. I looked so long to find a solution, but couldn’t. There was scarce information online, and it sure as heck wasn’t straight-forward inside of KDE itself. I now know that it is indeed possible, but I can easily understand why I overlooked it initially. I’ll get into that soon.

To sum it up in a sentence… I didn’t care for KDE 4.x because it essentially took a step back with regards to what I liked so much about KDE 3.x. Of course, this is entirely my opinion, and I don’t expect many people to agree with me. KDE 4.x wasn’t for me, and I truly believed I’d move to GNOME before I’d upgrade. But as it stands now, I’m very glad that I decided to give the latest version and honest try before I jumped ship to another environment.

On the following page, I’ll get into my initial experience with the latest version of KDE 4, and why my opinion of the environment took a total 360° in the span of a single evening. Please note that if you use KDE 4 already, you’re likely to know all of what I’m about to say. If you happen to be in a similar situation as I was and don’t want to upgrade to 4 from 3.x, maybe you’ll reconsider after seeing where the environment stands today.

What Changed My Mind?

Before I continue, I should note that my KDE 4 installation is about as clean and “true” as they come. As I use Gentoo, I believe the resulting installation is on par with what you’d see from downloading and installing the environment using the files off the official KDE website. If you didn’t install KDE 4 manually, or use a distro such as openSUSE or Kubuntu, where it’s pre-installed, you may see a different theme than what’s available with a clean installation, and items may also be located in different locations. You may also have extra functionality that my clean installation may lack, so keep that in mind. The version I installed is the latest stable, 4.3.1.

The first thing to impress me would have been the first thing I saw… a login screen. It’s in all regards similar to what we saw in KDE 3.x, but far more modern, with a transparent panel and bright and artistic background. After logging in, I have to admit… I was rather surprised. I thought to myself, “Whoa, what happened here?”… it was fantastic. When I used KDE 4.0 and 4.1, there were a fair number of graphical glitches, especially with the taskbar. That’s not the case anymore. It’s incredibly polished.

Because I prefer darker themes, I quickly found a way to change my taskbar and other elements to a darker color, minus the window styles, which I like enough to use for a while. More can be found at sites like KDE-Look, although the selection is slim… completely unlike the hundreds of various themes available for KDE 3. Below, you can see how things looked on my system not too long after I logged in. I had to install KMix (sound mixer), and as you can see, I was preparing to install many more applications soon after.

After playing around for a little bit, I found the first thing that made my jaw drop (sadly, I’m not kidding)… the ability to move your tasks around the taskbar. This is huge for me, because I have a rather strict way of doing things and I expect applications to be located in the same order I open them up. At any given time, you can look at my taskbar and expect to see these programs in this specific order: Mozilla Thunderbird, Mozilla Firefox, Bluefish, FileZilla and GIMP. Because Firefox is so prone to crashing, it screws up my entire order, and when I usually click on a specific task without even looking, that’s a problem.

Before, I’d have to close all the applications that came after Firefox, so that I could open Firefox back up, and then the remaining applications. It sounds foolish, but that’s how it is. With this functionality, however, Firefox can crash, and all I have to do is relaunch it and reposition it. This, to me, is one of the best features. For what it’s worth, Windows 7 offers the same functionality.

On the previous page, I mentioned that my one gripe about KDE 4 was the fact that everything is a widget, but I actually didn’t realize to what extent that was true. The taskbar, the quick-launch icons, the clock and anything else there, are all widgets. At first, I found that to be ridiculous, but it’s actually a remedy to one of my earlier complaints… lack of customization. If you don’t want a clock, you can easily remove it. Don’t want the quick-launch icons? You can remove it. Or, if you want to add something for convenience, you can do that too. As seen in the above shot, I put a trashcan next to the clock, since I don’t want any icons on the desktop.

I quickly began to enjoy KDE 4 the more I used it, because for the most part, the entire environment is very polished, and a pleasure to use. There are many simple animations that add to the experience. When you click on the clock, for example, the calendar pops up from its center point. When you click it again, it slides down into the bar, until you raise it again. There’s also a lot of fading as well. It seems simple, but it really does add a lot, and can’t really be considered a “bloat” feature or a feature that’s annoying.

KDE 4 doesn’t just mean a prettier face, but many upgraded applications as well. In the above shot, you can see the System Monitor, which in my opinion, is a lot better than the previous version. It’s far more clear about both CPU and memory usage, and the tasks are easier to follow. If you have a long list of processes, there’s a search and kill button to get that chore done quick. The Dolphin file manager is also a nice replacement for Konqueror. It offers a fair amount of customization, and looks great. If you don’t mind putting the time in, you’re even able to tag and add comments to various folders, so you can track them down easier later.

I have never been a real fan of indexing, but after discovering Nepomuk, I have no idea why. This indexer integrates perfectly with Dolphin, so that when you use the search field anywhere in the file manager, the related results will show very quickly.

I am not sure all of what Nepomuk and it’s engine “Strigi” searches through, but as you can see, I searched for “techgage” and it found reference to it by name inside of HTML files and even some bash scripts. Although I found the indexer to work quite well, if there’s a downside, it might be that it can hog a fair amount of disk space for storing its information. I accidentally had it index way too much, and the store size was up over 3GB. That’s not much with today’s multi-hundred and even multi-thousand gigabyte hard drives, but it’s still something to look out for if you think you are missing some disk space.

Another thing to look out for is having it index while you are trying to get work done. At first, I thought that the performance of KDE 4 was severely lacking, because windows kept freezing and general performance was slow, but I realized it was completely related to the indexer doing its thing. If you are able, it’d be wise to allow it to index throughout one night and from that point forward, it will only do mini-updates unless you happen to add a huge folder for it to watch.

As a whole, KDE 4 seems to work well with all the various components, especially Dolphin. The developers changed how mundane tasks are handled, and some of the results are quite nice. Take for example copying files or a folder from one place to another. Because there’s an “Applications Notification” icon nestled in the system tray, rather than a pop-up window occur in the middle of your screen, it will pop out of the bottom right-hand corner, out of the way. It will show you the progress, and once done, you can close it.

I much prefer this method to a pop-up window, but there’s a caveat. Once the process is complete, the notifier doesn’t close automatically, and I can’t seem to find an option to change that. If you have a whack of progress bars open at one time, and each is completed, closing one will close them all, which makes sense.

On the next page, I’ll wrap up my lovefest for KDE 4, and add in some thoughts on what I’d like to see taken care of in future version updates.

What Changed My Mind? Cont., Final Thoughts

I admit that despite using a distro like Gentoo, I can be a lazy sysadmin more often than not. If I run into a complex problem, I might choose to not fix it, simply because the amount of time it takes to figure out a solution wouldn’t deliver a worthwhile enough reward. Take the Linux sound system, for example. I have always used ALSA for various reasons, but mainly because it supports new audio cards, such as the ASUS Xonar. I have a simple audio card setup… two cards in total, one for the speakers, the other for headphones.

Without robust tools built into KDE (some distros supply their own such tools), changing your default audio card can be a true hassle. On some boots, my HDA Intel would be the default card, while on others, the Xonar would be. This is obviously a pain, because if I want to listen to anything through the opposite source, it means I better be planning to use an application that allows me to pick and choose my output.

Poking around in the “System Settings” (AKA: Control Panel), my jaw dropped once again. Under the sound and video configuration, there it was… the ability to pick and choose which audio card to use for which purpose. Yeah yeah, this sounds so boring for most, because if you are using a pre-built distro or any other OS, this is common-sense. But when you build your distro from scratch, features like these really come in handy. From what I’m aware, GNOME has always such functionality for a while, so it’s nice to finally see it in KDE.

When many users of Linux try to push the OS on their friends, a popular feature to fall back on is fancy desktop effects. As far as I’m aware, Linux offers far more desktop eye-candy than any other out there. To have some really cool desktop effects in the past, you had to install Compiz packages and fiddle around until it worked, but with KDE 4, a lot of what people liked with Compiz is actually built right in. This came as a big surprise to me, because I had no idea until I stumbled on it in some menu.

What kind of effects am I talking about? How about the CoverSwitch (a la Cover Flow) feature? If enabled, it replaces your alt-tab functionality by putting all your active applications into a 3D environment so you can essentially flick through them. This might seem a little overkill for a simple alt-tab, but it’s actually extremely useful. It’s far easier to spot a window you need fast by actually seeing the window rather than a small thumbnail or application icon.

Not all special eye candy features are particularly useful, but they’re cool nonetheless. One such example would be the Lava Lamp window feature. When minimized, the window shrinks down into the taskbar, and vice versa if you restore it. Other features include exploding windows when you close them, wobbly windows, and if you are particularly festive, you can turn your desktop into a snowy paradise.

When I tested out Compiz in the past, one of the main reasons I didn’t like it was because it was unstable. My most common memory of this is a desktop turned black. The KDE developers wouldn’t have decided to include these features now if they were unstable, and in all my tests (and I’ve been playing around with them a lot), I didn’t have a single instability, or even a sign that it might be unstable. I’m actually incredibly impressed by how stable this OpenGL-accelerated environment is. I was running a copy of Nexuiz windowed, and put a transparent console in front of it, there were no graphic anomalies at all. Throughout all my tests, I can’t help but be amazed by just how stable it is. Normally with advanced technologies like this, there’s usually some major downsides, but I sure haven’t found any yet.

Of course, I can’t talk about these desktop effects without mentioning one of the most popular out there… the 3D desktop cube. I don’t use multiple desktops, but if I did, I would use this feature like there was no tomorrow. Essentially, each desktop is on one side of the cube, and you can escape your current desktop, spin it around and go to whichever one you want active. Given there are much simpler ways to go from one desktop to the next, this is entirely for eye candy purposes, but boy, it pulls that off well.

Final Thoughts

When I began writing this article, I meant it to be a thousand word editorial, but as I began writing, I couldn’t help but get excited all over again about the features I was goofing around with, and the other pluses that KDE 4 has over KDE 3. Despite this “editorial” ending up far longer than I anticipated, I can’t help but feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m fairly confident that I covered all I wanted to. One thing is for certain, though… there’s much more to be had than what I’ve mentioned.

If there’s one thing that I’m impressed by, it’s the fact that my attitude towards KDE 4 changed so fast. One day, I disliked it quite heavily, and the next, I kick myself for not upgrading sooner. Have I gone soft? I’m doubtful of that, but I am certain that KDE 4.3 is a vast improvement over the KDE 4.0 I used almost two years ago. That’s not to say that I like everything about it, but everything I love far outweighs what I don’t, and at this point, I couldn’t imagine backtracking to KDE 3.x.

I mentioned earlier that Amarok 2 was another “upgrade” I didn’t much appreciate, but even that seems to have been improved over time. I don’t consider it perfect (it’s missing album art I had, and it won’t even use the album art built into music from iTunes), but there’s actually a lot I appreciate over Amarok 1.x, such as less focus on file information and useless statistics, and more on the music itself. At any given time, you can usually access the lyrics to the music you are listening to, and also a Wikipedia article. It’s convenient, and streamlined. I do find that the new Amarok lacks a LOT of options it should have, or that the older version had, but I can’t complain too much.

Amarok isn’t the only application to be updated from KDE 3.5, but it’s one that I use most often. Other updated apps that I use quite often include Konsole and KAlarm, and there may be more that I haven’t noticed yet.

Before writing all this, I thought I had more complaints than I seem to have now, but there are a few minor things I’d love to see changed. For one, it should be far easier to edit the K Menu. The reason I thought it was impossible to create keyboard shortcuts to launch applications with KDE 4.0 is because I had no idea the only place to edit it was by right-clicking the actual K and selecting it there. In KDE 3.5, you could right-click pretty much anywhere and have the option become available. Simple and common-sense functionality like this shouldn’t be changed.

One great feature of Dolphin is the ability to select more than one file scattered around a folder without holding down the Ctrl button. You simply hover over a file, click the plus sign and repeat that for each file you want. While I think this is a huge improvement over holding down the Ctrl button, I think it’d be great if clicking a file or outside a file after files are selected like that would still retain your selections. It would be convenient to select each file one at a time, and be able to regularly click on files as you go to check them out, then go back to continue selecting the individual files you want.

Those two things are all I can complain about at this point, because the truth is, I’m simply glad I finally made the move and realized that KDE 4 has improved so much since its launch. No desktop environment is perfect, but compared to KDE 3.5, there are a slew of improvements in the latest version that warrant an upgrade. It’s not only better-looking, but far more of a pleasure to use as well… and if you use your PC as much as I do, that’s rather important.

Have you used KDE 4? What did you think of it? Want to flame me for slightly incorrect information? Have your own thoughts of what you’d like to see in KDE 4’s upcoming versions? Hit up the forum thread below!

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