Have you been clinging to KDE 3.5 like a polar bear to the last Arctic ice shelf?
If so, now's a good time to consider jumping on to the mainland. The recently released KDE 4.1 is a vast improvement over the original.
Hundreds of bugfixes and refinements mean that the KDE desktop is now a stable, functional and productive environment. It's faster, more streamlined and full of eye candy, and is also where all the developers' effort is now concentrated.
Things are only going to get better for KDE users. But, as with all these big changes, there are still teething problems – things don't always work the way you expect them to and many of the newer features are poorly documented.
We've spent the last few weeks using KDE 4.1 and making a note of everything we changed to help the desktop environment feel a little more comfortable, as well as to sidestep a few of the issues we ran into.
Even without Compiz, KDE still has the potential to look great, thanks to its smooth animations.
For lovers of eye candy, one of the best things to happen to the Linux desktop over the last few years has been Compiz – that wonderful world of spinning cubes and wobbly windows. But with the 4.0 release, KDE developers seemed to ignore this desktop revolution.
KDE could, and can, be made to work with Compiz, but it created an unstable environment in which applications didn't always behave as they should, and you also lost the advantage of running a KDE window manager. This is the part of your desktop that knows where all your windows are and what state they're in.
Without a native window manager, KDE had no idea where windows were positioned or whether they were minimised or maximised. What made the problem worse was that the KDE developers re-invented the same wheel, creating their own entirely independent compositing manager and bolting that functionality into their window manager.
The result was a few poorly executed effects that couldn't even compete with the first release of Compiz several years ago, let alone the latest version. Fortunately, version 4.1 has gone some way to redress this imbalance. KDE's array of compositing effects now numbers over 30 and includes some of the same idle timewasters you get in Compiz.
Desktop effects can be opened by either right-clicking on the title bar of a window and selecting Configure Window Behaviour, or from the Desktop icon in the System Settings panel. What you get is a long list of the available effects, split into various categories.
Each can be enabled instantly by clicking on the small tick box at the far-right of the entry. If there are any parameters for each effect, these can be changed by clicking on the spanner symbol. We found, for example, that the default drop-shadow effect was a little tame for our tastes.
In the Shadow configuration, we went for an X and Y offset of 5, a shadow opacity of 35%, and a fuzziness and size of 10. We also made sure the colour was a solid black, rather than the dull grey of the default.
We enabled the wobbly windows plugin (but we have to admit that this is an acquired taste). And we also enabled the Dim Inactive effect, but made it a little more subtle by changing the strength to 5. This slightly dims inactive windows on the display, and pulls your eye to the window you're currently using.
More useful eye candy from the KDE effects department is provided through the choice of window switcher. These are effects that display all your open windows when you press the Alt+Tab key combination to switch between them.
The Box Switcher is an animated version of the classic icon selector, where you can cursor left and right through a thumbnail of each open window. The Cover Switch is a crude emulation of Apple's Cover Flow.
Open windows seem to join a three-dimensional queue and the cursor keys page through each one as you would a record collection. The Desktop Switch simply lists each open window in a small, vertical, text-based menu. The final option is the Flip Switch, which is a little like Cover Switch, but instead of using a queue of windows on each side of the display, the window list stretches into the infinity of your desktop background. In a nod to the good old days of KDE excess, you can also enable more than one switch effect at the same time, creating a cacophony of window selection applets.
As yet, no one has come up with a better system for launching applications than the desktop panel. Your desktop may feel naked without it, but the layout and design of the panel has changed considerably over the last couple of years – thanks in part to Apple.
Many of us now like to restrict the panel to a certain border of the screen and reduce its size from its edge-straddling default of 100%. Neither of these modifications could be made in the previous version of KDE, making the panel feel rather unloved.
Fortunately, this essential portal has received some much-needed attention for the 4.1 release, and you can now perform most of the modifications you might expect. The only real option missing is the ability to change the panel background, but you can accomplish this with a little hacking of the config file.
Resize the panel
The key to editing the desktop panel is the small cashew symbol used to denote KDE's Plasmoids – the desktop widgets now at the heart of the KDE desktop. When widgets are unlocked from the main cashew icon in the top-right, another small icon will appear on the right of the panel border. This is because the panel is really just another Plasmoid, albeit one with a special function.
Clicking on this new icon opens the configuration panel, which looks like the tab ruler in a word processor and performs a similar function. There should be one grey arrow on the upper left, a blue arrow on the upper right and a green arrow beneath this.
Clicking and dragging the grey arrow changes the length of the panel; the blue arrow changes the maximum size of the panel; and the green arrow the minimum size for the panel.
As with a word processor, you can choose between three alignment modes by clicking on their respective icons in the panel configuration strip. Each mode will display different alignment arrows, but their function remains the same. If the blue and green arrows are in different positions, the panel will grow to the size specified by the blue arrow, as icons and applications are added to the panel.
If the blue and green arrows are in the same location, the icons and applications within the panel will be forced to rescale themselves, and the panel will remain the same size.
We found our optimum settings were achieved by using the central alignment option, and dragging the blue arrows that appear on either edge of the window in by around 10–15%. The grey arrow appears in the centre of the panel and ensures the panel's length on either side is the same.
But there's more than this to the configuration panel. If you look carefully, there's a small grab bar in the middle. Click and drag this to resize the thickness of the panel by either dragging the edge into the centre of the display or out towards the side.
The various applications and icons within the panel will adjust themselves automatically to make best use of the space – and there's nothing stopping you filling half the screen with the panel if that's what you need.
The last arrangement option is accomplished by clicking and dragging within the panel itself, as this moves the panel from one edge to another. Unlike the old KDE 3.5 panel, the 4.1 version is actually quite good at re-arranging itself vertically on the left or right border of the screen, although it's not as neat as Apple's.
If this is the location you'd prefer, you might want to remove some of the more problematic icons, such as the clock. In configuration mode, applets and icons can finally be moved by dragging them with the mouse. KDE 4.1 will neatly animate the other icons as you drag, enabling you to see where the icon will best sit.
If you want to remove an icon completely, you need to leave configuration mode and right-click on the icon before choosing Remove This from the menu.
Icons and applets are added to the panel slightly differently. To add a link to an application, right-click on its entry in the KDE menu and select Add To Panel. You can add Plasmoid widgets, too, but they aren't all compatible with the panel's restrictive space.
Open the Add Widgets window, either from the large cashew in the top-right or the Add Widgets button in the panel configuration strip, and drag the widget into the panel. If it isn't compatible you'll see a no entry symbol, but widgets such as the Digital Clock and Pager will fit perfectly.
When you've finished configuring your panel, select Lock Widgets from either of the cashew menus to free up a little desktop space.
It's true: KDE 4.1 changes the way icons and folders are represented on the desktop.
There's a big change on the desktop, and it's caused some ruction. The desktop's purpose as a metaphor for a desktop surface has gone. You can no longer drag files and folders on to the desktop to move them to the /Desktop directory.
Dragging a file on to the desktop will now create a Plasmoid that links to the original file or location. And you can only do this if widgets are unlocked in the cashew menu.
A click will still launch the application associated with the file, but its physical location on the disk won't have changed. This new approach has annoyed people who use their desktops as a temporary storage area, but there is a workaround.
KDE 4.1 compensates for the lack of temporary storage on the desktop with a new Plasmoid widget called Folder View, which provides a window on to a certain folder (this includes remote locations as well as local ones).
After you've dragged the folder from the Add Widget window, click on the spanner configuration icon and choose the location you want to view. Clicking on Show The Desktop Folder is the closest you can get to the old-style desktop, and if you resize the folder view widget to fill the screen you could convince yourself you have almost the same functionality.
You can cut, copy and paste files and folders from the folder view into any other file management view, and we got used to the new approach within a week or two.
If you've been messing around with the Folder View Plasmoid, as well as the panel, you might have noticed that the desktop hardly crashes at all. The KDE development team put a lot of effort into the widgets for this release and they're now at a point where we'd consider them operational.
Along with this much needed stability, the new release benefits from a few additional widgets – although with only 34 bundled in total, Plasma isn't yet the cornucopia of utility promised by its lead developer over 12 months ago. There's the predicable array of clocks, a news ticker and a moon phase calculator.
This is also where some essential panel functionality hides, and if you try to add either the task manager or the system tray to your desktop (as opposed to the panel), you'll be greeted with a useless circular widget. For the next release, the developers should split desktop and panel Plasmoids into separate categories.
Fortunately, there's a handful of better widgets. The dictionary tool works well either on the desktop or the panel, and the picture frame Plasmoid can neatly display a collection of images, but the promised 'image of the day' retrieval from online repositories doesn't work for us.
There's also the Dashboard. If you're familiar with OS X, you'll have seen this paradigm being used before: a certain keyboard combination overlays widgets on the current view. This is a useful place to hide small tools and applications, and KDE's Dashboard widget performs a similar function.
Clicking on the icon clears everything from your desktop except your widgets. This is useful if you add the widget to your panel and often use apps in full-screen mode, but it would be better if it fully emulated the OS X version by overlaying an area where you can add new widgets that don't otherwise take up valuable desktop space.
File management: The battle between Dolphin and Konqueror continues…
The usurping of the all-powerful Konqueror file manager and web browser by the humble Dolphin has been one of the more contentious design decisions for KDE 4. But KDE 4.1 has gone a little way to improve things, with the addition of tree view in Dolphin – taken from Konqueror. This makes the transition a little easier, and even we'd agree that Dolphin does almost everything a file manager should do.
It's going to be an essential part of the Nepomuk social semantic desktop, which is why the option to add comments, as well as a five-star rating system, is so conspicuous in the right-hand panel. The idea is that your desktop becomes a portal to local and online content.
As a result, Dolphin attempts to remove some of the worry about where a file or folder is by presenting the filesystem as a friendly array of data. But it mostly feels like a cut-down version of Konqueror – an application that can, thankfully, still be found on KDE 4.1.
Regardless of the differences in the way these applications handle file management, there are several problems that affect both. The most annoying for a default KDE 4 installation is the lack of an image preview or thumbnail on images of a certain size.
Dolphin users get a more logical place to alter this. Just open the Preferences window, click on the View Modes page and increase the maximum file size from which previews will be generated. This defaults to 5MB, which is too small for many digital images, and increasing it to 10MB or even 20MB should cover 99% of your image collection.
This setting also applies to the folder view Plasma widget on the desktop, as this takes its settings from Dolphin, which is handy if you happen to download images to your old desktop directory.
Konqueror users can find a similar slider in the Previews And Metadata page of its Configuration panel. This defaults to 1MB and has the same effect on previews within Konqueror, but the sliders aren't connected to the same hidden parameter, so you'll have to change both if you use the two applications.
Another annoying aspect of Konqueror is that it often seems to have a mind of its own when it comes to launching applications. For example, text files will default to opening in KWrite rather than the better specified and faster Kate editor.
Thankfully, the solution for this problem applies to both Konqueror and Dolphin, and resides within the System Settings application. Choose File Associations from the Advanced page. This displays a window with various file types grouped into types in a panel on the left.
Selecting a file type, such as '.text.', opens a panel on the right that presents the options for that file type. For text files, you'll see there are two common file extensions (*.asc and *.txt), along with a list of applications that are launched when the user clicks on a corresponding file.
For text files, you should see that KWrite takes top priority, followed by the bloated KWord and, finally, Kate. To put Kate in its rightful place as the first application to be launched, select it and click on the Move Up button until it's at the head of the list. As soon as you click on Apply, KDE will launch Kate in preference to any other text editor.
Another great feature is file embedding. KDE 4 seems to have abandoned this space-saving ability in favour of launching a new window when you click on a file, but we prefer to see the embedded version for certain file types – text and PDF documents in particular.
Switch from the General page to Embedded in the text file type editor. This presents you with options for how to tackle file embedding. Select Show File In Embedded Viewer and make sure the Embedded Advanced Text Editor is top of the Services Preference Order. Now, when you click on a text file you'll see the contents within the same file manager window, rather than an external app.
We'd recommend making the same change for image and PDF files, though these will only work with Konqueror.
First published in Linux Format, Issue 122
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