Smart tips and tricks to get the best from KDE 4

If there's one thing KDE is good at, it's looking good. Now make it look better!

Use the desktop as a desktop

One of the most widely published new features of KDE 4 was really a non-feature – the removal of the desktop metaphor. It was replaced with a virtual desktop where you could only drag links to applications, files and locations, rather than acting as a real directory on your hard drive.

You can restore most of the original functionality by dragging the Folder View widget on to your desktop, and using the right-click configuration menu to point it at the location of your real desktop folder. By default, Mandriva 2009 configures the Folder View Plasmoid to take over most of the visible screen, which provides almost the same functionality as the old KDE 3.5 Desktop.

Get new fonts

Depending on your distro, the quality of the fonts in KDE 4 can be a little patchy, but fortunately, you can install your own.

Open the system settings window and click on the Font Installer icon in the Computer Administration section. This window lists all the fonts installed on your system, and you can install new ones by clicking on the Add button. You can add TrueType, OpenType, PostScript type-1 formats, and there are many online sites that offer free packages.

If you have MS Windows installed on a different partition, you can even add fonts from there. Just navigate to the 'Windows/Fonts' directory and add the fonts you like. Any fonts you've installed can be used from the Appearance/ Fonts page in the System Settings window, and certain applications like Konqueror and Kopete allow you to configure custom fonts from within their own configuration panels.

Make GTK apps look like KDE ones

One of the biggest problems with the default KDE 4 desktop from the likes of Kubuntu and Mandriva is that any application that doesn't use KDE looks out of place. Most of these applications use the Gnome toolkit, GTK, which uses a completely different set tools and settings for icons, colours and layout.

But despite the differences in Gnome and KDE, you can force one to look like the other. To get Gnome applications to look like their KDE counterparts involves installing a package called gtk-qt-engine, and both Kubuntu and Mandriva offer official packages.

After installation, you'll find an extra configuration page in the System Settings/Appearance window called 'GTK Styles and Fonts'. Click on this, and you have several options on how to bring the two styles together. Firstly, click on 'Use My KDE Style In GTK Applications' and make sure 'Use KDE fonts' is also selected. Then click on the 'Install Scrollbar Fix' to make an alteration to your Mozilla profile that should make the scrollbars in Firefox and Thunderbird look identical to those on native-KDE applications.

You need to restart KDE to apply the changes, and you should see that the colours, icons and fonts have changed, as well as window decorations like the scrollbars. You can take things further with Firefox by installing the KFirefox theme through the Tools > Addons manager.

Plasma and panel themes

It's not obvious at first glance, but you can change the appearance of the dock and the Plasmoids in KDE. This little feature is tucked away within the Desktop Settings configuration window – the same location you use to change the desktop wallpaper. Open this window by right-clicking on an empty section of desktop, and choosing 'Desktop Settings' from the context menu that appears.

Just above the lower border of the window, you should see the 'Desktop Theme' drop-down menu. Click on this to open a large list of themes as a series of vertical previews. Click on one to see the immediate effect. Our favourite is Elegance, but you can install install plenty of new themes by clicking on the 'New Theme' button to the right of the list.

Like other 'Hot New Stuff' windows in KDE 4, you can now download Plasma themes from with a singe click, and enable the new theme from the Desktop Theme drop-down menu.

Get Compiz effects without Compiz

When KDE 4 was released, most people couldn't believe that the amazing effects that came from Compiz hadn't been integrated into the new desktop. Instead, the KDE developers chose to reinvent the wheel and write their own version of Compiz from the ground up.

With the first release of KDE 4, this made little sense, as very few effects were available for KDE. But that has changed, and you can now emulate most of the best features of Compiz from within KDE. But, as with Compiz, you'll still need a decent graphics card with 3D accelerated graphics for these effects to work without destroying all desktop performance.

KDE's graphical frippery options are carefully hidden. Open the System Settings configuration panel, and switch to the 'Desktop' page. You can get to the same page by rightclicking on a Window's title bar and selecting 'Configure Window Behaviour'. Click on 'Enable Desktop Effects' to make the magic happen, and use the 'All Effects' page to enable or disable the separate elements you want. Here are the effects we recommend enabling, and our optimum configuration options where appropriate:

Dim inactive
Makes background windows darker. Try setting strength to seven.

Makes Windows seamlessly blend into and out of the desktop.

Drop shadow for windows. Try X offset = 0, Y offset = 5, Opacity = 45%, fuzziness = 10 and size = 5. We also changed the colour to pure black.

Wobbly windows
You either love or hate this effect. Use the less/more slider to make it more subtle.

Box switch
This is the only application switcher we've found useful. It's quick and provides a quick thumbnail of each running application when you hold down Alt+Tab.

Multiple desktops
From KDE 4.1 onwards, switching between desktops will now animate a sliding transition. It's not as eye-catching as the cube, but it is more practical.

Application focus: Digikam

While most KDE users have focused their attention on the plight of their desktop, a few KDE 4 applications have quietly pushed their features and interfaces to the next level. This group include two applications that are core to any desktop's functionality – Amarok, which has finally reached 2.0, and the DigiKam photo manager.

DigiKam has made some fantastic improvements over the last 18 months, and it's now at a stage where it can genuinely compete with iPhoto for image and photo management features. Not only will it deal with importing your photos from your camera or storage cards, but it can now arrange them into albums, spread them across a timeline or calendar and place them on a 3D representation of planet Earth.

One of the coolest new features is 'Fuzzy' searching. Crudely draw your approximation of the image you're looking for, and DigiKam will attempt to find a match within your photo collection. It's quite crude, and a lot of the matches seem to work more on colour than shape, but it's definitely clever. You can also drag and drop a similar image to the one you're looking for and search based on that.