Three years ago, KDE was the innovative desktop, and GNOME the conservative one. Today, KDE is the conservative desktop, doing incremental releases, while GNOME is divided between GNOME 3 and Unity, each as innovative and as controversial as the other.
Next week's release of KDE 4.7 does nothing to change the current relationships, being -- at least from an end-user's perspective -- full of small changes while failing to address some of KDE's ongoing usability issues.
Currently available as a second release candidate, KDE 4.7 can be compiled from source. Alternatively, Fedora, openSUSE, and Ubuntu all have packages available for those who want to experiment. An even simpler way to explore the release is to download the Live CD image provided by the Chakra project.
From a developer's perspective, KDE 4.7 is full of news. In particular, KWin, the KDE window manager now supports OpenGL-ES 2.0, an API for embedded graphics hardware. Although this change is supposed to immediately improve the performance for effects on all KDE installations, its importance is largely long-term, as KDE attempts to expand into mobile devices.
Another behind-the-scenes change in KDE includes support for the GRUB2 boot manager in the KDM login manager. This is a logic modernization, as GRUB2 starts to replace Legacy GRUB, but for end-users, the main benefit is the ability to choose as you logout the kernel or operating system to use the next time your machine starts. For most users, this change will likely seem nothing more than a parlor trick, although for developers or system administrators, it can be handy if they suddenly need a specialized kernel in their work, or want to reboot without overseeing the process.
In fact, the closer you read the release notes, the more you realize that the KDE team is trying to anticipate future developments and to prepare for them. However, while KDE prepares for changes that are some years out -- assuming they happen at all -- on the visual level that most users operate, KDE appears to be struggling or ignoring long term issues about just how the desktop should be organized.
Specifically, while System Settings and Marble struggle to settle on an interface, KDE continues to experiment with ways to make Activities more accessible to users. Meanwhile, the Dolphin file manager in 4.7 has opted for a menu-less default interface. While the project prepares for possible future developments, the more basic interface issues are starting to pile up.
These problems did not begin with the 4.7 release. However, it does seem indicative of an ongoing problem that, after so many releases in the KDE 4 series, 4.7 shows little, if any movement toward solutions.
One of the first interface issues that you are likely to notice after installation is in System Settings. By default, the KDE 4 series presents administration and customization tools as icons organized into a handful of categories within a single window. You can still use the tree view of the old KDE Control Centre, but you have to specifically enable it.