With its 4.1 release, KDE is taking few chances. While the 4.0 release's announcement emphasized excitement and significance, the tone of the announcement for 4.1 is more subdued. This time, the announcement talks about maturing technologies and underlying improvements, and the only claim is that the 4.1 desktop "can replace the KDE 3 shell for most casual users."
The change of tone seems a direct result of the numerous complaints about KDE 4.0, which somehow reached end-users' hands despite warnings that it was a development release. However, whether the 4.1 release will silence the complaints depends very much on individual users' tolerance for change, their willingness to customize, and the degree to which the available programs fit their needs. Only after these considerations, I suspect, will users get around to exploring everything that is new in 4.1, much less to appreciating it.
In general terms, the 4.1 desktop offers only minor obstacles to those using it for the first time. Despite obvious changes, navigating the desktop shouldnt offer any serious problems. The upper right corner displays a desktop toolkit, and some changes, such as the replacement of the Control Center with a settings dialog, may be momentarily puzzling. But in general, all the expected desktop elements are present, including the panel and the menu.
Take half an hour to explore the changes, and you should soon become familiar with them. Although the Control panel is edited in a temporary panel that appears above it rather than in a window dialog, and with icons and buttons rather than menu items, the basic concept remains the same, even if the look hasn't.
Perhaps the largest change is Folder View, which has been falsely rumored to eliminate icons on the desktop. But, once you grasp that folders are containers for icons, you shouldn't take long to see the possibilities of using this feature to organize projects and improve your workflow.
However, one remaining obstacle to 4.1 acceptance is that, despite some improvements compared to 4.0, the customization options are still more limited than on the 3.5 desktop. For example, although you can edit the applications view of the menu, you cannot alter the basic views in the menu. Similarly, while you can add icons and widgets to the panel, you still cannot autohide it or change its background. Nor can you have a floating panel. And, while you can move icons on the panel, rather inconveniently, you can only do so when in Panel Settings mode. This lack of some customization features does not affect basic functionality. But considering GNU/Linux users' high expectations of being able to do things their own way, it may be enough to make some users reject KDE 4.1 out of hand. The absence of even a small feature can loom surprisingly large if you are accustomed to having it.
By contrast, if you dislike some of the innovations on the 4.1 desktop, customization is advanced enough that you don't have to live with them. If you dislike how the menu cannot show a menu and sub-menu at the same time, you can right-click on the menu icon in the panel and choose Switch to Classic Menu Style. In the same way, if you can't live with Folder View, you can close all its instances and right-click on an item to copy it to the desktop or the panel. Or, if you dislike Dolphin as a file-manager, you can still open Konqueror instead.
Admittedly, some of the customization options can be hard to find. In fact, I confess that, until this article was published and the errors pointed out to me by readers, I missed the almost invisible arrows in the Panel Settings that changes the length of the panel. (In my own defense, the lack of obviousness of this control has already been registered as a bug to be fixed in KDE 4.2.) But the only serious customization drawback is that you cannot remove or hide the desktop toolkit.
Also, you can remove the small control icons around desktop items by selecting Lock Widget from the toolkit, but only at the cost of locking them into one position -- and, even then, the semi-transparent collar around the icons remains.
However, none of these customization options seriously interfere with your work, unless, perhaps, aesthetically.
Another factor that will affect whether KDE 4.1 is ready for you to use is whether the KDE programs you use have been updated yet. So far as I know, all applications written for KDE 3.5 will continue running on 4.x, but, sooner or later, you will want versions that can take advantage of the new release's features.
For this reason, the release of new versions of KDE PIM, with Kmail, KOrganizer, Akregator, and other personal information management tools may be a major influence on whether you migrate to KDE 4.1. K3B, the popular CD/DVD burner, is also available now in a 4.1 release. In much the same way, many of the individual applications in KOffice have reached a usable beta stage, although the office suite as a whole seems perpetually frozen in alpha release, with nine so far since last fall. By contrast, the music player Amarok is still in its second alpha release.NEXT PAGE: New programs in KDE 4.1