The last sixteen months have been intense for the KDE desktop. The release of KDE 4.0 brought a user revolt that was only partly subdued by the 4.1 release, and did not completely quiet down until the 4.2 release last January with its emphasis on usability.
Now, with the release of the KDE 4.3 beta, the project is returning to incremental releases, and concentrating on customization and ease of use on the desktop, the panel, and system settings.
Not that the beta is completely lacking in new features. It includes PolicyKit, a tool that goes beyond the traditional GNU/Linux distinction of permissions and the root user to fine-tune how every day accounts access hardware and administrative services.
There are also new data engines such as the geographical locator, and additional settings for using Nepomuk, the system for annotating and locating information, with personal data such as emails and address books. And, going from the earnest to the frivolous, the beta includes a new game called Curse of the Mummy and 70 new levels for Mahjongg.
However, many of these new features will take some time for users to appreciate. The first enhancements that average users will notice will probably be the customization and usability features.
You do not have to go far to see changes on the desktop. New widgets are now more intelligently placed, so that they are not hidden by windows open in the upper left. The revamped context menu now includes a link to KRunner, a run command tool that, for intermediate and advanced users, can also double (among other things) as a calculator, search tool, and a converter from one unit of measurement to the other. Context menu items to Lock or Leave the desktop are also included.
For those tired of a static desktop, the KDE 4 series already has the slide show option for wallpaper. Now, in the 4.3 beta, you also have options called Virus and Mandelbrot, which slowly alter the desktop, or Weather, which changes the wallpaper with the weather report.
Another small but useful feature on the desktop is the thumbnail view of folders that appear when you hover the mouse over them. Earlier releases of KDE had the same feature for the panel's task master, so in a sense, this small touch only adds more consistency to the desktop. However, the improvement that it makes to file-management is great enough that most users should quickly appreciate it.
The beta also includes a number of new widgets or applets, including Bubblemon, a graphically-oriented systems monitor, and ktop, the first step in adding access to the KDE community directly to the desktop.
Whether the dream behind the ktop widget of allowing you to contact people with the same hardware or software problems will ever be realized is uncertain, but, meanwhile, the ktop widget itself is a useful tool for those who register on the website of the same name. Still another new applet is Magnifique, a desktop magnifier.
However, the largest change to the desktop since 4.2 is the prominence of keyboard shortcuts. These existed before in many parts of the desktop, but now they are added to Folder View, and to the desktop itself. You can even print out the desktop shortcuts for easy reference. For those who are willing to invest a little time in learning, the general availability of keyboard shortcuts should greatly increase efficiency -- to say nothing of reducing repetitive stress injuries caused by the mouse.