Between radical changes and limited functionality, the KDE 4 series got off to a rough start. However, with each release, KDE 4 has improved steadily and silenced more critics. Now, with the KDE 4.4 release, the series has reached first maturity.
Those who expect everything to behave exactly as it did in the KDE 3 series may still struggle with 4.4. But, for those willing to accept change, 4.4 has no shortage of new features to offer, ranging from the implementation of several long-term directions to enhanced usability on the desktop -- including Plasma Netbook, a new interface designed specifically for netbook computers.
Released a week ago, KDE 4.4 is rapidly finding its way into distributions. Guides are already available for installing the new version in many major distributions, including Fedora, openSuse, and Ubuntu.
For several releases, KDE has been implementing the concepts of the social desktop -- an interface that incorporates online services -- and the semantic desktop -- a full index of home directory content whose first implementation is to simplify searching on the desktop.
Now, with the 4.4 release, these concepts are at last becoming more accessible. The social desktop is being realized through a growing number of widgets, including general ones for Incoming Messages and Microblogging and specific ones for ones for KDE's KnowledgeBase as well as OpenDesktop.org and Google Calendar.
Similarly, the semantic desktop is becoming more user-friendly, with integration into the Dolphin file manager. It also has simplified configuration in the Advance tab of System Settings that allow a choice of what folders to index but eliminates the redundant option of what to exclude, and sets a limit on the size of the index file.
The configuration could still use improvement -- in particular, the removal of the names of Nepomuk and Strigi, the engines that power the semantic desktops, from the interface, and a rewording of the advice that, the more memory allocated to Nepomuk, "the more performant it will be. However, finally, the semantic desktop is becoming more than just a buzz word.
At the same time that these old concepts are being phased in, KDE 4.4 introduces the concept of desktop widgets that can be shared over a network. This is a concept that brings both promises and security risks, so I wish that configuration options were more clearly written: The difference between Share this widget on the network and Allow everybody to freely access this widget is likely to take a moment's thought for anyone to distinguish, no matter what their level of expertise. Still, this is a concept that is apparently unique to KDE, and its development over upcoming releases should be worth watching.
The most obvious changes in KDE 4.4 are in the interface. Many of these changes are small, such as a simplification of the default display in Kontact address books, the display of widgets by categories, or the ability to control which widgets display in the panel's notification tray. However, the largest improvements are to the behavior of windows on the desktop.
The KDE 4 series has always had six hotspots on the edges of the desktop that you can click to change what the desktop displays and how. Now, KDE 4.4 expands the hotspot options, adding a variety of special effects that you might not want to keep enabled all the time.
The Show Desktop option is especially useful, for restoring order to a cluster of windows -- especially since, unlike the panel icon that provides the same option on other desktop, you only have to remember a general area, not squint at a few pixels to decipher them.
KDE 4.4 screen-edges
Another way to order windows is to dock one against any side of the desktop. Alternatively, by dragging a window to the top edge, you can maximize it while reducing the repetitive strain that comes with mouse clicks.
But, by far the greatest desktop innovation in KDE 4.4 is one that is also the simplest -- the ability to group windows by tabs. This feature is implemented by a single item added to each window's menu. Yet the implications for easing users' workflow is immense.
Consider, for example, a graphic designer, who might want to have a font manager open to choose fonts, a rough sketch of a design to refer to, Inkscape to create a vector graphic, and the GIMP to produce the brochure that they are working on. Instead of fumbling through an array of windows to find each resource, in KDE 4.4 the designer can arrange all their resources in tabs of a single window, where they are easily found.