KDE 4.9 is a mature release, so you wouldn't expect major renovations. However, to judge from the second release candidate (technically, the 4.8.97 release), that expectation is no more than half correct.
Yes, the release is full of the small refinements that characterize an incremental release. However, it also includes some more important features, most of them to do with Activities, as the development team continues its efforts to make the release series' most major innovation more appealing and useful to users.
Users wishing to try the release candidate can always compile from source, or check the development repositories of their distribution.
One of the easiest ways to test the release is to add the Project Neon repositories to an Ubuntu installation, then update the repository and install the project-neon-all package. Project Neon installs as a separate desktop that you can choose at login, and therefore doesn't overwrite any existing KDE installation with code still in development.
The Incremental Changes
The small changes in the release candidate begin with KWin, KDE's standard window manager. For those who have poured over the settings of Desktop Effects in System Settings, trying to figure out whether an effect is working, the 4.9 release provides some relief by telling you when one doesn't load.
Other new window manager features include the addition of a desktop edge hot spot for displaying the different windows used by the current application, as well as numerous bug fixes for other effects.
At a time when GNOME and Ubuntu are moving away from traditional file management, KDE continues to fine-tune the Dolphin file manager. The latest release sees Dolphin allowing metadata to display beside icons, as well as renaming being done directly on the display pane, instead of in a dialog window that often obscures the item being worked upon.
Another basic part of the desktop, the Konsole terminal, is improved by the addition of the ability to drag a tab on to the desktop to open it in a separate window.
Desktop utilities also have their share of micro-improvements. For instance, the document viewer Okular gains the ability to print annotations, and is now aware of hyphens in its search functions.
KDEPim, the personal information engine, now has the ability to import filters, calendars, and address books and to do scheduled archiving of mail folders, while KDE games -- especially Kajongg, KPatience, and KSudoku -- each have numerous improvements listed in the release's Feature Plan.
Naturally, how much any one of these small changes matters depends on your work habits and preferred applications. Most are welcome, but not essential extensions of functionality. However, if these small changes have any unifying theme, it is making KDE behave more logically and usefully. Most users are likely to find something in these small changes that makes working in KDE just slightly easier.
Improvements to Activities
One of the major features in the KDE 4 series is Activities, which are task-oriented virtual workspaces with a high degree of individual configuration. Past releases have seen KDE perfecting Activities and their interfaces, but the 4.9 release is particularly rich in refinements.
To start with, the interface for setting up Activities has been tidied, The horizontally scrolling display of all Activities remains the same, but the panes for individual Activities have been improved. The mini-icon of a wrench for editing settings is no longer half-hidden by the general icon for the Activity, making it easier to see and click.
In addition, the field for entering the Activity's name has been moved so that it is directly over the Apply and Cancel button when you click the wrench, making it easier to notice. The Activity name field has also lost the unresponsiveness that plagued it in earlier releases, and is far easier to type in.
The cumulative result of these interface changes is that Activities are far less awkward to set up than in current releases. There is still room for improvement -- in particular, the Create activity and Add widget buttons need to be moved from the right side of the scrolling window, where they can be overlooked -- but the changes in the release candidate are still a move in the right direction.
Another improvement in Activities is the ability to associate windows, files, and applications on the desktop or in the file manager with a particular Activity from their context menus. Folder Views -- collections of icons -- can be similarly associated with Activities. These additions give Activities a much-needed and long overdue parity with virtual workspaces, tying them into the rest of the KDE rather than keeping them partly separate, as in earlier releases.
This ability to associate desktop elements with Activities becomes especially interesting in light of another partly implemented feature -- encrypted Activities. With encrypted Activities, each Activity is locked when you switch away from it, or when the screensaver is activated, and all files associated with the Activity are shifted to an encrypted filesystem. The next time you switch to the Activity, you will be need to enter the password to access it.
Users will probably take a while to appreciate the possibilities of encrypted Activities. However, the feature is a natural extension of KDE's ability to encrypt individual directories and files, allowing users to protect their data at whatever level seems best. Moreover, when Activities are task-oriented, their configuration might become personal data, needing as much protection and privacy as data files.
However, be warned: encrypted Activities are not quite ready for general use. In particular, when Ivan Cukic, their developer, last wrote about them several months ago, he was still debating implementation issues such as whether Neopomuk, KDE's grand indexer, should index encrypted files or not. For this reason, users won't find encrypted Activities mentioned anywhere on the desktop interface where anyone can blunder into them and create problems.
Instead, those who wish to try them can follow the instructions on his blog, but they are largely on their own. For now, unfortunately, encrypted Activities are more a taste of things to come than a feature ready for general use.
The Problem of Activities
KDE 4.9 is not a radical change in direction for the desktop environment. But it is an indication of how far the KDE 4 release series has come from the much-abused 4.0 release four and a half years ago that it generally doesn't need any sudden shifts.
If someone tries to tell you that KDE lacks functionality or user-convenience, all you need to do to prove them wrong is sit them down in front of the latest relief. For the most part, it represents fine-tuning of a system that is already working well.
The exception to this generality is Activities. The concept is new and has been slow to catch hold. Consequently, KDE is still struggling with the best way to integrate Activities into the conventional desktop (and, just possibly, still nervous about introducing changes too rapidly).
In the 4.9 release, KDE has not completely solved the problem. However, it has taken several important steps to integrate and improve Activities. In this respect, 4.9 feels like an intermediary release, laying the groundwork for future changes -- not just the addition desktop controls for encrypted Activities, but possibly the slow introduction of even more features over the next few releases.