Touring the KDE 4 Beta

Due for release in October, KDE 4 is an extreme makeover of the popular desktop environment.
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Few major pieces of free software are more eagerly awaited than KDE 4. With changes to everything from the core libraries and window manager to the look, feel and function of the desktop, by any standard, KDE 4 is an extreme makeover of the popular desktop environment. Scheduled for release in October, KDE 4 can be toured now in the first beta that was released at the start of August. Taking the tour, the number of areas still under construction is obvious, and crashes are numerous, but enough is completed for users to get the first sense of what the final release might be like. On the way, you'll find major overhauls of general functionality,as well as both major and minor refitting of familiar KDE programs and the introduction of a few new ones.

Hardcore users can compile the beta from source. Alternatively, in some distributions like Debian, developers can download selected packages with which to code. However, at this stage, non-developers can make better use of their time by downloading one of the Live CDs/DVDs provided by such distributions as Kubuntu, Mephis, or OpenSUSE, or Gentoo.

Some of these live disks differ in content and functionality from each other. Some, too, seem a compromise between being functional and acting as a demo -- the Mephis disk, for example, provides KDE 4 if you log into the user account, but an earlier, stable KDE version if you log in as root. Moreover, booting from a DVD, none can give any sense of the speed of KDE 4. Still, any one of them should be enough to satisfy your curiosity, especially if you first read KDE's guide to the new features or Troy Unrau's "The Road to KDE 4" so you know what to look for.

Hidden features

Even with a guide, some of the aspects of KDE 4 will not be visible from a live disk. Some are not implemented yet. I know, for example, that an enhanced font installer has been readied that will allow fonts to be activated in groups. This feature will be especially attractive to designers with large number of fonts, who do not want to drag down system performance by having them all enabled at once, and prefer to load fonts on the fly for each project. However, like many features, the font installer is presumably waiting for a later release.

Another unobservable feature is the increased speed promised by the use of the 4.3 Qt libraries, which is negated by the slowness of running the desktop from a DVD instead of a hard drive. Nor are users likely to have much chance of seeing ECMAScript (AKA JavaScript) in use as a desktop-wide scripting language.

Other parts are only partially implemented. Plasma, the new integrated desktop and panel, is represented only by a few hints here and there. At least one of these hints, the Engine Explorer available by right-clicking on the desktop, is empty and undoubtedly puzzling to users who have not read enough to know that "data engines" is how Plasma refers to its components. Similarly the Zoom function, which resizes all objects on the desktop together, is not enabled in all the live disks.

Still other features are not immediately obvious. Curious users are unlikely to miss the absence of many of the windows in the KDE Control Center, but, without instructions, they may not know that the kcmshell command can be used to view the new windows individually. The command kcmshell--list will show the available modules, which open using the command followed by the module name -- for example, kcmshell printers opens the window for printer configuration.

In much the same way, you can easily miss the use of scalable vector graphics made possible by the Qt 4.3 libraries. It is only when you watch how the icons change size when you change the zoom on the desktop that you are likely to realize the improvement in the graphics in KDE 4. Or, you may also notice this improvement when you look at the icons available as you enter the command kcmshell icons and see the available icon sets, or perhaps when you start a revamped game and compare it with an older version of the same program.

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Tags: Windows, software, Demo, IT, KDE

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