KDE 4 and the User Experience

Clearly, this rewriting of the desktop is as ambitious as rumor has it. And equally clearly, it'll have users thinking about desktops in ways they usually don't.
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Following the development of KDE 4 can be daunting for casual observers. With all the colorfully named sub-projects like Oxygen, Solid, and Phonon that comprise this major rewriting of one of the main desktops for GNU/Linux, you can rapidly feel overwhelmed -- especially since the names rarely have relation to purposes.

Fortunately, with the release of beta 4, KDE 4 has come a long way since my last look at the project. While pieces still seem to be missing, the look and feel is starting to emerge strongly enough that you can forget the jargon and start to get a sense of what the finished KDE 4 will be like to use.

And clearly, it's a makeover so extreme that it should have its own reality TV show. Breathtaking at first glance, it's also full of basic changes that will probably be debated for months after the official release in January 2008.

Meanwhile, you can preview KDE 4 in one of the many live CDs that distributions are releasing to showcase the beta without requiring uses to compile from source. In particular, I recommend OpenSUSE's KDE Four Live and Debian's KDE4 live CDs. Just be sure, if you're using the Debian live CD, to note that you login with the username "user" and the password "live."

First impressions

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"This is KDE?" That was my first reaction when booting one of the live CDs. Although earlier versions of KDE have been highly configurable, the default settings for KDE in many distros have always struck me as unsophisticated -- perfectly adequate functionally, but somehow falling short of the high gloss finish you expect in a modern desktop. Usually, I needed considerable tweaking of themes, widgets, icons, and fonts to give KDE a look which matched GNOME's.

By contrast, KDE 4 is high-gloss fresh from the CD. With a color palette that is a little bit Vista, and widgets and icons that are a little bit GNOME or OS X with their shading and perspective and clean lines, KDE 4 is a radical departure visually from its predecessors.

Start moving around the desktop, and you'll notice the same scalable vector graphics used for the icons have also started transforming KDE applications, including many of the games. You'll also notice a considerable increase in speed, apparently thanks to the new 4.3 Qt libraries -- even when running from a live CD.

Interface Changes and Questions

Looking more closely, you'll also notice some changes to the basic interface. Some of these changes are unremarkable, such as the System Settings dialog, which replaces the rather daunting list of tabs in the venerable KDE Control Center with a series of icons organized into several categories. However, others alter how you interact with the KDE desktop, and are likely to provoke some discussion.

The panel is still at the bottom of the screen, with the main menu on the left, but now it's been joined by the Desktop Toolbox, a rounded icon in the upper right corner that allows you to zoom in and out on items selected on the desktop, and to add to the desktop either a program launcher or the sort of applets that in earlier versions were dropped on the panel, such as an analog clock or battery manager. Beside the toolbox are icons for background applications that once sat in the panel's system tray, such as the clipboard manager.

Next page: What's with the applets on the desktop?

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Tags: open source, Linux, Vista, KDE, instant messaging

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