KDE 4: Key Improvements and User Tips

The new version of KDE pushes at the borders of usability and desktop design from every angle imaginable.


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After three weeks of using KDE 4 on my laptop, I continue to find new features and changes. I am aware of the dictionary of special names that make up the back end of the new KDE -- Oxygen, Plasma, Phonon, and the rest -- but just as often as the major features, it's the little items that I find welcome as much as the large ones. Increasingly, I'm looking at KDE 4 as a statement about what a desktop should be, and contrasting it with my own ideas on the subject.

Last week, I talked about the defaults that didn't match my concepts of usability (and I meant defaults; I'm well aware that many settings can be changed, including the ones about which I complained, but the point is that even experienced users can miss the customizing tools). The result was exactly the sort of detailed discussion I was hoping for, when Aaron Seigo gave a detailed critique of my comments in his blog.

This week, I'm taking the opposite approach, and listing the items, big and small, that impress me about the latest release of KDE 4, in the hopes of offering some starting points for others' exploration of the new desktop. I have left out long-established features, such as virtual desktops, to focus on the new ones.

Eye Candy and Visual Display

The default desktop themes can play a large role in the acceptance of a new desktop. KDE 3 could be tweaked into a thing of beauty, but out of the box, it seemed garish and primitive in almost every distribution I tried it in.

By contrast, KDE 4 starts with the subdued colors and clean lines of Oxygen themes and photo-realistic icons, and uses scalable vector graphics. You can examine the result in detail in some of the games like KGolf or Klines, or in the Marble desktop globe, but the difference is obvious from the moment you log in. Like me, you might prefer to think that you are only concerned with functionality and scorn eye-candy, but with its understated elegance, KDE 4 will prove you wrong.

The Font Installer

KDE 3 was the only major desktop for GNU/Linux that included a font installer. That alone made KDE the desktop of choice for graphic designers. The main drawback was that each typeface was treated individually -- that is, the font installer would treat the regular, italic, bold, and bold italics of the same family as separate entries. This practice made finding a font more difficult. It also made font management more challenging, since designers often load fonts, then unload them when they're not needed in order to avoid swamping system memory with thousands of fonts.

The KDE 4 font installer has eliminated these problems by automatically grouping typefaces by families, so they can be deleted either by family or by individual typeface. In addition, while offering a brief preview in the main window of the installer, KDE 4 also gives you the option of a longer preview in which you can choose which Unicode characters you want to view.

Improved Utilities

Some of KDE's utilities, such as Klipper, KInfoCenter, and Knotes are largely unchanged in the new version of the desktop. However, some like Konsole have undergone an interface revision. Others have added functionality, including, KCharSelect, which now not only shows the glyphs for a typeface, but also gives information about how each character is encoded in Unicode and its various manifestations, as well as alternative names for a character (such as "bang" for exclamation mark). Other utilities are completely new, including Marble, a 3-D geographical search engine.

One new utility that seems to have gone largely unnoticed in the reviews is Sweeper. Sweeper is a utility that cleans unnecessary flotsam from your user account's files. If privacy is your concern, it can remove the contents of your clipboard, your recent document list, and thumbnail cache. Similarly, in your web browser, Sweeper deletes cookies, web caches, and stored form completions. All you need to do is select what you want removed, then click the Clean Up button. It's a basic tool that seems so simple and so needed that you wonder why no one had written Sweeper years ago.

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Tags: Linux, search, management, KDE, desktop

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