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If the first beta of KDE 4.2 is any indication, then the final release of the popular GNU/Linux desktop should be the release in which KDE 4 comes into its own.
Featuring numerous small enhancements to system settings and standard applications, as well as improved customization and features on the desktop and panel, 4.2 is a significant upgrade by any standards. Codenamed Caterpillar, the release offers hopeful hints of the butterfly that is scheduled to emerge in January.
For both developers and users, this milestone has been a long time coming. When KDE 4.0 was released eleven months ago, it sparked a user-revolt when distributions shipped it before it was ready for general release.
Between the radical new desktop features and the lack of customization, KDE 4.0 provoked strong, even abusive dislike in many users. Much of the controversy died with the release of version 4.1, but a vocal minority continued to condemn KDE 4, comparing it unfavorably with the highly-customizable KDE 3.5.9. Now, KDE 4.2 offers a strong chance of silencing the remaining criticism.
KDE 4.2 is available as source code, or as packages for the openSUSE and Pardus distributions. Probably the quickest way to explore the beta is via the KDE Four Live CD available from openSUSE. As you might expect from a first beta, crashes are likely, and none of these sources is suitable for anything more serious than satisfying your curiosity.
The core programs in KDE have changed only in minor ways. However, going through them, you will find minor tweaks in many of them. General setup is enhanced by improved dialogs for configuring printers and PowerDevil, a laptop power management tool that longtime KDE users might see as a modern replacement for KLaptop.
Other notable features include a zoom slide in the Dolphin file manager, support for vi keyboard shortcuts in editors such as Kate and KWrite, and enhanced loading speed in the Konqueror Web browser. The changes to Ark, KDE's file archiver, are especially extensive, including options for password-protection, support for more archive formats, and integration into the Dolphin file manager. Such changes are relatively minor, but soon start adding up.
However, the most obvious changes in 4.2 are in desktop configuration. For instance, in earlier KDE 4 releases, one of the most controversial changes was the unavailability of conventional icons. 4.1 introduced Folder View, a floating window for icons, but the demand for a conventional desktop remained.
Now, with 4.2, you can finally add icons to the desktop by using the right-click menu for items in the menu. However, this change does not diminish Folder View so much as put it in the proper perspective -- you can add your favorite icons to the desktop, while creating Folder Views for specialized tasks, such as graphic design or audio editing, that you can call up as needed. You can now think of Folder View as the icon equivalent of virtual desktops.
For those who choose not to use a traditional desktop, Folder View itself is more customizable. While in earlier releases, all you could set in Folder View was the folder displayed and maybe filter its contents, in 4.2, Folder View has configuration options for setting the size, text, and position of icons, and for choosing a keyboard shortcut for opening each Folder View. The filtering of the Folder View display is also more comprehensive, and can be tied to specific file formats.
The 4.2 desktop has also over-hauled the available widgets (or applets, if you are a GNOME user). Developers can now write widgets in Ruby and Python, while the desktop will also run Google Gadgets.
For users, the eventual result of these changes should be an increase in the number of available widgets. However, 4.2 has already added a variety of new widgets, ranging from frivolous ones like BbalL and Life to practical ones like Leave a Note, Pastebin, and Timer. Other widgets have been enhanced, such as Notes, which now includes the option of saving entries to file.
However, perhaps the largest changes are to the panel. While the panel has been limited in functionality in earlier KDE 4 releases, in 4.2, it regains much of the functionality it had in the late KDE 3 releases.
Finally, in 4.2, you can position the panel on any edge of the screen, change its height, or autohide it to give you more room to display windows on the desktop. Should you run out of room on your panels, or want a sub-menu or a floating one, you can use the QuickLaunch widget. Although you still cannot customize the color of the panel, and most of the different types of panel in 3.5.9 remain unavailable, the 4.2 panel still gives you more options than previous KDE 4 releases.
And, as if to emphasize the point, the panel configuration tool has had a usability makeover, so that it is much harder to miss options than in version 4.1.
The contents of the panel are also more configurable. For instance, in the task manager, you can choose whether to group programs, or exclude specific programs from grouping. Similarly, by right-clicking on the system tray, you can choose which icons to hide -- a system that seems much more user-friendly than Windows' habit of deciding for you what icons are hidden.
KDE 4.2 still leaves some things to be desired. In particular, the new Kickoff menu, which claustrophobically refuses to display more than one menu level at a time, needlessly complicating navigation, is one change that only grows more irritating with familiarity.
Fortunately, though, you can right-click on the main menu to select the unwieldy but simpler classical menu with its accordion-like sub-menus. Or, better yet, you can install Lancelot, Ivan Cukic's replacement menu, which in many ways is the improvement that Kickoff was supposed to be and isn't.
However, other than the menu, KDE 4.2's shortcomings are minor. True, you may have to retrain yourself to use the menu to add icons to the desktop or the panel, or miss some cosmetic changes. But what matters most is that this beta is the first version of KDE 4 in which users can configure the desktop to their preferences, instead of having to adjust to unchangeable defaults.
If the final release is anything like the beta (and I can see no reason why it wouldn't be), with 4.2, KDE should finally put a year of complaints and grumblings behind it at last.