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The last sixteen months have been intense for the KDE desktop. The release of KDE 4.0 brought a user revolt that was only partly subdued by the 4.1 release, and did not completely quiet down until the 4.2 release last January with its emphasis on usability.
Now, with the release of the KDE 4.3 beta, the project is returning to incremental releases, and concentrating on customization and ease of use on the desktop, the panel, and system settings.
Not that the beta is completely lacking in new features. It includes PolicyKit, a tool that goes beyond the traditional GNU/Linux distinction of permissions and the root user to fine-tune how every day accounts access hardware and administrative services.
There are also new data engines such as the geographical locator, and additional settings for using Nepomuk, the system for annotating and locating information, with personal data such as emails and address books. And, going from the earnest to the frivolous, the beta includes a new game called Curse of the Mummy and 70 new levels for Mahjongg.
However, many of these new features will take some time for users to appreciate. The first enhancements that average users will notice will probably be the customization and usability features.
Dynamic desktops, consistency, and new widgets
You do not have to go far to see changes on the desktop. New widgets are now more intelligently placed, so that they are not hidden by windows open in the upper left. The revamped context menu now includes a link to KRunner, a run command tool that, for intermediate and advanced users, can also double (among other things) as a calculator, search tool, and a converter from one unit of measurement to the other. Context menu items to Lock or Leave the desktop are also included.
For those tired of a static desktop, the KDE 4 series already has the slide show option for wallpaper. Now, in the 4.3 beta, you also have options called Virus and Mandelbrot, which slowly alter the desktop, or Weather, which changes the wallpaper with the weather report.
Another small but useful feature on the desktop is the thumbnail view of folders that appear when you hover the mouse over them. Earlier releases of KDE had the same feature for the panel's task master, so in a sense, this small touch only adds more consistency to the desktop. However, the improvement that it makes to file-management is great enough that most users should quickly appreciate it.
The beta also includes a number of new widgets or applets, including Bubblemon, a graphically-oriented systems monitor, and ktop, the first step in adding access to the KDE community directly to the desktop.
Whether the dream behind the ktop widget of allowing you to contact people with the same hardware or software problems will ever be realized is uncertain, but, meanwhile, the ktop widget itself is a useful tool for those who register on the website of the same name. Still another new applet is Magnifique, a desktop magnifier.
However, the largest change to the desktop since 4.2 is the prominence of keyboard shortcuts. These existed before in many parts of the desktop, but now they are added to Folder View, and to the desktop itself. You can even print out the desktop shortcuts for easy reference. For those who are willing to invest a little time in learning, the general availability of keyboard shortcuts should greatly increase efficiency -- to say nothing of reducing repetitive stress injuries caused by the mouse.
The Panel and the Notification Tray
The desktop panel regained its general configurability in the 4.2 release, so the 4.3 panel has only minor changes. However, some users might appreciate being able to move windows below the bottom of the panel, or to add spacers to the panel to help them group widgets.
One ch that may be as much trouble as benefit is that the calendar now has the option of announcing the time. This feature may be useful to turn on if you are on a deadline, but, otherwise, I suspect that most users will keep it resolutely turned off.
By far the largest change to the panel are in the system tray. KDE has always given its users more control over system notifications than its rival GNOME, but, with the 4.3 beta, this control is greatly increased. Now, by right-clicking on the system tray -- the point where written notifications generally display -- you can suppress pop-up notices completely if you choose.
In addition, you can suppress notices by categories. These categories (application status, communications, system services, and hardware control) are limited by the fact that what exactly each one consists of is unspecified, but perhaps more details will be given in the final release's online help. Meanwhile, the categories are a welcome gesture toward user customization, even if using them does require a little bit of trial and error.
The return of the Control Center
Most of the settings themselves have not greatly changed although the settings window now includes a new network connection tool. However, in the 4.3 beta, KDE now offers more display choices.
In previous KDE 4 releases, the Control Center of earlier versions gave way to the Systems Setting Window. This change replaced the formidably long tree view of settings in the Control Center with a less overwhelming collection of icons and sub-windows.
However, the Control Center likely had as many supporters as detractors, and the fact that you could only display one sub-window at a time meant that you could easily forget where you were. In the KDE 4.3 beta, the System Settings window is still the default, but now you can switch to the tree view, which closely mimics the old Control Center. Just as with the multiple desktop menus available for the KDE 4 series, the system settings now allow users to work in the way they prefer -- a refreshing viewpoint that is one of my main reasons for switching recently to KDE.
Does incremental mean disappointing?
After the excitement of the past few releases, KDE 4.3 might seem mildly disappointing. From the perspective of the desktop, at least, it includes no paradigm shifts. Most of its innovations, too, are made to increase interface consistency, or to restore features from the old 3.x series.
However, the move to incremental releases is perhaps inevitable. Many users have yet to absorb the possibilities of features like multiple folder views and activities, so a release that consists of smaller enhancements only seems suitable. If the KDE 4.3 beta contains nothing earth-shattering, it still includes dozens of improvements that, although not necessary, are still very welcome.
As an enthusiastic KDE 4.2 user, I look forward to the final 4.3 release, and expect it to improve my everyday computing in all sorts of minor ways -- mostly by offering me more choice.
ALSO SEE: Why I Switched from GNOME to KDE