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By the standards of previous releases in the KDE 4 series, KDE 4.5 is tame. It has few new applications, and introduces no new technologies. Yet with its combination of small innovations and interface improvements, KDE 4.5 still manages to be a release worth installing. Although it does not try to expand the concept of the desktop, it does make KDE easier to use in dozens of small and satisfying ways.
Released August 10, KDE 4.5 is already packaged for many major distributions, including Fedora, Mandriva, openSUSE, and Ubuntu, although in some cases you will have to look in the developmental repositories rather than the main ones. Source code is also available from the project. Those who want to try it before installing can download the latest CD from openSUSE's KDE Four Live site.
Small innovations that add up
You need to search carefully to find new applications in KDE 4.5. I may have missed some, but the only new ones I can find are a Bookmark widget for the desktop and panel, and a new Mahjongg game (the traditional Rummoli-like game for four, not the tile-matching game made popular by computing).
Each is welcome in its own way. The Bookmark widget, being customizable by design, is a welcome navigation aid around the desktop and computer system, and deserves to be installed as a standard feature of every panel. Similarly, although true Mahjongg is a far more absorbing game than tile-matching, for some reason it is hard to find on any operating system or desktop.
However, new applications are overshadowed by enhancements of existing KDE elements. The entire desktop benefits from increases in speed due to improved caching, and many applications, especially the Konqueror web browser, benefit from the increased speed gained by using Webkit to render pages. The result of such improvements is that KDE 4.5 is by far the fastest of the KDE 4 series so far. The exact gain is hard to calculate, but KDE 4.5 running as a guest operating system is at least as fast as KDE 4.4 running on the host system -- and possibly faster.
Other desktop-wide improvements have been made to KWin, the KDE window manager. In KDE 4.5, you can now move the window in which any Qt4-based application is running by dragging with the mouse on any blank space, such as an empty section of the toolbar, and not just by the title bar. Disappointingly, support for non-Qt4 applications, such as the GIMP, is still being worked on, but anyone who works with a large number of windows open might agree that this is at least a promising start.
Just as usefully, when windows are open, KWin tries to position them so that they do not overlap. This is a major improvement over the default behavior in previous releases, which appears to be simply to open new windows to one side or other of the screen's center. Obviously, though, the behavior breaks down when four or five windows, or a couple of large ones, make it impossible to implement.
Other enhancements are scattered throughout KDE's standard applications. For example, Konsole gains a context menu for tabs, which places functions available in several menus in a convenient place. Similarly, the context menu for tabs in the Dolphin file manager now includes an item for detaching a tab and opening it a separate window.
One by one, none of these innovations is likely to seem significant. But, taken together, their effect is very obvious: in the latest release, the KDE 4 series has become easier and more efficient to use.
The user experience in KDE 4.5 is further enhanced by several improvements to the interface.
Perhaps inspired by Ubuntu's recent work on notifications, KDE has improved its own notifications in several ways. One very simple improvement is that hidden icons now display vertically instead of horizontally when expanded, and no longer take up valuable panel space. You can also configure notifications for applications like Kopete and KMail from within the applications themselves.
Open the notification tray configuration dialog, and you will also find that the tabs and entries have been rearranged and renamed to make them easier to use -- generally, with success. In addition, the device notifier, which shows the external drives currently on the system, is no longer a separate widget on the panel, but a tray icon (as it should be).
The System Settings window has received almost as much attention. At the possible cost of confusing users, some functions have been promoted to top level items, and others have been renamed. The Advanced tab, a dumping ground for miscellaneous configuration options, has been eliminated as well.
Unfortunately, the System Settings window changes are not always improvements. Some of the renaming, such as the replacement of the Advanced tab with the vague Lost and Found, are vague and likely to be confusing, especially to non-developers. At least one other -- Application and System Notification -- is verbose and conceals the function alphabetically from those used to looking for Notifications. But the trend is toward more organization, and perhaps such deficiencies can be corrected in another release.
However, the greatest interface changes center around Activities. Introduced in the KDE 4 series, Activities are an enhanced version of virtual workspaces, and are intended to offer separate desktops for different activities or locations -- for instance, you could have one Activity for graphics and one for online communication, or one for home and one for the office, each with its own set of icons and other options.
In previous KDE releases, unless you knew the keyboard shortcuts, you managed Activities with a zoom view, zooming out to select an Activity, then in on the one you chose. This arrangement had the disadvantage of making the very existence of Activities easy to forget. Even more importantly, it was awkward to use, not only leaving new users to wonder what had happened to their desktop, but also hiding some of the controls if you set up more than three or four activities. Nor could you easily view larger numbers of Activities at the same time.
Now, in KDE 4.5, Activities are managed in a horizontally scrolling bar, much as possible widgets are. They are also easier to set up, with a new Activity menu offering the options to clone the current Activity, add a Folder View with a unique set of icons, or a general desktop without icons.
You may still want to configure new Activities with different wallpapers, but the new interface is both easier and quicker to use, and should lead many users to discover Activities for the first time.
What happens next?
The KDE 4 series could still use some polish here and there. However, for the most part, KDE 4.5 marks the end of the development cycle that began two and a half years ago with the release of KDE 4. Most of the issues people initially raised about the KDE 4 series -- instability, a lack of configuration options, the slow speed -- have now been addressed, and at best only minor tinkering seems needed.
The question arises, then: What happens now? Perhaps KDE 4.6 will be another round of small but welcome enhancements, but after that? Will KDE settle down to incremental releases? Or will a new vision of what the desktop might become lead to another series of major changes?
Either way, seeing what has been realized in KDE 4.5 emphasizes what is often missed in the controversy generated by the KDE 4 series. Regardless of what you think of the KDE 4 series, it has been an ambitious attempt to move the desktop forward -- an effort unparalleled anywhere else in computing. The verdict on that attempt may still be out, but seeing it mature in 4.5 only emphasizes just how unusual the entire KDE 4 experience has been.
If the 4.5 release really does mark the end of an era, then I admit that as both a reviewer and a user, I will be sorry to see it go. I haven't always agreed with what KDE has been doing in its recent releases, yet watching efforts to do something new is always exciting. If KDE does settle down to incremental releases, it might be inevitable -- but it will also be disappointing.