KDE 4.0.0: Sweet Follows Sour

KDE 4.0.0 has been released on January 11th, after a number of delays; the months preceding the release, the KDE developers tried very hard to downplay expectations. KDE 4.0.0 was just the first release in the KDE 4 series, and such, should not be seen as the best possible representation of the KDE 4.0.0 vision. So, when I installed KDE 4.0.0 on my Ubuntu Gutsy installation last Friday, I knew what to expect: KDE 4 Developer Release 1 (yes, I am a BeOS guy – how did you know?). Read on for a few quick first impressions.Please note that this article will focus on the user-visible side of the fence; I am a user, not a developer. Please take this into account. Additionally, for screenshots, go here or here.

The installation was straightforward, as the Kubuntu guys did an awesome job at packaging the 4.0.0 release for Kubuntu, and those packages work fine on Ubuntu too, of course (long live Ubuntu family, seriously). After adding the repositories, downloading a whole bunch of packages (KDE 4.0.0 itself, as well as all its supporting libraries, seeing KDE was not installed on this system), and of course installing them, I was ready to go.

The first time KDE 4.0.0 loads, it takes relatively long; subsequent loads are much, much faster. The new splash screen shows a row of pulsating icons, and it is really annoying. The annoyance factor could be reduced by having the icons pulsate a little less often, or by not making them disappear completely in one pulse. Minor detail, but it is the first thing people will see of KDE 4.0.0, and as such, it ought to be good. Bling bling in a splash screen is a tad bit overdone for me anyway – there should not be a splash screen in the first place, but that is a different story altogether.

KWin’s fabled new compositing features are turned off by default, which, considering the performance of it, is probably a wise idea (my system runs Compiz Fusion mighty fine). Using KWin’s compositing goodness really brings you back to the early days of Compiz; the effects are very slow and drop frames, there are remnants everywhere, you name it. This is annoying, but acceptable, seeing this is the first official release of the new KWin, and you cannot expect the developers to reach the same level of stability and performance of OS X’ Quartz Extreme, Vista’s Desktop Window Manager, or even X’ Compiz Fusion in the compositing KWin’s very first release. I am sure that KWin will improve fast and steadily, just like Compiz did in its early days (every time the Compiz packages were updated in their early days, the strides forward were noticeable). KWin more or less provides the features Compiz Fusion also delivers, some of which are just as useless (exploding windows…?); some, however, are really nice and truly add something to the computing experience: dimming the parent windows of dialogs makes a lot of sense (the modality issue put aside, that is – dialogs should not ever be modal).

KDE 4.0.0 also offers a completely new theme: Oxygen. After using it for a few days, I am still not sure if they have a winner, or a loser. Some of the UI widgets look really good (I like the window titlebar widgets, for instance), while some are ugly as sin and stand out sorely because of it (the scrollbars, for instance). Widgets like drop-down lists, input fields, progress bars, and so on, also suffer from another problem: they are too large, making them look really weird. Take a standard Dolphin window for instance: the buttons on the toolbar look really good, with a slightly smaller font than other items. However, at the bottom of the window, the status bar is almost the same height as the toolbar (!), all because it needs to house a hard drive space indicator the size of Texas. These weird size issues are all over the place in KDE 4.0.0’s Oxygen, and it annoys me quite a bit. The size of GUI elements is not something to ignore, and I hope this gets fixed yesterday rather than today. By the way, Oxygen’s icons are very ‘lickable’ indeed.

I want to make a short point about fonts in KDE: can you guys please stop throwing in bold fonts everywhere? KDE 3.x suffered from font boldness pretty badly (and no, it cannot be changed with the fonts dialog), but KDE 4.0.0 suffers just as much, if not more, from this problem. It is obnoxious.

The panel. Ah, the panel. How you mock me by being totally unusable and inflexible. You cannot change its size (at least not in a logical place), entries in the taskbar are too large and look plain weird (esp. the text part), it has visual remnants (a one pixel fully opaque line from the background sits between the glassy rim and the taskbar itself), there is not one setting you can alter about it, and most of all: it has the world’s worst application menu ever (based on OpenSUSE’s Kickoff). I hate it so badly, it made me curl up in fetal position and cry in the corner of my living room (and I had guests, so you can imagine the confusion). I mean, I thought Vista’s start menu was unusable, but trust me, that one is usability bliss compared to this abomination.

Where to start. Big, bold, and obnoxious fonts. Five big and obnoxious tabs of which there is barely any visual indication of which one is activated. Menus that slide in an iPhone-like fashion, which is totally confusing. A slide back button that took me five minutes to find. The menu is a fixed size, meaning scrollbars inside menus (evil!). And so on.

The KDE developers are working on alternatives to this menu, but until then, you are either stuck with this horrible excuse for an application menu (I do not think I have ever been this blunt about something), or you can switch back to the KDE 3.x menu. Which in itself exposes the uselessness of the new panel, since there does not appear to be a way to add the old application menu to the panel. You can remove the new one, and activate the old one as a plasma widget, but I have, for the life of me, no idea on how to add it to the panel. In other words, I now have a sexy-looking floating K button that I cannot add to the panel. I figured I could just drag and drop it onto the panel, but that is a no go. The configuration dialog does not show an option to that effect either.

But heck, even a floating KDE 3.x menu beats the living daylights out of that other thing.

The desktop itself can be filled with widgets objects gadgets plasmoids, which behave more or less like their counterparts on the Windows/OS X side. The default offering of plasmoids is understandably limited (this being the first official release and all), so you get things like an analog and digital clock, a task manager, a system tray, and so on. This also shows what the KDE guys have in mind for Plasma: plasma widgets will ultimately replace all of the elements of the traditional panel. On an additional note, the Oxygen GUI widgets look a whole lot better on the black background used in plasmoids than they do on the dull grey on normal windows. You can summon the Add widgets dialog by clicking on the icon in the top-right corner of the desktop. This position appears to be fixed, for now.

KRunner is a really nice addition. It is basically the Spotlight menu (or any of the other search tools out there) presented as a dialog (alt+f2) from which you can find files, locations, or launch applications.

The new Dolphin filemanager is a definite step up from the clumsy and messy Konqueror. It has a much cleaner appearance, but at the same time, has some weird limitations that I do not really understand. For instance, the places sidepanel does not fully support drag and drop; dragging a file to the trash entry in the places sidepanel does not delete the file – in fact, you cannot use it for copy/move operations at all – you can only add links to directories. For the rest, Dolphin has some nice gimmicks like showing files in groups, split views, and so on; Konqueror could do these tricks too, but Dolphin makes them more accessible and easier to use, and that is commendable.

I am disappointed by KDE’s web browser, Konqueror, which is quite buggy in the 4.0.0 release. It has rendering bugs on sites that used to work just fine in Konqueror, it is very slow at rendering, and scrolling is jagged and tears webpages apart. For someone who used to be a fan of Konqueror (I do not like Gecko), this was a pretty big let-down.


I am not sure what to make of KDE 4.0.0. Even though I have been warned numerous times by the KDE developers not to see KDE 4.0.0 as a usable, stable, end-user friendly release, I still consider it to be a letdown. I expected a faster, less buggy, and more complete experience than what KDE 4.0.0 currently has to offer. They should have called this release KDE 4 Developer Release 1 (or something to that effect). Calling it KDE 4.0.0 is misleading, despite it being understandable.

Still, even after all the bugs and performance issues, KDE 4.0.0 shows clear signs of the vision the KDE developers have been talking about for so long. Plasma, Oxygen, KWin compositing; all of these are in KDE 4.0.0, and despite being in their infancy and needing a lot of work, the potential is just oozing out of every pixel. Combine this with the various new and updated frameworks underneath it all, and it seems like the KDE project is building a very flexible and modern desktop environment, that will do a lot to bring the open source community to a higher level.

Us users will have to stick with KDE 3.x for a while, or bite through the sour apple by using KDE 4.0.0. As my prime-minister used to say: the sweet follows the sour.

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