KDE 4.3 Shaping Up Nicely, KWin Needs Work

For a very long time now, I’ve been on the hunt for a distribution that really put a lot of effort into their KDE4 implementation. This has been a frustrating search, full of broken installations, incredibly slow performance, and so many visual artifacts they made my eyes explode. Since KDE 4.3 is nearing release, I had to pick up this quest in order to take a look at where 4.3 stands – and I found a home in the KDE version of Fedora 11. Read on for a look as to where KDE 4.3 currently stands.

Since I’m heavily biased in that I prefer a Debian-based system, Kubuntu seemed like a logical place to start looking. However, Kubuntu doesn’t even have 10% of the amount of polish that Ubuntu has, and this lack seems to only be made worse now that KDE4 is the default. Little effort has been put into making it a nice, coherent, and stable environment.

Another attempt was OpenSUSE, but as long as OpenSUSE insists on using the archaic monolithic unusable mess that is YaST, I won’t be touching that with a ten foot pole. In addition to that, their KDE 4.x implementation is very lacking, like notification bubbles appearing at the top middle of the screen instead of bottom right.

It is my strong belief that KDE4 really seperates the men from the boys when it comes to distributions. It seems like many distributors just can’t handle KDE4; it comes with so many new features, new paradigms, and new ideas, that they become overwhelmed, not really knowing what to do with all the power KDE4 provides. You see those nice desktops on Planet KDE, but it’s really hard to get your desktop to look as good as that when distributors are unable to produce proper implementations in the first place. It might be time for the KDE community (if they haven’t already done so) to approach distributors and work more closely with them to improve this situation.

Anyway, after advice via Twitter, I decided to give Fedora 11’s KDE live CD and installer a go. It booted fine, looked alright, and the installer worked – no suprises there. The Fedora 11 KDE 4.2 implementation was relatively sound, and updating it to KDE 4.3-RC3 was easy; just enable the unstable repository from here, and run a yum update. I didn’t use the PolicyKit graphical user interface, since it kept on hanging for no apparant reason; the update to 4.3 seems to have fixed that problem.

Also, can someone please tell the Fedora (or KDE?) guys that when I, as a standard user, drag a repository configuration file into the /etc/yum.repos.d directory using Dolphin, I want to get a nice password dialog instead of a “permission denied” message? This is 2009, I don’t want to deal with that nonsense anymore. Since neither Dolphin nor Konquerer wanted to start from the CLI (as root), I was forced to use the CLI to copy the file. I hate that.

Anyway, the update went alright, so let’s dive into the new goodies coming in KDE 4.3.

Hands down the best and most obvious improvement is the new Plasma theme called “Air”, which is here to replace the previous Oxygen one. Air looks much more modern, professional, and polished than Oxygen did. Sadly, the Oxygen style is still the default when it comes to non-Plasma windows, but I quickly installed a theme I liked more (Skulpture is hands-down the most beautiful theme I have ever seen). Still, the new Plasma theme is a huge improvement, and as we all know, defaults matter, so this is a good move.

The folder view plasmoid has also recevied some love, and you now can drill down into folders simply by hovering over them; this is a very handy little feature that negates the need for Dolphin when simply looking for a while you wish to open. It does have an implementation problem, though; as the drilling happens on delayed mouse-over, it often happens by accident when moving your mouse around or when trying to actually open a folder in Dolphin.

Drilling down in a folder view in KDE 4.3.
Drilling down in a folder view. Clickety-click to make big.

There’s also a selection of new Plasmoids included in KDE 4.3, notifications seem to have been cleaned up and prettified, you can configure Plasma keyboard shortcuts, and a whole bunch of other things. I also really like the Lancelot menu, which looks very good now, and is overall a much easier menu to use than that… That thing they use by default. Lancelot does have some performance issues and remnant problems.

A problem child with KDE is Konqueror, the desktop environment’s web browser which uses the khtml engine, WebKit’s father. In previous iterations of KDE4, Konqueror was slow, it rendered websites badly, and was overall a pain to use. I’m happy to say that the situation has improved for Konqueror and khtml in 4.3; rendering is faster and better, and it’s much more pleasant to use. Still, there are rendering issues left, and performance-wise it can’t really hold a candle to Firefox 3.5 and Chrome just yet.

However, the biggest improvement I’ve yet encountered is something that doesn lend itself very well for a release announcement: overall polish. I’ve dilligently tested and used every KDE 4.x release, but with all of them I had the sense that I wasn’t really using them – I felt I was fighting them. Bugs, sudden application crashes, services stopping for no reason, visual remnants, overall slowness, and a total lack of polish in the UI department. KDE 4.3RC3 is the first KDE4 release where I caught myself thinking that not only could I use this – I want to use this.

A typical KDE 4.3 desktop.
A typical KDE 4.3 desktop. Clickety-click to make big.

It’s not all pink ponies and rainbows of course – but bear in mind that I’m testing a release candidate. My biggest area of concern is still KWin, the fancy compositing window manager. The problem is that performance is still very, very lacking; animations are jittery and slow, while Compiz is smooth as butter on the exact same machine (with the exact same driver!).

Of course, KDE4’s KWin is relatively new compared to Compiz, but I have to wonder how long we have to wait until performance is at an acceptable level. While slow fancy animations are tolerable – up to a point – window dragging and resizing are also unbearably slow, which I think is completely unacceptable. I’m running this on a Pentium IV 2.8Ghz HT, 2GB of RAM, and an NVIDIA GeForce 6200 with 128MB of RAM (NVIDIA driver v185.18.14), which should be more than capable enough for fancy effects, let alone window dragging and resizing. Compiz and Aero have absolutely zero problems with this setup.

Overall though, KDE 4.3 is shaping up to be a nice release, and it brings some much-needed fit and finish to the KDE4 desktop environment. Now all we need is a distributor capable enough to implement KDE4 well.


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