Around 3 weeks ago, I downloaded the 2nd beta of KDE 3.2 from their FTP site. I’ve been using this release every day since then. The purpose of my writing this piece is not to highlight KDE 3.2’s new features and applications – read the Changelog at KDE’s site for that – but to give you a complete picture of how it measures up to its previous versions in terms of everyday use. Does it make me more productive? Is the command line more efficient yet? Or, even better, does it make me use the command line more effectively? Read on…
Part 1: Introduction:
Get it, Install it:
The target machine – my only computer – is a Pentium II 266 MHz with 384 MB RAM, with an Intel i810E chipset. The graphics card and sound card are both onboard. There are 3 hard disks – 40GB, 8.4GB and 2.1GB, and a 52x CD writer. This machine runs Fedora Core Release 1 (my primary OS), Red Hat Linux 9, Mandrake Linux 9.2, Debian Linux unstable, FreeBSD 5.1, Windows 2000 and Windows XP (whew!). The rpms for KDE 3.2 for Fedora Core1 are available at KDE’s FTP site. The entire rpm set, minus the internationalization stuff, is a 192MB download. An upgrade to this beta is a simple matter of ‘rpm -Uvh ./*.rpm –nodeps –force’ . I performed this upgrade while logged into Gnome. Any other Desktop Environment or even the console would work. It’s just that upgrading KDE while running KDE wouldn’t be too good an idea, though I haven’t been that adventurous. Ten minutes later, I’m logged in to my swanky new KDE 3.2 desktop.
The first thing you notice when you start up a few apps is – ‘Boy, this is Fast!’. KDE 3.2 is significantly faster than 3.1, and certainly way faster than Gnome 2.4 on my machine. It reminds me of the kind of responsiveness that Windows 98 used to give me on this same configuration few years ago (minus the crashes). Konsole opens up almost instantaneously, and Konqueror takes only about 3 seconds the first time. I was afraid that the increase in bloat with every release of KDE since the 1.x series would one day prevent me from using this computer at all with KDE. I’m glad the guys over at KDE have so splendidly allayed my fears.
The default icon set is still Crystal, though it’s now the SVG 1.0 release, and looks a lot more professional and includes more icons than the Crystal 0.6 release included with KDE 3.1. Plastik, a style available for some time now on www.kde-look.org, is now included as one of the default styles. I’m glad they’ve got a better alternative to Keramik. I remember reading another KDE 3.2 Beta review, where the writer quips “I am smaller than some of Keramik’s widgets!” KDE should now seriously consider including better styles and window decorations as the default set. Most, no, all, of the current bunch have been around since the 2.x series. There are excellent alternatives on kde-look.org. Good examples are ThinKeramik, Alloy, Mosfet’s Liquid, Qinx, maybe even Mandrake’s Galaxy and Red hat’s Bluecurve. I’ve found that the Plastik style and Window Decorations, along with the Bluecurve Colour Scheme, look very pleasing. A nice piece of eye-candy is that the KDE panel, Kicker, can now be made translucent, with any colour/amount of tint.
Part 2: Using it:
The Control Centre:
The first thing I did was to go to KDE’s Control Centre and fool about with a few settings. What do I see?
The “Background” window under the “Appearance and Themes” tab has been redesigned. There are no more tabs at the bottom of the window for “Colors” and “Wallpaper” and so on.
Another feature that was present in KDE 3.1, but is worth mentioning, is that you can change the wallpaper by dragging a picture file into the monitor in the “Background” window. Don’t flame me for this if you’ve known about it for ages; I was delighted when I discovered it recently! You can also, by the way, drag a picture file from Konqueror onto the Desktop, and KDE will prompt you whether you want to move/copy/link it, or Set as Wallpaper! This menu pops up only when you’ve enabled “Show Icons on Desktop”. A better behaviour would probably be to automatically set the picture as the wallpaper if icons on the desktop are disabled.
The “Window Decoration” and “Style” windows have been redesigned too. There is now a drop-down list box for choosing a Style/Decoration, and a Windows-style preview.
Welcome additions are the Cursor Theme and Splash Screen windows. Given the wealth of great splash screens/cursor schemes available now, this feature was overdue. These were two tasks that needlessly had to be performed via the command line. After all, the principle behind adding an Icon Theme or Colour Scheme is exactly the same as that for adding a cursor theme or a splash screen – move files into a certain subfolder of your ~/.kde folder. Adding Colour Schemes and Icon Themes could be done graphically for ages, so why not these?
There are now easier interfaces for configuring multiple monitors and changing screen resolutions on-the-fly. There is also one for configuring wireless networking. Since I am nowhere near being able to afford multiple monitors or wireless Internet access, I haven’t been able to test these features. The screen resolution changing via the KRandRTray extension works like a charm, though.
Under the “Peripherals” Section, there is a slight UI glitch that needs attention. There are tabs for “Size and Orientation”, “Monitor Gamma” and “Multiple Monitors” in the “Display” window. There is also a separate window for “Monitor Gamma” directly under the “Peripherals” section, too.
Under the “Regional and Accessibility” section, the number of countries has been expanded. There was a time when you had an option for “Palestinian Territory” but none for “Pakistan”! If India’s and Pakistan’s regional settings are almost identical, include an option that goes like “India/Pakistan” or something like that. I’m sure this applies to a lot of other instances, too. As for “Keyboard Shortcuts”, there is a need to have a pan-KDE context menu (right-click menu) shortcut.
A hugely welcomed feature is the new Font Installer. This neat feature reduces the painful, multi-step, command-line method of installing fonts to a single drag-and-drop sequence. With this feature, I’ve added more fonts from kde-look.org’s “Fonts” section in a day than I have in my entire time with KDE 2.x and 3.(0|1). You can even get instant previews, like in Gnome’s Nautilus and Window’s “Fonts” folder.
A word about the Control Centre’s Welcome Screen on the right. The text area indicating the user name, the KDE version, kernel version and so on, adapts and re-sizes itself when the window is re-sized, but the background image does not. This is a problem that’s been festering since the 2.x series, and I’m shocked that it hasn’t been dealt with yet.
All hail the Konqueror, the proverbial “Swiss-army knife” of the KDE desktop! It’s a file manager, an internet browser, a network browser, a PDF viewer… it’s all that and more, and it does all of that with aplomb! Of course, this magnitude of functionality also brings with it the horror of configuring it all. Let’s see how it shapes up in this beta…
It would probably be fair to say that Konqueror has finally arrived as a browser. The guys over at Apple considered its rendering engine KHTML good enough to use in Safari. After a little fine-tuning of the fonts, Konqueror renders most sites as well as Mozilla.
File management as well as browsing now offers much smoother support for tabs. You can now right-click on a folder and “Open in New Window” or “Open in New Tab”. In previous versions, this was limited to the “Web Browsing” profile, that is, for hyperlinks. I kind of like the idea of a file manager which supports tabs as well as split views. (Nautilus, Explorer.exe, are you listening?) There is a “New tab” and a “Remove current tab” button to the left and right of the tabs (a la Mozilla). Tabs are now loaded by default in the background. In KDE 3.1, there was no such default, and every time you right-clicked on a link, you ended up with 3 options: “Open in New Window”, “Open in New Tab”, and “Open in Background Tab”. No more. Whether or not to open tabs in the background can be selected in the settings quite easily. In addition, you can choose to have new tabs open up immediately after the current tab, rather than at the end of all tabs, as is the default in Epiphany. This is very convenient when I’m reading multiple, multi-page articles on the Internet.
The “Settings” window for Konqueror is the most comprehensive and well-designed I’ve come across, and that includes Mozilla, Firebird, Opera, Epiphany and Galeon. I just wish they’d have a clearer demarcation between the settings for the file manager and the browser. There is a nice option now that makes Konqueror open up faster (in whichever profile): Under the “Performance” tab in Konqueror’s Settings window, there is an option to preload an instance of Konqueror at KDE startup. You can also specify the maximum number of instances kept preloaded. This results in a noticeable decrease in Konqueror’s startup time.
The “Actions” submenu on the context menu is an extremely useful feature to have. By default, there are options to compress files and folders/uncompress archives, and to open a terminal window (Konsole) in that folder. This “Open Terminal Here” function has drawn rave reviews from almost everyone since it was introduced in KDE 3.1. Applications can add their own custom options to the “Actions” menu. For instance, K3B adds an option to burn a folder to a CD, when installed. Think of the functionality you could add on your own here, with better support available now for adding your own custom-built service menus.
This little change shows that the KDE guys are indeed paying attention to detail: the “Edit file type” option in the context menu has now been changed to an unobtrusive small button on the “Properties” window for the file.
Also, after changing the application with which to open that file type, instead of a brief freezing of the window, we now have a message box with progress bar that says “Updating System Configuration”.
Very nice. Those freezes would put off any new user.
The Universal Sidebar:
Konqueror (and indeed, KDE itself) now has this neat feature called the Universal Sidebar.
It is essentially the same sidebar we used to see in Konqueror in previous KDE versions, only this time, it’s been implemented as a standalone bar, with added functionality. It retains the old Home directory tree, Root directory tree, Bookmarks, History and Media Player, but adds a “Services” tab. Here is where we get to see some nice functionality: The “Devices” entry provides instantaneous access to all mounted partitions. The KDE team would probably do well to extend this one and list all partitions that exist on the hard disk. Lycoris and Xandros (among others) have done this for quite some time now. The “Fonts Installer”, mentioned earlier, lists “System” and “Personal” fonts. The former are, as you guessed, the system-wide ones, to be messed about only by root. The other, “Personal” folder, is where you can drag-and-drop additional True Type Fonts and voila! They’re instantly usable! The “Lan Browser”, used in conjunction with the Lisa daemon, makes it really easy now to browse your Windows shares. It’s much better than KDE 3.1 in terms of reliability, but nowhere near perfect.
The Universal sidebar can be added to your desktop via right-clicking kicker and navigating to “Panel Menu -> Add -> Panel -> Universal Sidebar”. I’ve discovered that by setting it up vertically on the left/right and auto-hiding it, I can have quick access to all the features above. Hence, I can eliminate the sidebar in Konqueror, giving me more space for viewing my files. Cool, eh?
There are a couple of other innovations that the folks up at KDE can come up with: how about integrating Kuickshow with Konqueror? To put it philosophically, Kuickshow is an answer searching for a question. It’s too ill-defined an application to exist on its own. All it can really do that Konqueror itself can’t, is provide a slide show, So we could have something like right-clicking on any image in a folder, and selecting “Start Slide Show” to start a show of all pictures in that folder. Very useful for those with large photo/wallpaper/screenshot collections. I tried implementing that as a service menu, but apparently Kuickshow doesn’t have a command-line option to start a slide show. Or smart features such as right-clicking on an image and being able to set it as the wallpaper. There is a tutorial that shows how to do this, but then, it’s something virtually everyone would like, so why not implement it by default? Another cool feature might be to selectively enable labels on toolbars. Example – the “Back” button in Windows 2000/XP filemanager. The forward/up buttons do not have any text beside them. The “Back” button, used more frequently, has text beside it, making it larger and hence easier to click on quickly.
Gripes with Konqueror:
My chief gripe with Konqueror is the insistence on having useless features such as Cervisia, KFileReplace and FSViewPart prominently featured in the context menus and toolbars. Although undoubtedly innovative features, they need to be placed in unobtrusive locations. Get them out of the way on the default toolbars.
The Number of cached options in the “Copy to” and “Move to” context menus within Konqueror is limited to 6. Why this limit? Unless there is some fundamental, architectural limitation that prevents greater than 6 options, this limit seems arbitrary and artificial. How about also adding favourites to this list? For instance, I place all downloaded software in directories named “rpms” and “tars”. So I’d like these two locations permanently in the “Move to” and “Copy to” menus.
I can’t bookmark individual text/PDF/etc files in KDE’s Bookmarks, only folders. If I can bookmark an HTML page, why not any other type of file? This limits its usefulness. Also, Bookmarks and History ought to be available only in Konqueror’s Web Browsing profile. They need to be removed from the Universal SideBar; they’re essentially parts of Konqueror, and have nothing to do with the Desktop Environment as such. This last part has been a request in many reviews of even KDE 3.0 that I’ve read, so it’s a demand that’s being made for some time.
A familiar complaint against KDE is “feature bloat”, the relentless increase in features in KDE applications. I’ll put a different spin on that: feature bloat, instead of being criticized, ought to be encouraged – no other desktop environment, least of all Windows XP’s, comes anywhere near being as configurable as KDE. But where improvements need to be made – and fast – is the layout of the dialog boxes for the settings for all these features. Personally, I don’t mind the current state at all, since KDE’s been my primary desktop for years now, right from KDE 1.x. But I can quite imagine how utterly overwhelmed a new user would be with KDE 3.2, even if he/she is a Linux user accustomed to another environment. Much has been said of the clutterbox that the Control Centre’s become. Konqueror’s own settings are far more organised, but its toolbars are a nightmare. Users simply do not want so many features up front.
Kaboodle and Noatun:
Two words: Drop them. Kaboodle and Noatun are pathetic. They are nowhere as functional as XMMS or (G|K)Mplayer, slow to start, use too many resources. I do not use them, neither do any of my many KDE-crazy friends. I’m sorry, but remove them. The only feature xmms and mplayer lack, which Noatun has, is a system tray applet. It would be cool to have that instead. KPlayer and KMplayer are already great KDE frontends to mplayer. How about one for xmms? That would fill the gap left by Noatun and Kaboodle.
Kedit, Kwrite and Kate:
Kate is a wonderful programmer’s tool. Really, after using Vim like an addict for two years for all my coding, I’ve switched over to Kate within weeks of discovering it. You see, I have a scroll mouse which I use even during a keyboard-intensive activity like programming, and I can’t use the scroller with either vim or gvim. A terminal-based editor just wouldn’t do. Anyway, clearly much thought has gone into creating this application. It’s got split views (both vertical and horizontal, just like Konqueror), syntax highlighting for all sorts of languages, a one-click terminal emulator (invaluable while creating shell scripts) and advanced find. An innovative feature is code folding – you can contract and collapse individual functions within your code by clicking on the (-) and (+) icons. While writing a rather long code file, this can speed up navigation many times over.
Kwrite and Kedit, though, seem to be treading on each other’s feet. How is any one of them different from the other? I get the feeling that Kwrite is supposed to be slightly more feature-heavy than Kedit, but I conclude this simply from the observation that Kwrite takes longer to load! I have not observed any difference between these two editors that is significant enough to warrant two separate applications. The result is that I use Kedit for everyday editing tasks, Kate for my programming, and ignore Kwrite altogether. I suggest the KDE team to choose one of the two, define its focus/intent more clearly, and bid RIP to the other.
At the beginning of this article, I asked, rhetorically, if KDE 3.2 would enable me to use the command line more effectively. The answer to this strange question is yes. Presenting KDialog. A simple way of generating all kinds of dialog boxes via the command line. By no means is this new to KDE 3.2 – it was present in 3.1, too. The simplest dialog box, one with an OK button and some text, can be generated by
$ kdialog --msgbox "Hello, KDE 3.2 World."
I use this to great effect to notify myself about the status of a lengthy background job. For instance, compiling even a normal-sized application on my ancient machine takes an eternity. So, instead of a simple “make”, I issue
$ alias kmsg='kdialog --msgbox' $ make && kmsg "Compilation Successful!" || kmsg "Error during Compilation"
Then I minimise this terminal window and go off to do something more productive. When make exits, either of the two messages are displayed depending on the success/failure of the operation. No more periodic checking to see if make is done yet!
Another useful application of kdialog could be to generate a dialog box with a list of tasks and execute a command when an option is clicked. This could be bundled up into a tiny shell script and be easily executed by creating an icon on the desktop. This has already been implemented at kde-look.org. A tutorial on KDialog is available. Let your imagination run wild as you think up of even more ways to harness the power of KDialog!
Part 3: Bugs!
Most of these bugs below cannot be reproduced with any guarantee. That’s why I haven’t filed these as bug reports to KDE. Besides, I have not compiled from source, I’ve downloaded the Fedora RPMS, so I can’t determine whether or not these are issues with KDE, Fedora or the Fedora RPMS.
- “Shutdown” and “Restart” features sometimes do not work. X and subsequently KDM is again respawned.
- Password-less logins in KDM do not work.
- Splash Screen does not work. Now I’ve read a review and seen screenshots of the splash screen working fine. That reviewer had compiled KDE from source. So I guess this is a Fedora RPM issue.
- Image previews in Konqueror do not work. Only Icons for file type image/* are shown. This in spite of having previews for images checked.
- Right-clicking on a directory and selecting “Local Net Sharing” brings up a message saying – “You need to be authorised to share directories”. Running the wizard (as root), and enabling “Users can share files from their home directories” does not result in any changes.
Part 4: Conclusions:
Overall, even with its faults, KDE 3.2 is the fastest Desktop Environment that I have used. It’s much faster than Gnome 2.4 or XFCE 4. In terms of productivity, it beats the crap out of even Windows XP. Of course, readers must take these conclusions with a whole fistful of salt, because this is from the point of view of someone who a.) is a Linux and Windows power user; is comfortable with both, and b.) has used both KDE and Gnome extensively right from their earliest versions. I cannot speak for the newbies, because it’s been quite some time since I could call myself one. If you use Linux as your primary OS, and have some experience using KDE or Gnome, I’d strongly recommend you to take the plunge (even with this beta) right away! As the name of the once-popular Office suite for BeOS goes, GoBe Productive!
About the author:
Rahul Gaitonde is a final year student of Computer Engineering at Mumbai University. His first love affair was with RedHat Linux 6.0 in 2000, and since has used most versions of Mandrake, SuSE and Debian unstable ‘Sid’; has also tried out Caldera, Corel (remember it?), Vector, Peanut, Knoppix, Lycoris, as well as FreeBSD 5.1 and OpenBSD 3.2. He currently uses Fedora Core 1 as his primary desktop. His areas of interest are Computer Architecture (especially RISC architectures) and Operating systems.