Making the Switch from ‘the Blue’ to ‘the Green’

This article aims to provide an insight into some aspects of KDE usability as seen by a long term Gnome user making the switch, as well as provide a mini-review of SUSE LIVE CD 9.1 – including the obligatory screenshot of course!

KDE’s high level of configurability and customizability is at once its redeeming feature, yet at the same time its downfall for many users. Until today I was a die-hard RedHat/Fedora Gnome user. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a huge Gnome fan and I see an amazing future for it, especially with the current talk about the possibilities of integrating Mono, C#, Mozilla/XUL and whatever other cool open source projects around. It’s just that I have been so impressed with what I have discovered today in the SUSE/KDE combination, its too hard to beat.

click for a larger view I am writing this after having made the pleasant discovery of the SUSE LIVE CD 9.1 which was recently released. This is my first ever look at SUSE and my reason for giving it a run stems from one underlying reason – the Ximian crew are now onboard. With this in mind I wanted to see what wonders they might have performed. I’m not sure if it is too early for any Ximian magic to show up in this release, but it sure feels like it’s there. From the funky boot splash screen (with great anti-aliased details on the F2 screen), to the current moment writing this article in Kate – I have been nothing but impressed with the level of quality and polish of this KDE desktop environment. Actually yeah, there are a few things that didn’t impress me, and this article will focus on most of them, but I’m hoping that some attentive KDE developers might be listening, and that maybe things could soon change for the better.

I don’t claim to be a usability expert although I do believe for some reason that I have a ‘sense’ for how gui-related things should ‘look and feel’, in order to classify as a smooth combination of configurability,usability and grooviness. If you are reading this on OSNews then you probably know what I mean. Eugenia has this ‘sense’, and many Gnome usability developers excel at putting this ‘sense’ to use in creating great user interfaces. I also believe it counts as an advantage that I am seeing things from a long-time Gnome user point of view, having been exposed to many great human interface designs and ideals.

I feel that it is possible for the KDE project to remain highly configurable for advanced users, while also capturing the Gnome idealogy of keeping it simple for all other users. The following is a summary of some usability/layout problems that I found in my early stages of my switch, and some possible solutions to the problems …

1. The ‘Settings’ menu (the menu-item to the left of the ‘Help’ menu in all KDE applications)

I have come to realise that the ‘Settings’ menu has been one of the major things that has previously scared me away from the KDE desktop. (The other being the ‘Control Centre’ – but more on that later …) Being overwhelmed with the sheer number of different configurations options left me less than willing to ‘learn’ how to configure particular applications. The ‘Settings’ menu list is different in every KDE application, but there are some items integrated in the list that are found across all kde applications. (eg. Configure shortcuts, Configure Toolbars, …) I also found that many of the configurations options are equally accessible from either other menu options or a single click on a toolbar icon. To improve KDE consistency and usability right across the entire desktop, this menu list needs a little revamping.

For example, in Kopete, the ‘Settings’ menu changes dramatically from the main window to the chat window. That makes two configuration menus to learn, just to configure one application. The Kopete main window ‘Settings’ menu also offers the ability to configure ‘Global Shortcuts …’. An option for making ‘global’ (ie. desktop-wide) configuration changes does not belong in any particular KDE application – it has it’s place already in the KDE Control Centre where all ‘global’ configuration changes can be made. Non-critical menu items in the ‘Settings’ menu just serve to add to the menu clutter and heightens user fear by over exposure to too many options.

The Konsole ‘Settings’ menu has many options that are equally accessible through choosing the ‘more instinctive’ ‘Configure Kopete …’ menu item. I suggest keeping these options in the ‘Configure Kopete …’ dialog where many people would expect them to be anyway, and remove them from the menu, thus instantly reducing the amount of menu clutter.

Another suggestion for reducing the number of ‘visible’ Settings menu options is to combine many of the entries at the top of the list (ie. those before the first/second separator) into one single menu entry. For example, Show Toolbar, Show Menubar, Show Status Bar, Tab Bar, Scrollbar, Full Screen Mode, etc. could all be integrated into a single menu item named ‘Configure Window Layout …’ This would not only reduce the menu clutter but would also help to maintain consistancy across all KDE applications.

Every KDE application could then have at least the same four menu options in the Settings menu. ie.
Configure Shortcuts …
Configure Toolbars …
Configure Window Layout …
Configure ApplicationName …

The ‘Configure ApplicationName …’ should be the place that all configurations specific to that application should be available. Again (sorry Kopete) for example, the Kopete ‘Configure Plugins …’ menu option should be integrated into the main configuration dialog with all other Kopete-specific options.

2. The left hand side icon toolbar (available in Konqueror file browser and Kate)

I could not find the configuration option to get rid of this side toolbar. I really don’t like it and feel that it disrupts the whole flow of a window. Why take up a whole vertical column of the window for 3 icons (Kate) when I still have space in my regular horizontal toolbar? I have other methods of accessing the functions that these shortcuts provide, methods that are usable across any application, that I prefer to use (eg. click on the ‘folder’ icon in the toolbar to open the file selector dialog to access the filesystem). Again this would help in establishing some form of cross-application consistency – within the common KDE desktop.

Sure there are people that find this toolbar useful, I’m not suggesting that it should be removed, just that it should be made easy to configure it away out of sight. I would instinctively go looking in the ‘Configure Toolbars …’ option in the ‘Settings’ menu for this option – but alas it is not there.

3. Tabs at the bottom of multi-document windows (eg. Konsole, Kate, etc)

Since the introduction of web-browsers with tab-browsing capabilities – Tab bars at the top of a window have become pretty standard fare for a multi-document window. The browser is probably the most widely used application in the open source world (Mozilla and its derivatives or Opera), so this would indicate that the majority of the population have adapted to browsing tabs at the top of the window.

Yet again, there is no need to remove the option of displaying Tab bars at the bottom of the window completely, just don’t make it the default option and require the majority of users to change this behaviour when first using the application. Great default application settings go a long way towards influencing new users first impressions.

4. KDE Control Centre confusion

I have seen that there is a new project working on re-doing the KDE Control Centre and the early screen shots that I saw of it were very impressive. I will reserve judgment on the Control Centre until after the new version is implemented. I give credit to the KDE Team for having identified this problem and working to develop a fix for it. While on the topic, there is just something about those photo images of a screwdriver and wrench on the KDE Control Centre splash page that just makes me feel dizzy. I have to remind myself each time I go there that I am actually in the year 2004 … not 1984!

Totally subjective impressions of the general SUSE/KDE system

Some good things that I have found in SUSE/KDE … that I didn’t have in Fedora/Gnome:
– windows ‘snap’ into place – nice for repositioning windows.
– icon theme is consistent (and cool) throughout all KDE applications
– cut and paste actually works – with an easily accessible history
– system tray icon size is standard
– system tray pop-ups for kmail and kopete are great – not too in-your-face
– QT seems faster than its rival GTK – but it could also be due to the new 2.6 kernel
– the number of integrated IDE tools is staggering – a tool for configuring bluetooth devices comes as part of the standard desktop!

Some things that didn’t work out-of-the-box, and other small things I observed along the way:
– my samba share was found in konqueror – but it failed when accessing the directory after prompting for username/password. The error given was “The process for smb://gandalf protocol died unexpectedly”
– the text cursor gets in the way when typing in a text field – it would be nice if the cursor could be ‘backgrounded’ whilst typing text, and then displayed again when the mouse is moved. (I have this feature in gedit in Fedora/Gnome and it really makes life easier!)
– the SUSE main menu overlaps to a second column with just one icon in it after filling the ‘Most Used Applications’ buffer with 5 icons. Reducing it to 4 by default would maintain a 1 column menu list – a much cleaner alternative.
– the LIVE CD doesn’t give an option to ‘easily’ mount existing drive partitions (eg. icons on the desktop ala knoppix)

Well that’s about all that I can manage for this article. Hopefully I can stir up some action and I am ready with my char-proof undies for the flames that are about to be sent my way. Anyway, I won’t be abandoning my Fedora/Gnome desktop all together because SUSE 9.1 full version is not yet out here, and there are still many ‘yum’-my things about Fedora that might take a while to let go of …

About the author
The author is a linux afficionado who some day hopes to learn what the word afficionado means. He also works for a small linux tech shop in Quebec Canada, speaking crummy French, and waiting for the ‘linux explosion’ to hit so he can broaden his job opportunities. He also dreams of working on a wireless broadband, invisible, weightless, waterproof laptop, whilst surfing the big blue in his homeland of Australia.


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