2011-02-12

Revisited: KDE 4.6

Main Screen
I recently tried reviewing KDE 4.6, and it didn't turn out so well due to the combination of my installing KDE 4.6 in a live session and my using Linux Mint to try it out. (Also, I have said this before in previous articles, but again, my primary distribution is Linux Mint with GNOME, so that bias will show in this article somehow or another. Please do keep that in mind when reading this.) One frequent suggestion was to use Arch to test it next time. Although installing Arch may not be so bad, getting it configured to work right post-installation, while ultimately very rewarding, is time-consuming and pretty difficult, and I don't think I have either the time or skill to do that. Then I had an epiphany (no pun intended): use ArchBang. It comes as a live CD and, after installation, it has a nice Openbox setup with things like sound and network settings configured properly out-of-the-box. It also comes with a whole bunch of GTK+ applications, so it's ideal to see how well KDE plays with another DE/WM side-by-side.

I tried doing all this in VirtualBox on a Linux Mint 10 "Julia" GNOME live USB, because MultiSystem, the multiboot live USB creation tool, seems to have messed up VirtualBox on my installed Linux Mint 9 "Isadora" GNOME system. I allocated 1024 MB of RAM to the guest OS, used a 10 GB virtual hard drive located on my physical hard drive for installing ArchBang, and went on my way. The installation procedure was fairly straightforward; it was a text-based ncurses-esque interface. After installing, I restarted the virtual machine and then ran the following commands in sequence in order to update the system: "su", "pacman -Syu", "exit", log out, log back in, "su", "pacman -Syu" for good measure, "pacman -S kde", and finally "exit". I also edited the ~/.xinitrc file to start KDE instead of Openbox by default. I then logged out and logged back in. Follow the jump to see what KDE 4.6 is really like.

Folder View Previews
KDE started just fine with the KDE splash screen. The default desktop has a standard Plasma panel and a dark blue wallpaper. It also contains a folder view containment on the top left with the contents of the home folder. Thankfully, the ability to preview a folder on the desktop and all its files and subfolders (and all the subfolders' files and subfolders) has returned, though it is necessary to first click an "up" arrow-looking thing to the left of the folder icon.
Interestingly enough, KWin desktop effects were somehow enabled out-of-the-box, even though I had only allocated the default 12 MB of video memory to the guest OS. I found this out because the desktop slide effect worked when switching virtual desktops. However, when I tried changing the slide effect to the cube effect, compositing became disabled forever after. That was a little weird, but then again, I didn't expect any effects to be enabled in the first place.

One of the big updated features of KDE 4.6 is Activities. I remember in KDE 4.3 I tried linking virtual desktops with Activities, which at that time were not very mature; it worked, but it required the zoom-in/out interface, and it just seemed clunky. Since KDE 4.5, the Activities zoom-in/out interface has been replaced by a simpler view accessible through the Cashew and that looks a bit like the interface to add Plasma widgets. As in KDE 4.3, I tried linking each virtual desktop to a different Activity, but the most I could do in this regard was to go to the Desktop Activity settings and click the button to enable "Different Widgets for each Desktop". This isn't the full functionality of Activities, though, meaning KDE seems to have gotten a lot better in distinguishing Activities from virtual desktops. Now, each Activity has its own set of virtual desktops, and each of these virtual desktops within a different Activity can also have its own set of widgets and its own associated applications. However, I did get a little confused because it seemed like windows accessible in one Activity were actually associated with another Activity. It seems similar to KDE showing on the panel tasks from all virtual desktops, which to me seems to defeat the purpose of virtual desktops.

In terms of organizing workflow, it's truly an amazing concept. However, my needs are comparatively fairly limited. In fact, I don't even use regular virtual desktops that much, much less something like KDE Activities. That's because I usually only have a couple windows open at a time, and these are usually 2 or 3 of the following: Mozilla Firefox, Pidgin, Skype, OpenOffice.org, or some game. I'm sure the Activities concept will appeal to plenty of people, but it's just too powerful for me to ever use properly. (Also, it could be that I was weaned on Microsoft Windows and GNOME.)

Which archiving program is which?
Another big thing with KDE 4.6 is better integration with GTK+ applications. I first tried opening the Thunar file manager which comes with ArchBang by default, and it still retained the garish dark GTK+ and icon themes that are the defaults in ArchBang. I then installed the Oxygen-GTK theme ("su", "pacman -S oxygen-gtk", "exit") and then used LXAppearance to make Oxygen the default GTK+ window and icon themes. It worked like a charm; without seeing the application names in the window title bars and without knowing the interfaces from before, I would be hard-pressed to distinguish between something like Thunar from Dolphin. The steps I followed were straight from the Arch wiki. The manual way of doing this is to edit ~/.gtkrc-2.0-kde4 to use the Oxygen GTK+ window and icon themes and then to symbolically link it to ~/.gtkrc-2.0. I think the issue with GTK+ integration I had the first time I tried KDE 4.6 on Linux Mint was following the first step of editing the file but not the second step of making that symbolic link. Oh, and the picture? The task buttons on the panel are obviously the giveaway, as is the GNOME File Roller icon, but as you can see, GNOME File Roller looks just like a native KDE application and is virtually indistinguishable from KDE's Ark program.

Konqueror is present in the full KDE installation, and it can now run using either the KHTML or WebKit rendering engines. Konqueror with WebKit feels really fast and snappy, and it never once posed any problems.
Netbook Interface Search/Launch Screen
The file manager Dolphin now has "faceted search"; as far as I understand, this means it is possible to search for files and folders based on tags and other metadata and not just names. I won't see myself using that much though because I'm still kind of stuck in the old ways of searching for files (i.e. remembering where they are and what they might be called) and so I don't consciously tag my files with much metadata at all.
Another big improvement in KDE 4.6 is Marble, the desktop globe which supports the OpenStreetMap project. Unfortunately, I couldn't see anything smaller than a town, meaning I couldn't see any roads or buildings, but searching for addresses did seem to work. Also, the OpenStreetMap project itself needs a bit more work; for example, local roads and residential streets in my area are sometimes duplicated and quite a bit off. It's promising, but I wouldn't rely on it for now.
KSnapshot and GwenView are much improved, and they can both now export pictures to various websites like Picasa, Flickr, and Facebook, among many others. That's pretty cool.

Searching for KWrite
KDE 4.4 was the first version of KDE 4 to introduce the new netbook interface. Unfortunately, KDE 4.4 itself didn't work when I tried it. KDE 4.5 and 4.6 have also included and improved upon this, but when I tried KDE 4.5, I decided not to try the netbook interface because it wouldn't really be useful for me as I use a normal laptop and don't intend to get a netbook anytime soon. This time, however, I decided to give it a go. It's possible now, through the KDE system settings program, to switch between the desktop and netbook interfaces without logging out, and this switch worked fairly quickly and without issue.

The netbook interface has a panel on top and two main screens, sort of similar to the GNOME 3 Activities interface, but a bit more tailored to netbooks. The panel has, from left to right, a search/launch screen button, a widget screen button, a system tray, a clock with a calendar, and a drop-down list of open tasks.
The search/launch screen has just below the panel a couple favorite applications; below that is a search box, and below that are the collection of application categories. These categories are essentially the same as in the desktop Kickoff menu; that said, there are a few categories missing (e.g. "Utilities"), but this can easily be changed. The search box searches for applications typed in and can also run terminal commands if no matching application is found.
Netbook Interface Widget Screen First Page
The widget screen is labeled "First Page" and has a couple widgets present by default including news and weather widgets. The idea is that it should look a little like a newspaper, and more "pages" can be added with other specific widgets as well. However, because I do most of this stuff inside a web browser, I don't see myself using these widgets very often. That said, if more pages are added, switching pages invokes a "slide" effect similar to the effect when switching virtual desktops. Actually, that's basically what "pages" seem to be: virtual desktops with different widgets.
When an application is opened, it is made full-screen, and the window title bar is missing; that's because the title along with window controls become accessible in the panel, which automatically hides when an application is open and only becomes visible by moving the cursor to the top edge of the screen. It's a great way to save precious vertical space on netbook screens.
Well, that basically ended my time with the KDE netbook interface, so at this point I switched back to the desktop interface once again through the KDE system settings program.

Dolphin in Netbook Interface
Overall, KDE 4.6 is pretty amazing. Some things, like Activities, though, just seem a bit too powerful and excessive for my needs, though I'm sure organizational geeks would love them. Plus, when customizing the way an application works, KDE proudly displays every single possible thing that could be configured within that window itself; that's a good thing generally, though it sometimes gets a little cluttered/confusing. KDE was extremely stable and never once crashed on me; the applications were similarly stable too. It's good that GTK+ integration works now; I'm glad that the fix was relatively easy, and now I know what to do in the future if it doesn't work out-of-the-box. The netbook interface works very well and certainly would do well on smaller form factors. It's really a shame that it didn't work in Linux Mint 10 "Julia", and I'm glad that I was easily able to test KDE 4.6 in a distribution derived from Arch. That said, considering that I had pretty good experiences installing KDE 4.3 and 4.5 in Linux Mint alongside GNOME, I'm still going to try that next time; the only difference is that if that doesn't work, I'll try again with ArchBang instead of throwing my hands up and crying. I'm really pleased with my time with KDE 4.6, but considering that this was in ArchBang which (as you will hopefully see soon) on a live USB resorts to failsafe VESA graphics drivers on my computer and contains issues with Skype not properly recognizing my mic, I'm going to have to wait until it's right on Ubuntu/Linux Mint. Speaking of which, Linux Mint 10 "Julia" KDE is supposed to come out soon, and that will have KDE 4.6, slightly customized.

On a side note, about two days ago Nokia announced a partnership with Microsoft on bringing Microsoft Windows Phone 7 to Nokia devices, in order to reverse Nokia's slumping fortunes. Do keep in mind that Nokia owns and develops Symbian, which was until recently the most popular mobile OS in the world (recently overtaken by Android). Symbian is open-source and obviously competes with Microsoft Windows Phone 7, so it looks like Nokia has thrown all that under the bus in its deal with Microsoft. Many key Nokia developers, upset with this decision, have announced their departures from Nokia. Also, Nokia has a large stake in Qt and has developed the Linux-based MeeGo mobile operating system with Intel, so it looks like MeeGo is dead too along with Symbian and the future of Qt might be threatened. Given that KDE is built primarily upon Qt libraries, it'll be interesting to see the future developments in KDE, although to be sure, Qt is licensed under the LGPL, which means that not a whole lot will likely happen to it.
Hot on the heels of this announcement, Miguel de Icaza, one of the leading developers of GNOME (UPDATE: apparently he isn't a GNOME developer anymore and hasn't been for a while — thanks to reader Rahul for that correction), has said that he is "psyched" (apparently in a good way) by this. He has been taking a lot of flak from the open-source community for supporting the development of Mono, the open-source implementation of Microsoft's C# programming language and toolkit; while I am wary of Microsoft's moves with regard to Mono, I still do use GNOME-Do, which is Mono-based, and I'm OK with this because it is still open-source. However, de Icaza's support of the Nokia-Microsoft partnership seems to be the last straw, even for me; as a developer of a core technology (GNOME) for Linux systems, how could he possibly support a company that has essentially issued death threats against Linux multiple times? I've lost most of my respect for Mr. de Icaza, and I'm now a bit more conflicted about my using GNOME, but switching to KDE won't help considering the future of Qt might be in flux following this deal. Then again, with regard to controversial statements, apparently Clement Lefebvre, the lead developer of Linux Mint, made some controversial statements about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Although I don't agree with much of what he said then, I do admittedly continue to use Linux Mint; I'm just wondering if the confluence of controversial statements from the developers of my OS and DE should make me switch to another OS and DE/WM. Maybe it's time to switch to #! with Openbox...? At this point, I'm just too lazy to switch, but if push came to shove, I honestly wouldn't mind switching to #!.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review. I've been wanting to try out 4.6 and also been wanting to try Arch but never find myself with the time. I would have never thought of this. I have a few questions though. Were there any complications getting proprietary drivers/codecs/flash going? Also Would you mind posting or emailing me the commands you used to set it up automatically start KDE?

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  2. @Dustin Casler: Thanks for the support. I wasn't really testing the system for things like proprietary drivers/codecs/Adobe Flash, as I have tried this version of ArchBang before; the reason why I haven't posted a review is because I'm in the process of submitting that article as a guest post in Free Techie. ArchBang does a great job of including proprietary multimedia codecs like Adobe Flash as well as things like sound drivers out-of-the-box. However, as you will hopefully be able to read soon (once that full article gets published), ArchBang doesn't do such a great job with things like graphics drivers, because when I booted ArchBang, I kept getting a black screen after the boot menu; somehow my Intel graphics chipset wasn't fully supported, so I had to boot in "failsafe" with the generic VESA graphics driver that defaults to the maximum resolution of 1024 by 768 (which looks pretty bad on my widescreen 1366 by 768 laptop). I'm not sure how easy the fix for this is; hopefully it's just a matter of installing the proper drivers and editing just a couple lines in xorg.conf. Also, this is in the Arch wiki as well, but anyway, because ArchBang's login manager is SLiM, its ability to handle multiple session types is a bit more limited. What I did was I edited the (only) line in ~/.xinitrc; there's a part that says "openbox-session" (in ArchBang), so I replaced that with "startkde" (both without quotation marks). I hope that helps, and thanks for the comment!

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  3. Your Welcome. I saw this article at pretty much the perfect time. I've got Archbang installed, updated, and KDE added. Now i'm just having issues getting into that initrc file to change it to KDE. When I rebooted it doesn't show KDE in the session options. Going hunting in the forums now. Everything seems find with my Nvidia card, but I haven't tried using any desktop effects or playing any videos yet.

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  4. @Dustin Casler: Well, when I added KDE to ArchBang, it didn't show up in the SLiM session options, but for that matter, neither did Openbox; the default was labeled "xfce4" if I remember right, but as far as I know, if ~/.xinitrc is simply modified to execute KDE instead of Openbox by default, that is what will happen. Thanks for the comment!

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  5. "Miguel de Icaza, one of the leading developers of GNOME"

    Not true now and hasn't been true for the last several years. He isn't a GNOME developer any longer.

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  6. @Rahul: Huh, I didn't know that. Thanks for that correction; it'll show up in this article as well.

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