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As you’ve probably guessed from my previous rants, I decided to try out KDE 4 under FreeBSD. It was really quite stunning, elegant, and simultaneously disappointing. I’ll cover the pros and cons here. Be aware that this is just a rough overview and covers my experiences with KDE 4 under FreeBSD; I may add another installment for KDE 4 under Ubuntu, which I have just recently installed as well.
KDE 4 is still in development and should be considered beta software. My comments here are representative of KDE 4.2.0 and, more specifically, the FreeBSD port. It is important to note that many of my complaints will probably be addressed in the coming months as the KDE developers implement missing features, fix bugs, and the KDE port to FreeBSD gains stability. Instead, it would be advisable to take my review as a commentary on the current state of KDE.
I will be posting my thoughts on KDE 4 running under Ubuntu in the coming days. Canonical’s patches and additions to KDE appear to make even the older version (4.1.x) very usable!
I’ll start with a few confessions. I have a rather unusual hardware setup that makes for a great test platform. I also tend to use a mix of Windows XP (SP3 and x64) and Gentoo whenever I’m at home; it depends largely on my particular mood and needs. I’m also writing this post up under Ubuntu, which is currently running compiz-fusion with Gnome. So, I don’t necessarily practice what I preach. I also didn’t take any screen shots (well, I didn’t save them–oops) of KDE 4.2 under FreeBSD. I guess I was a little too infuriated. I do have some notes that are worthwhile, however.
So, there. I got that off my chest.
Now, my preliminary thoughts about KDE 4 are somewhat mixed. I’ll start with the good things.
The Good Things
KDE 4 (4.2 to be exact) is pretty. It reminds me something of what you would expect to see with regards to an open source OS X. Many of its features are similar, the default UI theme is clear and crisp, but it also has a decidedly KDE “feel” to it. (This could be good or bad depending on your experiences with KDE.) The compositing system does a pretty respectable job with shadows, window acceleration, and transparency. The toolbar also reminds me vaguely of Windows 7 with its transparency, though it doesn’t blur the background.
The configuration system is a bit funky. It’s overly simplified compared to the old “Control Center” of KDE fame, but I found that I much prefer the categorical layout in KDE 4. I do think the structure of the new System Settings dialog could use some work, but I’ll voice my complaints later. While certain features are difficult to find, the separation of basic and “advanced” topics makes much more sense, and the KDE team has done a pretty good job placing commonly accessed configurations away from the advanced topics. I couldn’t access all of them, unfortunately. However, this wasn’t the fault of KDE. Again, I’ll cover this shortly.
The one feature that stands out most in KDE 4.2 is Dolphin, the new file manager. Yes, there are other, potentially more interesting features, but this is the one I liked most. When I initially encountered it, I was afraid it was going to turn out to be a cheap knock off of the awful, convoluted beast that MS has attempted to pass off as a file manager in Vista and Windows 7. Fortunately, Dolphin possesses the best of both worlds: Useful features from Vista and the ease of use, personalization, and utility of Konqueror (or Windows Explorer between Win 95 and XP). Perhaps if Microsoft had transformed Windows Explorer into something like Dolphin, I wouldn’t have the nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling creep down my spine like I do whenever I use Vista or Windows 7.
Dolphin initially looks something like Windows Vista’s explorer at first blush. It’s not. The panels are fully configurable (you can drag them around), you can set it up to display details, a list view, or thumbnails. You can remove the annoying “info panel” that appears along Dolphin’s right. Plus, Dolphin borrows the only useful idea in Vista’s explorer: Breadcrumbs. Going back up the directory path is as easy as clicking the breadcrumb. Clicking the through the tree view might be just as easy–unless you’re toward the bottom of a 2,000+ directory list–but breadcrumbs are actually very useful. (Aside: Gnome introduced this into popular use before anyone; while they may not have been the first, their implementation was so astoundingly awful that it probably turned most people away from using breadcrumbs. In fairness, the breadcrumb navigation is probably the only useful feature in Gnome’s open file/save file dialogs.)
Oh, and Dolphin just plain looks useful.
I didn’t play around with widgets much. I’ve never seen much utility in using them to be honest, but I think that’s largely because my desktop real estate is usually consumed by terminal windows, IDEs, and browsers. I don’t have time to look at my desktop. However, I have to give a nod to KDE: The desktop widget (the one that shows your desktop icons) is actually useful. It’s also very annoying. However, the coolest feature of this particular widget is that you can tell it to monitor any directory you like. Want to have rapid access to your documents? Drag the desktop widget to your desktop. (Now that I think about it, I believe it is more correctly referred to as a file/directory monitoring widget.) Gone are the days of haphazardly scattering countless icons on your desktop.
Err, maybe not. At least it’s still a pretty useful idea.
The taskbar is another mixed blessing. Windows 7’s new taskbar is both frustrating and highly useful; in contrast, KDE 4’s isn’t terribly ground-breaking and follows much of the popular taskbar paradigm. It does have one other useful feature–or annoying feature–in that you can add the same widgets to your taskbar as you might add to your desktop. This is something of a mixed blessing, but I found it slightly useful. I do, however, love the sizing configuration capabilities of the new taskbar. You actually get to control the exact width each individual component consumes in a reasonably intuitive user interface. No longer must you fret over unlocking items, grabbing some obscure handle, and dragging (while praying), hoping to size the taskbar items exactly as you want. I’ve been there before, especially in Gnome. One wrong move and everything mysteriously shifts to the opposite side, forcing you to unlock more items in the hopes of setting everything straight. If the KDE project can work out the kinks, I think their model for configuring the position and size of taskbar elements is absolutely brilliant.
The Applications Menu
The applications menu is another mixed bag. Some things are pretty decent, some things are awful, and some things are just confusing. My favorite feature (besides the nifty effect for switching the “tabs” with a mouse over) is the ability to pin a new item to the favorites list by simply right clicking it and choosing “add to favorites.”
Keep reading for a continuation of the next part: The Bad Things.
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