First of all, let’s talk about the good things. KDE 4.3 is stable. Very stable. It seemed apparent from the start that the KDE developers were taking no prisoners with the stability of this release. As someone that has been playing with this new version since its first beta, I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s been more stable than normal from the start. Granted, there were the usual bugs found during testing, but nowhere near as many as I was used to. The major issue was the constant crashing when the first release candidate was published, and then seemingly out of nowhere a second release candidate was created that solved that problem. Just as we thought we were getting closer to the final release, a third release candidate was published (again, out of nowhere) and the release date for the final product was pushed back a week. This is the first time in the entire KDE 4.x release cycle that anything more than a first release candidate was ever published (let alone delaying an entire release), so it’s clear that the KDE guys meant business and were dedicated to get the major issues fixed.
KDE 4.3 ships some really amazing features, my favorite of which being “contextual browsing”. The way it works starts with a folder view widget. If you add one to your desktop (there is already one there by default, at least with most distributions) all you have to do to see the contents of a folder is to hover your mouse over one of the folder icons, and a context window appears showing you what’s inside. Then, hover your mouse cursor over any of those icons to open up another window allowing you to drill down into your filesystem without clicking your mouse a single time, or opening a file manager! Here is a quick image of this:
If that wasn’t awesome enough, a new plasma theme (called “Air”) was created for this release and made default. (Oxygen is still used for the window borders and buttons though). This new plasma theme is leaps and bounds ahead of the Oxygen theme that was used in the last three KDE 4.x releases and looks very professional. I used to really like the old Oxygen theme, but now that I’ve seen the new one I can no longer stand looking at it. The new theme is really that much better. To check out the new theme, click on the thumbnail below for a full-sized view of the new desktop, along with some random plasmoids added:
Well, that looks nice, but how well does it run? Unfortunately, I’ve had some mixed results there. First of all (for comparison sake) I installed KDE 4.3 on my desktop and my laptop. My desktop is equipped with an AMD Athlon 64 X2 5200+ processor, 6GB of RAM, and an Nvidia Geforce 9800GT video card. My laptop has an Intel Core 2 Duo Processor (2.1ghz), 4GB of RAM and an integrated Intel video card. Both machines use the 64-bit version of Kubuntu 9.04.
KDE 4.3 runs like a dream on my desktop. In fact, it’s probably the fastest environment I’ve ever used on that machine. It’s responsive, stable, and things load fast. I’m guessing the developers must have fine tuned the speed somewhere, because it really shows. KDE 4.3 also runs extremely well on my laptop, as long as I don’t turn on the desktop effects. Once I turn on the effects, the speed of my laptop is halved and everything is just painfully slow. I’m not sure if this is actually a KDE problem though, as there are some issues with Intel video chips in Linux right now. In contrast, the desktop effects under GNOME run extremely well on my laptop.
One of my biggest complaints regarding the KDE 4.x series has been the extremely annoying menu structure. For some reason, some genius decided to set up the applications menu to sort your applications alphabetically by description, rather than the name of the app. For example, instead of looking for Konqueror in the menu alphabetically under “K”, you’d instead look for it under “W” for “Web Browser”. I don’t know what possessed the developers to think that was a good idea (and NOT give anyone an option to change that behavior) but I’m happy to say that this has finally been fixed in 4.3! Now you can set the menu to show applications by name under its settings window. To be fair, this feature did exist in KDE 4.2, though it was limited to the classic menu only, which wasn’t cool. Now fans of both menu styles can choose to show applications by name.
There are a large number of changes in this release, and those are only the most notable. If you’re like me, you will notice an increasing amount of new features the more you use the new KDE desktop. There are new features all over the place, such as an optional tree view in System Settings, a seemingly redesigned run dialogue box, brand new plasmoids, new wallpaper, and much more.
The changes in KDE 4.3 are largely in three categories: the desktop workspace, the applications, and the development platform.
- Plasma, KDE’s desktop interface and KWin, KDE’s window and compositing manager are now working more closely together. Desktop effects and the Plasma shell now share their themes, and it is also possible to have separate sets of Plasma widgets and wallpapers on each virtual desktop. The new Air theme makes a visual difference. It is much lighter than the Oxygen theme, which is still available through the Desktop Settings dialog.
- On the applications front, KDE 3 users will like the new tree view in System Settings, which more closely resembles KDE 3’s KControl. Dolphin, KDE’s file manager, now show previews of images contained in a directory as an overlay for the directory icon. Hovering over it enables a slideshow of the images in the directory the icon represents.
- KDE’s development platform has become more stable, more performant, leaner and at the same time more complete. For Plasma applet developers, there is now a geolocation plugin that makes it possible to query the current location. This is used in the OpenDesktop applet to show people near you. The new KDE PolicyKit library provides a mechanism for applications to authorise certain actions based on profiles. A KDE-style API makes it secure and easy to temporarily elevate privileges for an application.
Another issue I have with KDE 4.3 is (again) with the desktop effects. As if it wasn’t bad enough that they can make the desktop slow down to a crawl, it also makes you lose precious framerates in 3D games too. The problem is that most modern desktop environments will suspend compositing when 3D games are running in order to conserve resources, but KDE 4.3 doesn’t do that – you have to disable them yourself before playing a game or face a major loss in performance. In this regard, desktop effects become more of a burden on your system rather than a blessing. You can disable the effects by pressing SHIFT+ALT+F12, though KDE should be smart enough to do that on its own by now.
Even worse, there is too much of a disconnect between the look of the KDE desktop with desktop effects turned on and when they’re turned off. With the desktop effects turned off, the desktop looks noticeably different and worse than when you have them on, and this is a major problem. Why is that a problem? Well, not only is it inconsistent but KDE 3.5 had no problem showing translucency when desktop effects were turned off (even GNOME can do this) so there is no reason why KDE can’t do it either. When desktop effects are turned off, it should just resort to the translucency style used in KDE 3.5, in which most users wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. (They would just lose any extra effects such as wobbling windows or desktop switching animations, though the desktop would look the same).
My final small complaint is how the applications are sorted on the taskbar. Personally, I like to have my email as the first opened item, and my browser second. The problem is that no matter what setting you use as far as sorting goes, your applications will eventually move to other places on the taskbar. This usually happens when one application opens another window or instance of itself. A work around to this problem is to set up the sorting option as “manually” and then you can drag the applications to the correct places if they get out of hand.
- Way better appearance due to the “Air” plasma theme
- Faster and more responsive
- Contextual browsing
- Desktop effects are more of a curse than a blessing
- Items on the taskbar rearrange themselves
- The desktop looks fairly bland without desktop effects enabled