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Friday, February 4, 2011

KDE 4.6 review: A power packed desktop environment

The KDE 4.x series has come a long way since the KDE 4.0 and 4.1 releases. 4.2 was the first release that could be used without worrying about crashes and randomly rearranged panels. KDE 4.3 added new features and brought back a lot of features (about 2000) that were present in the KDE 3.5 desktop environment while fixing more than 10,000 bugs. Since then, the KDE project has gone from strength to strength, rolling out better releases every 6 months and with every release, exorcising the ghost of the 4.0 release.
(All links provided at the bottom, as always | This article is best read, not skimmed)

In the earlier KDE4 releases, the default theme was changed in every release. However, in the later releases (4.4 and 4.5) the Air theme introduced in 4.3 was kept and this is the case with the latest offering as well. However, there are few changes in the appearance. There is a stunning new wallpaper and the clock has been given a shadow effect. Otherwise the look of this release is very similar to that of the 4.5 release.

Figure 1: KDE 4.6 on Fedora 14

I initially tried to test this release on my 10.04 Ubuntu Lucid Lynx system but the Kubuntu developers haven't released 4.6 through their Backports PPA for Lucid. My Laptop and Linux are not best buddies and Ubuntu 10.04 is the only distro that actually works on it. Maverick Meerkat doesn't even install so here I am, writing this review on a Fedora 14 installation, with a stretched screen resolution, connected to the internet via a network cable from the wireless router to my laptop and without any desktop effects so I won't be able to cover anything new regarding compositing in this release. I could have avoided all this hassle and have done this using Virtualbox but that's just cheating and I want this review to be awesome.

Is it just me or has KDE 4.6 been given a major speed boost? After researching [1], I found that Kwin has indeed been optimized for performance for this release. It now runs as smoothly as a warm block of butter sliding over the frozen surface of a pond in winter. It's that smooth.

Figure 2: Speedy KDE (image edited by me)

To smoothen your workflow, Activities have been brought into focus with this release. Activities allow you to you have different desktop arrangements (wallpapers, widgets/plasmoids etc.) for different tasks. You can set up an activity for general work, one for video editing, one for photo management etc. This can help you be more productive and be more focused on specific tasks but personally, I don't find myself using this feature very much.

You can even send applications to a specific activity, as shown in the screenshot below. However, it does not contain the application to the particular activity, as another instance of the application opened in another activity will not automatically go the activity specified. Nevertheless, it is still a useful way of grouping your tasks.

Figure 3: Setting an activity for an application

TIP: You can switch between activities easily using the keyboard shortcut Super + Tab

Another very interesting development is the rewriting of the Oxygen GTK theme. The mimetype icons have been improved and native gradients have been added. This allows for better integration of GTK applications in the KDE environment. Looking at the below screenshot, the default GNOME file manager, Nautilus, looks just like a KDE application.
Figure 4: Nautilus in KDE 4.6

A few changes can be noticed in KDE's file browser, Dolphin. Firstly, the search bar that used to be present on the right has now been removed and is replaced by a Find button. Upon clicking this button, a search field appears, with several options present below that can narrow your search.

Figure 5: The new Search and faceted browsing in Dolphin

A new view called faceted browsing has been introduced in KDE's file manager, Dolphin. Activating Filters from View » Panels will show several filters that are present on the right panel. These filters can help you find specific files in folders that have a lot of files.

Gwenview, the default image viewer has been given some new features that allow your images to be uploaded to a variety of social networking websites. Now, your photos can be directly uploaded to Facebook with just one click! Well..... maybe two. Oddly, I didn't find these options under plugins while using KDE 4.6 on Fedora (perhaps the Fedora developers didn't include them) but here are some screenshots from the KDE website depicting this feature.

Figure 6: Social features in Ksnapshot and Gwenview

This functionality has also been extended to Ksnapshot, the screenshot taking utility. This is very useful for people like me who write about software. There is even an option to directly upload a screenshot to Picasaweb, something very useful for people using Blogger. An option to capture freehand selections has also been added. However, it still has a long way to go before it can become an attractive alternative to Shutter.

Figure 7: Power Management in KDE 4.6

A refreshed UI has been given to KDE's power management tool. The options are now presented in a much better way. This is definitely a positive step forward after comparing it with the power management tool in KDE 4.5 (shown below)

Figure 8: Power Management in KDE 4.5

All in all, this is a very commendable effort by the KDE developers. The availability of KDE cannot be controlled by the KDE developers and therefore KDE 4.6 scores a full 10/10 on the Review Meter as it is usable, it fulfills the goals of the project, it is readily available, sufficient documentation is available, it is stable, it is multi-platform (runs on Windows as well), it is responsive and as a bonus is completely free and open source.

In case you are curious, the criteria used to judge software is available on the How Software is Reviewed Page. If KDE 4.6 was made available for Lucid Lynx, I would definitely be using it as it is a great desktop environment. I'm currently using KDE 4.5 which is quite excellent as well. Anyway, I hope that this review did the software justice and that you enjoyed reading it.

[1]  Optimization in Kwin 4.6
KDE official announcement

{From Tux Crazy} 
How Software is Reviewed
The Review Meter
Download KDE 4.6 wallpaper here

{Image Sources}
Figures 4 and 6 are taken from the KDE official announcement.

Word count: 1062

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