One of the best things about KDE 4, the newest release of the mainstream Linux desktop manager, is something it doesn't do—force you to adapt to its way of running a computer desktop. Sure, the desktop environment boasts new 3-D effects, a polished theme, and improved functionality. But what KDE 4 does best is give users the ability to almost completely re-design their desktops, putting their programs, icons, and useful widgets wherever they see fit, on as many desktops as they want, to create their ideal workspace. I spent some time exploring the features of the less-than-week-old system, the results of which are after the jump.
If you wanted to see how KDE 4 looks right now without committing yourself to a new install, you can burn a live CD from the Kubuntu or openSUSE distributions, both of which plan to implement KDE 4 in their next releases. If, after these screenshots, you're itching to switch for real, I'd recommend upgrading from inside a working KDE system rather than starting fresh, as none of the live CDs are officially supported yet. And there's a good reason why—this is just the first release of a system that's in many ways completely re-written, and a few important pieces are still missing from the whole. The developers have stated that KDE 4 is an intentional shift away from the norm, so those who rely on certain key programs to work might want to hold off until at least 4.1
But if you do boot up, the first thing you'll notice about the new KDE is its clean-looking, ready-to-work interface. It has many of the same components as current KDE setups, but the icons and elements of the new "Oxygen" theme make it seem less like the Cute Lil' OS That Could and more like a place to get things done (in my opinion, anyways).
Before jumping into the new-new stuff, note that the Start-like "K" menu (now named "Kickoff") has undergone a major overhaul, adding an in-line search function and dividing your programs up into five categories, including a Google-like starred "Favourites" list. The only letdown is the big icon size and having to click to move through sub-menus, although fans of the older mouse-over menu can restore it by adding it as a widget.
About those widgets—they're the heart of KDE's desktop engine, named Plasma, and they're a lot more powerful than clocks and mini-feed-readers, although they're there if you want them. Everything you could put on the taskbar, and anything open source programmers can dream up, can be embedded anywhere on the desktop. After tinkering around a bit, I came up with my own taskbar-less desktop that was a bit crowded, but gave me a lot of functionality from the get-go:
The widgets get covered up once you start opening program windows, but you can bring them to the fore and shade over your windows, Mac-style, with a Ctrl+F12 keystroke. They're scalable vector graphics as well, meaning you can adjust them to any size, or even angle, and they'll still look right. One notable widget is the "File Watcher," which can display text from any file you point it at, making it a great way to track your text-based to-dos.
Mess around a bit, and you can come up with a lot of way to reorder your space in convenient ways. Put custom program launchers together across the screen bottom to create a Dock-like launcher. Move your window switcher to the top or the sides, or eliminate it altogether and stick with Alt+Tab. You can do many of these things in GNOME and in other operating systems, but KDE gives you a fairly blank slate from which to draw your own map to productivity.
KDE 4's other big change is splitting the tasks of web browsing and file exploring between Konqueor and Dolphin, respectively. Dolphin, the newest kid on the block, brings split-view browsing for easier file transfer, and integrates the multi-format Okular viewing tool (seen in the background below) to view, bookmark and even add notes to files, making it easier to organise and sort them later.
Of course, no new Linux environment is complete without super-powerful, endlessly tweak-able Compiz-ish desktop effects, and KDE 4's got 'em in spades. If you want your windows or menus to move a certain way, chances are you can do it.
There are many more improvements and changes in KDE 4, including improved multimedia handling, easier handling of plug-in devices and re-engineered core programs. What features did I miss that are worth noting? What do you hope to see come up next for KDE, GNOME, or any Linux system? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Kevin Purdy, associate editor at Lifehacker, just ever-so-slightly missed the sight of the KDE dragon Konqi when looking around the latest release. His weekly feature, Open Sourcery, appears every Saturday on Lifehacker AU.