Alexander Dymo (adymo): KDE 4.2 Review From Inside Out. Part 1
It's probably the first time in my life when I'm writing a post with a word "Review", but looks like it's a perfect time to start doing that. Right now I desperately need to tell the world about KDE4, or to be precise, soon to be released KDE 4.2. This is going to be the first "real" release targeted not only at KDE developers and enthusiasts, but at general public - all the people who eagerly waited for the next KDE desktop to arrive. With this review I'd like to let people know that the KDE 4 is ready and to once again celebrate the hard work of all the people who put tremendous effort creating this great desktop.
Now you may think that because I'm a KDE developer, this is going to be one more "fan boy" article about KDE4, but I hope I'll prove you wrong. There are things I like, things I hate and things I miss in the new desktop and I am going to write about all those things. Of course everything that is written below is just my own opinion. Feel free to agree or disagree with me :)
Also note, that I'm going to review only the functionality and applications that I actually use. Surprisingly enough that is a fairly small subset of what KDE4 provides, so for example if you want to learn about the new KOffice you're going to need another reviewer ;) But enough of introduction, let's start.
4.2 is 4.0
There was a lot of controversy about KDE4 release schedule. There was a hard decision to ship 4.0 last year in January in the highly unstable state. I still think it was a wrong decision and we (being the open source project) could delay 4.0 for 9 months or an year. From the other side, the experimental .0 release wasn't so much a disaster. Thanks to the efforts of people from Marketing Working Group, people got the message about experimental nature of the release.
4.1 was the desktop I could start using myself and I did exactly that. Still I never recommended it to my friends (or to be more precise, I recommended against using it ;)). But the year passed by and now we're ready to release the "real 4.0" which is for the reasons described above called 4.2. So, let's see what we have now.
General Look and Feel
In comparison with KDE3, the 4.2 desktop looks modern. What's important is that it certainly doesn't copy neither Windows Vista, nor Mac OS. It has its unique identity in everything - in icons, widget theme, panel and desktop theme, window decorations, etc.
I have an impression that it's during KDE4 development artists became a team and started thinking about consistency and coherence in visual appearance. Let's take icons for example. I usually don't care much about them, unless there is an icon that stands out of line and annoys me. In KDE4 so far all icons look consistent for me.
Oxygen theme for Plasma makes the desktop feel right. Dark blue and black decorations match perfectly. Those people who install KDE4 from OpenSUSE packages should really change the desktop theme from the OpenSUSE default grayish theme (was it called Aya?) back to Oxygen. It's not that Oxygen theme looks better (that's highly subjective), it just looks "right" because all parts of the decorations fit together.
Things aren't as bright with Oxygen window decorations and widget style. The window decoration features cartoonish minimize/maximize/close buttons which give almost no feedback when you press them. But that's fairly minor issue. The major issue in the window border which is annoyingly think. I hate when decorations take my screen space. First, I don't want to see 5 pixel borders from each side, even on my 1920x1200 screen. Second, the rounded window corners are aliased and therefore look ugly and "unprofessional". In Mac OS, for example, windows have no border at all which contributes to the nice and professional look and feel.
What I'd love to see at least, is a configuration option to make window borders tiny. We had this option with Plastik in KDE3 and we have this option with other KDE4 styles (like QtCurve). I simply can't understand why the window border thickness is not configurable with Oxygen.
While the KDE4 default Oxygen widget style generally looks good, it's not without problems. It is certain and fortunate that we didn't screw up with default style like we did when KDE 3.0 was released with Keramik :) Oxygen is a good style, but there are a few things I dislike about it.
First, and most importantly, the scrollbars have an usability problem. Scrollbars are visually separated from their scrollable view. When you have two scrollable views sitting one alongside another, you'll see the scrollbar right in between them and you never can tell which view has this scrollbar - the one to the left or the one to the right. After a millisecond of thinking you remember that views usually have scrollbar on the right side and solve that problem. Remember the book "Don't make me think"? I always remember it when I see Oxygen scrollbars.
The scrollbar ownership problem combined with visually indistinguishable resize grips on splitters (just 3 subtle dots for the whole splitter) make for example Akregator unusable. Just look at the screenshot below and tell me without thinking where you'd grab to increase the height of the bottom view ;)
I haven't seen a single widget theme that has such "orphaned" scrollbars, neither or Linux nor on Mac or Windows. There are other minor issues with the style such as tabs that take too much screen estate and comboboxes that don't react visually (push down) on clicks. What I'd like to say here is that it's really unfortunate that those 3-4 problems radically impair the user experience with otherwise nice and well done Oxygen style.
For myself, I've solved all those problems for now by using QtCurve style. QtCurve resembles Plastik from KDE3 (which is fine with me as I really liked Plastik), it has little visual glitches (at least none of the described above) and its window decoration can be made thin. As a bonus, with QtCurve you can get uniform desktop look if you like me frequently use Gtk/Gnome and KDE3 applications. I still depend on KDevelop3 and Konversation. I frequently use Gimp and I have Firefox as my primary browser. All those applications look great and consistent with QtCurve.
The last thing from the "look-n-feel" department I'd like to mention is the overall desktop performance. I don't need any numbers to tell that performance hasn't changed much from KDE3 times. On my hardware (which is Core Duo 4600 based PC) KDE3 was fast. KDE4 feels the same, after all, it's not Vista :) Certain applications (like Dolphin, Konsole or KMail) even improved their startup time.
Conclusion: If you just need one reason to switch to KDE4 - it's the look and feel. The modern polished and stylish look makes your desktop experience as pleasant as possible. None of the issues I've described above is a showstopper for the user. In the worst case you'll end up like me using non-default widget style, but that's hardly a problem.
KWin Window Manager and Desktop Effects
I can hardly say anything about KWin itself. That's the amazing piece of software that never stands on your way and this is exactly how the window manager should work in my opinion.
KWin is highly configurable and customizable. This review is too small to even list all the things you can do with your windows. But there are two advanced KWin features that I actually use.
First feature is the window geometry/position saver which is handy for those applications that don't remember those settings themselves. Some time ago Konversation used to forget its position on the screen. Now KWrite has sclerosis. With KWin I'm always able to fix that myself.
Second feature worth mentioning is window shortcuts for quick switching. If your like me always have a certain number of windows opened, you'll find this useful. For example, my session starts Konsole, KMail, KDevelop and Firefox. Normally I keep them opened 100% of the time and no matter how many other windows I open, there are always Win-Alt-K, Win-Alt-M, Win-Alt-L and Win-Alt-O shortcuts to switch to and between them. The more windows you opened - the more you like window shortcuts.
I'd advise you to give those features a swing. You'll find them in Window Menu (Alt-F3) => Advanced => Special Window Settings, Geometry and Preferences tabs.
KWin shines when it comes to the desktop effects. Compiz Fusion, the traditional solution to desktop effects is actually a compromise between appearance and window management features (and also stability as Compiz developers admit). With KWin you don't need to compromise neither stability nor features. Compositing and desktop effects come as an integral part of the window manager.
As a MacBook owner and Mac OS user I certainly like to have things like Expos
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