Linux's path to total world domination runs straight through the desktop. One look at KDE 2.0 will
Whether you feel that the coexistence of the desktop environments KDE (K Desktop Environment) and GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) is a pitched competition between development teams trying to enchant the same set of Linux users, nothing more than mutual indifference, or something in between, the bottom line is clear: Both packages are progressing quickly and making Linux more enjoyable and productive for anyone who prefers a GUI (graphical user interface). Another similarity is that both projects will be releasing their 2.0 versions in the coming months, and an alpha-level version of KDE is already available. We’ll examine KDE in this article and devote space to GNOME and the recently announced Nautilus file-manager project for that environment, in a future issue.
The publicized development plan for KDE says that its next significant update should be available as a beta release, to be called version 1.9, shortly after this article is published. The full 2.0 release will come some time after that, but the development team isn’t committing to a firm date as of this writing. They say the exact release date will depend on the feedback they get from the beta.
KDE’S NEW LOOK: The version 2.0 panel and file manager have a familiar, but still different look
1. Konquerer’s new style of control indicates which directories have subdirectories
2. The controls have a new look and feel, including scrollbar buttons at the bottom
3. The file pane now has sorting buttons for all columns
4. Directory trees can now be opened in the file pane
5. The task bar will be a replaceable module that can be detached from the panel
6. “Minipager” can be replaced with one that uses small images of the actual desktop
Here be Dragons
I recently had a chance to install and work with the February 28 pre-beta binaries of KDE 2.0, which were the basis for this article. While I experienced some of the expected problems for alpha-level software, including instability and missing features, there was enough substance to give KDE users a good feel for (as well as a good feeling about) where their favorite desktop is headed. All the screen shots here were made with the February 28 release.
The big headline grabber of KDE 2.0 is, of course, Konqueror, its file manager that replaces kfm. While KDE’s old file manager was serviceable, most people wouldn’t consider it a full-featured file manager by any stretch of the imagination. That situation will change with the arrival of Konqueror. As you can see in the sidebar above, Konqueror is a more complex program, which is readily apparent if you use both a separate tree pane and a tree view of your files, as I do. The more streamlined, icon-centric display option is still available, of course.
The most obvious change from KDE 1.x’s kfm is the disappearance of the Macintosh-style toggles on the directory tree in favor of the more Windows-like dotted lines and plus signs. But Konqueror also supports extensive file viewing (for example, click on /etc/X11/XF86Config and by default it appears directly in Konqueror’s file pane instead of being launched in an editor), as well as enhanced browsing, in the normal Web sense. Another overdue enhancement is the ability to sort a list of files simply by clicking on the header for the chosen field.
I can’t say anything about the configurability of Konqueror, since that dialog box was one of the missing features, but based on what I saw in the rest of this alpha release as well as the discussion I had with the KDE team, we shouldn’t expect that to be a weakness in the final version.
|Figure One:The new file association dialog in KDE 2.0 makes connecting files and applications easier.|
The panel and task bar are also visible in Figure One, and the combination looks just enough like the current one to be recognizably KDE, but also noticeably different. The set of buttons on the panel that allow you to switch between virtual desktops, the “minipager,” will be modular (as will many other parts of KDE), and users will be able to replace it with a graphical version that draws tiny reproductions of the screens. The taskbar itself will be modular and replaceable, so that you can have a taskbar that’s physically separate from the panel, as is typical of KDE 1.x.
The alpha version of KDE I ran didn’t include theme support. I assumed that the theme manager simply wasn’t implemented yet, but a member of the KDE development team told me that they have much bigger ideas in this area. He said they’re planning to write a special Control Center module that “will enable the user to easily control all the aspects of the desktop’s look in one easy interface. A first stage of configuration will allow [the user] to choose from pre-built configurations that will set color schemes, window-manager themes, widget-set styles, and other [things]. A second level will allow the user to finely tune the parameters of the configuration, and to save changes in a distributable form.”
Do What I Mean
One area where Linux interfaces have lagged behind Windows is in the ease of configuring file associations — those little bits of information that let you tell the environment that whenever you click on any file ending in .txt, you want the system to open it with your favorite editor, for example. KDE 2.0 addresses this problem by adding a “File associations” section to the Control Center, as shown in Figure One, that you can use to associate several programs, in a specified order (in case one or more of your selections aren’t available), with various filename patterns. This feature should prove to be popular with Windows converts as well as KDE veterans, even if it still requires a two-part association, one describing the file pattern, and one the application.
|Figure Two:Even KDE’s lowly command-line window gets spruced up, thanks to renameable session buttons.|
Ironically, one of the changes to KDE that’s most representative of the feel of the entire release isn’t in one of the flashier GUI components, but in konsole, the lowly command-shell utility. In the current version of KDE, konsole opens a resizable window and presents you with a shell prompt, which works fine. It also gives you the options of opening additional shell sessions in the same window and switching between them via a menu, and starting a new session with Midnight Commander preloaded. In the new release, konsole has added a set of buttons along the bottom edge of its window that you can use to click between the shells you have started in that window. See Figure Two for an example. You can even name the sessions, instead of having to remember which “Shell” entry on the Session menu was which. Other new options let you run the konsole window full screen, or send specific signals to the program in the currently active session, including the ever-popular KILL. These konsole tweaks don’t sound like much, especially compared to all the major changes appearing in Linux and its graphical interfaces, but they’re the kind of features you can get very used to.
Two of the most useful enhancements to KDE’s user interface are things I can’t show you in a screen shot, unfortunately. First, it fully supports a mouse wheel now, something even the latest KDE 1.x-based distributions can’t match. (See the review of Caldera’s OpenLinux eDesktop 2.4 on pg. 16 of this issue.) The second one involves the editing keystrokes many of us had burned into our DNA before Linux ever existed, such as Ctrl-Insert for copy, Shift-Insert for paste, Shift-Delete for cut, Ctrl-Home for “go to top of file,” and Ctrl-End for “go to bottom of file.” These are now all supported by default in the KDE applications, as well as the older keystrokes that use Ctrl-x, -c, and -v for cut, copy, and paste, respectively.
|Figure Three:KDE’s Task Scheduler makes automating certain jobs much easier.|
|Figure Four:The kwrite window shows KDE’s more centralized style of setting program options. |
|Figure Five:The system controller shows the status of all hardware in your system.|
Another goodie that users will like is the KDE Task Scheduler (a.k.a. kcron), as seen in Figure Three along with its event configuration dialog. This utility lets users schedule programs to run on a one-time or recurring basis at any time of the day. This is another good example of a practice we’ve seen many times in Linux, via KDE, GNOME, and other graphical facilities — improving usability by adding GUIs to less friendly facilities. Linux, and Unix before it, have been able to schedule jobs since roughly the Cretaceous Period, but everyone gains when GUIs are made more obvious and usable.
Yet another very useful enhancement is the use of button-bar-style configuration dialog boxes, like the one for kwrite in Figure Four. This technique lets KDE’s applications support more options in a better-organized fashion than the prior version.
While the combination of Linux plus KDE has always run fine on laptop computers (once you have gotten over the X configuration hurdles, which can be higher and more annoying in the laptop world), traditionally the situation has been closer to benign indifference than anything else; everything would run well enough, but there were virtually no laptop-specific features. KDE 2.0 will support the use of PCMCIA cards, as well as monitor a laptop’s battery.
KDE’s System Controller application, shown in Figure Five, provides you with a hierarchical overview of your system devices, complete with exclamation points in yellow circles for those devices it perceives aren’t operating properly. This feature is eerily reminiscent of the “System Properties” dialog Windows users know and love, although the KDE incarnation has the expected benefit of being in a resizable window, making it a bit more usable than Windows’ fixed-size approach. It’s yet another small but welcome advancement for all KDE users, whether or not they have prior Windows experience.
A Quick Reminder
Even though most Linux Magazine readers are familiar with the realities of software-development schedules and how radically projects can change in just a few weeks, let alone months, it’s worth pointing out again that everything I’ve said about KDE in this article was based on the February 28 pre-beta binaries and the KDE team’s plans, and was accurate as of mid-March. By the time you read this, there will be considerable change to KDE, and some of it will appear directly in the user interface.
If you’re interested in helping the KDE team, but you are not a programmer, then take part in the beta test and provide them with the best feedback you can. But please remember that version 1.9 will still be beta software, which by definition has more flaws than a “finished” release, and should not be used for valuable work.
Can this Dragon Fly?
After several days of steady use, I have to say that KDE 2.0 is quite impressive, and it will likely be a landmark release for that project. The numerous changes in KDE add many new features and functionality, but more important, they give it a feeling of having deepened and matured, as opposed to merely having features heaped upon it. My biggest single complaint with KDE 2.0 is that it isn’t done yet.
At one level it doesn’t matter if KDE is improving as quickly as it is because of competition’s invisible hand, or whether the KDE developers are simply following their vision of how to help users get the most out of Linux. Whatever the impetus, Linux as a desktop operating system appears ready to take a giant step forward. We can only hope that GNOME 2.0 and Nautilus combine to raise the bar even higher.
Lou Grinzo is reviews editor for Linux Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.