KDE 4: The Komplete Desktop?

KDE 4 creator Matthias Ettrich, envisaged a Unix desktop with a common look and feel. KDE 4 has been released for over a year now, has it met this goal?

In the Linux world there are many opposing camps. In the editor realm it is Emacs vs Vi and in the package world it’s Deb vs RPM. Then there’s plain old binary vs source, but in the desktop arena it’s predominantly GNOME vs KDE. It’s a fairly even split between major Linux distributions, although most do support both. GNOME has enjoyed increasing popularity of late with both Ubuntu and SUSE opting to use it as their default. Other distros however, remain steadfast supporters of the other side of the fence.

KDE stands for the K Desktop Environment and was first released in 1998 by Matthias Ettrich, who was a student at the time. Ettrich saw a need for the Unix world to have a unified desktop environment which had a consistent look and feel, rather than just multiple applications looking and behaving however they wanted to. When it was originally conceived, KDE was written in C++ using the Qt toolkit for its graphical interface and to this day, remains true to its heritage.

Now in its 11th year, KDE has come a long way in a short amount of time and recently celebrated the release of version 4.0, marking a turning point in the development of the project. The major reason for the major update was the implementation of Qt 4, which resulted in a complete rewrite of the project. KDE 4.0 stable was released in January 2008 with much fanfare, with the project announcing: “This significant release marks both the end of the long and intensive development cycle leading up to KDE 4.0 and the beginning of the KDE 4 era.” Unfortunately, this new era was met with great disappointment.

The release, although pronounced as stable, had no-where near the amount of usability expected by the community. The KDE team was quick to point out that the release was intended for developers only, as a technology preview of things to come, rather than as a desktop for every day users. Was it the fault of the project for calling a product stable when it wasn’t? Or a fault of the distributions for misunderstanding the intention and packaging it for prime time? The topic is still hotly debated among the free software world, many of whom find it hard to forgive the project for releasing such beta-quality software.

Part of the reason for the numerous bugs and usability problems was a result of the KDE team taking the opportunity to introduce some great new features into the desktop. The first major piece of technology was Plasma, the new desktop shell which replaces the Kdesktop and the start menu from KDE 3.5 series, Kicker. This is one of the biggest overhauls which has occurred in the new version as it has redefined what the desktop should be.

Plasma has enabled fancy new features like plasmoids (applets) and 3D desktop effects. Another major feature is Phonon, which is a new audio API for the desktop. It replaces the old sound system, aRts, and enables KDE to be independent of other frameworks such as the popular Gstreamer. Finally, the last major feature is Solid, a new device API which manages all hardware devices. It is a framework which is currently built on top of HAL, D-Bus, BlueZ (for bluetooth) and NetworkManager.

In the program sphere, all of KDE’s applications are being ported to the new libraries but some have also gone through major modifications. Konqueror, the all in one file and web browser from the 3.5 series, has been relegated to the web arena only, while a new program called Dolphin takes its place as the all powerful manager of files and commander of Kioslaves. Okular is a new program which was introduced as an all in one document viewer, to handle numerous formats such as CHM, DjVu, DVI, ODF, PDF, Postscript and XPS. It replaces KPDF and KGhostView.

It is now over a year since the initial KDE 4.0 release, with version 4.3 just around the corner. The current stable version is 4.2.3 which has a great many bug fixes and improvements. The software is now in a state where it is, well, usable! As a result, many distributions have now switched to this latest version and are phasing out the previous stable branch, version 3.5. If you’ve been hanging onto KDE 3.5 or want to test drive the latest innovations in the free software world, perhaps it’s time to kick up the package manager and give KDE 4 a run. There you should find exciting, high quality applications for all the tasks you perform every day.

So how does the new KDE stack up? Ettrich originally conceived of an environment which would all work the same way, with a common feel. Over a decade later, has this been achieved? Is it possible to have a completely KDE/Qt system which performs all tasks well? Or will you still need some of those pesky GTK applications? Let’s take a look.

Most Linux distributions will install a completely pre-configured KDE 4 system for you, simply by selecting the “KDE desktop” option at install time. From the desktop manager to the environment, everything should work as expected and if you’re used to the GNOME world, you might even be a little surprised!

The desktop is very different to anything else experienced in the Linux world, although users familiar with previous revisions of KDE will feel some comfort. All installed applications are available from the K-button in the task bar and broken down by category. Unlike GNOME, KDE includes most configuration options under a central control centre and there are lots and lots of things users can tweak. This is one of the main issues which separates GNOME and KDE projects. GNOME tries to keep things simple while KDE offers a plethora of options and puts more power in the hands of the user. Although he currently uses GNOME (due to his disappointment with the KDE 4.0 release), Linus Torvalds said: “This ‘users are idiots, and are confused by functionality’ mentality of GNOME is a disease. If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it. I don’t use GNOME, because in striving to be simple, it has long since reached the point where it simply doesn’t do what I need it to do. Please, just tell people to use KDE.”

Comments on "KDE 4: The Komplete Desktop?"


I may be dense here, but I don’t see the point in caring about Konquerer. If the rest of the desktop works well thats fine with me. I would prefer to run Firefox anyway. I’m just not sure why a desktop or an operating system thinks they need to write there own browser
when there are better alternative already out there.


I think that KDE is losing its spot as king of the configurability heap. When I ran 4.2, I noticed that a lot of the options that used to be present were missing. I also didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t use numbers to change sizes in Plasma. Having drag handles is a good idea, but it would have been nice if I could have told KDE to give me a panel that was (x) pixels high instead.

@anthonywalls The problem is that KDE integration into Firefox is pretty kludgy, too. I ran 4.2 for about 3 months earlier this year, and the failure of the KDE widgets to render properly in the pages made for some real frustrations sometimes. It would also be nice to be able to use the KWallet to store your web passwords, but there’s no way to do that, either. Ditto using KParts like FF plugins. Just running FF means you have to double install a lot of things that are theoretically handled by KDE.


the reason i chose KDE 3.x over Gnome was the integration with konqueror.

the ability to find a file on the web in one tab, view it’s contents in another, transfer files from a digital camera and browse them, all in one application is a fantastic capability.

i tried Gnome for a while but having to use a separate web browser, file manager and pdf reader is clunky.

unfortunately KDE 4 is trying to force me back to this way of working.

konqueror needs some TLC


I liked KDE 3.5. Kde 4.2 looks pretty but just doesn’t work as well. Kicker is not really that good. How many clicks does it take to start a program? More than really necessary, in my opinion. Phonon is not upto the mark. Amarok 1.4 used to work great on my laptop and desktop. Amarok 2 does not, even though I did fiddle with it, following instruction from quite a few forums. It just didn’t work. All that fiddling just to listen to some music. I’m sorry but this is simply disappointing. Amarok 2 even looks ugly. Kopete does not work like before. It shows ignored contacts from the Yahoo network. Konqueror – is it really worth using as a web browser? It’s shit compared to Firefox. It was great as a filemanager, and why not let it be the file manager and do what it’s really good at.
All this prettiness does not count if it doesn’t work right the first time. Don’t expect the users to tweak this and tweak that because they don’t have the time. I feel sad that KDE has been transformed into such a sorry state of affairs. I’ll wait of course, till things work fine. GNOME is actually pretty solid and very functional. Not pretty but the damn thing works like magic.


While I agree with your comment, thanks to konqueror we had khtml rendering engine, being webkit a derivative from it and safari and chrome being based on it. I won’t dismiss such an effort.



My big frustration with KDE4 is that migrating from KDE3 seems to be hard, at least for me.

I use kontact a lot for calendar, contacts, and E-mail, and even the weather. There doesn’t seem to be a clear way to move all this information from KDE3 to KDE4.

Oddly enough, I also use konsole a lot and the changes in that program caught me by surprise. Currently, I run 5 different tabs under konsole (I use ssh a great deal). I distinguish the tabs with different background colors. I think this may be possible in KDE4, but it is complicated. It looks like I would have to invent 5 different profiles — yuch!

Anyway, my major beef is no one ever thought about how to export a KDE configuration and import it somewhere else, or perhaps they have, but I missed it.


> Although he currently uses GNOME (due to his disappointment
> with the KDE 4.0 release), Linus Torvalds said: “This ‘users
> are idiots, and are confused by functionality’ mentality of
> GNOME is a disease…

This notion is outdated… Too many things changed in Gnome since then and although I still have parts of kde3 installed and I’ve kde4 installed on second PC all my new installations use GNOME only…


There is no way in hell I would even think of installing a KDE based distro for any of my customers. It is so far from done, it’s not even funny. I have tried to like KDE4, but have yet to find any distros version that is usable. Sure, it looks good, but I want my computer to run good. KDE4 is still junk. Gnome for me is reliable as the sun rising.


I used to have KDE but now I’m using GNOME because it is supported by Ubuntu (which I currently use). It is very important to me that everything just works or is going to work in the future. But frankly speaking, both KDE and GNOME have a lot of little but annoying flaws in their design. They both lack simple functionalities present in other desktop environments known from Mac or Windows. But the real problem is, I think not, in KDE or GNOME but in Qt and GTK, where there is no coherent way of programming GUI applications.


I’d just like to say one thing in defense of Konqueror 3.5. It is the only (major??) graphics based browser that allows me to easily run more than one instance.

By running more than one instance, if a real browser crash occurs (which happens to me on konqueror, opera, and Mozilla-based browsers), I lose only the pages open in that particular instance. (With sometimes 60 open web (or local) pages, losing them all I more than inconvenient–even if some of the browsers allow you to automatically reopen the pages you had open.)

Randy Kramer


I think there are some important (imho) points that the author is missing when talking about KDE.
One of these, for example, is network trasnparency: it’s something really great, you can open and edit *any* file from almost *any* network share from *anywhere* as it was a local file. All the apps will see it as a local file, so you can use it to do some cool drag and drop between apps and put togheter data from alla round the world. And yes, it works with KDE 4.2.

The integrated spell checker is another great feature of KDE, imho. It’s everywhere and lets you switch easily the language so you can write also to your friend in Germany or in Spain. It’s nice to know that they’re working on a feature to switch automatically the spell checker language, to make the user’s lie easier.
There’s also a nice password manager that collects and keep in a secure archive your authenticatin informations.

The nepomuk semantic desktop and the desktop search system is also cool and very useful. It’s almost something unique at the moment. At the moment it works mostly in dolphin and in gwenview, and they’re working hard to integrate it with other apps, like amarok and digikam (I love them).

But I understand that the project is running so excitingly fast that it’s difficult for almost anyone to follow its advancements. For example, I just upgraded to KDE 4.2.4, and got the new K3b, marked “1.66.0″ (no beta, no alha, it’s stable!).
The javascript engine of the new konqueror still needs some work, but now you can use konqueror to browse your mail on gmail and do most things on facebook, for example. The results in the V8 Benchmark Suite aren’t so different from firefox, but it still fails on the last test.

They’re working so hard and so fast that most of the times as you open a bug report or ask a new feature it needs really little time to see the bug resolved or the new feature implemented. So I think that the thing that at the moment it’s really great about KDE is not the software itself, but the communitiy around that software! (who said “social desktop”?) ;-)


As I understand it there were very good reasons for a major rewrite of KDE. My compliments to the KDE 4 team, I know it was a lot of work, as any major rewrite would be, and I thank you. I will continue to use KDE 3.5 until KDE 4 gets a bit more of it’s expected polish.

I must protest to the Konqueror bashing. With respectful nods to Nautilus and Dolphin, Konqueror is the best file manager I have ever seen. I love the service menus, transparent FTP usability and split screens. I have to disagree with the KDE team making Konqueror the default web browser as Firefox is hard to compete with.

I am sure that Dolphin works much better than Windows Explorer but Konqueror will always be my file manager.


I do not understand why the KDE team and the Koffice team is breaking the stable/unstable release standards and expecting everyone to say hey it’s okay. They put out a product that is still not ready for prime time, but versioned it as such, possibly because of the strides that the Gnome desktop was making.
I really like the KDE 3.5 series. I really liked the control that O had over my environment. I especially like the fact that I could set a different wallpaper or background on each virtual desktop and center the pager on the panel/taskbar. I also really liked the really easy way to add KDS applets or programs and non-kde programs to the panel. Those features, along with many others that I was used to are gone.
I never really got into gnome. I am currently using the XFCE system and have found a lot to like with it. I have a few gripes, but nothing major. I don’t see myself going back to KDE unless the aforementioned features return.
Just my two cents worth.



Having user GNU+Linux over the past ten years, I have used many desktop/windowing environments. I’ve used openbox, fluxbox, enlightenment, xfce, GNOME, and KDE versions 1 through 4.

I still find myself coming back to KDE, and my primary computer currently has fluxbox and KDE 4.2

Sure, the upgrade from KDE 3.5 to KDE 4.2 was a bit of a surprise, but since I’ve messed around with so many different desktop/window managers, I enjoyed the struggle.

I use Konqueror as my primary web browser, only using iceweasel (yup, I’m using Debian) or Opera (and I use non-free software, too…. I am an evil freedom-hater!) for those websites that would render better in those browsers. I prefer Konqueror for its integration with Kmail and the whole KDE (the department of redundancy department says that I should say KDE environment).

After several weeks of KDE 4.2, I have decided to stick with it, rather than return to KDE 3.5.


I recently started using KDE and so far I like it. For years I had been using Gnome on Fedora. When I upgraded to Fedora 11, I logged in and installed KDE to start playing around. So far, I like it and I may continue to use KDE for a while. I guess it was just time to change and try something else.

As far as Konqueror goes, well…I will use FF. I have used Firefox as my default for a while and I like it. On Windows I use FF, and in Linux I use FF. A stable browser, very expandable with all the Add-ons, and just simply a great browser. KOffice needs some work, but in time it might be worth using.


Nice article.
Personally, I was a fan of KDE3.x. I am not sure if I am a fan of KDE4.x which does not work well with my the hardware I have. Eventually 3.x is gonna reach end of life, while the old hardware is still alive.
If KDE does not work on older hardware, I am forced to shop for something else and find XFCE/GNOME..
If Kubuntu does not support KDE3.5 anymore, I am forced to try out Xubuntu..
One of the main reasons for moving to Linux (from M$$) is older hardware for home desktops.


Personally I\’ve long since forgot about konqueror and use Arora as my main webbrowser. It\’s a lightweight Qt/Webkit browser that, while still quite new, is really quite a joy to use.


I have preferred KDE for years, but KDE4 has really blown it. Usability is MUCH worse than 3, (poor contrast between elements, slow, lack of old capabilities) are just the beginning. The real problem is reliability, I have to reboot several times a week because my desktop is locked up. At work I have no control and must use it but at home I went back to KDE3. In the past we bragged that we didn\’t release new stuff just for flashy new useless features (ala MS Vista) just so we could have something \”new\”, but that seems to be what KDE has done. In the past I never even tried Umbutu because it was Gnome based, however the other day I loaded it on a box and tried it. It is obvious why it is so popular. The installation was so SMOOTH, (the partition manager was particularly clean) and it came right up. And everything (except connecting to a secure wireless network) just worked. In fact my only 2 complaints were:
1. I like to see what is happening during installation, startup etc. and that wasn\’t even an option.
2. No package selection, and I would be loading packages till Christmas otherwise.
In summary I think that KDE is slitting their own throat, for most people I think what the 1st criteria is that the software work, 2nd that capabilities that they have grown used to shouldn\’t be arbitrarily discarded, finally add new features (with capability to be turned off).


I\’ve been using KDE 4.3rc1 for the last few weeks, and I\’ve been pretty astounded at the enhancements. The problem many people have been having with the lack of configuration options is quickly disappearing- its rare that I\’ll think \”I don\’t really like that functionality\” and not be able to find an option to change it.
And the Konqueror bashing is getting old- its new features (built-in ad blocking, the ability to use WebKit as a rendering engine) have made it a very usable browser.
Plus, it\’s finally becoming stable- generally, when I\’ve tried it out in the past, I usually have to give up and return to 3.5 because of the more severe bugs. Now, the very few troublesome bugs I\’ve found are easily recoverable.
It seems things are finally coming together for KDE 4, and I think that everyone who has given up on it will be in for a surprise if they try the latest releases.


Well, we\’re on to 4.3.4 now and still waiting for KDE4 to be a practical everyday desktop.

I have been a KDE person for many years. Tried a few others but always came back to KDE. When it got to 3.5 I was totally happy with it, this seemed to as close to the perfect desktop as I could ask. However I got a new computer which required a later kernel for the chipset and so was forced to move on. If I\’d known then what I know now, I\’d have gone elsewhere. Now I find myself the victim of lock-in.

I use Kubuntu. \’Hardy Heron\’ provided a KDE3.5 desktop on a solid Linux kernel with deb package management, a system that gave lots of power to users without requiring geek knowlege. To achieve this that power has to be provided through the desktop environment, now that KDE4 has removed much of the power are we expected to become geeks in order to offset sound when playing video (as was easily done with Kaffeine in 3.5, but cannot seem to do with any player in KDE4) or any of the dozens of other things a user may want to tweek. I expect to not have to be a geek, also if I want a morons system I would have installed MS-Windows.

I\’m still scared to move the mouse near the top-right of the screen. To run the risk of accidentally clicking on that cashew which will almost certainly bring my system crashing to the ground. The desktop equivalent of digging a big hole in a main road and leaving it unfenced. Whos bright idea was that?

Regarding Konqueror, okay it\’s not a great browser. But to me it not a browser, it\’s \’accidentally\’ become a great file manager. (Shouts loudly hoping KDE/Konqueror team hears – \’Forget thinking of konqueror as a browser, it\’s a file manager\’.) It\’s way better than than Dolphin rubbish being foisting off on us, please don\’t drop a valuable asset.

However the thing that really bugs me about KDE4 is the lack of choice. I conjure up the picture of bright lights being shone into my eyes while, behind them, a Stazi officer screams \’You VILL work ze vay we tell you to!\’. I started listing examples here but gave up and deleted them as this has to fit into one post. Suffice to say \’Where has the flexibility gone, and why?\’.

Also, I have learnt to live with no sound from my computer. \’arts\’ worked perfectly well but I find \’phonon\’ works intermittently at best. For the past two weeks I haven\’t had a squeak out of my computer. WWhy \’fix\’ something that wasn\’t broken?

I\’d have changed to Gnome months ago but Ubuntu threaten to pull my whole system down in order to install it.

So KDE4s big success has been to change me from a big supporter to a raging hater.

Anyway, not all is bad. I can end on a positive note. K3b is still by far the best burner going and kdenlive is a brilliant addition.


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