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?

Have things improved since that disastrous release? Well one thing that is currently missing is a Qt 4 graphical interface for NetworkManager, the popular dynamic network configuration tool. There is an official plasmoid in the project source playground which works quite well (although not yet marked stable) and another from Pardus. Most distributions however, still seem to be shipping the Qt 3 program, Knetworkmanager. Hopefully this is something that will be resolved in the new release of KDE as it is a vital piece of software, particularly for those with notebooks.

When it comes time to browse the Internet, this is where the desktop starts to falter. Konqueror is a great program but as a web browser based on the KHTML engine, is starting to show its age. Konqueror seems to handle standard websites just fine, but when it comes to more complex websites with AJAX and complex Javascript, it just doesn’t make the cut. It cannot complete the Google v8 Javascript benchmark suite, for instance.

Fortunately there are some projects afoot to write a Qt browser for KDE based around the Webkit rendering engine (which was originally forked from KHTML). One such project is Arora and another is Rekonq, which has actually just been sanctioned as an official KDE project. With the introduction of Dolphin though, Konqueror really only has one function and that’s web browsing. Whether it will be replaced, or updated to a more capable engine remains to be seen. It might all be just be too hard and in the meantime the task falls primarily to GTK program, Firefox. Another option might be Opera, which is written in Qt but is closed source.

One of, if not the, best optical burning applications in the free software world is K3b. The project supports the usual burning tasks such as the creation of data and music images, copying and blanking CDs and DVDs, but it can also create mixed CDs, Video CDs, eMovix images, rip music, rip and encode DVDs and much, much more. The current stable version is still only Qt 3, but a Qt 4 port is reaching maturity. This is one other major piece of the puzzle which is still missing. The current Qt 4 version in source control is marked as version 1.66.0 alpha2, but despite its ‘alpha’ tag, works quite well. Most distributions are not yet packaging this release however, so most users will have to be content with the excellent Qt3 version of K3b, or use another CD burning program entirely.

What about documents? KDE has long maintained its own office suite called KOffice, which has recently released version 2.0. KOffice 2.0 is a Qt 4 rewrite of the previous stable version 1.6, but includes a great many new features. Actually, in a similar fashion to the KDE 4.0 announcement, this release is also marked as a developer preview, even though it has stable version number. The announcement reads: “Our goal for now is to release a first preview of what we have accomplished. This release is mainly aimed at developers, testers and early adopters. It is not aimed at end users, and we do not recommend Linux distributions to package it as the default office suite yet.

KOffice 2.0 does not have all the features of the previous version, in fact some entire components have not made it, but will make it into versions 2.1 and 2.2. Applications which are included are: KWord the word processor, KSpread the spreadsheet calculator, KPresenter the presentation manager, KPlato the project management software, Karbon the vector graphics editor and challenger to Inkscape and finally Krita the raster graphics editor, challenger to GIMP. How well these programs work when compared to their GTK counterparts remains to be seen. Naturally many long term GNOME users will be used to the way Inkscape and GIMP work and so may want to hold onto these programs anyway. Still, Qt 4 alternatives do exist.

KDE 4 does include some other stunningly useful applications, such as Amarok. Amarok is a music player which has many great features. As with its parent project, the developers took the opportunity to make some major internal changes while porting to Qt 4. One of the most controversial was the use of embedded MySQL as a database back end. Despite some community backlash, Amarok has soldiered on and is approaching the second major release after the initial rewrite. KDE also comes with a brilliant photo management program called Digikam which, through its many great features, makes the management of your photos a snap. There are countless other applications included, all of which are of a very high calibre and integrate tightly with each other and the desktop itself.

While some aspects of the KDE 4 are not yet finalised, there are numerous new Qt 4 applications which have sprung to life and help to make the KDE desktop more complete. One such project is Kdenlive, a video editor which holds a lot of promise. The current release is 0.7.4 which saw the light of day less than a week ago. The development is very active, but in its current state the program is already a winner. It allows users to easily capture, edit create, modify and publish their work in a variety of formats. It even includes a DVD wizard. Kdenlive is a project that has been sorely missing from the free software world, and the fact that it is a Qt application only helps boost the usability of the KDE desktop.

In a world of Web 2.0 and fancy HTML, Konqueror really is rather useless. It desperately needs an overhaul, and it’s hard to believe that such a core piece of software for any desktop is so greatly neglected. KOffice is what KDE 4.0 was, a developer preview. It might hold a lot of promise, but it’s not ready for prime time yet. So should you make the move to this new and promising desktop? Well, if you’re looking for a modern, fresh, solid desktop environment, KDE 4 really is it. The desktop itself works very well, looks great and has a many brilliant features. It really will change the way you work on your machine.

Applications for most of the tasks users wish to perform are included by default and are tightly integrated with the rest of the system. They are all of a very high caliber, work very well and have a great set of features. You just might have install some GTK applications here and there to help make it complete, but they should integrate reasonably well. As it currently stands, it might be another year or so before we see a complete KDE desktop and Ettrich’s vision attained. Stay tuned though because if the road traveled thus far is any indication, it’s going to be grand.

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