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January 18, 2008

KDE4 - First Impressions of Plasma

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The KDE world got noisy last week when KDE4 was released. KDE4 RC2 is easily available to K/Ubuntu Gusty users; simply add the required line to your /etc/apt/sources.list , install the kde4-core package, logout, select KDE4 as your session manager, and log back in to a shiny new desktop. The best part: the KDE4 packages are installed separately from your old KDE3.x packages, so you can switch back and forth between the two with a simple logout/login.

KDE4 is a complete rewrite of the K Desktop Environment: a new hardware abstraction layer (Solid instead of HAL), a new multimedia layer (Phonon instead of aRts), and, with a new desktop shell (Plasma), a radically different desktop experience.

The first thing you'll notice is that all of your icons are suddenly...plasmoided. In Plasma, everything on the desktop is a plasmoid (read: shiny widget). Everything. Well, except for the desktop itself and the panel, which are both plugins. But your icons, clock, taskbar, system tray, even your kicker menu, they're all plasmoids. Unfortunately, this means that deleting a plasmoided icon from your desktop doesn't delete the corresponding file from your desktop directory. To do that, you'll have to fire up the new file manager, Dolphin.
The other change you'll notice, though not as obvious, is a small "icon" in the upper-right of the screen, used for bringing up the "add widgets" dialogue. Strangely enough, the full splendor of plasmoids isn't shown by default; all the default plasmoids (other than your icons) are embedded in a panel at the bottom of the screen.
Oh, yeah, one other thing: the Oxygen theme. The KDE artwork team has come up with a new KWin theme, called Oxygen, which seems to be strangely Vista-esque. The Oxygen icons, however, are very nice and unique. To add a plasmoid to the desktop, open the "Add widgets" dialogue, find your plasmoid from the list, and drag it from the list to your desktop (or to the panel, if you wish). To remove a plasmoid from the desktop, simply hover over it and click the red X that pops up (if you don't see a red X, make sure your plasmoids aren't locked [right-click desktop->unlock widgets]). To remove a plasmoid from the panel, right-click the offending plasmoid and select "Remove this [plasmoid name]".

A right-click on the desktop, though not currently as robust as KDE3.x's, gives you the option to "Configure desktop...". This brings up a fairly simple dialogue that allows you to change wallpapers, wallpaper positioning, background color, and whether or not to show desktop icons. I've found that disabling the "Show icons" option simply closes all currently open icon plasmoids; anytime you add a file to your desktop directory, a trusty plasmoid pops up on your desktop for it.

I've also heard that Plasma has in-built compositing support. I wasn't able to get all the effects to work, and the ones I could get working weren't customizable to my liking. Thankfully, Compiz still works pretty perfectly.

Overall, it's a nice new desktop experience. It's a bit lacking in features at the moment, but that's because it's still in "beta mode"; the 4.0 feature cutoff left "a lot of 90% done stuff". The next release, 4.1, should bring a lot more functionality and customizability.

Additional links:
My January Desktop Screenshot
KDE 4.0.0 Emergency FAQ
KDE4 Visual Guide
Remove the KDE4 panel
LifeHacker: Design Your Own Desktop With KDE4

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