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Flipping the Linux switch: KDE, the K desktop environment

KDE 4 screen shot with plasma widget and open windowsThere's one thing for certain: Now is an exciting time to be a KDE user. The much anticipated launch of KDE 4 is slated for January 11th, 2008. This is a major revamp of the look and feel of the KDE desktop, with the inclusion of a built-in compositor (think eye candy) and something called "plasmoids" (little functional widgets embedded into your desktop).

It's a lot of new bling aimed at improving the desktop experience. Will it? More importantly, will it for you? What would make you choose KDE over GNOME (or vice versa)? This week we take a brief look at KDE in both its 3.5.x and 4 incarnations, and outline a few rules of thumb on choosing your desktop environment.

Let's take a quick look at KDE's history and underpinnings. KDE was launched in 1996 and is based on the Qt (pronounced "cute") toolkit. (A toolkit is a set of libraries of the things that make up a graphical user interface -- things like windows, buttons and their functions.) But all was not right with the world. Qt, at that time, didn't use a completely free software license. This caused some concern about the legality of linking to Qt libraries, and the Debian distribution even went so far as to remove KDE from their repositories for a time.

Currently, Qt uses a dual license. The toolkit is available under the GPL (GNU General Public License) and the QPL (Q Public License), and linking to the Qt libraries is no longer an issue.
KDE looks a bit more Windows-like than GNOME, but has some quirks that puzzle new users. The K Menu, both in KDE 3.5.x and 4, is similar to the Windows "Start" menu. KDE is usually arranged with a bottom panel, featuring the K Menu button, and a few frequently accessed applications (such as your home folder and Konqueror, KDE's native web browser). The panel often has a system tray and a list of open windows and desktop workspaces.

In KDE 4, the K Menu (among other things) got a radical makeover. The menu is divided into two parts, a lower panel consisting of several buttons: Favorites, Applications, My Computer, Recently Used and Leave (a really inelegant way of saying "shutdown menu"). The upper panel features animated menus depending on what is selected on the lower panel. Here you can see the Applications icon highlighted, with the Office applications loaded. It takes some getting used to (and is still a release candidate at the time of this post), but it is appealing to those who enjoy putting their own mark on the aesthetics and function of their desktop.

KDE is known for being highly customizable, both in terms of how the desktop looks and behaves, and how it ultimately handles the hardware on the system. The good news for you as a new Linux user is the amount of control you'll have over the desktop. You'll be able to configure things to look and act exactly as you want. The bad news? The amount of control you have can be puzzling to the point of frustration.

For example, setting up a printer in KDE opens a printer configuration window. Adding a new printer opens a wizard that walks you through the process. You'll find there are a lot of extra configuration options outside the wizard. It's safe to say many of them you won't need to worry about. It can be disconcerting to have that many options initially, but those who need their system fine-tuned will appreciate it.
KDE Print Menu Dialog
What about the native Qt applications in KDE? Can GTK+ applications be used with KDE? Yes, but like Qt applications in GNOME, most like to keep this to a minimum. In general, we've found it causes less conflict and slow-down on the system to install GTK+ applications in KDE than it does to install Qt applications in GNOME.

Konqueror is the native KDE web browser. Firefox and other Mozilla based browsers, should you prefer them, work quite well in KDE. Dolphin was recently rolled out to replace Konqueror as KDE's file manager. With split-view folder browsing (and dragging and dropping across panes), you won't miss Windows Explorer at all.

KDE has a personal information manager suite, Kontact, consisting of KMail (an email client), a calendar, journal, note taker and the feed reader Akregator.

Digikam supports a variety of digital cameras, and is roughly equivalent to GNOME's gtkam. Through the use of kipi-plugins, you can easily use Digikam to archive photos to CD or DVD or upload to Flickr. Krita is the KDE photo-editing program. (We admit to using GIMP in place of Krita for most editing applications.)

KOffice is KDE's office suite, consisting of a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and database application. There is also a Visio equivalent, and a vector graphic drawing application. OpenOffice, should you prefer it, integrates nicely with KDE. The desktop has two text editors, KWrite and Kate. We prefer Kate for most text editing tasks.

Multimedia files are handled with Kaffeine (video) and Amarok (audio). KDE also features the handy K3b burning application, which burns audio, video and data disks, as well as disk images.

Our advice to new Linux users who have little interest in looking "under the hood" of their computers, or who use their computer for straight web browsing, word processing and photo editing would be to try GNOME first. Former Windows (and Mac) "power users" will most likely want to start with KDE. We'd also encourage those who have computing requirements that are a little out of the ordinary to try KDE first, due to the level of customization it allows through the GUI. Before you make your decision, think about the programs that are associated with each desktop environment, and what you'd want to add on after the fact. If you find one toolkit's programs fit your work habits better than the other's, install the desktop with the most appealing applications.

GNOME or KDE? It might be GNOME this year, KDE the next, and Xfce after that. The beauty of Linux is that you're not tied to one desktop environment, or even to one distribution. You're free to have the system that works best for you.

Tags: desktop, environment, GNOME, KDE, KDE 4, Kde4, Linux, linux-switch, opensource, osupdates