Trepidation. That about sums up the feeling of upgrading to a new version of KDE. You want to like it, but are afraid that whatever has been fixed will be counterbalanced by something rather sucky. This version of KDE has seen 16,022 bugs fixed and 1,723 new feature requests added, so the balance is in favour of not-sucky. Or is it?
For the most part, the improvements in this version of KDE aren’t the things that you see, but the things that you don’t see any longer. Chief among the long list of user grievances in 4.4 was the behaviour of system notifications – no longer. Now the notifications look better and don’t clog up the screen for 10 minutes every time you try to copy a file somewhere it can’t fit.
New meta desktops show promise - but why on Earth change the position of the cashew? And what do those icons mean? Help me, Obi-Wan.
But the first thing you might notice about the new KDE happens long before that. In the lots-faster-but-not-actually-very-fast boot-up sequence, you’ll hear some audio; audio you can actually hear properly. Phonon now supports a PulseAudio back-end for sound – and while many apps don’t play properly with PA (not KDE ones, just apps in general) it does make for a better audio experience on KDE.
But wait, what’s this? Click on the KDE cashew and you’ll find a new entry: Activities. An activity is like a different usage paradigm – a way of working with the desktop. You can create new ones that order all your widgets, display different desktop folders and such; sort of a meta version of virtual desktops. Apart from the strange icons these associate themselves with, why in the name of all sanity does the cashew control switch position on the screen when in a different mode?
Marble, the new iteration of it, is perhaps a distillation of some of the KDE issues. Now, Marble is great. Really. It’s a fantastic piece of desktop bling, with lots of added maps and new features such as real-time weather reports and even journey routing. By hooking up to the OpenRouteService.org API through a plugin, it can now give you street directions from A to B pretty much anywhere in Europe.
It’s sort of impressive, but the interface is a little clunky – you need to type in the names of your points one at a time, select the correct one from a list, then move on to the next point. It’s light on options for selecting a specific point, and there’s no way to route via a particular place. It’s a technologically cool feature, but not a practical one. Being able to save out the current map view as an image is useful, though.
An interesting addition to Konqueror is the inclusion of an optional WebKit renderer for web pages. WebKit started life as a branch of KHTML, the default renderer, which was, erm, borrowed by Apple to become the basis of Safari. But it seems that the controversy over how open source it actually was has been smoothed over in the interim years. There’s no doubt that WebKit offers a faster and more standards-capable experience than KHTML. Sadly, you won’t find anything in the Konqueror config dialog to help you set up WebKit – you need to mess around with the default filetype handlers, but it’s worth getting a bit dirty for.
Some people may think that KDE 4.5 is a disappointment because it lacks shiny new exciting features. Actually, it isn’t a disappointment for that very reason. A lot of the annoyances and fripperies of the desktop have been sorted out with this release, but that said, it seems about 80% of the way along to being a great desktop.
Our Verdict: Now with less suck, the 4.x series moves from being merely usable to almost desirable. 8/10
Features at a glance
New apps: A clutch of new apps join the KDE fold, and there are plenty of updates to games as well.
Marble routing: The excellent Marble now features routing and, more usefully, saving map snippets.
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