On the 25th of May 2011, KDE released the first beta of KDE SC 4.7. As an ardent KDE fan – so prepare for this article to be horribly biased – I’ve hunted down the openSUSE packages and installed it on a test machine. The test machine is a circa 2 year old Dell XPS M1330 laptop with 4GB of RAM and mobile NVIDA graphics running openSUSE 11.4.
In the last couple of major releases of the 4.x release of KDE SC, the changes have been largely incremental. In fact, it seems that Gnome and Ubuntu (separately but contemporaneously) have swapped places with KDE SC 4. Previously it was Gnome that was the steady plodder making minor incremental changes through the 2.x series, building stability and only adding minor features. However, with the recent releases of both Gnome Shell and the Unity desktop on Ubuntu, the Gnome/Ubuntu side of the desktop linux equation has made radical and controversial steps away from the well loved Gnome 2.x series, leaving KDE 4.x as the “steady as she goes” option.
Having said that, there are a few radical changes to KDE, but these are more under the hood than front and centre, so to the average user, KDE 4.7 may appear a little underwhelming. However, there are some cool new additions, so let’s get on with it.
so what’s on the tin
The press release for the beta release sets out four new features of note:
- KWin, Plasma’s window manager now supports OpenGL-ES 2.0, improving performance and deployability on mobile devices;
- Dolphin, KDE’s flexible file manager has seen user interface improvements and now sports a better user experience for searching in files’ metadata;
- KDM, KDE’s login manager now interfaces with the Grub2 bootloader;
- Marble, the virtual globe now supports offline address search, especially making its mobile version more useful on the road.
I don’t have any devices to test the OpenGL-ES support on. However, given the major moves in the industry to more mobile multitouch hardware platforms, it is encouraging that the KDE infrastructure is moving with the times.
Likewise, I don’t really have a use for marble when it is online, however, I’ve tried the offline mode. I understand that there are supposed to be map packages for download, so you can use the offline features. However, the dialog box that opens up when you go to download new maps has no content. I don’t know if this is because none has yet been created, or whether this is a bug. However, hopefully, this is working in future releases.
The default set up in vanilla KDE has changed. The aim being to remove clutter. The menu bar has been removed and the right hand panel is hidden. No functionality has been removed, only hidden. However, this is not how it was set up when I first opened it up on my machine. This may be as a result of how openSuse has packaged dolphin, or may be a hangover from my existing configuration. Whilst this may provide a simpler interface, users are used to seeing a menubar, and the right panel provides context information in relation to files you are working on in an unobtrusive way. The thing that worries me about this is the explanation for this decision on one of the developer’s blogs:
I did no scientific research about this, but I think first it was Microsoft with Windows Vista which started to put the menu bar into question for some applications
This is extraordinary. I know that KDE has UI expertise that it can draw on, so why aren’t these experts being consulted on UI decisions like this? Dolphin is a key element of the KDE desktop and you would hope that the default layout would be sound UI principles, rather than on the basis that everyone else is doing it.
This is a small, but nice change, which allows you to choose the default boot option on a restart.
In addition to the support of OpenGL-ES, there have been a couple of other significant improvements to kwin. Kwin is no longer just the bit of software that draws decorations around windows and allows you to organise them on the desktop. Kwin also does all the compositing features that are available on the KDE desktop.
In recent times, however, window decorations themselves have been taking over the role of creating shadows under windows, and in the process improving the shadow rendering. So there has been a divide between window decorations that provide these improved shadows (Oxygen, QtCurve and Aurorae) and window decorations that rely on the shadows provided as an effect in kwin. In 4.7, shadowing has been moved directly into the compositor. This means that shadows are unified across all elements of the desktop, including plasma elements.
Ever since the 4.x series came out, one of the goals of the kdepim project has been to migrate the pim suite of applications to the akonadi framework. Akonadi is a central data store of pim related information. The pim applications were finally ported in the 4.6 series, but the major distros retained the old non-akonadi version of the suite due to concerns about data migration with the new suite. It appears that migration issues have been ironed out, and 4.7 is now “safe” for the mainstream.
On opening kmail up after loading 4.7, it asked me if I wanted to migrate my data to akonadi, or set up from scratch. After choosing to migrate, it warned me that this could take some time, and then proceeded to migrate all my mail to akonadi. After it finished, everything seemed as it was under the old system. So all good so far.
Hopefully now, we will finally see more widespread use of akonadi across other applications. The power of being able to access a data store of pim information from any application seems to be unlimited in this “social” age.
I don’t know if this is a “new” feature, or whether it has just been better exposed in the openSuse configuration of 4.7, but there is now an icon at the bottom left of my panel that opens the “Activities Manager”. What’s more, there are three pre-made activities there – a “desktop icons” activity and “search and launch” and “photos” activities. These are far more discoverable and give a clear indication of the purpose of activities and how they might be used. I don’t know whether KDE or the openSuse packages should take the credit for this, but bravo. If you’ve read my previous posts on previous KDE releases, you will know that this has been a pet bugbear of mine for quite some time.
In my view, 4.7 is looking like it’s going to be a solid release. Nothing earth shattering in there, just delivering more polish, refinement and (in the case of akonadi) promises made some time ago.