KDE 4.10 Review: Maturing like a Geisha
Apprentice Geisha new to their craft are known to wear bright colourful kimono to show and express their beauty, later refining their attire as they mature. They know their capabilities and no longer need to dress up something amazing.
KDE SC 4.10 was released just half a decade ago, and like a Geisha it has grown and matured. The very first KDE 4.0 release was a bird flaunting colouful plumage while squawking like a deranged parrot. Everything was shiny, glowing, patterned and almost garish while the underlying platform was rocky and unstable. Today, KDE SC 4.10 now truly feels like mature software; It doesn’t need to flash bright colours – KDE is solid software, and there’s no need to dress it up.
When plunging headfirst into 4.10 this release marks some of the biggest visual changes of the desktop since the designers decided to switch the entire style from black to white. Traditionally the desktop and its visual metaphors used glossy coatings and sweeping gradients, but the newest release instead strips a great deal of this detail. Buttons and more interactive elements are keeping their depth, but some elements such as scroll bars have also been flattened out.
The flatness makes the environment feel lighter, but on occasion some flattened elements may be overlooked simply because they don’t attract the eye. This is particularly true with scroll-bars, needing just a little more mental effort than should be required.
Overall, the visual look of the desktop environment has become quite polished; Unlike a child screaming ‘look what I can do!’ you have a much more mature feeling interface that exudes confidence in its refinement.
Once you step away from the interface and look towards the desktop as a whole, you may notice the animated wallpapers coming into prominence thanks to some improvements via ‘QML’ which I will mention shortly. Following the cue of the main desktop environment the animated backgrounds I have seen don’t flail around ‘because they can’, instead the wallpapers (some of which may be Kubuntu-specific) use their new-found animations incredibly subtly. The effect doesn’t distract you from your work, but when you look at the new wallpapers it feels more alive.
Disappointingly, these wallpapers do not pan when using the multiple desktops feature. It seems that more systems are gearing towards that idea, with Windows 8 and Android offering methods to shift the wallpaper along with the workspace.
Surprisingly Innovative Features
KDE SC 4.10 continues the methodological approach to refining and polishing any link perceived as weak. Throughout applications and systems settings you can see that thought has been put into every notable change, and there doesn’t appear to be change for changes’ sake. Existing features have been carefully refined, but new features are surprisingly insightful if not a little rough around the edges in some cases.
One new feature is the ability to shunt menus into a button on the window frame or a hidden popout on the top-middle of the screen. For casual computer users this idea can dramatically clean up the KDE experience, but heavy menu-users will find that the button is too small to easily click. The hidden menu works, but if you have a larger screen you could be mouse-fatigued. There doesn’t appear to be a way to selectively enable or disable this feature for specific apps, so you can’t just re-enable the menu for menu-centric programs if you decide to use the button.
Another (programmer-centric) feature added is in the Kate Text Editor is the option to replace the right-side scrollbar with a mini-map of the document (!). Having only used it briefly, I can say it’s a fantastic and clever feature. Programmers get to know the lay of a file, and with a visual representation it makes it incredibly easy to navigate. I do not know how difficult it would be to implement, but I know several apps which should also run with this idea or re-implement their existing offering to match.
Overall, new features in this release are surprisingly innovative, bucking the trend of previous releases receiving fairly standard gains. Of course there are dozens of new features and hundreds of small updates, but the biggest changes are genuinely unique. Dynamically programmed wallpapers, file minimaps and global menu-buttons are among many welcome additions.
Tuning the Engine
A surprising number of the visible changes owe themselves to a very aggressive effort by KDE developers to use QML wherever humanly possible. Several key developers are working in tandem to rapidly make the QML language a viable option in key areas and swiftly implementing those new QML technologies.
The developers stated well over a year ago that this approach would make the system more stable, flexible and easier to develop for. I do not debate this with the latest serving of results, and there’s a very clear pattern emerging; Every release something gets ported to QML, the next release will immediately see an eruption of upgrades and features in that area – or at the very least some form fine-grain polish.
This shift to QML is also a key factor in preparing for the upcoming KDE “5″ which is starting to see the lions share of developer time. KDE 5 is aiming to make KDE less rigid and more modular. Shifting to QML now, developers can perform the larger-scale overhauls requires without rocking the boat later, as QML ‘just works’ compared to contemporary methods used in earlier releases.
Outside of the QML movement, there’s a deluge of bug-fixes and the search-engine in KDE has been further refined for performance. Overall the system feels a hair snappier, which is never a bad thing. Hundreds of bugs and issues have been tackled, and though I haven’t seen too many crashes in previous versions KDE is supposedly significantly more stable in several areas.
KDE 4.10 has shown incredible refinement this release, and continues to mature in a well-paced fashion without fail. The new features are innovative, but some still need another release to see their full potential.
Overall, it’s a solid release and I’d recommend upgrading to it. Will it knock your socks off? How is it past the new look and animated wallpapers?
It’s the type of upgrade you’ll appreciate every time you use, and while you won’t fanatically froth at the mouth over crazy new features, you can appreciate it for the fine release it is. If you have a free evening with nothing to do or an itch to try something new – it’s worth going out of your way to upgrade or install. It’s also worth upgrading if you’re a developer, as the code minimap is genuinely helpful. For most casual users already using KDE SC 4.9, I would recommend waiting on your distributions official 4.10 release or upgrade.