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Ten Tips To Get the Most From KDE 4.2

Desktop, Icons, Folder Views

  • February 27, 2009
  • By Bruce Byfield

Over the last year, the KDE 4 releases have suffered frequently hostile receptions. Part of that hostility was due to a widespread failure to understand that the first release was not intended for general use, and therefore was missing some of the features that KDE users took for granted. Another part seems to have been the sheer number and novelty of some of the changes. However, improvements and familiarity have taken much of the edge off the hostility, and, with last month's release of version 4.2, users finally seem to be warming to the new KDE.

All the same, KDE 4.2 is full of new design concepts and features that take a while to appreciate. Sometimes, these changes are simply a repositioning of familiar features; yet just as often, they represent a rethinking of everyday tools. Once or twice, the features even overlap or conflict with existing ones.

To help bring you up to speed, here are ten tips for understanding and working with KDE 4.2. They aren't exhaustive by any means -- but they should be enough to make you comfortable moving around KDE 4.2 so that you can discover other changes on your own.

1) Going in and out of customization display

Probably the first thing you should know about KDE 4 is that it has separate views for customizing desktop and panel options.

On the desktop, you cannot add widgets (or, depending on the distribution, icons) until you go to the desktop toolkit -- the cashew or kidney-shaped icon in the upper right of the desktop -- and select Unlock Widgets. When this selection is chosen, any widget or icon you add has a collar of four mini-icons. From the top to the bottom, these mini-icons allow you to resize, move, configure, and delete the widget to which they are attached. After you are finished adding a widget or icon, select Lock Widgets from the desktop toolkit to prevent further editing. You can still right-click on the desktop and select Icons to sort and align icons.

The panel works the same way, requiring you to select Unlock Widgets from its right-click menu before you can customize anything. Once you have done so, select Panel Options -> Panel Settings to get into customization mode. A configuration panel appears above the actual panel that allows you to move the panel to another edge of the screen, adjust the height, add widgets -- the same set as on the desktop -- and autohide the panel. Below the customization panel, you'll also find slider arrows for changing the width of the panel.

Note that you also need to be in customization mode to move icons on the panel, or to add a new panel. KDE 4.2 still does not have four of the five panel types found in KDE 3.5.9, but you should be able to create rough equivalents of the missing four by a careful selection of widgets.

The only thing about the panel that you cannot customize directly from the panel is its color. Instead, the panel's color is set by the theme you choose from Main Menu -> Configure Desktop -> General -> Appearance.

2) Swapping desktop icons with Folder View

KDE has gone beyond the traditional desktop by introducing a new concept called Folder View. Contrary to what you may have heard, Folder View represents not the elimination of desktop icons, but, rather, the expansion of the concept.

In its simplest form, Folder View is a semi-transparent widget that displays the contents of a designated folder, and can be moved around. However, if you right-click the desktop and select Appearance -> Desktop Activity -> Type -> Folder View, then a Folder View becomes a transparent overlay of the entire desktop. Either way, you can have as many Folder Views open as you want.

You can also create Folder Views, store each collection in a separate folder, then choose which one to display by right-clicking and selecting Folder View Options -> Location -> Specify a folder, selecting an icon collection that matches a specific task. Alternatively, you associate different Folder Views with different Activities (see below.)

In addition, you can customize the icons in each Folder View, or filter the icons that each displays by right-clicking in it and selecting Folder View Options.

3) Using Multiple Desktops and Activities

Multiple or virtual desktops have been a feature of KDE for years. They still exist in the KDE 4 series, and you can switch between them using the pager on the panel. However, KDE also includes an identical feature called Activities.

To add an activity, select Desktop Toolkit -> Zoom Out. The first time you do so, you will see only one desktop that occupies about a quarter of the screen. However, if you select Add Activity from the toolbar, you can create another Activity. Each Activity can have its own colors, widgets and -- if you want -- Folder View, and can be given a separate name if you click Appearance Settings on the tool bar.

While you are zoomed out, you can return to a full-screen view by selecting an Activity and clicking the Zoom In icon. Once you are in a full-screen view, you can use Shift + Ctrl + N or Shift + Ctrl + P to change the current Activity.

Why both multiple desktops and Activities co-exist is a bit of a mystery. However, given that multiple desktops cannot have separate wallpapers or colors in KDE 4.2, I suspect that they will eventually disappear, making for one less tool on the panel.

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