KDE 4.5 Beta 2 Review

13 Jun

This was the main reason that pushed me to finally make this blog: I’m using KDE SC 4.5 Beta 2 and other people want to know what it’s like. Right. Well, here goes.

First things first: I would NOT recommend anybody upgrade from a stable KDE SC release to this one. There are enough bugs here that, when I originally installed it, I decided to screw myself over and downgrade (anybody that’s got an Ubuntu system knows how difficult it is to downgrade a selection of software, especially something as large as KDE SC… Oh, I do miss you, Gentoo). But anyway, I’ve upgraded again and now I’m going to give a good run-down of the netbook version, which I’m running on Kubuntu 10.04 on a Dell Mini 10v that came with Ubuntu (try to give the hardware makers incentive to provide a Linux option, people. It’s the only way!).

I’ll split this review into two parts: the first will be about design choices and direction, the second will be about bugs. The reason I’m keeping these two separate and distinct is because bugs tend to get fixed and do not actually reflect the intention of the developer or the project, while design is decided by the project and its developers and reflects their intention and direction (and my English teacher told me never to use, "and" so much in one sentence and now I’m going to get in trouble). While bugs may stop a user using a piece of software, design may stop a user from liking a piece of software, which is a distinction I always, ALWAYS make.

Last note: I’ve never done this before, so I’m not sure how it will go. Well… OK… here I go.

Design Decisions

Plasma

For those that are uninitiated, Plasma is what powers the desktop and panels. You know, the background image on your computer, the main menu, the taskbars and all that fun stuff. It’s more than a picture with icons, though, because the KDE team decided we don’t log on to our computer just to look at icons. More information can be found here.

I might have said, "the first thing that strikes you is…", but that would have ended with, "It’s different", so that’s no good. This isn’t like the difference between 4.1 and 4.2: there isn’t any one thing that immediately stands out, but instead, several small changes. Some are to do with look, and some are to do with behaviour.

One of the more distinct changes is the system tray icons. The KDE team’s shift here isn’t so much in new icons alone, but in tray icons specified by plasma theme developers. Personally, I think they look fantastic. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the full-colour icons, but they felt foreign and out-of-place by comparison.

New, white system tray icons.
The New system tray icons with Plasma Air

I personally think that the changes KDE has brought to a very much broken system (the system tray, in case you hadn’t guessed) were long overdue – in any desktop environment on any operating system. I do also think this is another step in the right direction – especially if icons can be assigned via the application’s function somehow, such as a white envelope for E-mail clients and a speech bubble for instant messenger programs.

Something else that strikes me: the Search and Launch activity area looks chunkier. Icons are larger, and instead of having all icons disappear when a category is selected, the present icons swap for icons of the applications in that category and other application icons fly in from the bottom. I’m not sure I like this system: fade-out to fade-in could be much smoother and seems more appealing to me. Hmm…


The icons! They’re HUGE!

The reason for the icons being so large is quite understandable: they’re intended to be more finger-friendly. Still, you’d only probably fit 2 on an iPhone screen. More evidence of touch-inspired design: you can now click-and-drag icons about, put them on the top bar, re-arrange them, and pull them off again to remove them.

You may have noticed that some categories are missing, compared to the previous release. They haven’t been removed: what’s happened is the ability to hide or show categories has been implemented. It’s in, "Configure Search and Launch" in the toolbox.


Ooo, some menu configuration!

What the KDE team have started in 4.4, in terms of animated effects, they have continued in 4.5 – switching between plasma activities slides between them, kinetic scrolling is much more fluid and natural and more widgets let you click/drag the background to scroll. On the sliding between activities – I don’t think it’s very appealing, the reason being because there’s a thin, black line between activities, and if you add 4 and change from the second to the third then the animation doesn’t properly mimic your action (the Activities widget in the panel shows activities in a single line, while the sliding animation shows them in a 2-by-2 box). Again, I think a smooth fade-through animation would be more discrete here. In fact, if I were to implement a sliding transition, I would have only the widget layer slide while the background image stays still, but for that to work a single background image would have to be forced across all activities. Another part of my dislike for the sliding animation is that it’s slightly to slow and doesn’t feel natural: it remains a single speed all the way through the transition. I think it should be more natural and accelerate/decelerate, rather than staying a single speed. I might be picking at nits, but fine-grained details really do matter to users.

Something else that has changed for the better: configuring plasma widgets. Where before, you would receive a dialogue box, now we get a dark, translucent overlay:


The new configuration overlay. Pretty. 🙂

Well, you either like it or you don’t: personally, I’m quite fond, but only because of my dinky screen size.

Next up: application window appearance.

Application Appearance and Behaviour

Individual applications themselves haven’t changed a huge amount since KDE SC 4.4 (save the KDE PIM suite, but the betas of the new applications aren’t available on Kubuntu yet), but there are small differences in the general appearance and behaviour of application windows in the Oxygen widget theme. Menu highlights now slide quickly but smoothly as you move your mouse across different entries, and System Settings’ pretty tooltips have been expanded across the rest of the system.


New, pretty tooltips: now available in all of KDE SC

Another nice addition is that grabbing empty space in menubars, toolbars and status bars lets you move the window, which feels kinda natural, what with the distinction between the titlebar and window content being non-existent as far as the theme goes.

Speaking of which, another addition that almost slipped by unnoticed in this review was the re-write of the Window Decorator settings window. Now, the previews are immediately available and new window decorator themes can be downloaded from within the settings dialogue.


Revamped Window Decoration theme chooser

System Settings has also received something of a face-lift, with the Advanced tab removed and configuration items put where it makes sense for them to go. This also makes the search box more useful.


The new System Settings layout

Alas, but all good things must come to an end…

Here Come the Bugs

Betas are buggy and there are bugs. Good, I’m glad we’ve established that. Lets get to it then.

One thing that stood out to me the most: the plasma Air for Netbooks theme has undergone some slight alterations. One of these is that there is a LOT more translucency throughout the theme. Now, I expect this would look fantastic if the new blur effect worked… but it doesn’t. I tried to figure out why, changing the rendering settings in the Desktop Effects configuration module, but it was nothing doing. I expect this to be a combination of the blur effect’s design (what features it uses on the graphics card) and the sheer lack of a decent graphics card (hence, "netbook"). The result is that sometimes, notifications look more like graphical glitches than something that you’re supposed to read and some things clash horribly (receiving an instant message while browsing the web often resulted in the user’s name and the address bar clashing, leaving both unreadable).


Yeouch!

This is a huge user-facing issue and really, REALLY needs to be addressed. If the typical netbook graphics card can’t handle the Blur effect, then the netbook version of the Air theme needs to compensate by cranking up the background opacity. If the Blur effect is supposed to work with the typical netbook graphics card, but for some reason isn’t, then it needs to be fixed. The former sounds quicker and easier at this time, and the lack of flash-bang just doesn’t justify this kind of issue enough to put it off until the latter can be finished and tested.

It also became apparent to me that KDE developers don’t use vertical panels. Fortunately, some people do, and don’t insult the developers (As I have seen in the past: just don’t do it. It’s not nice) but report bugs that get fixed (thanks, Aaron! :). Unfortunately, there are still some peculiar bugs: first, the toolbox icon in the top-right doesn’t actually sit on the right screen edge, so you have to move the mouse one pixel to the left if you throw your cursor up there and click. Second, making the panel wider works normally until a certain width; then, it doesn’t resize any wider until you make it thinner in the same mouse-movement; then, when you do make it wider, even by 1 pixel, it expands to nearly 3/4 of the screen.


OK! I know what time it is now, thank you!

And finally, clicking on the toolbox icon in the top-right doesn’t bring up the menu properly until you’ve resized the panel – and because of the above bug, you have to make it thinner and make sure you don’t accidentally move the mouse the other way after (which is easy for me on my trackpad), ’cause then you’ll be resizing that panel all the way back down again.


OK… Now what?

Now, I’ve already talked about how fantastic the new system tray icons are – but some of them aren’t new. This bit is incomplete, and it only takes one icon to ruin the effect.


Oh noes! D:

These bugs combined are the ones I noticed the most and that impacted my experience using the 4.5 beta the most. No, I’ve not reported them all yet, and yes, I do plan to, and no, I didn’t want this to be a rant, and yes, I do realise it’s a beta release, but that’s why I find it important to point out these things – so that other users don’t have to, later, when the release is called, "finished" with 4.5.0.

But on a positive note, lets have a look at a before-and-after:


Before…


And after.

Remember, people: this kind of thing doesn’t come about from being rude or insulting under any condition. I consider KDE to be a community of mutual respect. The developers aren’t a single entity that has to take responsibility for everything that goes wrong, and you can’t treat them like that: that’s not why they fix bugs and yelling at them doesn’t motivate them to. Developers fix bugs because they have a passion for the software they’re writing and want to share that passion with others. Punish them for that, and they might decide they don’t like writing software anymore. Then, I would be sad. So please, don’t make me sad. Say thanks to a developer or complement their work, just once. Not just a KDE developer, if that’s not what you’re using. In fact, just go to Help –> About… and send whoever you see a nice E-mail. You can do it right now, if you want. It wouldn’t take even a minute. 🙂

OK, happy slappy hippy moment over. All in all, the improvements are subtle but contribute towards a generally better feeling system. This is evidence that the KDE SC is approaching (or may have already approached) proper maturity, and may now begin aiming towards the same level of stability and performance as KDE 3.5.10 while providing much greater functionality for the user and much greater flexibility for the developer. Considering 10 years of work went into 3.5.10, and less than 4 has gone into 4.5, I think they’ve achieved something rather impressive. As to whether this release will be the one for you: most users will be content with 4.4.4 or 4.4.5 when it comes out. Those that complain about stability may not want to jump onto any x.y.0 releases and instead hold out for x.y.4 or x.y.5 releases, to see if they are stable enough while providing a host of features. If you find it’s not for you, move on. Personally, I think I’ll stick to the beta… and keep that panel at the top…

EDIT: I have now reported all the above issues in bugs.kde.org, see: https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=241664, https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=241661 (Fixed!), https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=241665 (Fixed!), https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=241666 (Fixed!).

Advertisements

4 Responses to “KDE 4.5 Beta 2 Review”

  1. B0rky Bear June 21, 2010 at 15:13 #

    Wow, I love it when people write reviews of KDE betas. This really helps drive the development forward, by however much.

    I appreciate your insights, comments, reports and suggestions.

  2. molecule-eye June 22, 2010 at 20:08 #

    Hey, great review. Just what I was looking for, thanks.

  3. Jason "moofang" June 25, 2010 at 03:42 #

    Great, thorough and constructive review! Also really appreciated what you wrote about respecting developers. Too many people fail to see that nowadays.

    Thanks for the great read!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Gnome Shell Review « Between Software, Unicycles and Kicking Ass… - October 14, 2010

    […] omit the presence of bugs in this review – there are some, but it’s beta software, and as I’ve stated before bugs are unintentional side-effects of the developers having souls, while design decisions are […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: