On switching to KDE4

With the recent furore related to Ubuntu and Unity, and then with Gnome and its update, I have taken some time recently to try out different desktop environments. I ultimately decided to give KDE another solid chance.

Let me start by saying that I do not change desktop environments for no reason. First, when Ubuntu started shipping with Unity by default, I was annoyed but I gave it a shot for a few hours before I got thoroughly pissed off with it. I mean, really, taking the menu bar out of the application is great and all, but what if I have a dozen windows open. How do I know which one has the focus? And how to I get to that menu bar all the way up there if there are other windows between and the focus is following the mouse? And there were other problems, too, such as a total lack of compatibility with applications that expect a system tray.

I didn’t try the Gnome shell scheme because it is decidedly similar to the Unity scheme. Both of them are designed for small screens. Whichever genius decided that an interface designed for small screens must also be the ultimate interface for my 24 inch wide screen 1920×1200 monitor must have been smoking something really good (where can I get some?). Also, the interface assumes single tasking using a single application. That may, indeed, be what most people do. But anyone doing serious work on a computer will tend to have several windows open all at once and have them overlapped so that the important parts of each are visible. For those people, the classic desktop metaphor works very well (and for a reason: that metaphor was designed by such people for such people). Some of us even enjoy knowing exactly what programs are open and what programs are merely available to open.

It was clear I needed to try one of the competing environments so some half year past, I set upon a quest.

First, I tried out Xfce as present in Xubuntu. It worked well enough and was similar enough to an old school desktop for an old codger like me. However, over time I ran into a great many minor niggles and missing features. It was a death by a thousand paper cuts. Eventually, I decided I couldn’t stand those little bugs and missing features. If there was another environment that did not suffer from such problems and was readily available, and which did not annoy me, these problems with Xfce would be sufficient reason to switch. So, even though I gave Xfce half a year and was able to mostly get along with it, I decided my quest had to continue.

With the advent of Oneiric Ocelot, otherwise known as Ubuntu 11.10, I decided it was a prime time to try KDE again. Folks who know me have heard me complain about KDE at length. And, with KDE 3, my complaints were valid. The default environment provided far too many cryptic choices in any install I saw. And when I say cryptic, I don’t just mean newbie level cryptic. I’m not a neophyte with computers by any stretch. I’ve been around the block a few hundred times. But I just couldn’t get along with KDE 3. Still, since then, KDE 4 has been released so I thought I might take a swipe at it.

At first, I was annoyed by a few things, but I expected that and persevered. I was able to discover the settings I needed to make the KDE system work with me instead of against me, such gems as “focus follows mouse”, “double-click to activate icons”, “turn off useless pretty effects” and so on. Now, after a week or so, I find it is actually usable. I still have a few issues finding some of my preferred applications but that is probably partly due to Kubuntu’s packaging rather than KDE.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I haven’t adopted the entire KDE koolaid scheme. I still use Firefox and Thunderbird for now. There’s no reason I can’t switch email clients since all my email is on an IMAP server but I only want to deal with so much change at a time. And Firefox has been an old friend for so long, it’s just comforting to see that dragon logo. And I’m using a raft of other applications that have nothing to do with KDE. But then, I used a raft of applications that had nothing to do with Gnome when I was using that environment, and the same under Xfce. I am pleased to note that these applications behave well regardless of whether their “preferred” environment is present.

One thing that I find somewhat weird with KDE 4 is the lack of desktop icons. More precisely, I can’t just dump files in the classic “Desktop” folder and have them appear all over the desktop. I am actually reminded of the old Windows 3.1 days when desktop icons were merely minimized programs, except now minimized programs go on the task bar (which is better). Still, this is not a major handicap even though I’ve become accustomed to cluttering up the desktop with files over the years (a close analogue to how I work in meat space, incidentally). Now, I just have a special widget open to the desktop folder and have that occupy a portion of the desktop. It works just as well, which is to say it is precisely as inconvenient as the cluttered full screen desktop is.

Are there things I don’t like about KDE4? Sure. But there are many more things I don’t like about Xfce and a boatload more that I don’t like about the current Gnome and Unity nonsense. For now, I’ll stick with KDE and see how that goes. Probably as long as it doesn’t get in my way too much, I’ll continue with it. That is, after all, my most important criterion for choosing a desktop environment. It must not get in my way when I’m trying to do stuff. Unity and the Gnome shell both fail that criterion by doing surprising things or obfuscating what’s really going on. Xfce fails simply by being just a bit too unpolished (for example, the desktop rendering program crashing randomly and icons rearranging on the desktop randomly).

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