I finally did it: I compiled and installed KDE4 on my laptop on the 5th. Took all night. Hours and hours, but it was ready the next morning, with nary a compile failure. Which is good, since it is the stable branch and all. But wait . . . KDE?
In a word, SLiM. Sometime in mid-December I caught an X11 update that made SLiM stop working. Or maybe it was something else. My theory is it was the xinit update that dropped twm, xclock, and xterm from the required runtime deps. So abruptly SLiM stopped working, and I couldn’t login graphically; I just got errors saying “Couldn’t execute login command” with nothing else in my logs. Forums didn’t help. I could run startx manually, but that’s a pain. I unmerged SLiM and started looking around for alternatives. GDM is one, but it drags in a bunch of Gnome dependencies. XDM is just ugly and unconfigurable, and lacks the appropriate shutdown/restart/suspend actions. KDM was the last candidate. Yes, it had lots of KDE dependencies, but I figured that if I installed KDE4, then it wouldn’t have as many deps, right?
Yeah, I know, it’s like: “But . . . aren’t you an Xfce guy? Don’t you exclusively use gtk+ environments (including Gnome in years past)? Don’t you hate heavyweight crap or endless C++ compiling?”
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. I know. But here’s the thing: after initially getting excited about Aaron Seigo’s (now canceled) upcoming talk on KDE at SCALE, I then found out that Camp KDE will be right here in San Diego, just a few miles from where I live. So I started thinking — now that things have settled down since the disastrous 4.0/4.1/4.2 days, maybe . . . maybe it would be worth experiencing directly what “the future” is all about, according to the hype machine. I’m thinking of visiting Camp KDE, so I thought if I do, I should have some knowledge of how KDE currently works.
Past and present
The last time I ran KDE was back in late 2004 or early 2005. As far as I remember, it wasn’t even on Gentoo, but on other LiveCDs and distributions. I still have an old Knoppix CD from 5 or 6 years ago lying around — and that was KDE3-based. Given Plasma and all the other new buzzwords and technologies and new paradigms, I figured it was about time to see how things have progressed.
Or stayed put.
True to form, KDE4 still makes configuration this massively complex, insanely arcane art. You need an engineering degree to wade through the simplest of configuration menus, even when right-clicking on an item in your panel — if you can find it, that is. The dialogs are very inscrutable; it makes navigation difficult. All these weird arrows and spaces and popup panels in the default theme, not even something with extra bling.
One of the first things I did was turn off that stupid window-that-is-not-a-window on the desktop, so that I wasn’t distracted by all the flashy Plasma widgets. After that, I spent a half hour trying to tweak the font settings. I discovered that buried in the Antialiasing dialog are the actual hinting and RGB subpixel hinting configs that I was looking for, though there’s a catch. You can actually disable (that is gray out) the AA option, which makes you unable to get to the stuff below it. BUT, as long as you’ve tweaked your hinting settings before exiting that subdialog, that’s okay! You just have to re-enable AA to get into the hinting subdialog. Stupid, I know. The Xfce way is much, much better; all three options are exposed top-level.
After making my desktop readable with Verdana fonts, it was time to start poking around. And around and around and around — it’s easier to navigate the Windows Control Center than KDE CC. Things haven’t changed there in 6 years. It’s especially bad when you get to the properties of your Qt theme, in this case, QtCurve. Several dozen confounding lines popped up in the right box, dizzying amounts of tweaks that should in no way be exposed to the end user. Seriously, just let the theme author set ‘em and forget about ‘em. If there need to be variants…don’t expose every last line of optional code to the user.
Integrating gtk+ apps
Despite some initial setbacks, I decided it was time to start installing a few more packages. See, I wanted a bare minimum install, which turned out to be 74 packages for kdebase-startkde and kdm. That’s after tweaking my USE flags for half an hour to whittle the dependencies down. Yeah, that’s the bare minimum — I was at only about 470, 480 total packages for my very minimal Xfce environment. I like my laptops to run lean.
Then I added qtcurve-qt4, gtk-engines-qt, and kcm_gtk, since without the unfortunately ~arch kcm_gtk, it’s not possible to have your gtk+ apps use your Qt theme. This needs to be rectified; the gtk+ module should be stabilized ASAP, given that everything else is stable. Once in place though, even Firefox behaved nicely with my Qt theme. Very nice.
After fleeing from the QtCurve controls, installing kcm_gtk, and restarting KDE, I was able to get my gtk+ apps integrated nicely with KDE. That’s one area that KDE4 beats Xfce and Gnome, at least in Gentoo. We don’t have a “Make your Qt apps look like native gtk apps” gtk+ engine in Portage.
I still needed a file manager and a webbrowser, so I decided to install Konqueror, having used it in years past. It turns out that Konqueror doesn’t have dual-functionality anymore; it’s just a webbrowser. A webbrowser that can’t use Flash until you install kde-base/nsplugins, FYI.
Speaking of Adblock, I think the main reason why I’m still on Firefox is that there’s not a single Adblock implementation that has the functionality of the Firefox version: making it easy to right click on anything, Flash, iframe, image, text, etc, and add it to the blacklist with a simple click. Nothing else even comes close, and I’ve tried almost all the gtk+ webkit browsers out there. None of them can do it. Which is too bad; I love webkit’s speed and rendering accuracy, but no browser that uses it has integrated an easy-to-use constantly-configurable Adblock plugin. Maybe Arora, Rekonq, or some other Qt browser can, but I’m not holding my breath.
Packages: file manager
So I’m still on the lookout for a good Qt webbrowser, and a file manager while I’m at it. Supposedly Dolphin is the new Konqueror, but the jury is still out on its dependencies because of weird USE blocks. I’ve been sticking with Thunar, which now looks good in QtCurve, except for the icons. I get a lot of default blank icons even with the help of kcm_gtk. For some reason, despite activating the right setting, the KDE icon theme isn’t fully integrated with Thunar. I’ll give Dolphin another shot tomorrow.
Konsole works decently — it doesn’t start up as quickly as Xfce Terminal, but it does blend nicely with KDE (of course). Its configuration works just like the ol’ Gnome terminal: instead of the simple, obvious “Edit Preferences” menu found in Xfce Terminal, you have to click “Edit current profile.” Which means you have to know what a profile is, that you’re using one, and that it has things you want to change in it. Still, Konsole is fairly configurable; I got it to my preferred white-on-black setup, with my fonts just how I like ‘em. It did what I wanted it to after a bit, though I didn’t find the option to disable “Scroll on output,” which is annoying when I want to read a bit of emerge output in mid-compile. Minor nitpick; I’m otherwise satisfied.
Speed and desktop effects
Performance is another matter. Yes, I am running a mostly stable/some ~arch Intel graphics stack, on an X3100 IGP, but come on . . . I expect window moving, resizing, fading, and switching to be snappier! Once I enabled desktop compositing, it both helped and hindered window usage. The OpenGL renderer is faster than Xrender. Xrender is much slower at window fading and moving; there’s lots of lag. However, the OpenGL renderer leads to buggy themes — about half the Qt and Kwin themes are unusable because of serious visual glitches and artifacts that corrupt the widgets and buttons. This is present to some degree even in the default Oxygen/Ozone themes, and to a lesser extent in QtCurve. Sometimes widgets flash real fast or in weird colors when you mouse over ‘em, sometimes they remain normal. It might just be Intel graphics code; who knows. It doesn’t happen when using Xfwm4′s Xrender compositing, though. Xfwm4′s compositing is also very snappy, with no slowdown.
While there are some performance issues, and some OpenGL problems, I did discover something rather neat: the snow widget! KDE4 includes an awesome composite trick that brings weather onto your desktop. You can set it up so that there’s gently-falling snowflakes behind all your windows. Awesome! So peaceful and cozy. If I take away one thing that gave me a good feeling from the experience, it was enabling the snow candy — which isn’t as hard to do as it was in Compiz, I might add.
What I really want now is some “rain” eyecandy that does the same thing. Or better yet, some kind of Plasma widget that sends rain/snow/wind/sunshine/etc. across my desktop depending on what the actual weather is in my area. Anyone heard of something like that? It’d probably have to tie in to accuweather.com or something. Man, that’d be sweet!
Speaking of desktop widgets, while I haven’t even scratched the surface of what Plasma can do, nor of all the thousands of Plasmoids out there, one widget that really bugs me is the clock in the panel. Seriously. What is up with this useless clock? Its only config options are “fonts,” “timezone,” and “timezone.” Oh yes, and “timezone.” Is there enough timezone yet? Apparently not. I can’t even make it 12-hour, nor display the month/day in the format that I’d like. Even Xfce’s not very-click-userfriendly clock at least gives me full display control by offering the time shell codes. Once I learned how they work, I set it up to my liking: %a, %b %d %l:%M%p, which results in Wed, Jan 06 11:47PM. I can’t do that in KDE.
Heck, the menu that I get from clicking on the clock widget is not the same menu I get when going to the KDE CC and clicking the time dialog there. That’s another HUGE gripe of mine against KDE over the years: so many different menus in so many different places, for the same option or really similar options. What I really don’t like is right-clicking an object to see one menu, but then I see a totally different menu when left-clicking it. Oh man, you’ve just lost a lot of points in your UI design right there. The other thing in KDE that bothers me is the constant renaming of things. It’s not always just “Properties” in the right-click menu, nor is it always easily accessible. Sometimes I have to scroll down to hit a horizontal arrow that exposes the “Properties” dialog or whatever it’s called.
I don’t think this is because it’s an add-on application; this is all the stock KDE you get from emerging kdebase-startkde, not some random app from kde-look.org. Shouldn’t there be more of a unified, easily accessible user interface? It feels like the right hand’s not talking with the left hand throughout the desktop.
Still, I want to press on and learn the system. I want to get through it and use it long enough to really see if it works for me. There’s also the school of thought that says that if I have to adapt myself to the tool in order to use it, then the tool itself is broken from the start. Something to think about.
There’s also this whole “semantic desktop” framework that’s part of KDE. I have no real idea what it is, how to use it, how many resources it consumes, or even if I want it. But it’s something I want to try out . . . somehow.
Assuming that I do stick with KDE’s foibles’n'gripes and take the time to get over the learning cliff, deal with all the pesky annoyances, and generally persevere . . . I’ll need to install more applications to get a useful workspace. If I’m going to take the time to get a good dual-boot desktop environment going, I need something to make it productive. That means music and video players, spreadsheets, word processors, instant message apps, a mail client. (Oh, the horror of migrating yet again, having lived through the Thunderbird -> Claws move). CD players/rippers/burners. Printer utilities. Easy WiFI/networking controls. Power management tools.
All kinds of apps that I have some idea about, but only from “the other side of the fence,” things I’ve only read about in the gtk+ world. On the other hand . . . as long as my existing gtk+ apps are integrated visually into KDE (thanks to QtCurve) and “just work,” maybe I don’t need to duplicate my entire Xfce environment?
Still, suggestions and feedback are very much appreciated.