KDE: The Ultimate Desktop

A year or two ago, I switched from Ubuntu to Kubuntu. For those who are not so familiar with Linux, this means a change from the Gnome desktop to the KDE desktop.

What’s the Diff?

The main philosophical difference between these two is:

  1. Gnome aims for simplicity, and keeping things uncluttered and extra options to a minimum.
  2. KDE, on the other hand, is a tweakers dream-come-true. Almost everything can be changed and configured, and the layers of options surpass any other operating system desktop that I am aware of.

Why did I switch?

I switched to KDE for a few reasons:

  1. In their drive for simplicity, Gnome kept removing features that I was using;
  2. The Unity desktop that Ubuntu was promoting was quite nice, but lacked a lot of configurability.

Taking a Closer Look – Fonts

When I had tried KDE in the past, but was put off by the small fonts on the default desktop, and the Windows-style task-bar and start-button. Obviously, I did not take a very deep look at the desktop, or I would have realized that all these things could be changed.

This time, however, I did look deeper, and was delighted to find that I could change the fonts to match the more comfortable sizes that Gnome was using (10 and 11 point), as shown here:

System Settings - Fonts

Panel

I also decided to move the system panel to the right side of the screen, vertically placed. Panel Vertical placement makes more sense on todays wide-screen monitors, which have an abundance of width, but not much height to spare. So better to keep the panel vertical, and thus save the horizontal space for applications.

But why move the panel to the right side of the monitor? Well for a while I tried Ubuntu’s Unity idea of placing it at the left. But being right-handed, and with the mouse positioned to the right of me, it felt more natural for the panel also to be on the right. Although this might involve a bit more mouse travel (moving from menus and button bars which tend to be on the left of windows, to the right side of the screen), it has the advantage of not interfering with more used mousing areas. When the panel was on the left, I often found myself triggering tips or taskbar thumbnails by accident. Keeping the panel away from the main center of action helps to avoid this.

The Start Menu

The next thing I discovered was that there were about 3 or 4 replacement menus for the start-button, as well as many other replacement launchers and docks (if you wanted to bypass it entirely).

After trying a few, I decided that the default one, “Application Launcher,” was good enough for me. It is logically divided into sections (Favorites, Applications, Computer, Recently Used, and Leave).

Application Launcher

The Applications section uses Categories to organize the apps (something that is quite common on Linux, but sorely missing, or poorly implemented, in Windows).

Application Launcher - Categories

This nested structure may seem a bit convoluted to navigate, but in real practice, most of the commonly-used apps will either be pinned to the Taskbar, or pinned to Favorites. Oh, and by the way, the menu is sizeable…just hover the mouse over one of the outer corners and drag to the desired size.

If that’s not enough, because this is KDE, you can put them in a “drawer” on the Taskbar, or put them in a custom FolderView on the Desktop, or put them in another Panel (auto-hide if you wish) somewhere else on the Desktop, or, or…(you get the idea?)

Also, the fact that this menu has a Search field when it first opens, makes it a breeze to find what you’re looking for (provided you can remember the name!).

Application Search

But what if you preferred the simpler-style of menu, Application Launcher Menuwithout all these sections? No problem. This is KDE, and if someone thought of the idea, it’s probably been implemented! Simply right-click the Launch button, choose “Switch to Classic Menu Style” and now your menu looks like this.

Note: If you don’t see the option “Switch to Classic Menu Style” on right-click of the menu button, then it’s because in newer versions of KDE, the new style App Launcher was split off as a separate entity (although the older one, which is still available, has both). To get the old one back, click the “cashew” button at the bottom of the Panel, click “Add Widgets”, then search for Application. “Application Launcher Menu” should appear near the top of the list. Drag it to where you want it on the Panel, and you’re all set.

Icon-Only Task Manager

I liked the way Windows 7 used large icons to represent running apps, instead of the traditional buttons. KDE has such a thing also. It’s called the “Icon-Only Task Manager”. It’s a Plasma Widget (KDE’s name for desktop applets/addons). To replace, click the “cashew” on the Panel, hover over the current Task Manager until the tooltip with the X button appears. Click the “X”. Now click “Add Widgets”, search for “Icon”. When you see “Icon-Only Task Manager”, click and drag it to the Panel. Now you have a Windows 7-style Task Manager. I like to set it’s config to the following options:

Icon-Only Task Manager - Settings

Adjustable Clock

One difficulty with having a vertical Panel is that text-based tray items, like clock/date/time do not display well, since they need horizontal width. I’ve solved this by using the “Adjustable Clock” which can take HTML code to display the time/date in any user-defined format. Here’s what it looks like on my system:

Adjustable Clock

And here’s the HTML code used to generate that:

<html><head></head><body>
<div style="text-align: center;
font-family:'Ubuntu';
margin: 0 2 0 2;
color: rgb(0, 255, 0);
text-shadow: rgb(0, 0, 0) -2px 2px, rgb(0, 0, 0) 2px 2px, rgb(0, 0, 0) -2px -2px, rgb(0, 0, 0) 2px -2px, rgb(0, 0, 0) 0px 2px, rgb(0, 0, 0) 0px -2px, rgb(0, 0, 0) 2px 0px, rgb(0, 0, 0) -2px 0px, rgb(0, 170, 0) 0px 0px 15px, rgb(0, 170, 0) 0px 0px 15px;
font-weight: bold;">
<div style="font-size: 20px;"><span component="Hour">12</span>:<span component="Minute">30</span></div>
<div style="font-size: 16px; text-transform: uppercase;"><span component="DayOfWeek" options="'short': true, 'text': true">Sat</span></div>
<div style="font-size: 13px; text-transform: uppercase;"><span component="Month" options="'short': true, 'text': true">Jan</span><span style="font-size: 21px;" component="DayOfMonth">01</span>
</div>
</div></body></html>

If you can’t find Adjustable Clock in your widget list, then you need to install it from the Muon Package Manager (it’s called “plasma-widget-adjustableclock”).

Weather Gadgets

For the System Tray, I also like to have a Weather gadget running. For a while I used the standard Weather Forecast widget, but sometimes it seemed to lose connection and had to be reset. So for now, I’m using the Customizable Weather Plasmoid (CWP).

Customizable Weather Plasmoid

Dropbox and Tomboy – System Tray

As well, I use Dropbox and Tomboy, with Tomboy synchronizing to a folder in Dropbox, so I can share notes across different computers. Dropbox sets itself up to autostart when you install it, but you have to add Tomboy to the Autostart list manually. Click the Menu, search for Autostart, run it, click “Add Program…”, navigate to “Utilities” then click “Tomboy Notes” and “Ok”.

To get Tomboy to synchronize, right-click it, choose “Preferences”, click the “Synchronize” tab, set Service to “Local Folder” and Path to a “tomboy” folder inside your Dropbox folder. Save and you’re done!

I also turn on Klipper, if it’s not showing in the Tray.

System Tray Display

You can, of course, configure these, and change whether they appear, or are hidden, or are set to “auto” (show when needed). This is KDE, got that? Almost everything is configurable!

System Tray Entries

System Load Viewer

System Load ViewerI used to put the System Load Viewer on the Desktop also, but it was often covered by other windows. So I put it in the Panel.

The System Load Viewer is handy to keep an eye on the CPU, as computers run much quieter than they used to, so it is sometimes difficult to know how busy they are, unless there is a visual indication (make sure to change the settings on this to “show usage of all processors”).

Plasma Desktop Switcher

I usually keep a Desktop Switcher plasma widget in the upper left corner,

Desktop Switcher

Folder View Widget

On some desktops, I’ll open a Folder View widget to a certain folder with files that I’m working on. But it varies from time to time.

Folder View Widget

Desktop Layouts

Did you know that there are about seven different types of Desktop Layouts you can have in KDE? You’ll have to install a package called “plasma-containments-addons” to see all of them, but here is the list:

Desktop Layouts

I usually opt for “Default Desktop,” which as they advertise is a “simple and clean layout.”

Wallpaper

Then I’ll set Wallpaper to “Slideshow”, uncheck the “system wallpapers” (don’t care for them much), and check the “My downloaded wallpapers”. Then you have to download some wallpapers. KDE makes this very easy, and this is one feature I love, which appears throughout the desktop: downloading “hot new stuff” is often just a button-click away. It’s built right in, no need to open a browser, navigate to a website, download the file, etc.

In this case, we click the “Get New Wallpapers…” button,

Get New Wallpapers

…and then pick a few nice ones, as many as you like. You can search by popularity, most downloaded, most recent, or put in a search word. Sweet!

Get Hot New Stuff

The traditional Windows-style desktop would be more accurately represented by the “Folder View” desktop, with the Desktop opening the “Desktop” folder. But I prefer not to clutter the Desktop with Icons, as it is confusing and too “busy” looking. It’s easy enough to launch apps other ways, so why clutter up the Desktop with Icons, when you can’t get to them once you have a Window open anyway?

Dolphin File Browser

Once the Taskbar Panel and Desktop have been set up, I work on Dolphin, the file browser. Dolphin is one of the most advanced file browsers on any platform. It supports Tabs, Split Windows, variable File Views, Preview pane, customizable Places pane, customizable Toolbar and Keyboard Shortcuts, Service menus (right-click add-ons), Icon previews for many file types, built-in FTP, and much more! I was disappointed when features were dropped from Nautilus, but Dolphin has never disappointed me. It really is one excellent piece of modern software.

Here are some of the customizations I make:

Toolbar

Add a few commands to the Toolbar, using Settings->Configure Toolbars. I usually add “Show Hidden”, “New Tab”, and “Sort By”):

Dolphin Toolbar

View Modes

Go into Settings->Configure Dolphin and click on View Modes. Bump up the default sizes of the Icons by one tick for both Default and Preview on all Modes.

Dolphin View Modes

Root Services

While still in the Preferences, click on Services and click the “Download New Services” button:

Dolphin Services

Then search for and install the “Root Actions Servicemenu”:

Dolphin Root Actions

This makes Dolphin a whole lot more powerful when dealing with files that require system permissions. Just take a look at the goodies on the new Root right-click menu:

Dolphin Root Menu

Previews

While still in Preferences, click on General (at the bottom), and then click the Preview tab. Turn on most of the options here. It should look a bit like this, although I couldn’t make the window big enough to fit all the possible Preview types:

Dolphin Previews

Note: In order to see some of these in the list, you may need to install the following packages:

kde-thumbnailer-deb
kdegraphics-thumbnailers
kffmpeg-thumbnailer

System Settings

Now clear out of Dolphin and head into System Settings:

System Settings

There’s heaps of options to customize here, but the ones I most commonly tweak are:

Terminal Shortcut

Turn on the Shortcut for Terminal:

Konsole Shortcut

This is done by going into Shortcuts and Gestures, then choosing “Custom Shortcuts”, then expanding the Examples, clicking the checkbox by Examples, and then clicking the checkbox on the “Run Konsole” item.

Desktop Effects

Next adjust some of the Desktop Effects (if you use them). KWin effects are not quite as good as Compiz (which set the standard for 3D desktop effects some years ago), but they are very, very close.

Turn on Wobbly Windows. Go into Desktop Effects, and click the All Effects tab. I usually turn on Wobbly Windows, and use these settings (although how they respond on your system will depend on your graphics card):

Wobbly Windows

While still in All Effects, bump up the Translucency settings. I use the following:

Translucency

Lastly, if it is not already on, turn on the “Cover Switch”. It gives a nice effect when switching between windows with the Alt-Tab key combination. In order to fully enable this function, you may have to go into the Window Behaviour settings, and make sure “Cover Switch” is selected as the Visualization for the Task Switcher:

Cover Switch

Window Borders and Buttons

Now click the Overview button at the top left corner to get out of Desktop Effects. Click into the next item, “Workspace Appearance. There is much that could be changed here, but the most useful items are found by clicking the “Configure Decoration…” button. Change both “Border size” and “Button size” to Large. This will make clicking the Window buttons and resizing Windows much easier.

Window Decorations

Terminal Transparency

It’s nice to have a semi-transparent Terminal, so that you can type in commands that you are reading from web forums underneath your Terminal window. So, launch Terminal (if you set up the keyboard shortcut for it as mentioned near the beginning of this article, you can just hold down Ctrl and Alt, and press the “T” key). Resist the temptation to go into “Settings->Configure Konsole”, because you won’t find anything related to transparency there! Instead, we want “Settings->Edit Current Profile”.

Konsole Profile Settings

Click “Green on Black”, then click “Edit…” and move the Transparency slider to 30%. That’s it! Click Ok, then Ok, then close Terminal. It looks like this:

Terminal

Saving Window Size and Position

Now one KDE feature which I am exceedingly happy with (on top of all we’ve gone over so far) is the ability to save particular window sizes and positions. Haven’t you ever been annoyed when one of your commonly-used apps insists on opening in the corner instead of in the middle of the screen…or when it opens up too small and you always have to resize it before you start working? Well you don’t need to endure that frustration anymore. Here’s what you do:

  1. Open the Window/Application you wish to adjust.
  2. Right-click on the title bar and choose “Special Window Settings”:
    Special Window Settings
  3. Now appears a mind-blowing array of options! But we just want the two uppermost on the “Size & Position” tab, namely “Position” and “Size”. Click the checkbox on each, and change the option to “Remember”:
    Edit Window Settings
    Now that particular Window will always appear wherever you last closed it, and at whatever size it was at that time. Yes, it’s true!

Well as you can see, we are just scratching the surface of this wonderful desktop environment called KDE. I invite you to explore it for yourself!

2 responses to “KDE: The Ultimate Desktop”
  1. Bill says:

    Hi, great write-up on KDE configurability. I just switched from Mint Cinnamon to Mint KDE, for the same reason that you switched from Ubuntu to Kubuntu. Most frustratingly, in digiKam, the button tips were yellow text on white, nearly impossible to see and not configurable in Cinnamon DE. Anyways, in KDE, are you aware of any way to turn off the translucency of the Kickoff Application Launcher? It’s driving me crazy, and I cannot find a setting for it. I’m guessing it has to be done at the settings-file level.

  2. practic says:

    Bill,

    Sorry for the delay in replying, for some reason I wasn’t notified about your comment. At the moment, all my desktop computers are in storage, and I’m in an RV Trailer with a Windows 10 laptop (still need Windows for a couple of music apps – Sibelius and Sonar). I did a brief search though, and it seems the Kickoff launcher background is an SVG file, which you could edit. Here’s the technical info page:

    https://techbase.kde.org/index.php?title=Development/Tutorials/Plasma4/ThemeDetails&redirect=no#Backgrounds_format

    Look under the section “Current Theme Elements”, “/kickoff.svgz”

    The files should be stored in:

    share/apps/desktoptheme (I think that means /usr/share/kubuntu-default-settings/kde4-profile/default/share/apps/desktoptheme/ and then the theme name).

    See also this discussion:

    http://askubuntu.com/questions/126965/how-to-personalize-kde-menu

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