Thursday, July 8, 2010

KDE Desktop Tricks

I started using KDE when version 4.0 was out. I had had a taste of KDE 3.5, which I didn't like, but release 4.0 looked like a big step forward, so I was tempted to give it a go. Just like so many others, I found KDE 4.0 disappointingly slow, unstable and unintuitive. However, I did see lots of potential in it and kept using it release after release.

Up until recently, I was mostly a GNOME user. I considered it faster, leaner, more intuitive... and certainly not as ugly as some say! No matter how hard I tried to like KDE, it would always feel a bit alien and I would always end up going back to GNOME. The tide has shifted lately, though, and I have found myself leaning towards KDE desktops more and more. I believe that is mostly a result of the incredible work the developers are putting in place to improve and polish the product, but also down to the fact that I have been learning more about its "secrets".


My current PCLinuxOS 2010.1 KDE SC 4.4.5 desktop

I would like to use this article for sharing some of those KDE "tricks", which are simply things that were not obvious to me initially, and have consequently helped me in customizing the environment so that it also felt like home. Hopefully you will also get some benefits from these little findings.

THE "TRICKS"

Note that I am using KDE SC 4.4.5, so results may differ if you are using a different version. For each little finding, I will try to include a screenshot to clarify what I am talking about or how to make it work. Similarly, I am sharing concepts that result from my experience. There are surely other ways to achieve the same goals, probably more effective, but this is what I use.

Adding application launchers to the panel

If you are coming from Windows, chances are your intuition will tell you to right click on a menu item, which should in turn allow for the addition of that launcher to the panel. The catch, which can get frustrating if you don't know about it, is that widgets need to be unlocked for this to work in KDE.


Adding launchers to your panel is easy as long as widgets are unlocked.

If your widgets are locked, you will only see one option available when right clicking on a menu item: "Add to favorites".

Modifying file properties and defaults

Say you are opening a video file with .mp4 extension by double clicking on the file. The default video player is not working very well, so you would like to have another video player be the default for the mp4 file format. You right click on the file to edit its properties, but can't seem to find where to modify the default file association.


The little wrench to the right is the key here!.

As you can see on the properties window here, there is a small wrench icon to the right of "file type" line. Clicking on that icon will bring another window, which is where file association can be configured.


Add/remove or change the order of default file associations here.

This is an easy and quick way of changing default file associations, but file association management in general can be managed from the KDE Control Center.

Change application icons system wide

Customizing an application icon in KDE is fairly simple if you know where to look. Once again, if you think like a windows user it can get messy, because right clicking on an icon usually does not do the trick. In my experience, the quickest and easiest way to do it is through the main menu editor.


The main menu editor provides an easy way to modify application icons.

Simply right click on the main menu icon and open the menu editor. Once in, simply select the application of your choice, modify the icon to your liking and save the setting. Once saved, that icon will apply system wide.

Change application keyboard shortcuts system wide

Another element that was confusing for me initially was customizing application shortcuts. GNOME provides a small and simple application this, easy and intuitive, but things are a little more complicated in KDE.

I initially assumed that keyboard shortcuts could be configured from the KDE Control Center, which does have a section dedicated to keyboard shortcuts, but frustratingly, that section does not cut it.


Application keyboard shortcuts are easily configured from the KDE menu editor.

Once again, the KDE menu editor is the answer. Similarly to how application icons were configured, keyboard shortcuts can be setup in the same window. Select the application you want to customize, but this time choose the "Advanced" tab. The bottom section on that tab is where the keyboard shortcut can be configured.

NOTE: Not sure why, but this does not work in Pardus 2009.2.

Desktop activity... What??

An element that is signature to KDE, which could be confusing if you are new to it, is the concept of desktop activity. Most of us are familiar with the Windows desktop concept, you know, icons all over the place and a wallpaper in the background. KDE offers interesting alternatives to that approach.


The KDE plasma desktop offers alternatives to the traditional desktop approach.

Right clicking on the desktop, the last option reads "Desktop Activity properties". After clicking on it, a popup window appears. There is a menu on the right, which by default is on wallpaper selection. The second option, "Activity", is the one we are after. There are four options available on the right applet, and depending on your distro of choice, one or the other may be the default. Some distros like PCLinuxOS set the desktop as a folder (similar to Windows), so you can see files and/or shortcuts on it. Should you choose to set it up as desktop, it will not display the contents of the desktop folder, but you could easily use the "folder view" plasma widget to achieve the same effect.

All in all, I like KDE creativity and innovation around a concept that has remained pretty much unchanged for a long time. I encourage you to try the different options available and have fun with them!

Moving panel icons

Once again, if you come from a Windows background, you may be used to moving panel icon positions by simply clicking and holding the left mouse button, then dragging the icon to whatever position you desire.


Once again, moving panel icons can be a bit frustrating if you don't know how.

That concept works in Windows even with the taskbar locked, so it can get confusing in KDE if you simply assume the same. In this case, unlocking widgets is once again the key to making it work. Once widgets are unlocked, the functionality is pretty similar to that of the Windows taskbar, but I think there is an easier way to achieve the same end result. Simply click on the KDE icon on the left edge of the panel, which will allow for panel properties modification. Among other things, this allows for rearranging all panel elements, including the system tray, the main menu and obviously any launchers. Once you are done rearranging your controls, close that edit applet and lock your widgets again.

Customizing the main menu icon

Most distros include their own signature icon for the main menu, which are OK sometimes, but since I like to customize the hell out of everything, it doesn't last long.


I usually set my main menu icon to proudly show KDE colors.

Just right click on the main menu icon and select "Application launcher menu properties". A popup window will appear, with a few items on menu on the left. Select the second entry, "options", and simply customize the icon to your liking.

Changing the KDM theme

KDM themes (basically, the login screen look&feel) are often customized to the distro style and branding, which you may or may not like. In my opinion, the best KDM themes are downloadable from KDE-LOOK.ORG or through KDE itself, and it is good fun to change your login page every now and then.


Customizing the login page is really simple.

In recent versions of KDE, you can edit your KDM settings from the KDE Control Center. Access the System section and open the "Access manager". You should be prompted for admin credentials before you can change anything, but once you are in, click on the "theme" tab to customize it to your liking.

Keeping your panel from getting overcrowded

An element that is often part of the default panel setup in KDE is "Smooth Tasks", which is basically the portion of the panel in which open an minimized windows are docked.


I love keeping my panel from looking like a subway station at rush hour.

I have found that the KDE default Smooth Tasks setup docks all open windows on the panel, regardless of which desktop the sit in. In other words, if you have a 4 desktop setup and open one application on each desktop, all four will be docked on all desktop panels by default. I personally don't like this configuration, I prefer keeping each panel docking only the applications open on that particular desktop.

If you like that approach as well, simply right click on the window docking area of the pannel and select "Smooth Tasks properties". A popup window will appear with a number of options available. The section "Filters" at the bottom is the one that matters for this specific topic. In my experience, you need to tick both "Show current desktop tasks only" and "Show current screen tasks only" for the trick to work.

Custom workspace themes

KDE distros usually come with standard or custom workspace themes. In other words, the panel and plasma widgets style is either one of the "classics" available from KDE (Oxygen, Air, etc.) or the distro's own design. Someone new to KDE may think that's all there is to it, but as in most things KDE, there are tons of options available.


I have found that many of the themes available for download are awesome!.

Access the KDE Control Center "Style" menu and choose the second tab on the right applet, "Worspace". You will see a number of different workspace themes previews, but the interesting bit is downloading others. Click on the button at the bottom and download your favorite themes from the many available.

NOTE: Because many of those themes are community efforts, sometimes they are not uploaded to the right locations, but to file managers like Rapidshare or even Dropbox. When that happens, those themes can't be downloaded this way. Fortunately, there are many beautiful themes that do work.

Customize your system tray

Once again, KDE is an extremely flexible and customizable environment, one characteristic that is translated into its system tray configuration as well. You can in fact select which widgets make it to the system tray, if they should show or hide, etc.


Customize your system tray with a few clicks.

Right click on the system tray area and select "system tray properties". As usual, we get a popup window with a menu on the left. Select "plasma widgets", which should display the elements that can be customized on the right applet. If you have not unlocked your widgets, you may see all entries greyed out, effectively not in editable state, which can be confusing. Again, unlock widgets before you edit the system tray properties and you should have no problem personalizing its configuration to your liking.

HOPE IT HELPS!

KDE is a great desktop manager with some great features, but some of them are not exactly intuitive, specially if you come from a different OS and make incorrect assumptions. The "tricks" I shared on this article helped me overcome some of my early frustrations and be much more comfortable using KDE... Hope they help you too!

Thanks for reading!

27 comments:

  1. Thanks for the article. I'm a long time KDE user and -- precisely because of that -- KDE 4.x is somewhat of a Terra Incognita.

    I'm still looking for some howto, or preferably a wiki, with new ways to do things I did easily in KDE 3.x (and no, I don't to stay in 3.x forever and ever).

    Again, very useful post.

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  2. I started in GNOME, and then switched to KDE when I found a distro (Chakra, which is Arch Linux + KDEmod) that ran KDE at a reasonable speed. I like minimal desktops, though, so I use awesome WM most of the time. I poke around lots and am used to doing things different ways, but the keyboard shortcut tip would have definitely been helpful back when I was using KDE.

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  3. KDE is simply GREAT! THE BEST! And it's getting better and better each new version.

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  4. I did the same. Started out with Gnome the finally made the move to KDE once it was improved. Love KDE!!!

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  5. You seem to have misunderstood the Desktop Activity feature. The Activity tab in the Desktop Activity dialog is where you change the _type_ of the activity. However you can add several activities to your desktop which may have different set of widgets, wallpapers or activity types. If you click that weird icon on the top right corner and click Add Activity and and click Zoom Out, you will be able to see all of your Activities. There is also an activity switching widget that makes it easier to switch to other Activities.

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  6. Nice synopsis but you forgot a few things like showing us how one can assign a different activity, widgets, applications and even theme to each desktop.

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  7. Hi and thanks for your comments!

    This was just a high level introduction, by no means an exhaustive list detailing all tricks available or anything like that. I do understand about the desktop activity and other concepts, but I simply chose to share what I considered enough, without overkilling it.

    Having said so, I am very much aware I am still far from being a KDE expert, so absolutely thrilled to see some other tricks shared over here. Please go ahead and share some of your favorite moves!

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  8. I agree with you!
    I did not like KDE till the KDE 4.5 RC that I found awesome!

    Different wallpaper in each desktop, different widgets in each desktop and activities that give to desktops another dimension!
    Add to these the deepest customization settings, the tabbing of applications and the internal compositing of kwin(and yes the latest compiz is even better!) and you feel awe for this graphical user interface!
    Yes there are bugs, yes it could be speedier and more stable!
    BUT THE FUTURE IS CLEARLY THE KDE!
    Especially for strong machines!

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  9. KDE 4.x is a quantum leap in DE evolution. In every new release, the developers are doing great progress in squashing bugs to make it more reliable, optimizing code to make it much faster, and innovating new ways of doing things to make it more functionally elegant.

    During the release of 4.0 through 4.3, the developers endured a massive bashing by those who didn't see its potential. Some of it was justified because the average users don't care about elegance when their computer is causing them headache. Bugs and missing features turned them off. The developers were persistent, tenacious, and resilient. With the new KDE 4.5 release, all of the issues are mostly gone, but there is one essential thing that is still missing and this article starts to address. What the KDE team needs to do, along with the release of KDE 4.5 (I am using RC1), is to release a series of "How To" tutorials in audio/video format to make sure that the average user doesn't have to go through trial and error process to explore the secrets of KDE 4.x.

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  10. Hallo It was a very interesting post. But from your mentioned topic I couldn't found the Smooth Task I have KDE4.4.5 can you explain it with more details?

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  11. @Juan Ehrenhaus: Ok, let me try to clarify, it should be fairly easy.

    Log in to your KDE desktop and open any application, Firefox, for example. When firefox opens (and again, this applies to any application under the default configuration), you will see an icon on the panel. If it is not clear, minimize Firefox and look at your panel, I am sure you will see it.

    Now, the area where that icon appears (which is essentially a docked window) is where you need to right click. The last option should be "smooth tasks properties". I think it should be simple to take it from there.

    Thanks!

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  12. How can I change appearance of taskbar items to look like Windows 7? I want to see only icons and not the text...

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  13. Smooth tasks can be set to show only icons, no text.

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  14. Your post only covers a very few of the KDE futures and that are mainly the cosmetic ones. Probably the most powerful one is the datastore in KDE - Nepomuk - creating a semantic desktop where all applications can have access to the same data and understand that data, thus access the data's metadata.

    Here are just a taste - http://doc4.mandriva.org/bin/view/labs/Mandriva_Smart_Desktop_2010-0

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  15. Thanks all for your interesting comments!

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  16. @Juan Ehrenhaus,

    In regards to [Smooth Task Properties], I am running KDE SC 4.5 RC2 and when I right click on the icon docked in the panel, I find no such title. Instead, I find "Task Manager settings", which is what you need to apply screening. You will find it in the menu that pops up under General=> filters.

    I hope this helps

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  17. Another obscure secret is how to edit Favorites in the K-menu, especially for those who still prefer (like me) and switched to the good old legacy Hierarchal Classic menu.

    Editing the "Applications" sub-menu is not an issue, just make sure to unlock widgets, right click K-menu icon and select "Menu Editor".

    When editing, you will notice that "Favorites" group is not displayed. To add to "Favorites", just click on Classic K-menu and right click on application icon. If application is in "Favorites" already, you will be given the "Remove From Favorites" option, otherwise you will be given the "Add to Favorites" option.

    Pure Elegance.

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  18. @Abe: Thanks for sharing, nice trick I forgot!

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  19. I've noticed that you like KDE. I come from the world of GNOME. And I have tried many times KDE in the past, but every time as quickly as I checked the new version of KDE I was switching to GNOME even faster.

    Its not my luck of intelligence, but the annoyances of KDE. First it was network manager, then stupid kde-wallet, and Kdenlive topping the podium (oh boy what a shit Kdenlive is!!!! Nothing works. Nothing. Zilch, Nada). But lately with the constant releases of KDE 4, I thought that I will try it again. Oh boy, was I wrong.

    Here's how they screw normal people that want the job just done. I am on desktop one, I do my job No 1, have a few apps opened, and I need to do something else. So I think that I will go to desktop No2 (I leave the job to finish on desktop No 1) and start something else. Oh boy, how wrong I was, to even think that another desktop (which Apple smartly calls workspace) would give me a clean desktop/workspace to start a new job.

    So I switch and see that I do have the same programs opened on another desktop. WTF! Hmm, that's why they call it a "virtual desktop", because its virtual and does not give you a new destop with a clean workspace. You stupid idiot (I think to myself)- its a "virtual desktop" so you have to use your imagination! Imagine that you getting the new clean workspace!. I know why they call it virtual now.

    Then to further confuse the people they have the cashew. Hmm, cool I think. I like cashews. Roasted and salted. I click on the cashew and it gives me the nice options, including "new activitiy". So I think, that if I use another activity, I will get a clean desktop for my new work. Oh boy, how wrong I was. Before I could even get there, first I needed to minimize all the applications, then click on the cashew, then click on the "new activity", then click on the "zoom out", but it did not give me the new clean workspace at all. But I can get new nice set of gadgets, though; oh sorry widgets. Maybe I am stupid.

    But I'm not giving up. So I go to the settings, I set "different activities for each desktop" and.... I still have the same apps opened on every desktops. Hmm, maybe I am stupid.

    But I'm not giving up. So I go through the same procedure of multilevel clicking as before to set activities. And guess what! I can't switch between activities. But, wait a minute... isn't zooming out showing me the "virtual desktops"? Yes it is, because I have different wallpapers on each! Hmm, I'm confused what I see.... Oh I get it, I get it! The acivities are virtual too and I have to imagine switching between them too! Now I understand. How stupid was I.

    I'm confused. maybe the Virtual Desktop Activities...., what? What the hell am I talking about. I don't really know. I'm confused.

    But I'm not giving up, yet. I've heard that somewhere there, there is a plasma desktop and plasmoid. When I find that beast maybe then it will give me a new clean desktop...

    KDE- you will not get your job done, but you will have nice icons and gadgets, though.

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  20. I've noticed that you like KDE. I come from the world of GNOME. And I have tried many times KDE in the past, but every time as quickly as I checked the new version of KDE I was switching to GNOME even faster.

    Its not my luck of intelligence, but the annoyances of KDE. First it was network manager, then stupid kde-wallet, and Kdenlive topping the podium (oh boy what a shit Kdenlive is!!!! Nothing works. Nothing. Zilch, Nada). But lately with the constant releases of KDE 4, I thought that I will try it again. Oh boy, was I wrong.

    Here's how they screw normal people that want the job just done. I am on desktop one, I do my job No 1, have a few apps opened, and I need to do something else. So I think that I will go to desktop No2 (I leave the job to finish on desktop No 1) and start something else. Oh boy, how wrong I was, to even think that another desktop (which Apple smartly calls workspace) would give me a clean desktop/workspace to start a new job.

    So I switch and see that I do have the same programs opened on another desktop. WTF! Hmm, that's why they call it a "virtual desktop", because its virtual and does not give you a new destop with a clean workspace. You stupid idiot (I think to myself)- its a "virtual desktop" so you have to use your imagination! Imagine that you getting the new clean workspace!. I know why they call it virtual now.

    Then to further confuse the people they have the cashew. Hmm, cool I think. I like cashews. Roasted and salted. I click on the cashew and it gives me the nice options, including "new activitiy". So I think, that if I use another activity, I will get a clean desktop for my new work. Oh boy, how wrong I was. Before I could even get there, first I needed to minimize all the applications, then click on the cashew, then click on the "new activity", then click on the "zoom out", but it did not give me the new clean workspace at all. But I can get new nice set of gadgets, though; oh sorry widgets. Maybe I am stupid.

    But I'm not giving up. So I go to the settings, I set "different activities for each desktop" and.... I still have the same apps opened on every desktops. Hmm, maybe I am stupid.

    But I'm not giving up. So I go through the same procedure of multilevel clicking as before to set activities. And guess what! I can't switch between activities. But, wait a minute... isn't zooming out showing me the "virtual desktops"? Yes it is, because I have different wallpapers on each! Hmm, I'm confused what I see.... Oh I get it, I get it! The acivities are virtual too and I have to imagine switching between them too! Now I understand. How stupid was I.

    I'm confused. maybe the Virtual Desktop Activities...., what? What the hell am I talking about. I don't really know. I'm confused.

    But I'm not giving up, yet. I've heard that somewhere there, there is a plasma desktop and plasmoid. When I find that beast maybe then it will give me a new clean desktop...

    KDE- you will not get your job done, but you will have nice icons and gadgets, though.

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  21. I've only really used Gnome in the past, aside from trying KDE once or twice. However, I've just started using KDE (via the Pardus distro) and absolutely love it. Though I should say that the only other distro I've tried KDE with was Fedora, which isn't really the best distro for KDE imo. The only thing I really miss is the way I was able to use the desktop cube in Gnome with compiz. If anyone's looking to give KDE a try, I would highly recommend Pardus (it's definitely an excellent distro for newcomers to Linux too, and quite stable).

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  22. @civilknowsbetter,

    I think the terminology used to describe different features is confusing.

    Let me describe the three features you are referring to in your unjust complain about KDE 4.x

    Virtual Desktop is the process of running one operating system as a client hosted by another operating system. e.g. Linux hosting Windows using VirtualBox from Sun/Oracle, etc... That doesn't seem to be what you are looking for and want.

    Linux has the Pager feature, which NO Windows OS have, I believe that is what you were referring to and thought would give you a new session. Pager will give you multiple viewing areas, but using the same username under the same session.

    As I understand your post, you wanted to click somewhere and have a whole new user environment (could be the same username but a completely different second session). To do that, you need to click on K-menu => Leave => Switch User.

    It could be made simpler by creating a widget, which you could put on the panel or the desktop, and when clicked, it will launch the "switch user" menu.

    I hope this helps.

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  23. @civilknowsbetter,
    One more thing, Switching between sessions is just as easy as Ctrl Alt F7-F12.

    Here is a link for a Plasma Widget, which is usable already, but still being enhanced.

    Read here
    http://kde-look.org/content/show.php?content=127462

    And here

    http://flavio.castelli.name/fast-user-switch-plasmoid

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  24. Thanks for posting. This helped me alot. Very informative.

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  25. Nice information man... Im also a KDE user and I like it more when its kubuntu!

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