Monday, March 12, 2012
REVIEW: KDE SC 4.8.1
Just a few days ago I upgraded KDE SC to its latest release, 4.8.1. This first dot release is very interesting in that it incorporates a significant number of fixes to elements as critical as Dolphin and KDE PIM. Now that the first round of polishing is there for KDE SC 4.8, and since I have been using it extensively for weeks, I think it is a good time to put together a review and see where KDE stands as of today. THE GOOD NEWS There are three main areas where KDE SC 4.8 shines: Stability, Performance and New Features. Stability: In all honesty, if stability is not there, all the rest is garbage. Because of that, I am glad that KDE developers spent time making this last iteration of their DE even more stable, which is noticeable right off the bat. In fact, this is by far the most stable .0 release I have tested to date. In my experience during the last few weeks, stability is particularly noticeable around processes and applications that are "core", for lack of a better word. The desktop, panels, effects, system settings, as well as applications like Dolphin, Okular, Gwenview, Kate, Konsole and others, feel solid. Yes, the unexpected segmentation fault still makes the seldom appearance, but significantly less than in previous releases. Performance: Yup, one of the areas that was historically considered a KDE weakness is today one of its strengths, how about that? KDE SC 4.8 continues to build on the significant steps forward around this area that have consistently been there for the last 3 or 4 releases. Everything feels snappier, faster, more responsive... even Dolphin with its new animations feels faster! Desktop effects get to a new level never before experienced in KDE using kwin. For the first time, they feel just as fluid as Compiz, but in my experience, even more solid and stable. Moreover, it is surprising how little they impact system resources. Yes, if pure performance and responsiveness if what you are after, you are probably better off turning effects off, but I am surprised of the results I have got on relatively modest hardware. New Features: Last but certainly not least is the amount of enhancements and new features that come with KDE SC 4.8. I already talked about them in a recent ARTICLE (which I recommend reading in case you haven't already), but let me just talk about those that consistently make my day. - It was among my favorites already, but with the improvements in this release cycle, Gwenview sits at the very top of my list of picture viewers. Its intuitive and consistent interface is as good as it gets, and its many awesome features just make it even sweeter. For instance, I love its import feature, which is flexible and very reliable (heard that, Digikam?). Throw KIPI plugins on top, and you are in for a treat. - As is the case with Gwenview, I am completely amazed by Okular. It really doesn't get any better than this. Not only it can chew on a crazy variety of formats, but the fact that it also became a comic reader is the icing on the cake. Things only got better with the improved table text selection features that came with this release. - Like I mentioned in the previous section, the improvements to Effects & Compositing are not only easily noticeable, but also very enjoyable. I believe desktop effects play an important part in making the overall experience more fun, which ultimately has a positive effect on the way I work. - Although it took me a while to get used to the changes to Power Management Settings, I have to say I am sold. They have been simplified to the point where they are just as flexible, but way more intuitive. Miss the old profile approach? Don't, activities are there to help. - The improvements to the Semantic Desktop are obvious and welcome. I am particularly happy that nepomuk is finally indexing only when it has to, plus it is clear that the whole thing is less resource hungry than in previous releases. In fact, Sebastian Trüg already ANNOUNCED that further (and very significant) optimisation is on its way to KDE SC 4.8.2. THE NOT SO GOOD NEWS Surprisingly, some of the areas that shine in KDE SC 4.8 are also the ones that have more room for improvement. Stability: Yes, I know, I just said KDE SC 4.8.1 is very stable, but the fact of the matter is that it is only very stable when compared to older KDE releases. Compared to the most solid DEs out there, KDE still feels somewhat fragile. Such lack of stability is most evident around some of the most specialized applications, like Marble, Digikam or Kdenlive. Here's an example of the Marble routing feature, which not only cannot find a route from Madrid to London, it just happened to bring both cities much closer than they actually are. (Just to clarify, this works perfectly with both Google Earth and Google Maps, so one has to wonder what kind of testing went into this Marble feature if something this basic does not work.) Click on image to enlarge Kdenlive and specially Digikam also have stability issues, where segmentation faults or even freezing the entire system are not uncommon. Unfortunately, that´s not all. There are still gaps around areas as important to KDE as PIM, which simply don't work as they should. As an example, the impact of Akonadi on system resources is still way too high. In my experience, simply starting the Akonadi server makes a huge difference (although the behavior is not 100% consistent across different distros). Here's an example of my CPU activity before and after starting Kmail (which in turn started Akonadi): There are more examples, but I see no point in listing them here. From my point of view, it would be extremely beneficial to put efforts and resources in place to address these important gaps, so that KDE gets its foundations 100% right. Once the Plasma Desktop is truly a plasma desktop, once the Semantic Desktop truly works as such and is fully reliable, once KDE PIM nails every bit, then it is time to concentrate on the minor details (i.e., Dolphin animations, Marble routing, Digikam face recognition, etc.) Productivity: I use KDE on a daily basis, have found my workarounds around things that don't work as they should and can manage it reasonably well. It is precisely because I know it that I would not recommend it in a work environment. The lack of stability already discussed is part of it, but also the lack of attention to details that are critical for the average Jane or Joe who sits in front of a computer to get things done. For example, something as relevant in a professional environment as setting up and using a remote calendar in Korganizer can prove very frustrating even under KDE SC 4.8, sometimes even impossible if use of resources is taken into account. Similarly, setting up a remote account using the Kmail wizard is way more complicated than it should be at this stage (GNOME online accounts, anyone?), plus it often fails, forcing users to set up accounts "the old way". I guess that in some aspects KDE still maintains that "computer geek" vibe to it, like even the simplest things should require a bit of "hacking" for the fun of it. I believe that has got to go if KDE is to have a chance in any kind of professional environment, or even make the cut for users who prioritize productivity. Overcomplexity: The previous topic kind of nicely leads on to this one, an area that is similarly not getting much love from KDE developers. Yes, we keep getting more and more bells and wistles, but have the basics improved? I am in favor of flexibility and customization, which is partially why KDE stands out to me like an oasis in a desert of dumbed down DEs. However, I think flexibility and simplicity are not mutually exclusive and I am a firm believer that KDE could be just as powerful using a much more intuitive interface. For instance, it is great to have tons of options and parameters, but how should they be presented to users? At the moment the System Settings tool has an excess of 30 categories... Is that really the best way to go about it? Unfortunately, aside from some very good ideas around power management, KDE SC 4.8 is not addressing this area. A SOLID STEP FORWARD Don't let this last bit of negativity confuse you, KDE SC 4.8 remains a successful release by any standards. Miracles don't exist, and it would be unreasonable to expect it to solve all issues in one go. Having said so, KDE SC 4.8 does make significant progress in several important areas, such as performance, plus it adds many interesting and powerful new features. The great thing is that KDE is relentlessly improving and it´s great to know that work is already ongoing to address some of the issues I discussed above. If you are using KDE SC already, you may be wondering if the jump to this new version is worth the effort. In my opinion, specially if you are on 4.6 or 4.7, it really depends on whether the new features in 4.8 make a difference to you. If moving to 4.8 does not imply risks, or if you are on an older version of KDE SC, then I definitely recommend it!