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KDE 4 gives Linux some Mac, Windows flavor

A major KDE overhaul gives of one of the two prevailing Linux user interfaces a new look and new applications. Some features will be familiar Windows and Mac OS X users.

KDE programmers released a significantly revamped version of its Linux graphical interfaces software on Friday, incorporating several features that also appear in Windows Vista and Mac OS X.

KDE features a new start menu reminiscent of Windows Vista and a new System Settings interface similar to Apple Mac OS X. Click the above image for more screenshots of KDE 4.0. KDE

Among new features in KDE 4.0 are a start menu on steroids called Kickoff, new ways of viewing widgets and applications, a revamped file browser, and a new look to some entertainment applications that I hope will help pioneer a new user interface technology.

Unfortunately for KDE fans, the upgrade to version 4.0 comes at an awkward time, just a few months before Ubuntu's planned release in April of its "Hardy Heron" version of Linux. This will be the second version of Ubuntu for which its backer, Canonical, offers long-term support. Because Canonical wasn't confident that there would be good developer support for the previous KDE 3.5 and expected KDE 4.0 not to be mature enough, Canonical decided to support just GNOME.

But there still are plenty of other Linux distributions, and KDE 4 will work fine on Ubuntu (the version is called Kubuntu) even if commercial support is absent. And let's face it--Linux on the desktop has appealed more to programmers and technically savvy do-it-yourselfers than to mainstream computer users.

KDE (K Desktop Environment), is one of the two major interfaces for Linux, the other being GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment). Both open-source projects include software ranging from low-level components such as buttons and drop-down menus to higher-level applications such as file browsers, games, and a console for those who want a command-line interface. The software handles many basic user interface tasks such as managing windows on the screen and letting users launch programs and switch between them.

One of the significant new features is Kickoff, the revamped start menu. Instead of offering just a hierarchical list of applications, Kickoff offers several other ways to get at programs you might want, including a search bar a la Windows Vista, a list of favorite programs, and a list of recently used programs and documents. It also provides quick access to hard drives, USB drives, and other storage devices.

KDE 4 also has been reworked to take advantage of new glitzy interface possibilities. Windows can be made transparent--a feature for which I personally see almost no utility, but I'll keep an open mind. But there are more useful options, too, such as the ability to quickly show all running widgets or to show all running applications in miniature, features that users of Mac OS X's Dashboard and Expose will recognize.

Perhaps more significant in the long run is some work to make KDE more resolution-independent. Most operating systems and accompanying software assume computer screens have a resolution of something like 96 pixels per inch, but hardware companies are capable of producing much finer resolution.

Theoretically, that could help produce higher-quality text that's less pixilated and easier to read and photos with more detail, but in practice you risk running software that's unusable because of with microscopic type and icons.

Some KDE applications, including the KMines minesweeper game and KPat solitaire card game, now have vector graphics, which scale to any size independent of pixel resolution. It's a small but welcome step.

Another new feature is Dolphin, a new file browser that among other things can present thumbnails of images and let users add captions and star ratings.

A revamped Systems Settings interface resembles Mac OS X's approach, with different options split into related categories.

Cosmetically, KDE has new artwork, including graphical elements such as buttons and window frames, called Oxygen.

And under the covers, there are other changes. A new Phonon library provides audio support to programs, KHTML is available for Web page rendering (it's used by Apple's Safari, too), Trolltech's QT 4 user interface components require less memory, and a package called Solid helps manage hardware details such as power management, wireless networking, removable storage devices, and Bluetooth networking. And for those whose computers have multicore processors, the ThreadWeaver library is designed to make it easier for software to take advantage of hardware abilities.