Smart tips and tricks to get the best from KDE 4

22nd Feb 2009 | 08:00

Smart tips and tricks to get the best from KDE 4

Hidden options that make a real difference to the way you work

Work smarter in KDE 4

KDE 4.1, launched at the end of July 2008, became the first release we could heartily recommend as a replacement for the ageing 3.5, and a solid nine months of updates to 4.1 has created a stable and innovative environment that can only get stronger as 4.2 beds itself into 2009.

But KDE is still KDE, and that means that many of its best features are undocumented and undisclosed. Which is why now is the best possible time for a feature crammed full of the best tricks we can find for getting the most out of KDE 4. It doesn't matter if you're a new convert, an experienced user, or a potential switcher, you'll find something in the following pages that will make you feel a micron of pride of what open source can achieve.

Whether it's the seamless animations that Dolphin uses to blend one file type into another, or the sheer scale of format compatibility, applications shortcuts and reconfigurability, KDE 4 and projects like it are proof that community driven, open source development can compete with, and often surpass, commercial applications written by some of the world's biggest computer companies.

By uncovering KDE's hidden options you can make a real difference to the way you work.

Create the perfect environment

Booting your a desktop into a familiar environment, complete with all the applications you use already running, is one of the best ways to make your desktop as efficient as possible. KDE 4 makes this far easier than it was in the 3.x series, with a friendly point and click interface to create your default working environment.

You can find the autostart function hidden within KDE's System Settings application, and you'll need to click on the Advanced page to see the Autostart icon. After you've clicked on that, adding your own applications is as simple as clicking on either 'Add Program' or 'Add Script', either of which will open a secondary requester that asks for the location of the program you want to run. You then have the option to run the program either at startup, shutdown, or pre-KDE initialisation.

Alternatively, if you don't want to go to the trouble of adding each program manually, KDE 4 enables you to save the state of your currently running desktop. The tool for this is the called the Session Manager, and this will enable you to save the state of your desktop, including open documents and running applications, as you log out. Unfortunately, you can restore a manually saves session, as this feature has yet to be implemented.

Instant Konqueror

As with previous versions of KDE, you can choose to pre-load several instances of Konqueror. This has the advantage of enabling Konqueror to appear instantaneously when you open the application or a new instance. The only downside is that it uses more of your system's memory.

As Dolphin is designed to replace Konqueror in KDE 4, the pre-load option isn't enabled by default on any modern version of KDE 4. But you can find the setting in the Performance page of Konqueror's configuration window. Increase the Maximum Number Of Instances field on that page to around four and click to enable both the 'Preload An Instance After KDE Startup' and the 'Always Try To Have At Least One Preloaded Instance' tick boxes.

Revolutionise your KDE desktop with Super Shortcuts

One of KDE's best features is the ability to use shortcuts in either KLauncher or Konqueror to quickly access dozens of functions quickly. Here are a few of the most useful:

Lists the shortcuts to the applications and folders shown in the KDE launcher menu. Makes KDE feel a little like Apple's OS X for application launching.

Displays the contents of the desktop directory within your personal home directory

The protocol used for switching back to file browsing. For example, file:/home opens your home directory.

Opens a user's home directory on a remote machine running an SSH server without any further configuration.

Reads the content of a floppy disk and displays it in the current window. If you don't know what a floppy disk is, don't worry about it.

Lists any personal and system fonts you've got installed. Enable 'Preview' from the View menu to see how the fonts look.

Connects directly to any FTP server by prefixing the IP address with ftp://. KDE will then ask for a username and password

This is one of KDE's best features if you happen to use an IMAP mail server. Just type imap:// followed by the name of the server to access your email.

LDAP is a directory access protocol that provides lots of useful information about people on your network. Browse the directory directly with this shortcut.

The KDE equivalent to the man command. It displays the manual to many installed commands and apps.

Lists the contents of the email held in your local inbox folder.

Browses a Linux file server configured to use the NFS protocol.

Uses ancient news servers to read forums and posts on thousands of different subjects.

POP3 is probably still the most popular email protocol. Use this shortcut to list the emails held on your POP server.

Works in much the same way as the 'applications' shortcut, only with the addition of KDE's settings application.

Lists machines on the local network, through network services or Samba shares.

Should list KDE's various config panels, but it doesn't work with Kubuntu.

Accesses servers using SSH and the secure FTP protocol. Faster and more efficient than 'fish', but less flexible.

Browses Samba and Microsoft Windows shared folders on your local network.

Take a look at all the files and folders you've consigned to KDE's trashcan.

Zeroconf is an easy way of browsing local network services such as SSH and FTP without knowing of their direct IP addresses.

Understanding your desktop in KDE 4

A small change here can make a huge difference to how your machine feels.

Dolphin's location bar

Dolphin does away with the location bar you see in most browsers (including Konqueror), and replaces it with a bread-crumb trail that follows your file navigation. But sometimes, especially when dealing with remote sites and protocols, the location bar is the quickest way to navigate to a location. Press Ctrl+I to add the location bar to the current Dolphin view, and type the location you want to view. The character will display your home directory, for example. You can also access remote servers using the location var. Type ftp://server.address to access an FTP server, or smb://server.address for a Samba server.

Enable embedded previews

When you click on a data file within Konqueror, the default behaviour is to open a new window to display the contents of the file. This is great if you want to make edits or take a look at the contents, but not if you're trying to find one specific file quickly. We prefer the old style of previews, where the file is embedded within the file browser's window. Not only does this save screen space, it also means don't lose context while you're browsing your files.

The option to change this is hidden in the 'File Associations' page of the Advanced view in the System Settings application. This is the same tool used to define which file extensions are loaded into which application when you click on them. To enable embedded previews for images, for example, search for the 'image' metatype.

A metatype contains all the other types of image recognised by KDE, and you just need to enable the 'Show File In Embedded View' checkbox to make it happen. You can do the same for individual file types and other metatypes (such as text documents), and you can use the middle-mouse button to switch between scaled and full-screen image rendering.

Add pervasive searching

Desktop searching, of the kind we now take for granted in Gnome, as been on a roller-coaster of a ride in KDE. Pervasive searching is important, because it lets you search the contents of files rather than just their filenames. (Imagine the difference between Google letting you search just the URL, and Google letting you search through the contents of a web page.)

Over the last four years, KDE's pervasive searching has been through various different iterations of technology, from Kat to Kerry. The successor to both was Strigi, an efficient and speedy search technology that promised to beat them both. But it's taking some time, and it's still mostly broken in 4.1, although things are looking up for 4.2.

The problem is that KDE needs its search technology to be tightly integrated with something called Nepomuk. Nepomuk is an implementation of something called the 'semantic desktop'. Semantic, in this sense, seems to mean that where your data is stored is unimportant; it's how you access the data that counts, which is why this technology is so closely tied to the KDE search process. The framework for applications to take advantage of Nepomuk was in place for KDE 4.1, but few developers were able to take advantage of it. But you can still get a functional pervasive search working on 4.1.

You first need to enable both the search and Nepomuk in the Desktop Search page of KDE's System Settings application. A new icon will appear in your taskbar, and Strigi will start creating its database in the background. Click on the icon to check the status of the index building, and when it's finished you can perform a search from Krunner. This is the tool that pops up when you press Alt and F2. Try searching for something within an ODT office document – it should be listed in the results alongside any filenames that include the same search.

Ultra-rapid internet searching

Konqueror contains many shortcuts for streamlining your file management and web browsing experience, but our favourite feature for the web has to be the use of what Konqueror calls web shortcuts. These consist of abbreviated keyword you can use within the location bar to quickly search the site refered to in the abbreviated.

Typing wp:linux format, for instance, will search Wikipedia for the term 'linux format'. We commonly use 'gg' for Google, 'ggi' for Google Images, and 'odp' to search the Open Directory Project. You can list which shortcuts do what by opening the Configuration window from Konqueror and switching to the 'Web Browsing/Web Shortcuts' page.

Add untar/unzip context menus

One essential feature of KDE 3.5 has been dropped from each KDE 4 release so far – and that's the ability to right-click on an archive and select 'Extract'. The solution is to install a KDE 3-era application and add the corresponding menu options manually. It's not particularly clever, but it does work. The application to install is KDE 3's KArchiver – a program that has been replaced by Ark in KDE 4.

Most KDE users still have a working version of KDE 3 installed, so adding KArchiver shouldn't be a problem. And because we're using it in the background, you shouldn't find its old GUI too distracting.

The next step is to create a text file called karchiver. desktop, and into this add the following text:

[Desktop Entry]
Type=Service X-KDE-ServiceTypes=KonqPopupMenu/Plugin,all/all
[Desktop Action Compress]
Exec=karchiver -c %U
[Desktop Action Extract]
Exec=karchiver --xa %u

You then need to save this file into your /usr/share/ kde4/services/ directory and restart the KDE 4 desktop. Right-clicking on a file or folder from within either Dolphin or Konqueror (or the desktop) will now show an Actions menu, from where you'll be able to select 'Extract' or 'Compress' from the KArchiver sub-menu.

Pimp your file requester

KDE's standard file requester features the same file browser and management features as Dolphin and Konqueror. Files and folders can be dragged into the file requester's currently selected window, and you can create folders and change the view mode using the right-click context menu. Using the drop-down menu from the spanner icon in the toolbar, you can enable file previews.

But the best feature to enable in this menu is 'bookmarks'. After clicking on this option, the bookmark icon will be appended at the end of the file requester's toolbar, and you'll be able to quickly add and jump to locations you've navigated to within the requester.

Finally, you can also drag folders and files into the quick access bar to the left of the requester. Icons can be dragged from any file manager window, and re-ordered by dragging them up or down in the icon list .

Application focus: Kopete

Kopete is one of the best instant messaging clients available for any platform, and its understated GUI hides the most advanced featureset we've come across. Just look at the list of plugins from the configuration page, for example.

You can do everything from translate one language to another, to render usage graphs into statistics and insert mathematical formulas. Chat themes can be downloaded from from the embedded Get Hot New Stuff requester, and unlike similar features in other KDE 4 applications, there are plenty of community-designed themes to download and try out.

The best thing about Kopete is its ability to cope with multiple protocols and a single contact. Most multi-protocol instant messaging clients will force you to have a different contacts for each protocol – one for MSN and one for Jabber, for example. But with Kopete, you can group the various different protocols used by one person into a 'meta-contact', with the online status for each protocol displayed to the right of their name using an icon.

To get this to work, first add a contact for each protocol, just as you would with Gaim or Adium. From the contact list you then need to right-click on the protocol icon for the duplicated contact and choose 'Change Meta-contact' from the context menu. Then just choose the person you want to attach this protocol to from the contact list that appears.

Eye candy in KDE 4

If there's one thing KDE is good at, it's looking good. Now make it look better!

Use the desktop as a desktop

One of the most widely published new features of KDE 4 was really a non-feature – the removal of the desktop metaphor. It was replaced with a virtual desktop where you could only drag links to applications, files and locations, rather than acting as a real directory on your hard drive.

You can restore most of the original functionality by dragging the Folder View widget on to your desktop, and using the right-click configuration menu to point it at the location of your real desktop folder. By default, Mandriva 2009 configures the Folder View Plasmoid to take over most of the visible screen, which provides almost the same functionality as the old KDE 3.5 Desktop.

Get new fonts

Depending on your distro, the quality of the fonts in KDE 4 can be a little patchy, but fortunately, you can install your own.

Open the system settings window and click on the Font Installer icon in the Computer Administration section. This window lists all the fonts installed on your system, and you can install new ones by clicking on the Add button. You can add TrueType, OpenType, PostScript type-1 formats, and there are many online sites that offer free packages.

If you have MS Windows installed on a different partition, you can even add fonts from there. Just navigate to the 'Windows/Fonts' directory and add the fonts you like. Any fonts you've installed can be used from the Appearance/ Fonts page in the System Settings window, and certain applications like Konqueror and Kopete allow you to configure custom fonts from within their own configuration panels.

Make GTK apps look like KDE ones

One of the biggest problems with the default KDE 4 desktop from the likes of Kubuntu and Mandriva is that any application that doesn't use KDE looks out of place. Most of these applications use the Gnome toolkit, GTK, which uses a completely different set tools and settings for icons, colours and layout.

But despite the differences in Gnome and KDE, you can force one to look like the other. To get Gnome applications to look like their KDE counterparts involves installing a package called gtk-qt-engine, and both Kubuntu and Mandriva offer official packages.

After installation, you'll find an extra configuration page in the System Settings/Appearance window called 'GTK Styles and Fonts'. Click on this, and you have several options on how to bring the two styles together. Firstly, click on 'Use My KDE Style In GTK Applications' and make sure 'Use KDE fonts' is also selected. Then click on the 'Install Scrollbar Fix' to make an alteration to your Mozilla profile that should make the scrollbars in Firefox and Thunderbird look identical to those on native-KDE applications.

You need to restart KDE to apply the changes, and you should see that the colours, icons and fonts have changed, as well as window decorations like the scrollbars. You can take things further with Firefox by installing the KFirefox theme through the Tools > Addons manager.

Plasma and panel themes

It's not obvious at first glance, but you can change the appearance of the dock and the Plasmoids in KDE. This little feature is tucked away within the Desktop Settings configuration window – the same location you use to change the desktop wallpaper. Open this window by right-clicking on an empty section of desktop, and choosing 'Desktop Settings' from the context menu that appears.

Just above the lower border of the window, you should see the 'Desktop Theme' drop-down menu. Click on this to open a large list of themes as a series of vertical previews. Click on one to see the immediate effect. Our favourite is Elegance, but you can install install plenty of new themes by clicking on the 'New Theme' button to the right of the list.

Like other 'Hot New Stuff' windows in KDE 4, you can now download Plasma themes from with a singe click, and enable the new theme from the Desktop Theme drop-down menu.

Get Compiz effects without Compiz

When KDE 4 was released, most people couldn't believe that the amazing effects that came from Compiz hadn't been integrated into the new desktop. Instead, the KDE developers chose to reinvent the wheel and write their own version of Compiz from the ground up.

With the first release of KDE 4, this made little sense, as very few effects were available for KDE. But that has changed, and you can now emulate most of the best features of Compiz from within KDE. But, as with Compiz, you'll still need a decent graphics card with 3D accelerated graphics for these effects to work without destroying all desktop performance.

KDE's graphical frippery options are carefully hidden. Open the System Settings configuration panel, and switch to the 'Desktop' page. You can get to the same page by rightclicking on a Window's title bar and selecting 'Configure Window Behaviour'. Click on 'Enable Desktop Effects' to make the magic happen, and use the 'All Effects' page to enable or disable the separate elements you want. Here are the effects we recommend enabling, and our optimum configuration options where appropriate:

Dim inactive
Makes background windows darker. Try setting strength to seven.

Makes Windows seamlessly blend into and out of the desktop.

Drop shadow for windows. Try X offset = 0, Y offset = 5, Opacity = 45%, fuzziness = 10 and size = 5. We also changed the colour to pure black.

Wobbly windows
You either love or hate this effect. Use the less/more slider to make it more subtle.

Box switch
This is the only application switcher we've found useful. It's quick and provides a quick thumbnail of each running application when you hold down Alt+Tab.

Multiple desktops
From KDE 4.1 onwards, switching between desktops will now animate a sliding transition. It's not as eye-catching as the cube, but it is more practical.

Application focus: Digikam

While most KDE users have focused their attention on the plight of their desktop, a few KDE 4 applications have quietly pushed their features and interfaces to the next level. This group include two applications that are core to any desktop's functionality – Amarok, which has finally reached 2.0, and the DigiKam photo manager.

DigiKam has made some fantastic improvements over the last 18 months, and it's now at a stage where it can genuinely compete with iPhoto for image and photo management features. Not only will it deal with importing your photos from your camera or storage cards, but it can now arrange them into albums, spread them across a timeline or calendar and place them on a 3D representation of planet Earth.

One of the coolest new features is 'Fuzzy' searching. Crudely draw your approximation of the image you're looking for, and DigiKam will attempt to find a match within your photo collection. It's quite crude, and a lot of the matches seem to work more on colour than shape, but it's definitely clever. You can also drag and drop a similar image to the one you're looking for and search based on that.

Networking in KDE 4

KDE has always been the connected desktop. And now it goes even further…

Easily access remote folders

KDE is designed to treat network file servers as local filesystems, so you should be able to access files on a remote machine as easily as you can access files locally.

But this isn't always the case. The problem is that it's not always clear how you can access remote servers. The typical file requester, for example, may include a link to the network and it may not. And even if it does, you won't be able to specify exactly the server you want to access.

The solution is to enter the exact location manually, and you can do this into the location field in any KDE 4 file requester. Just precede the address with the protocol you want to use – most commonly it's smb:// for Samba and ftp:// for FTP, followed by the domain name or IP address of the resource you want to access.

Easy Samba

Samba is an essential networking protocol used all the time by Windows, OS X and Linux machines, but creating a working Samba configuration can be a little problematic, and it's for this reason that KDE 4 includes its own Samba configuration panel, both for clients and servers. The only prerequisites are that you've installed both the client and server Samba packages for your chosen distro.

KDE's Samba configuration panel can be found in the Advanced page of KDE's System Settings application. If you want to turn the machine you're using into a server, click on the 'Shares' tab followed by the 'Add New Share' button. From the new window that appears, switch to the 'Base Settings' page and add the folder you want to share, or click on 'Share All Home Directories'.

From the following page, you can then choose to restrict access to certain users. We also recommend enabling the 'User' level sharing in the Base configuration page. You will then need to create a user account for everyone you want to provide access to, and add those users to the Samba users list in the main config window.

Remote music in Amarok

You can play music files on a remote server by choosing 'Play Media' from the Amarok menu, and entering the address of the server you want to access. The clue to this functionality is the small folder or Home icon just to the left of the current location. If you click on this icon, you can select other drives and partitions on your machine, as well as network devices.

If you click on Network, you can then browse Network and Samba shares on your network, or you can add the address of the server manually by clicking on the protocol and adding the address manually to the location field. Don't forget that you can use the small yellow start icon to add any location to your bookmarks.

SSH file server

Many of us run an SSH server on our Linux machines. It enables us to remotely access the command line on those machines. But if you're running KDE on another machine, you can also use SSH to tunnel your files and folders to either Dolphin or Konqueror. The trick is to use a psuedo-protocol called Fish.

Open the location bar in Dolphin, or type directly into the URL field in Konqueror, and prefix the IP address of your server with fish://. Typing fish://user@hostname, for example, would connect you to the user account on the hostname server and display the contents of user's home directory in the file manager. You can then treat this location just as you would a local folder.

In the background, KDE has installed a small hidden Perl script called .fishsrc in the remote machine's login directory. This runs on the remote machine and manages the file transfers. It does this without resorting to the secure file copy command, sftp, which makes Fish is a great solution if you're unable to install sftp on a remote machine.

The future of KDE

KDE 4.2 is the desktop we hoped for when version 4 was first announced.

Update KDE!

The latest release of the version 4-era desktop is the first to truly build on the foundation of the KDE 4 API rather than just fix holes in it. This means that developers have been able to add new features, rather than play catchup with the KDE 3.5 version.

Finally, after years of promises and delayed development, Plasma is becoming useful, and is beginning to deserve its place at the centre of the KDE universe. KDE 4.2 includes many new Plasmoid applets, and thanks to hundreds of bugfixes, they should remain relatively stable.

Small things, such as the desktop icons fading away as you resize the Folder View, or the Desktop Settings panel being sensibly renamed to 'Appearance' Settings, mean that the KDE team are finally looking at the desktop through a new user's eyes, and not just through their split-console, überfunctional power-user's installation.

Split your task manager

Now that many of us use a larger, wider desktop panel, KDE developers have added the ability to hold two rows of tasks in the task manager.

This is a great space-saving solution if your screen is on the smaller side, as it means you get a better overview of all the currently open windows on your desktop. Normally, window titles are truncated to just their icon, but with two rows, you have a better chance of finding the task you want to select.

To enable the extra rows, right-click on the task manager and open the Task Manager Settings window. This feature is also available as a separate Plasmoid for earlier KDE versions.

Our top three new plasmoids

1. Web Browser
As you might well have guessed from the name, this Plasmoid places a tiny web browser on to your desktop, complete with auto-update. Ideal for quick searches, getting the sports results and Twitter sites.

2. Paste Bin
This seemingly unimportant new Plasmoid is quite the opposite. Drag and drop images and text from your destop, and they're automatically uploaded to a remote server. Perfect for collaboration

3. Google Widgets
You can now add Google's own desktop Widgets to your KDE desktop, and you can even do this from within Plasma by selecting 'Google Gadgets' from the 'Install New Widgets' menu.


First published in Linux Format, Issue 116

Now read Building the KDE UserBase

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