Guide to KDE: The Other Linux Desktop

Table Of Contents


§2–Getting the KDE Software Compilation

§3–Using KDE

§4–KDE Base Applications

§5–Other KDE SC Packages

§6–Additional Packages and Applications

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1. Introduction

Welcome to MakeUseOf’s “Guide to KDE: The Other Linux Desktop.” This guide is meant to introduce the so-called “power users” of computers with an introduction to KDE, including the option (and freedom) that it provides. If you fall into one of the following categories, this guide is for you:

  • You’re a Windows user, but are turned off by the new Windows 8 look and Start Screen. You’re looking for an OS that works kind of like Windows 7, but even better.
  • You’re a new Linux user, and have been trying out Ubuntu. But Unity, the Dash, Scopes, and Lenses just aren’t your thing. Where’s the “Start” button?
  • You’re an intermediate Linux user, and now you have a taste for customization. So you’re looking for a way to configure your own, great-looking desktop, with lots of shiny gadgets everywhere.
  • You’re an old-school Linux user who’s just now (begrudgingly) installing X, and you need to pick a desktop. You’d rather just use emacs for everything, but you admit sometimes colors are nice.

In this guide we’ll provide an overview of the KDE desktop environment, let you know how to get it and install it, introduce the various pieces of the base system (i.e. the desktop), and finally describe how to perform some common tasks with the applications that come with it.

But first, a little background on KDE.

1.1 What is KDE?

KDE, or more correctly “the KDE Software Collection,” is a project founded in 1996 by Matthias Ettrich to provide a full-featured desktop environment for free software operating systems (including Linux). At the time, there were a number of programs (referred to as “window managers”) providing a graphical user interface (GUI) for these OSes, but none in particular were leading the pack.

KDE was an attempt to recreate the functionality of packages such as the Common Desktop Environment (CDE), which was the default GUI for many commercial/proprietary versions of Unix. But it also sought to standardize the pieces (widgets) that make up the applications. For example, if a user opened an application at the time to send an e-mail, that program might have to open libraries of widgets to draw the windows, provide graphics for the buttons, edit the text, print the e-mail, and send the e-mail, all from different projects and with the inconsistencies that entails. KDE was meant to create a desktop environment with some consistency, targeted at the end user.

So at this point, we’ve used the term “desktop environment” a number of times. What the heck does that mean?

1.2 What is a “Desktop Environment”?

On a Linux system (as well as other free, Unix-like software systems), there’s a “stack” of software that ultimately displays a GUI for the user:

Note: image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

  • At the lowest level, the Linux kernel and its drivers talk to the computer’s display, and tell it when to light up pixels, and how.
  • The X-Window System (or X11, or simply X) coordinates the lighting of these pixels to draw windows. The “background” is referred to as the “root window,” and other programs open in their own windows on top of it.
  • A window manager arranges all these “X-windows,” and allows for things such as clicking on the title bar of one program to “raise” it above another.
  • Toolkits provide commonly used pieces to programs, such as menu bars, buttons, file dialogs, and the “frames” for the window manager to use to decorate.
  • Lastly, a desktop environment will provide a window manager (or work with an existing one), use a common toolkit across its applications, and provide countless other useful elements, from basic tools such as application menus, lists of programs currently running, and a way to manage files to advanced ones such as a full-featured “control center”-style application.

Desktop environments are a great example on the “standing on the shoulders of giants” philosophy that makes the free software community so great. So how does KDE fit into that community?

Here’s a comparison of some of the main desktop environments for Linux, if you’re curious.

1.3 KDE in the Linux Community

KDE serves several important roles in the Linux community:

  • It is one of the most successful free software projects around, and serves as proof of the benefits of free software.
  • It is the default desktop environment for a number of Linux distributions, giving them a powerful, modern UI.
  • It supplies the community with lots of free applications – from games, to music players, to office programs. Even if you don’t use KDE as your desktop environment, you’re still free (encouraged, even!) to take advantage of its apps.
  • It provides developers who aren’t formal members of the project with a great head start for developing their applications. They don’t need to worry about drawing their own buttons or coding their own file dialogs… the KDE libraries provide all of this.

So now that you know what KDE is all about, how do you go about getting it? Let’s take a look at ways you can take this desktop for a test drive.

2. Getting the KDE Software Compilation

There are a number of ways to get KDE and its components. It’s easiest to try out on Linux as follows:

  • Use a distribution that provides KDE as its default desktop environment
  • Install KDE in your existing Linux distribution, as an alternative to your existing desktop environment

KDE’s cross-platform Qt toolkit also works on other, non-Unix platforms, and it’s possible for advanced users to get these applications by the following methods:

  • The KDE project provides an installer to add KDE applications to Windows
  • You can also install these applications on Mac OS X via the macports, fink, or Homebrew projects as described here (between them, macports tends to have the more updated version)

Neither of these methods are exactly easy to use or stable, so keep that in mind: the easiest way to try KDE is within Linux. So let’s explore how to get a KDE environment on Linux you can explore.

2.1 Pre-Installed KDE Distributions

There are a number of distributions that provide and integrate KDE out of the box, including the following (all of which are part of MakeUseOf’s list of Best Linux Distributions:

  • Kubuntu
  • Fedora
  • Linux Mint
  • OpenSuSE

You can normally test out these distributions by creating a Live USB drive. For instructions on how to create and boot these, you can refer to these MakeUseOf articles describing the process:

  • For Windows, using Linux Live USB Creator
  • For, Mac OS X using these instructions to boot a Linux live USB on a Mac
  • For Linux, using Live USB Install

While making a Live CD is also an option, the size of the image files have begun to exceed what CDs can typically hold. Using a USB drive is your safest bet, and more portable. A final alternative is to create a virtual machine with one of the KDE-based distributions. If you’re new to virtual machines, read about how MakeUseOf explains and highlights two virtual machine programs that run on Linux.

But which distribution to select? Let’s take a look at a few.

2.1.1 Kubuntu

Kubuntu combines the extensive Ubuntu repositories with an up-to-date KDE desktop environment. If you’re using Ubuntu and want an Ubuntu-based option, but don’t want to install it on your main system just yet, getting a Kubuntu Live CD/USB is the easiest way to try it out. You can head over to the Kubuntu website to see what it’s all about.

  • Pros: Uses the common Ubuntu repositories. Provides an almost-vanilla version of KDE (good for avid customizers).
  • Caveats: No longer officially supported by Canonical, the corporate developer of Ubuntu (but rather by Blue Systems, who also supports the KDE version of Linux Mint). Provides an almost-vanilla version of KDE (for new users, it may seem a little bland).

Note: As the author is an avid Kubuntu user, the instructions in this guide will be for that distribution by default.

2.1.2 Fedora

Fedora is the community-driven distribution that forms the foundation of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The project aims to make rapid, regular releases, meaning you can always look forward to the best features. Although Ubuntu and its relatives are arguably more popular than Fedora/Red Hat (at least for consumer users), its RPM package format is still well-supported, meaning it’s rare to run into a problem finding a native package for third-party applications (i.e. those that aren’t distributed by Fedora itself). Visit the Fedora Project to pick up a copy.

  • Pros: Widespread package support. “Rawhide” distribution with rolling updates.
  • Caveats: GNOME is the default Fedora desktop (KDE is installable or available as a “spin” or variant of the standard distribution).

2.1.3 Linux Mint

Mint has become one of the most popular distributions; according to DistroWatch, it is the most popular (as measured by hits per day on its site), while the Mint site claims it is the fourth-most popular desktop operating system (behind Windows, Mac OS, and Ubuntu). Derived from an Ubuntu base, it adds additional polish, and is targeted as being the easy-to-use Linux version for novice and advanced users alike. This page is the latest Mint KDE version at the time of this writing (Linux Mint 15 “Olivia”).

  • Pros: Adds polish to an already polished Ubuntu base.
  • Caveats: Typically releases later than Ubuntu (since Mint builds on its packages). KDE is a non-default desktop that releases even later than the standard Mint versions.

2.1.4 OpenSuSE

OpenSuSE is the non-commercial variant of the long-standing SuSE Linux distribution, designed for community use. It uses a custom KDE environment to create a very branded and consistent feel. The features from this version eventually make their way into the commercial distribution (SuSE Enterprise Linux), but OpenSuSE follows a more frequent release cycle similar to others such as Ubuntu and Fedora (described below). You can easily grab the KDE version of the live CD.

  • Pros: Up-to-date and optimized KDE packages. Custom “YaST” system settings application.
  • Caveats: Smaller package selection. Less regular release schedule. Custom package manager (Zypper).

2.1.5 Honorable Mentions

Distrowatch lists over 100 distributions that offer KDE (some as default, some as an option). Some other popular alternatives are:

  • Debian GNU/Linux: One of the longest-lived distributions, it forms the foundation of Ubuntu. You can install KDE once the base installation is installed.
  • Mageia: A fork of one of the oldest KDE-focused distributions (Mandriva).
  • PC-BSD: Based on FreeBSD (a Unix-like OS similar to Linux), this aims to be the BSD for the non-technical user.

All told, you’ll have no problems if you select any of the above options to try out KDE. If you’re wondering what makes one distribution better/worse/different compared to others, this MakeUseOf article about the difference between Linux distros can help explain.

2.2 Installing KDE in Linux

If you’re already using Linux and have hard drive space to burn, you can easily install the KDE desktop right now. There’s no risk in doing so – it won’t “take over” your desktop – it will simply appear as an option the next time you log in (we’ll cover how this appears in your display manager in a later section).

You can often find a metapackage, or a package that will install other packages, for KDE using your preferred software manager. Look for one that says “KDE Desktop,” or simply “KDE.” The corresponding packages and their command-line install commands are listed below for Ubuntu, Fedora, Linux Mint, and OpenSuSE:

  • Distribution:Package Name /Command-line Install
  • Ubuntu:kubuntu-desktop /sudo tasksel install kubuntu-desktop
  • Fedora:”KDE Software Compilation” /yum groupinstall “KDE Software Compilation”
  • Linux Mint:mint-meta-kde /sudo apt-get install mint-meta-kde
  • OpenSuSE:kde4, kde4_basis /zypper install -t pattern kde4 kde4_basis

These quick commands will install the following items for you:

  • KDE base system, including libraries and the Qt toolkit
  • The KDE Plasma Desktop shell, including basic items such as applications menu, system tray, and desktop
  • Many base applications, such as a file manager, web browser, utilities (calculator, etc.), and system configuration tools

We’ll explore all these parts of the system one at a time in the next section.

3. Using KDE

3.1 Logging In

The first step to using KDE once it’s installed is logging out of your current desktop session. Once you do so, you’ll be directed to the login manager (often called the “display manager”) for the system. Depending on your system, you might have the KDE greeter (or theme) installed.

If not, you can still get to KDE with your existing display manager. This is LightDM on an Ubuntu system, with the default Unity theme.

If you had no other desktops previously, you may not have had the ability to select a “session,” but you should now. How it appears will depend on your login manager and distribution, but there should be a button or drop-down that allows you to select a “KDE”-titled session. On a default Ubuntu installation it’s a little white Ubuntu logo.

Click the logo, and select KDE from the list.

You can tell you’ll be directed to KDE by the little white logo, which is now updated to the KDE logo.

Log in with your username and password, and you’re off and running. The first thing you’ll see is the progress window as the components of the desktop are loading.

Once that’s complete, you’ll see a shiny new desktop. Let’s take a look at some of the parts of the desktop as it comes out-of-the-box in the next section.

3.2 An Overview of the KDE Desktop

3.2.1 The Desktop

If you’re familiar with the “Windows”-style of desktop layouts, things should look fairly familiar. Most of the screen is the desktop background, where you can place things (including, but not limited to, a background, links to files, and other fun widgets). It operates a little differently than Windows or Mac desktops, however, in that the default desktop doesn’t hold those things directly (at least not by default). Instead, you can place things on the desktop that will hold all those things (this is typically a Folder View Widget). Out of the box the Kubuntu desktop contains one of these widgets, which reads “This folder is empty.” We’ll explain how to get things to show up here a little later.

3.2.2 The Panel

There’s also a Panel at the bottom of the screen with controls, and a desktop background. Out of the box most KDE desktops will start you out with the Panel elements in the sections below.

3.2.3 The “K” Menu

The “K” menu at the far left of the Panel is much like the “Start” menu in that other OS. It allows you to browse through all your installed GUI applications. But where other systems will often group these by manufacturer or application, KDE does contain some categories to allow you to organize things a bit more:

  1. Development
  2. Education
  3. Games
  4. Graphics
  5. Internet
  6. Multimedia
  7. Office
  8. Settings
  9. System
  10. Utilities
  11. Lost & Found

We’ll visit some of the programs within each of these groups in a later section, but know in the meantime you can use the “K” menu to get to them. It’s also useful to note that this menu doesn’t contain icons for command-line applications, but if you find yourself using these you can create new menu items for that (we’ll cover that later as well).

It also contains tabs for maintaining a “Favorites” list of your most frequently-used applications, links to key settings and locations on your computer, a list of recently-used documents or files, and the buttons for you to log out, reboot, or power off your computer.

3.2.4 Activities

Many users are familiar with the concept of “virtual desktops,” or multiple copies of the computer desktop that exist in parallel. This allows you to, for example, have some office document windows open on one screen while also having your mail and instant messenger open on another, all “active” at the same time without the need to switch (i.e. “Alt-Tab” or “Command-Tab”) between them. Activities are similar, but more powerful: you can choose to have different backgrounds/widgets on the desktop between activities, and configure certain applications only to open within selected Activities. This feature can be as powerful or simple as you choose to make it. We’ll cover Activities in more depth later.

3.2.5 Task Manager

The Task Manager is a list of currently running applications, just like the one in Windows, and it functions in a similar way:

  • The Task Manager shows the icon and title of each application currently open.
  • The “active” application (i.e. the one you’re using) is highlighted.
  • Clicking on an application other than the current one will make the selected one “active.”
  • Right clicking on an application gives you options to maximize it, minimize it, or close it, among others.

3.2.6 Widgets

KDE comes with all manner of widgets, most of which you can place on a Panel or your desktop. The “Show Desktop” widget pictured here does exactly what you’d expect… when clicked, it lowers all windows so you can get at your desktop links or files, and raises everything to where it was when clicked again.

Another example of a Widget is a Quick Launcher, or buttons on the Panel that will launch your favorite applications. In the figure below a Quick Launcher is set up for Dolphin, KDE’s file manager.

3.2.7 System Tray

The System Tray is also similar to the one you’d find in Windows or Mac OS. Programs that run in the background, ones that only require quick input/selections, or ones that are more system-related will show as icons here. Left- or right-clicking on these will give you the options to work with them (which for some include opening in a regular window). Some of the important ones pictured here are as follows:

  1. The first icon will appear when updates to your software are available. It will launch the Muon Updater program (we’ll cover this later), which allows you to download and install all updated software automatically.
  2. In addition to icons for the clipboard (indicated by scissors) and volume (indicated by the speaker), there’s also one to access all your removable media. This currently shows that the Virtual Box CD for Guest Extensions is in the computer’s drive. Other media like USB drives will also show up here.
  3. The KDE Network Manager is also in the System Tray, and lets you configure different networking set-ups (like wireless passwords) for different locations. You can then switch between them with a couple of clicks.

Let’s get into customizing some of these elements, so you’ll feel a little more at home.

3.3 Customizing Your KDE Environment

3.3.1 Desktop

The first thing you may want to change is your desktop background image. You can do so easily by right clicking on the desktop background, and selecting the “Default Desktop Settings” option in the menu.

This will display a dialog allowing you to select a pre-installed wallpaper, download additional wallpaper images from the KDE project (using the “Get New Wallpapers” button), or use a file on your computer by clicking the “Open” button. If you select an image of the same dimensions as your screen you’re all set.

Otherwise, you can set its placement on the desktop using the following drop-down options in the “Positioning” dialog item:

  • Scaled & Cropped: This option will fill the entire background with the image by scaling it up or down so that the shortest side fits the full width/height, then cropping from the top and bottom or left and right of the image to make it fit the other dimension. For example, if you select a 700px by 500px image for an 800px by 600px screen, this option would expand the image to 840px by 600px, then crop the 20px from the top and bottom to make it fit the screen.
  • Scaled: This option will fill the entire background with the image by scaling the height and width up or down to accommodate both dimensions. This will make sure your entire image is on the screen, but may result in some distortion if the both dimensions aren’t scaled the same amount (in the example above, the 700px by 500px image would end up looking “stretched” horizontally, because the width needed to be increased more proportionally than the height to fill the screen).
  • Scaled, keep proportions: This option will ensure the entire image is on screen, but may leave some excess space either at the top and bottom, or left and right, if the image isn’t the same dimensions as the screen. This excess space is just filled with a plain border color (black by default, but you can change this using the “Color” button directly below the “Positioning” item).
  • Centered: As it suggests, this option will center the image on the screen. If the image is smaller than the screen, it will display border space on all sides as needed. If the image is larger than the screen, it will place the center of the image at the center of the screen, so there will be portions of the image that are not visible on-screen.
  • Tiled: This option will place the image at native size at the top-right corner of the screen, and repeat it in columns and rows across the screen. Note that if the image is larger than the screen, it will just display as much of the image as the screen size allows, starting from the top-right corner.
  • Center Tiled: Lastly, this option will place the image directly in the center of the screen, and repeat it in columns and rows around it. This ensures at least one view of the image is fully displayed in the middle of the screen, unless it’s larger than the screen size. In this case, it will just appear to be centered.

This was a lot of explanation, but the easiest way to set this up is just to try each option in turn, click the “Apply” button, and see which ones you like.

3.3.2 Panel

Next, you may not like the location of the Panel at the bottom of the screen. First, click on the icon at the far right-hand side of the Panel, which opens up Panel Tool Box.

This contains a number of options to customize panels, one of which is the “Screen Edge” control in the middle of the second row. By clicking and dragging on this control, you can place the Panel on any edge of the screen you like.

The Panel Tool Box also contains some other useful controls, including the following:

  • The first row of the Tool Box allows you to control the size. The top or left side will have a slider control controlling where the panel begins. The left or bottom of the panel has two controls, one of which will set the minimum width of the Panel, one of which will set a maximum width. As you move these around, you’ll see the Panel size change in real-time.
  • The second row contains the aforementioned “Screen Edge” control, in addition to a few others. These include a “Height” control (which controls the height, or thickness, of the Panel), an “Add Widgets” control (more on this later), an “Add Spacer” option (this will add empty space between two Panel widgets so that, for example, the “K” Menu always appears at the far left of the Panel), and a “More Settings” button, which contains options for aligning the Panel on the edge of the screen, auto-hiding it when not in use, removing it, or making it maximum width.

Once you’re happy with the Panel’s placement, you might have noticed one last option in the “More Settings” menu: “Lock Widgets.” Since you’re able to set the placement of the Panel (and Widgets, as you’ll see shortly) via drag-and-drop, KDE provides a way to make sure you don’t accidentally move (or worse, remove) any of these desktop tools with a stray mouse gesture. When you select “Lock Widgets,” you won’t be able to move things again until you select “Unlock Widgets” from the right-click menu of the Panel, desktop background, or most other Widgets in the system. You do have the ability to configure these items with a right-click as well (the option is usually something like “Task Manager Settings”), but you can’t reposition them unless you “Unlock Widgets.”

Lastly, let’s do some re-arranging of items on the Panel. If you need to, go ahead and “Unlock Widgets” so you can move things around. Hit the “Panel Tool Box” button, then mouse over an existing item, such as the clock at the far right. A four-arrow icon will appear over the item, indicating you can drag it to a different place on the Panel. Drag it all the way to the left (past the “K” menu), then release. Presto! You can use this process to order things on the Panel to your liking.

You can also remove any items from the Panel by right clicking on it, and selecting the “Remove [Widget Name]” option from the menu that appears.

Lastly, unlike some environments, you aren’t limited to having just one panel. Minimize all your windows until you’re at the desktop background again (or use your Show Desktop button on the Panel, if you didn’t remove it), then right-click. There’s an option titled “Add Panel,” which has two sub-items: “Default Panel” and “Empty Panel.” The “Default Panel” will create a new version of a Panel containing items such as the “K” Menu, Task Manager, System Tray, and clock. But you should already have one of these, so select “Empty Panel.” Now you have a new space to put some cool stuff.

But how do you get that cool stuff onto the Panel? Now that you’ve done some basic customization, start adding some Plasmoid Widgets.

3.4 Adding Widgets to Your Desktop

Widgets is a generic term that includes a number of things on your desktop, including the “K” Menu, the Task Manager, and more. Plasmoids are the KDE-native format for widgets, although KDE does also support widgets from other systems, including web-based widgets (written in HTML and Javascript), SuperKaramba widgets (a widget system included in the 3.x version of KDE), and Apple widgets.

So as it stands, you already have a number of Widgets. Most Widgets have a number of options you can configure, which are accessible by either right-clicking on the widget (and selecting the option like [Widget Name] Settings. For example, by selecting the “Digital Clock Settings,” you can change settings such as the color and font used, which timezone to use, and whether it should also display the date.

Let’s start by adding a new widget to the desktop, then we’ll configure it. Minimize all your open windows, then right-click on the desktop background. Select the “Add Widget” option (note that Widgets will need to be Unlocked for this to appear).

You’ll be presented with a scrolling, “filmstrip-style” dialog showing all available widgets.

There are a number of ways to find your desired widget in this dialog:

  • You can browse the entire selection, using the scroll bar at the bottom, or the scroll wheel on your mouse.
  • You can type a keyword into the “Enter search term…” box to show widgets that match.
  • You can use the “Categories” list to filter to show widgets from a selected category.

There are a lot of items on this list, some of which you’ll recognize (such as the “System Tray,” which is included in the Default Panel created when you first logged in), the rest of which range from quite useful (such as the “Folder View” widget) to not-so-useful, but still fun (e.g. there’s a widget that displays a pair of eyes, the only job of which is to follow the cursor around the screen). We won’t describe all these here – you can hover over a Widget to get a short description – but like most things, the easiest way to see if you like it or not is to go ahead and select it. Let’s do just that with two of the widgets the author uses most: the “Folder View” and “Picture Frame” widgets.

3.4.1 Add the Widget to the Desktop

First, bring up that “filmstrip” dialog as described above. In the search box, enter “folder.” You’ll see the list reduce to (depending on your distribution) just a few items, one of which is “Folder View.”

To place this on the desktop, all you need to do is click-and-drag the item to the background.

When you release the mouse button, a new Widget will pop into view. Open that dialog again, and this time search for “picture.” Grab the “Picture Frame” widget, and drag that onto your desktop as well.

3.4.2 Configuring Widgets

Now that you’ve got these new widgets, let’s change them a little. For example, let’s set the “Folder View” Widget to display the contents of the “Desktop” folder instead of the entire home directory. You can get to the configuration for the Widget by either right-clicking on it, or by selecting the wrench icon on the “handle” that appears when you mouse over the widget (provided your Widgets are still “Unlocked”).

The first tab on the settings dialog is what we’re looking for. There’s a radio button allowing you to set the Widget to display the Desktop folder, but you can also select from among Places (which includes pre-determined file paths such as the home directory, removable media, and network locations), or select your own folder path to display in the widget. You can also see other tabs to modify how the Widget displays icons and whether it will filter for a particular type of files. Once you’re finished, click “OK” to close the dialog.

Now we want to configure the Picture Frame, but also move it so it doesn’t overlap with the Folder View. Click-and-drag on the Widget’s handle to move it to the lower-right corner.

Better, but now that it’s moved, we can make it a lot bigger to fill space. Click-and-drag on the top-most rectangular icon on the handle to resize the Widget.

Now, let’s set up the Picture Frame by selecting the wrench icon. The Picture Frame can either be set up to show a single image, a slideshow that will periodically rotate through all the picture files in a given folder, or a “picture of the day” from external sources such as Flickr or National Geographic. If you select the “Image” option and click the folder button, you’ll be prompted to select a single image file to display. If you select the “Slideshow” option, you can add multiple folders (the images from all of which will be displayed in the slideshow), select whether to show the images in random order, and configure how often to update the images.

Once you click “OK,” the first image should appear in the frame, and it will display a new image based on the duration you chose.

You can configure other desktop widgets in the same fashion: add one to the desktop, move it, resize it, and then configure its Settings. But the desktop isn’t the only place for Widgets… the Panel can hold them too!

3.4.3 Adding Widgets to Panels

Some Widgets can be added to Panels as well as the Desktop. To add one, right-click on the Panel instead of the desktop background. You may get some options for an already-present Widget, but there will be a menu item titled “Panel Options,” within which you’ll find the “Add Widgets” item.

This calls up a familiar dialog… this time, instead of dragging your preferred Widget onto the Desktop, pull it over the Panel. It’s sometimes tricky to get it to a place where it’s not in the center of an existing Widget—you should see the “shadow” of an empty space open up, at which point you can drop the new Widget there.

In this case, we’re placing the same “Folder View” Widget on the Panel that we did on the desktop (configured to display the contents of the “Desktop” folder as we did above). When dropped on the Panel, however, the Folder View displays as a button with the folder’s icon. When you click this button, a pop-up list of all the folder’s files and sub-folders appears. So even though the way you work with Widgets on the desktop and on the Panel may differ slightly, their basic functionality is the same.

Here are a couple of noteworthy Panel Widgets that you may want to explore:

  • Menubar: In the style of the Macintosh, this moves the main menu (normally “File,” “Edit,” etc.) for applications into the panel, giving you a little more room in the program’s window.
  • (Icon Only) Task Manager: You can add a task manager to a Panel as well. We’ve seen the “Windows-style” task manager that displays the program’s icon and title, but there is also an alternate “Icon Only Task Manager,” that displays a larger icon (more like Mac OS X’s Dock or the Dash in Unity). Also, you have the ability to modify what programs are displayed, so you may want to set up one Task Manager for only the screen you’re in, and one that displays all the open programs regardless of what screen they’re on (we’ll discuss more about what these “screens” mean when we review Activities).
  • There are three different “K” Menu-style Widgets that come with KDE out of the box. The “Application Launcher” is the tabbed “K” Menu we saw earlier in this guide. There’s a simpler option, called “Application Launcher Menu,” which displays all the system’s programs similar to the menu from Windows 95. There’s also a more modern option, titled “Homerun Launcher,” which allows for display of all applications alphabetically and searching by name, similar to how the Unity Dash operates.

Now you have your environment just the way you want it… for now. But what if this set-up doesn’t work for some of the other things you do? What if you like to have lots of pictures and interactive do-dads around for your downtime, but when it’s time to work you focus on lists of files and folders? KDE can support you with different environments for the different stuff you do on your computer—welcome to KDE Activities!

3.5 Introduction to Activities

KDE’s Activities model was created as an alternative to “virtual desktops,” which allow you to have different sets of programs open in different “virtual” screens so they won’t interfere with one another. A couple of uses for this include the following:

  • Keeping all work-related items on one screen, and all personal-related on another
  • Keeping multiple windows of communications programs such as e-mail and IM open for multi-tasking on one screen, but only one full-screen application open on another for when you want to buckle down

Note: MakeUseOf has also covered Windows virtual desktop solutions, Mac workspaces and their use, but these strategies will also apply to virtual desktops and Activities on Linux.

While KDE supports virtual desktops as well, Activities are meant to be an “upgrade” to this model. Compared to virtual desktops, Activities have the following advantages:

  • Activities can have a unique desktop background
  • Activities can have a unique set of Widgets on the desktop
  • Programs can be configured to start in particular Activities, so if you have a “Work” Activity, you may want the LibreOffice applications to start there by default

The application of Activities will depend a great deal on how you go about your daily computing, but let’s suppose that you spend your time in three primary “buckets”:

  • You spend time browsing Facebook/Google+/Twitter while responding to instant messages and sending e-mail.
  • You are also a writer, diligently working on a new MUO Guide, including writing the text and taking screenshots.
  • Lastly, you’re an aspiring developer, and are trying to teach yourself some coding using the Eclipse IDE

In order to keep things organized, you might set up three Activites as follows:

  • “Main”: This is your “hanging out” Activity, and is decorated by a large picture of your pets in the background. You put Widgets on the desktop including an additional Picture Frame (for photos of family and friends), weather (for an at-a-glance forecast), and a system monitor (which keeps track of your CPU usage, RAM usage, and temperature). You set the instant messenger program (Kopete, we’ll cover this later) to always open in this Activity, as well as your e-mail program (Kontact). Lastly, you place a Facebook Widget that displays a view of Facebook directly on your desktop, and two Web Browser Widgets on the desktop with so you can have the other social media sites open at all times.
  • “Work”: This is for work, and contains a Folder View Widget for each of your current projects on the desktop, as well as a single Quick Launch Widget with all your office-type programs.
  • “Development”: This contains more Folder View Widgets (showing the contents of coding project folders), as well as a Quick Launch Widget with an Eclipse Launcher. You’ve also set up custom configurations for Kate (one of the text editors for KDE) and Konsole (a terminal emulator) that help with your coding activities, and you’ve linked each of these to a Kate Session Widget and Konsole Session Widget, respectively. Finally, you’ve set up Eclipse, Kate, and Konsole to always start in this Activity, along with some other development programs such as KDEsvn (a source control program) and Kompare (a program that compares two files to find the differences).

With these ideas fresh in your mind, here’s how to create a new Activity. First, click on the desktop background, and select the “Activities” option; you can also click on the “Workspace” menu at the top-right corner of the screen (unless you have a full-width Panel at the top, in which case it’s a smaller tab a few inches down the right-hand side of the screen) and select the same option.

This displays the Activities bar at the bottom of the screen, displaying all Activities currently configured for your system. Depending on your distribution, you might have a couple of extra ones already set up (Kubuntu will only create a “Desktop” activity by default).

Clicking the “Create Activity” button gives you the option to set up a “Empty Desktop” activity like the default one (i.e. with a desktop background for placing Widgets), to duplicate your current Activity (in order to make minor changes, for example), or one of the available Templates, which include the following types:

  • Desktop Icons: This is a more traditional “desktop” metaphor where you have the ability to place things directly on the desktop (as opposed to using a Folder View Widget).
  • Folder: Similar to the above, this operates even more like the desktop is Windows XP, where icons are placed on the desktop with the option to line them up and sort them automatically. Note that you can still add other Widgets to this template, as well as the Desktop Icons template above.
  • Homerun: This template creates a desktop background identical to the menus you see when clicking on the Homerun Launcher button in a Panel.
  • Newspaper Layout: This template allows you to add widgets in “blocks,” not unlike the new “Metro” interface of Windows 8. It’s useful for putting Widgets that show a lot of different information from different sources into a compact, at-a-glance view.
  • Photos Activity: This template pre-creates two Widgets for you, one Folder View that’s pointed at your home directory’s “Pictures” folder, and another a Picture Frame Widget set to show a Slideshow of all the images in that directory and its sub-folders.
  • Search and Launch: This template is focused on finding programs, and is comprised of two sections. The top of the screen contains links to some of your favorite applications and a search box. The bottom contains icons allowing you to navigate the applications on your system. These will look familiar, as they’re the same categories as those shown in the “K” Menu and Homerun widgets.

Once you select an option (“Empty Desktop,” duplicate the current Activity, or use a Template), your new Activity will appear, ready for you to load it up with Widgets. There are two important things to note about Activities, however:

  • Firstly, Panels are currently shared across all Activites. That means if you make a change to a Panel in one Activity, it will appear that way for all Activities.
  • On the other hand, you can still use virtual desktops with Activities. But the settings for an Activity (desktop background, Widgets, etc.) will be common across all the virtual desktops. Only the set of open programs will differ as you go from one virtual desktop to another.

There are many other ways in which you can customize your KDE environment, most of which are performed through the System Settings application. We’ll cover this in the next section, along with a number of the other programs that come with the KDE Software Collection.

4. KDE Base Applications

While almost all of the programs in the below sections are part of the KDE SC, we’ll be covering them in two separate sections: one section describing the applications to perform the most basic computing tasks, and one section providing an overview of some of the programs that are part of the SC’s main categories.

4.1 System Settings

There was a time when the configuration of many things in Linux required the modification of text files, or the addition of options such as command-line flags at runtime. But there’s been much progress since then, and desktop environments provide a consolidated, “Control Panel”-style application.

KDE has “System Settings,” which has a UI similar to the “System Preferences” of Mac OS X. Each of the “configuration modules” is arranged into groupings.

Clicking on each of the icons on the main screen will take you to a configuration module, each of which may have one or more tabs full of options. While we can’t list each and every configuration module here (the KDE UserBase Wiki does a good job of this), and many of them are self-explanatory (such as changing your password in the “Account Details” module), the below sections will outline two useful ones.

4.1.1 Shortcuts & Gestures

Go to the “Shortcuts and Gestures” module in the “Common Appearance and Behavior” group. KDE uses a detailed system for keyboard shortcuts that includes the following modules:

  • Standard Keyboard Shortcuts: This screen lets set or modify the shortcuts for commands common across many applications (such as “Save,” “New,” “Print,” etc.). Most of these use the “Control” key by default. But you can change this, or set secondary (called “Alternate” shortcut) using the process described below. These shortcuts will work on the current (active) application.
  • Global Keyboard Shortcuts: These are shortcuts that will work regardless of which application you’re currently in, and are commonly used to do things that aren’t program-specific (like changing the volume or switching to Activities).
  • Custom Shortcuts: You can set up shortcuts for just about any program, including setting up gestures for them. This section requires a little more understanding of KDE and its underlying framework (such as D-Bus messages) to use completely, but even at its most basic level you can use it to set up a “hotkey” for any application on your system.

Let’s set up one of these hotkeys, as it will demonstrate how to assign these key combinations in the process. Click on the “Custom Shortcuts,” then click on the “Edit” button at the bottom of the list of current shortcuts. One of these options is “New Group,” which allows you to collect these into folders to organize them. After you give the new Group a name, click on the “Edit” button again, then “New > Global Shortcut > Command/URL,” using “Launch File Manager” for its name.

There main portion of the dialog has three main tabs:

  • Comment: This is an area for you to enter some notes regarding the shortcut… what it’s for, etc.
  • Trigger: This is the key combination you want for the shortcut.
  • Action: This is what will happen when you enter the above combination, which in this case is to execute a command.

In order to set up this shortcut, enter the following in each section:

  • Comment: Here, enter, “This shortcut will open the default file manager.”
  • Trigger: There is a button here labeled “None,” since the key combination hasn’t been assigned yet. Clicking on this will change that label to “Input …,” indicating that the next key combination you enter will be captured and assigned. If you hold down the “Windows” key (if you have one), then press the “p” key, the combination will be recorded as “Meta+P.”
  • Action: In the field labeled “Command/URL,” enter “dolphin,” the name of the KDE file manager (more on this application in a bit).

After clicking the “Apply” button in the lower-right corner of the window, anytime you want to launch the file manager, rather than searching for a launcher icon you’ll just need to hit the “Windows-P” key combination.

4.1.2 Application Appearance/Workspace Appearance (Theme)

One area where the customizability of KDE currently gets in its own way is when it comes to setting the visual aspects of your environment, i.e. theming. Windows (at least the last time the author used it) had a mechanism where a theme could be downloaded and installed, and it would set the necessary configurations for all aspects of the system: fonts, background, appearance of window title bars, etc.

As it stands in KDE, these configurations are spread across three separate items in System Settings:

  • Application Appearance: How the bits and pieces that make up applications look, such as buttons and menus, is set in this module. It includes tabs to configure Style (specifically, for controls like buttons, sliders, and tabs), Colors (colors for just about everywhere a background or text appears in the system), Icons (the graphics used for buttons, files/documents and their types, e.g. how the icon for “Word files” looks), Fonts (what typeface is used for elements, and at what size), Gtk (which attempts to create settings that make non-KDE applications using the Gtk toolkit look similar to native KDE programs), and Emoticons (which defines what text that the system should interpret as emoticons, and which graphics to show in its place).
  • Workspace Appearance: While the above module controls how things look within a particular application, this one defines how things look across the environment. It has a number of tabs, including Window Decorations (which define how the title bars of applications look, and where the buttons such “Close” are located), Cursor Theme (the shape and behavior of the cursor), Desktop Theme (which will set a number of other configurations, including Color Scheme and Icon Theme), and Splash Screen (the progress dialog that showed when you first logged into KDE).

Unfortunately, while you can download new Desktop Themes from within System Settings (using the “Get New Themes” button on the “Desktop Theme” tab) or from sites such as KDE Look, the themes still don’t set every aspect of the appearance like you’d expect. In order to truly get the look you’re seeking, you’ll probably need to visit each of the tabs in the two above modules and make some changes.

4.2 Dolphin File Manager

During the course of doing computer work, you’re likely to be moving files and folders all around our own machines, as well as transferring them to other machines or devices. The file manager is the application for this. Windows has the venerable Explorer, while Mac users rely on Finder. Linux has many, many file managers, but Dolphin is the default file manager for KDE.

Dolphin (available under System in the “K” Menu) is unassuming when you first open it, showing the folders and files for your home directory. The left-hand side of the window shows a number of locations, including “Home” (your home directory), “Network” (shortcuts to network locations, such as FTP sites), “Root” (the root of your machine’s filesystem), and “Trash” (your trash bin). These locations are in the “Places Panel” (press F9 to toggle it on or off, or select it from the “View > Panels” menu), not to be confused with desktop Panels. You can add locations to the “Places” panel by right-clicking a folder, and selecting “Add to Places.” In addition to Places, Dolphin can display up to three other Panels:

  • Folders Panel (F7 to toggle on/off): Displays a tree view of the currently viewed folder relative to folders above and below it.
  • Information Panel (F11 to toggle on/off): Displays details of the currently selected file, such as size, owner, and modified date.
  • Terminal Panel (F4 to toggle on/off): Displays a terminal at the bottom of the Dolphin window with the currently viewed folder as the working directory (useful for issuing quick terminal commands on the files you’re currently reviewing).

The top row of buttons provides options for display of the file list (Icon View, Compact View showing only names, or Details view showing name and other information), whether Dolphin should load previews of files, and the ability to split the window. Other options are in the menu as well as under the “Control” button.

One way to utilize Dolphin is to open multiple windows and drag-and-drop files between them. But you can also utilize the “split” feature to move or copy files within the same window. The effect is the same, when you drop the folders/files at their destination, a pop-up will prompt you to select whether you’d like to move the files, copy them, or link them.

But Dolphin is much more than moving files around your local machine. Through the magic of kioslaves, you can set it up so that many different types of locations look like they’re local to your machine. This lets you do neat things like edit a file on a remote FTP server without having to download it, open it, edit, save it, and re-upload it to the place you got it. Instead, just click in the location bar of the Dolphin window, and enter the address where the file is (such as The FTP kioslave will handle the connection to the FTP site, as well as any necessary uploads/downloads of the file.

Network connections are especially easy using the “Add Network Folder” wizard. Click the “Network” item in the Places Panel, and the last entry will be “Add Network Folder.” The two screens that follow will collect the necessary information to connect to the network resource, then set up a shortcut so you can easily get to it in the future.

Once you set these items up, Dolphin becomes your hub for moving your content to all sorts of places: web files to your server, pictures from your digital camera to your computer (via the “PTP” kioslave), or music to your Android phone (via the “MTP” kioslave).

Note: MakeUseOf has previously compared how Dolphin stacks up against Nautilus, the default file manager for Ubuntu.

4.3 Muon Package Manager

While KDE does come with an impressive amount of software out of the box, at some point you’ll want more. The Muon Software Center or Muon Discover application (both available under System in the “K” Menu) are the places to look for it. Muon Discover is more of a modern “app store”-style experience, where the So

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