I’ve made an effort over the Christmas break to try as many new (or long-unused) software packages. This is party to ensure that I stay up to date (I can just about justify not knowing the inner workings of Vista, but not being able to configure Kmail is just embarrassing), but also because I will soon be buying a new main computer, and am still undecided as to what OS to run on it.

My usual working environment revolves around the Gnome Desktop Environment, running on either Ubuntu or Mandriva. I’m also a regular user of Mac OS X (both Tiger and Leopard), as well as Windows XP which I have to use for a couple of tasks at work. I’ve not used KDE regularly for over 4 years, and have not used it for more than 5 minutes since KDE4 came out. To rectify this shortcoming, I’ve now set up two test environments:

  1. A fresh install of Mandriva One 2009 (KDE version) on a 6 year old HP laptop which has a flaky wireless card and a broken trackpad (but which is surprisingly fast otherwise).
  2. My usual Ubuntu laptop with the kubuntu-desktop metapackage installed on top of what is already there.

The way KDE4 is set up varies a lot between the two distros, so some of my observations apply to one or the other:

I like the overall sense of minimalism. Previously KDE seemed cluttered, and both distros have done away with the clutter to a greater or lesser degree. Kubuntu have made no preconceptions about what users might want on the taskbar, choosing instead to just have a menu icon and a very useful file management widgit. Mandriva have put shortcuts to configuring desktop and computer (both very useful), as well as a “show desktop” icon and a shortcut to Firefox. All of these work, but as with Gnome I find myself wanting to add my own frequently used applications (in Gnome I always add Firefox, Thunderbird and Gnome Terminal to the top taskbar as soon as I do a fresh install).

Mandriva have chosen to go with a KDE3 style menu, while Kubuntu go with the KDE4 default. Both are fairly instinctive, but I had a little trouble finding Dolphin on Mandriva, and was a little baffled that Kubuntu doesn’t seem to have decided whether Dolphin or Konqueror should be used as a file manager (which is a shame because I’m really taken with Dolphin).

Configuring Kmail was very different in each distro, which confused me, but both were at least as simple as Evolution, and I had no problem setting up my email, and performing a few basic tasks.

The look and feel of both distros is excellent, and they certainly look prettier than anything I’m running at present. I can certainly make Gnome look this good, but out-of-the box KDE is more aesthetically appealing.

My only real gripe is with Plasma; both the annoying Folder View that comes as default, and also the fact that adding or removing widgits can cause random crashes. It’s useful, but just doesn’t seem finished to me.

I think KDE4 has the potential to be really good in about 6 months time, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone coming to Linux from Windows. I also think both Mandriva and Kubuntu have taken KDE in interesting (but very different) directions, and I find myself wanting to see how other distros have implemented it now.