Enhancing your work habits with KDE

Working Smarter

Article from Issue 172/2015

KDE extends the concept of the desktop with innovations that can significantly enhance your productivity.

As I write, at least six desktop environments are popular among free software users. However, even with long familiarity, none of the others come close to the versatility of KDE [1]. KDE starts with the classic desktop and adds many of the features that other desktops include, such as panel widgets and special effects. Some of its features, such as hot spots on the screen edges, were unique a few years ago but have since been added to other environments (e.g., Cinnamon). Moreover, even now, few other desktops offer the same degree of customization as KDE, whose settings include options for bringing a window into focus and actions to take when an external device is plugged in.

However, where KDE truly excels is in enhancements that extend the traditional desktop and give users new ways to work. Tabbed windows, Desktop Layouts, Activities – all of these are relatively simple improvements on the desktop, but the effect of even the simplest on your work habits can be enough to make you impatient with the limitations of other desktops.

Tabbed Windows

Remember how awkward web browsing used to be when every page had to open in a separate window? If you were referring to several pages at a time, you spent as much time finding the window you wanted as doing your work.

Tabbed windows solve the same problem on the desktop. Instead of opening multiple windows and struggling to keep track of them – or, in the case of Gnome, to find which virtual desktop they've been dumped on – you can click on the titlebar menu and select Attach as tab to, to group applications as tabs in the same window. For example, when I am writing a free software article, I regularly group the Bluefish text editor with the application that is my subject, as well as a browser in case I have to look something up, and a graphics editor like Krita in case I want to take a screenshot. With tabbed windows, all my writing tools are available in the same window and only a mouse click away (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Just as a web browser places separate pages in tabs in a single window, KDE lets you group multiple applications in the same window.

Of course, practically speaking, having more than about half a dozen tabs in the same window becomes self-defeating, because too many tabs makes their labels too short to read. Also, the feature only exists when you use the Oxygen theme set [2]. All the same, tabbed windows eliminate so much wasted time that these limitations rarely matter.

Desktop Layouts and Folder Views

One or two modern desktop environments assume that having application icons on the desktop is obsolete. At the most, they allow file icons to be dragged to the desktop from the file manager. If you have ever seen a desktop covered in icons, this assumption has some justification. Unless you know an icon's exact position, finding it can be a time-consuming task. And, if you add desktop widgets, the clutter can quickly become unbearable.

However, instead of insisting on reducing choices, KDE makes them more flexible instead. Right-clicking anywhere on the desktop and choosing Folder Settings (or Default Desktop Settings if this is the first time you've accessed these options) brings up the Desktop Settings dialog, which, in addition to selecting wallpaper and how it displays, gives you the choice of different layouts for your desktop (Figure 2).

Figure 2: KDE supports multiple types of desktops.

If you prefer a traditional desktop, set the Layout field to Folder, then select Location | Show the Desktop Folder, which then becomes your desktop when you click Apply and then OK. This view can be quickly filtered from the Desktop Settings window under Filter to provide a different view for different tasks, showing only certain types of files, or only icon files that match a pattern you enter. Alternatively, you can open multiple folder views but keep them as individual windows on the desktop.

Another option is to create multiple Desktop folders for different purposes. Unfortunately, however, icons in these additional desktops will display an unnecessary .desktop extension, but this is a small price to pay for being able to maintain different desktops for different tasks. Nor is that your only choice. You can choose any other directory, converting the entire desktop temporarily into one large file manager.

If your desktop has widgets, still another option is the Newspaper Layout, which arranges widgets in orderly columns. Similarly, if you want a simpler desktop, you can select the Search and Launch layout, which was originally designed for netbooks.

All of these options renew the idea of icons and widgets on the desktop, freeing you from a single collection of tools that either meets only your average needs or else adds so much to the desktop as to become counterproductive. Instead, you can have specialized icon or widget collections for each task, each available with only a few mouse-clicks.

Activities and Virtual Desktops

Virtual desktops have been a feature of free desktops for well over a decade. However, KDE has expanded the concept beyond what you usually see. To start, selecting System Settings | Workspace Behavior | Virtual Desktops | Different widgets for each desktop allows you to switch between multiple layouts simply by clicking the workspace pager on the panel.

However, you can go even further, and organize your work with Activities, each of which has its own desktop and virtual workspaces (and none of which should be confused with Activities in Gnome, which are another matter altogether). You can switch between Activities with keyboard shortcuts, or, if you prefer the mouse, add the Activity Bar or Activity Manager widget to the desktop (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Activities are separate desktops, each configured independently and usually organized by context or task.

Activities make multiple desktop layouts easy to maintain. They are especially well suited for organizing your desktop by context or task. For example, if you are working and taking classes, you could maintain separate Activities for work, school, and recreation, each with its own set of icons and widgets. In the same way, if you are a freelance developer, you can place the files for each client or project in a separate folder, then create a separate Activity for each. Or, perhaps you want to place widgets and icons for reading weather and online news on one Activity and your favorite games or programming tools on others. Some users also like to keep an Activity for URLs downloaded while researching, or to keep for later reading.

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