Exploring the next generation KDE desktop

Components

KDE Frameworks 5 [17] essentially contains the libraries (kdelibs) needed by programs, which is where the most pervasive changes for cycle 5 will occur. For one thing, the developers backported core functions of kdelibs directly to Qt 5. For another, 57 libraries were modularized and designed as platform-independent add-on libraries for Qt 5. Today, 19 libraries no longer have any dependencies, which means other Qt projects can access the required library functions.

The developers also reduced dependencies significantly between subprojects relating to both the KDE Applications and the KWin window manager, so that now, KWin is also suitable for lean desktop environments because it is no longer tied to Plasma. Additionally, Frameworks 5 fully supports the next generation display manager Wayland [18], as well as OpenGL and OpenGL ES 2.0.

The new name for the Plasma KDE desktop and its variants for different classes of devices is Plasma Workspaces. The current development version is called Plasma Next, and releases will be named Plasma 5, the first version dubbed 5.0 being due for release on July 15, 2014. The upcoming version of the KDE desktop uses Qt 5 and QML (Qt Modeling Language) and is based on KDE Frameworks 5.

The look is based on the familiar appearance of KDE 4; it will only be modernized and spruced up. Again, the major changes are happening in the engine room. The desktop, previously rendered by X11 with its own primitives [19], will now be provided by OpenGL [20]. Previously independent workspaces such as Plasma Desktop, Plasma Active, or Plasma Netbook developed during the past few years are now being merged. This means that events such as plugging in a keyboard to a tablet can automatically switch the mode from Plasma Active to Plasma Desktop and thus also change looks and functions.

Both Plasma Next and Frameworks  5 are currently in a code freeze. Applications, however, is still being developed on the basis of Qt 4 and will also be published in mid-April with KDE SC 4.13. Under the "Porting AIDS" heading, KDE provides several libraries for developers to help port Applications to Qt 5; they will disappear again after three stable releases of the Applications.

A first beta version of KDE Frameworks  5 recently appeared, as did an alpha of Plasma Next. Both components are scheduled to initiate the fifth cycle of KDE mid-July (Figure 3). The project aims to make the transition gentle on users, and the intent is to avoid a partially unusable desktop environment, as happened in the transition to KDE 4. The developers have learned their lessons.

Figure 3: The Plasma 5 Workspace is scheduled for release July 15.

Not Lightweight

The hardware requirements for KDE 4 are not exactly frugal, particularly in terms of main memory. Current versions grab around 400MB of RAM when the computer is booted; experience shows that KDE requires 2GB of RAM as a minimum configuration for productive work. However, you can run out of memory quickly if you open too many tabs in the browser. At 4GB of RAM, you can work easily, without the system swapping out and thus slowing down over time.

Both memory consumption and CPU usage depend, not least, on whether the system uses the semantic desktop. On slower machines, it is left to the user's discretion to disable the feature in System Settings. As of KDE SC 5, the requirements will drop significantly, which first tests with KDE 4.13 and the Nepomuk successor Baloo also confirm.

Another criterion relates to the graphics card. The last three generations of Intel graphics chips render effects without complaint. Some compromises can be expected with the free drivers for ATI and NVidia GPUs, and you need to test for yourself what effects work. The proprietary drivers by the respective manufacturers work without noticeable problems, by the way.

Conclusions

KDE has undoubtedly set itself up as the heavyweight among desktop environments for Linux. Its fans see that as an advantage. Opponents, however, criticize the desktop as overloaded, although if you have reasonably recent hardware, that hardly matters. KDE can be used as the developers intended; for example, Tanglu [21] delivers files published by the project directly, or it can be modified by distributors, such as Kubuntu, openSUSE, Arch, Mint, Debian, Siduction, or SolydXK. KDE also provides many settings that help the user customize the design and functionality of KDE in a completely individual way.

The Author

Ferdinand Thommes lives and works in Berlin, Germany, as a Linux developer, freelance writer, and tour guide.

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