KDE Activities: A Personal Case Study

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 12, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Activities are both KDE's most talked-about and least understood features. Whenever I enthuse over them, I am invariably greeted with so much bafflement that I suspect that they are also KDE's least used features. So, for those who keep asking, "What's the point?" I thought I'd give a detailed description of how I use them.

The typical desktop environment is built around applications, and designed for general purposes. By contrast, KDE Activities are task-oriented, and each one is customized for its specific task, and can have its own layout, widgets, icons, and startup applications. The result is an extension of the concept of virtual desktops (although, somewhat confusingly, each Activity has its own virtual desktops, and you can set up virtual desktops on a single Activity to act like Activities within Activities).

Making the switch
To say the least, the whole idea of Activities takes some getting used to. In my case, I had long ago settled on an all-purpose desktop configuration consisting of the eight apps I use the most and a folder or two of icons. Another six apps that I use less often were in the menu's favorites.

This arrangement had the advantage of meeting my most common needs with a minimum of mouse-clicks and of allowing me to quickly find the apps I wanted. But, like a Swiss army-knife, because it was multi-purpose, it was only moderately suitable for any specific purpose.  If I were doing several things at once, it could became chaotic. Even with virtual desktops for always-open apps like my web browser, email reader, and terminal, I often found myself either constantly clicking the task manager or cycling through open windows with Alt+Tab.

When I started experimenting with Activities, it made sense to keep this desktop as my main Activity. However, I soon started experimenting with how to move various tasks elsewhere. These moves would save me from constantly minimizing and maximizing applications, and make the apps I needed quicker to find.
My first step was to replace the Games folder with an Activity set to a folder view desktop containing icons for my favorite games. The games were no easier to open, but all the icons were immediately visible when I switched to the Games Activity, and one category of windows was removed from my main desktop.

I configure and administer from the prompt, so the next step was to create a separate Activity for those tasks. At first, I added an icon for Konsole to the desktop, but then I realized that the Konsole Profile widget would be useful. Practically speaking, the widget serves as a sub-menu of different configurations for Konsole, such as the ordinary white on black that I ordinarily use and the white on blue that I use to add some color to my monthly command line column for Linux Pro Magazine. For convenience, I also added an icon for the GIMP, because I often take screen shots of the command line for articles.

Next, I set up an Activity for writing. To it, I added an icon for Bluefish for professional writing and LibreOffice for documents I need to send to office-oriented people. Then I added a link to an online thesaurus, rhyming dictionary, and Old English dictionary for my poetry avocation -- none of which I would have wanted to crowd a single desktop with. As a final touch, I added links to the folders containing my poetry, fiction, and journalism.

I am currently debating the contents of a Graphics Activity. Probably, it will contain links to the GIMP, Inkscape and Scribus, but what else? Maybe a link to Google Web Fonts and Open Clip Art?

Another possibility might be an Activity for online research, where I could dump links and add notes, on the fly. But that Activity would be a constantly changing one, with the findings of one bout of research constantly being dropped into a folder so that the main desktop is reserved for my current project. Possibly, too, I could find an extension or two for my browser that would work with this Activity.

The Preferred Alternative
Activities aren't the only way I could rearrange my work flow. I could have stayed with folders on the desktop, or added more virtual desktops on the main desktop. Alternatively, I could have added multiple Folder Views, each with its own set of icons, and continually pushed the ones I didn't need to one side of the sceen. I could also have added a second monitor to increase the available space for icons.

However, I've tried all these, and none have been so easy to use as Activities. Moreover, by branching out into multiple Activities, I now have desktops well-suited for each specialized purpose. At the same time, most of my desktops have only 6-9 icons or widgets, so I never have any trouble finding anything. The bottom line is that I spend less time navigating the desktop and more time on the task at hand. Best of all, unlike in GNOME 3, I have complete control over my work spaces, and they stay configured when I log out.

Activities aren't for everyone, and KDE lets you ignore them if you choose. But, if, like me, you find a single desktop limited and constantly in need of clean up to reduce icon and widget creep, then Activities just might be the solution.


  • Use case

    I just started using activities. I found most useful the ability to place in each activity an open browser with the appropriate tabs open for that activity. Very helpful to me, as it saves me from having 30+ tabs open and bouncing around the tabs while I do different tasks. Best part for me. When I shut down and start my machine. Everything opens (all tabs in the various browsers in the correct activity plus supporting applications) open exactly as they should. In chrome, any new bookmark is global happy
  • Adding links to an activity

    "Then I added a link to an online thesaurus, rhyming dictionary, and Old English dictionary for my poetry avocation."

    How did you add links to your activity?
  • Activities and network connections

    If activities can be linked to the active network, then it can be used to switch open applications based on the network one is connected to, say, work, home, etc.
  • Already have the use case

    "I agree, also for me it is difficult to find a good use case. You can have different sets of icons per virtual desktop and you can name the virtual desktops (Games, Office, WEB etc) so I do not see the advantage of the Activities as such."

    You actually already have the use case. In KDE the way you get different icons per virtual desktop, is by using Activities. One Activity per virtual desktop. It's Activities in it's simplest form, but it's still a good use case for Activities.
  • Great for Screencasting

    I have found a great use for Activities: screencasting. My normal desktop has some widgets and a folder view on it that I don't want to show in my screencasts. So, I have a "screencast" activity with a blank desktop, different wallpaper, etc. It is so easy to switch to this activity, and KDE is the only desktop to offer this.
  • activities too weak

    I would definitely use activities, if they made it possible to have different panels and notification settings for different activities.But that means I should have more different sessions...

    The thing is that I practice the 30-30 approach to studying/work. I need two "workplaces" (or how to call it): one distraction-free (with hidden panel and most notifications turned off) with a bunch of windows with code, documentation, tutorials etc. "for work" — and the other one with Jabber MUC (notifications enabled) and web browser "for fun".
  • Good use cases

    Antonio Ferraro Jun 15, 2012 12:27pm GMT wrote:

    "I agree, also for me it is difficult to find a good use case. You can have different sets of icons per virtual desktop and you can name the virtual desktops (Games, Office, WEB etc) so I do not see the advantage of the Activities as such."

    Probably the most obvious is that you can have Activities, each with its own virtual desktops. However, you can also use templates to set up different views, and choose applications to start when you open the Activity.

    However, what matters is what works for you. I would never say that anyone had to use Activities, although I do think that some people reject them without bothering to explore the possibilities.
  • KDE

    i only recently started using KDE - for the first time ever - and it's progressively and seriously growing on me. haven't yet gotten as far as activities in my exploration of the DE though.
    off topic, but what distro do you run? more specifically, what KDE distro can you recommend?
  • KDE Activities: A Personal Case Study

    I agree, also for me it is difficult to find a good use case. You can have different sets of icons per virtual desktop and you can name the virtual desktops (Games, Office, WEB etc) so I do not see the advantage of the Activities as such.
    The advantage of KDE over other desktops in this respect is however clear.
  • Activities

    I have really tried to find use cases where Activities would come in handy, but so far to no avail. When I read about you arranging icons on the desktop, I had to minimize all windows to see how my current desktop looks, as I hardly ever see it.
    I do have two separate monitors. One for browsing, coding, writing and Kontact/PIM, and one for IRC, Kopete IM, Konsole and Firebug. Using the Icon only task bar makes it very easy to switch tasks, and I use several popup applets for spell checking, lookups at dict.org, translating, currency conversion, calculator etc. So until I get my hands on a s/Spark/Vivaldi tablet, I will probably not have a reason to use them.
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