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The awesomely epic guide to KDE

Published: 04-05-2015 | Author: Graham Morrison | Text only version of this article

Table of Contents

This article was originaly published in Linux Voice, issue 2, May 2014.This issue is now available under a Creative Commons BY-SA license. In anutshell: you can modify and share all content from the magazine (apart fromadverts), even for commercial purposes, providing you credit Linux Voice as theoriginal source, and retain the same license.

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Everything you ever wanted to know about KDE (but were too afraid of the numberof possible solutions to ask).

The awesomely epic guide to KDE

Desktops on Linux. They're a concept completely alien to users of otheroperating systems because they never having to think about them. Desktops mustfeel like the abstract idea of time to the Amondawa tribe, a thought thatdoesn't have any use until you're in a different environment. But here it is -on Linux you don't have to use the graphical environment lurking beneath yourmouse cursor. You can change it for something completely different. If you don'tlike windows, switch to xmonad. If you like full-screen apps, try Gnome. And ifyou're after the most powerful and configurable point-and-click desktop, there'sKDE.

KDE is wonderful, as they all are in their own way. But in our opinion, KDE inparticular suffers from poor default configuration and a rather allusivelearning curve. This is doubly frustrating, firstly because it has been quietlygrowing more brilliant over the last couple of years, and secondly, because KDEshould be the first choice for users unhappy with their old desktop - inparticular, Windows 8 users pining for an interface that makes sense.

But fear not. We're going to use a decade's worth of KDE firefighting to bringyou the definitive guide to making KDE look good and function slightly more likehow you might expect it to. We're not going to look at KDE's applications, otherthan perhaps Dolphin; we're instead going to look at the functionality in thedesktop environment itself. And while our guinea pig distribution is going to beMageia, this guide will be equally applicable to any recent KDE desktop runningfrom almost any distribution, so don't let the default Mageia background put youoff.


A great first target for getting your system looking good is its selection offonts. It used to be the case that many of us would routinely copy fonts acrossfrom a Windows installation, getting the professional Ariel and Helvetica fontrendering that was missing from Linux at the time. But thanks to generic qualityfonts such as DejaVu and Nimbus Sans/Roman, this isn't a problem any more. Butit's still worth finding a font you prefer, as there are now so many greatalternatives to choose between.


Most distributions don't include decent fonts. But KDE enables you to quicklyinstall new ones and apply them to your desktop.

The best source of free fonts we've found is - ithosts the Roboto, Roboto Slab and Roboto Condensed typefaces used throughout ourmagazine, and also on the Nexus 5 smartphone (Roboto was developed for use inthe Ice Cream Sandwich version of the Android mobile operating system).

TrueType fonts, with their .ttf file extensions, are incredibly easy toinstall from KDE. Download the zip file, right-click and select something fromthe Extract menu. Now all you need to do is drag a selection across the TrueTypefonts you want to install and select 'Install' from the right-click Actionsmenu. KDE will take care of the rest.

Another brilliant thing about KDE is that you can change all the fonts at once.Open the System Settings panel and click on Application Appearances, followed bythe fonts tab, and click on Adjust All Fonts. Now just select a font from therequester. Most KDE applications will update with your choice immediately, whileother applications, such as Firefox, will require a restart. Either way, it's aquick and effective way of experimenting with your desktop's usability andappearance. We'd recommend either Open Sans or the thinner Aller fonts.

Eye candy

One of KDE's most secret features is that backgrounds can be dynamic. We don'tfind much use for this when it comes to the desktops that tells us the weatheroutside the window, but we do like backgrounds that dynamically grab images fromthe internet. With most distributions you'll need to install something for thisto work. Just search for plasma-wallpaper in your distribution's packagemanager. Our favourite is plasma-wallpaper-potd, as this installs easy accessto update-able wallpaper images from a variety of sources.

Changing a desktop background is easy with KDE, but it's not intuitive. Mageia,for example, defaults to using 'Folder' view, as this is closer to thetraditional desktop where files from the Desktop folder in your home directoryare displayed on the background, and the whole desktop works like a filemanager. Right-click and select 'Folder Settings' if this is the view you'reusing. Alternatively, KDE defaults to 'Desktop', where the background is clearapart from any widgets you add yourself, and files and folders are consideredlinks to the sources. The menu item in this mode is labelled Desktop Settings.The View Configuration panel that changes the background is the same, however,and you need to make your changes in the Wallpaper drop-down menu. We'drecommend Picture Of The Day as the wallpaper, and the Astronomy Picture Of TheDay as the image source.


Remove the blue glow and change a few of the display options, and KDE startsto look pretty good in our opinion.

Another default option we think is crazy is the blue glow that surrounds theactive window. While every other desktop uses a slightly deeper drop-shadow,KDE's active window looks like it's bathed in radioactive light. The solution tothis lies in the default theme, and this can be changed by going to KDE'sSystem Settings control panel and selecting Workspace Appearance. On thefirst page, which is labelled Window Decorations, you'll find that Oxygen isnearly always selected, and it's this theme that contains the option to changethe blue glow. Just click on the Configure Decoration button, flip to theShadows tab and disable Active Window Glow. Alternatively, if you'd likeactive windows to have a more pronounced shadow, change the inner and outercolours to black.

You may have seen the option to download wallpapers, for example, from within aKDE window, and you can see this now by clicking on the Get New Decorationsbutton. Themes are subjective, but our favourite combination is currently theChrome window decoration (it looks identical to Google's default theme for itsbrowser) with the Aya desktop theme. The term 'desktop theme' is a bit of amisnomer, as it doesn't encapsulate every setting as you might expect. Insteadit controls how generic desktop elements are rendered. The most visible of theseelements is the launch panel, and changing the desktop theme will usually have adramatic effect on its appearance, but you'll also notice a difference in thewidgets system.

The final graphical flourish we'd suggest is to change the icon set that KDEuses. There's nothing wrong with the default Oxygen set, but there are betteroptions. Unfortunately, this is where the 'Get New Themes' download option oftenfails, probably because icon packages are large and can overwhelm the personalstorage space often reserved for projects like these. We'd suggest going and browsing its icon collections. Open up the Icons panelfrom KDE's System Settings, click on the Icons tab followed by Install ThemeFile and point the requester at the location of the archive you just downloaded.KDE will take it from there and add the icon set to the list in the panel. TryKotenza for a flat theme, or keep an eye on Nitrux development.

The panel

Our next target is going to be the panel at the bottom of the screen. This hasbecome a little dated, especially if you're using KDE on a large or high-resolution display, so our first suggestion is to re-scale and centre it foryour screen. The key to moving screen components in KDE is making sure they'reunlocked, and this accomplished by right-clicking on the 'plasma' cashew in thetop-right of the display where the current activity is listed. Only when widgetsare unlocked can you re-size the panel, and even add new applications from thelaunch menu.

With widgets unlocked, click on the cashew on the side of the panel followed byMore Settings and select Centre for panel alignment. With this enabled you canre-size the panel using the sliders on either side and the panel itself willalways stay in the middle of your screen. Just pretend you're working onindentation on a word processor and you'll get the idea. You can also change itsheight when the sliders are visible by dragging the central height widget, andto the left of this, you can drag the panel to a different edge on your screen.The top edge works quite well, but many of KDE's applets don't work well whenstacked vertically on the left or right edges of the display.

There are two different kinds of task manager applets that come with KDE. Thedefault displays each running application as a title bar in the panel, but thistakes up quite a bit of space. The alternative task manager displays only theicon of the application, which we think is much more useful. Mageia defaults tothe icon version, but most others - and KDE itself - prefer the title barapplet. To change this, click on the cashew again and hover over the old appletso that the 'X' appears, then click on this 'X' to remove the applet from thepanel. Now click on Add Widgets, find the two task managers and drag the iconversion on to your panel. You can re-arrange any other applets in this mode bydragging them to the left and right.

By default, the Icon-Only task manager will only display icons for tasks runningon the current desktop, which we think is counterintuitive, as it's moreconvenient to see all of the applications you may have running and to quicklyswitch between whatever desktops on which they may be running with a simpleclick. To change this behaviour, right-click on the applet and select theSettings menu option and the Behaviour tab in the next window. Deselect 'OnlyShow Tasks From The Current Desktop', and perhaps 'Only Show Tasks From TheCurrent Activity' if you use KDE's activities.


Another alteration we like to make is to reconfigure the virtual desktops appletfrom showing four desktops as a 2 2, which doesn't look too good on a smallpanel, to 4 1. This can be done by right-clicking on the applet, selectingPager Settings and then clicking on the Virtual Desktops tabs and changing thenumber of rows to '1'.

Finally, there's the launch menu. Mageia has switched this from the new style ofapplication launcher to the old style originally seen in Microsoft Windows. Weprefer the former because of its search field, but the two can be switched byright-clicking the icon and selecting the Switch To... menu option.

If you find the hover-select action of this mode annoying, where moving themouse over one of the categories automatically selects it, you can disable it byright-clicking on the launcher, selecting Launcher Settings from the menu anddisabling 'Switch Tabs On Hover' from the General settings page. It's worthreiterating that many of these menu options are only available when widgets areunlocked, so don't despair if you don't see the correct menu entry at first.


No article on KDE would be complete without some discussion of what KDE callsActivities. In many ways, Activities are a solution waiting for a problem.They're meta-virtual desktops that allow you to group desktop configuration andapplications together. You may have an activity for photo editing, for example,or one for working and another for the internet. If you've got a touchscreenlaptop, activities could be used to switch between an Android-style app launcher(the Search and Launch mode from the Desktop Settings panel), and the regulardesktop mode. We use a single activity as a default for screenshots, forinstance, while another activity switches everything to the file manager desktopmode. But the truth is that you have to understand what they are before you canfind a way of using them.

Some installations of KDE will include the Activity applet in the toolbar. Itsred, blue and green dots can be clicked on to open the activity manager, or youcan click on the Plasma cashew in the top-right and select Activities. This willopen the bar at the bottom of the screen, which lists activities installed andprimed on your system. Clicking on any will switch between them; as willpressing the meta key (usually the Windows key) and Tab.

We'd suggest that finding a fast way to switch between activities, such as witha keyboard shortcut or with the Activity Bar widget is the key to using themmore. With the Activity Manager open, clicking on Create Activity lets youeither clone the current desktop, add a blank desktop or create a new activityfrom a list of templates. Clone works well if you want to add some defaultapplications to the desktop for your current setup. To remove an activity,switch to another one and press the Stop and Delete buttons from the ActivityManager.

Upgraded launch menu


You may want to look into replacing the default launch menu entirely. If youopen the Add Widgets view, for instance, and search for menus, you'll seeseveral results. Our current favourite is called Application Launcher (QML). Itprovides the same kind of functionality as the default menu, but has a cleanerinterface after you've enlarged the initial window. But if we're being honest,we don't use the launcher that much. We prefer to do most launching throughKRunner, which is the seemingly simple requester that appears when you holdAlt+F2.


KRunner is better than the default launcher, because you can type this shortcutfrom anywhere, regardless of which applications are running or where your mouseis located. When you start to type the name of the application you want to runinto KRunner, you'll see the results filtered in real time beneath the entryfield - press Enter to launch the top choice.

KRunner is capable of so much more. You can type in calculations like=sin(90), for example, and see the result in real time. You can search Googlewith gg: or Wikipedia with wp: followed by the search terms, and add manyother operations through installable modules. To make best use of this awesomeKDE feature, make sure you've got the plasma-addons package installed, andsearch for runner on your distribution's package manager. When you next launchKRunner and click on the tool icon to the left of the search bar, you'll see awide variety of plugins that can do all kinds of things with the text you typein. In classic KDE style, many don't include instructions on how to use them, sohere's our breakdown of the most useful things you can do with Krunner:

File management

File management may not be the most exciting subject in Linux, but it is one weall seem to spend a lot of time doing, whether that's moving a download into abetter folder, or copying photos from a camera. The old file manager, Konqueror,was one of the best reasons for using KDE in the first place, and whileKonqueror has been superseded by Dolphin in KDE 4.x, it's still knocking around- even if it is labelled a web browser.


If you open Konqueror and enter the URL as file://, it turns back into thatfile manager of old, with many of its best features intact. You can click on thelower status bar, for example, and split the view vertically or horizontally,into other views. You can fill the view with proportionally sized blocks byselecting Preview File Size View from the right-click menu, and preview manyother file types without ever leaving Konqueror.

Mageia uses a double-click for most options, whereas we prefer a single click.This can be changed from the System-Settings panel by opening Input Devices,clicking on Mouse and enabling 'Single-click To Open Files And Folders'. Ifyou've become used to Apple's reverse scroll, you'll also find an option here toreverse the scroll direction on Linux.

Konqueror is a great application, but it hasn't been a focus of KDE developmentfor a considerable period of time. Dolphin has replaced it, and while this is amuch simplified file manager, it does inherit some of Konqueror's best features.You can still split the view, for instance, albeit one only once, and onlyhorizontally, from the toolbar. You can also view lots of metadata. Select theDetails View and right-click on the column headings for the files, and you canadd columns that list the word counts in text files, or an image's size andorientation, or the artist, title and duration of an audio file, all from withinthe contents of the data. This is KDE's semantic desktop in action, and it'sbeen growing in functionality for the last couple of years. Apple's OS X, forexample, has only just started pushing its ability to tag files and applications- we've been able to do this from KDE for a long time. We don't know any otherdesktop that comes close to providing that level of control.

Window management

KDE has a comprehensive set of windowing functions as well as graphical effects.They're all part of the window manager, KWin, rather than the desktop, which iswhat we've been dealing with so far. It's the window manager's job to handle thepositioning, moving and rendering of your windows, which is why they can bereplaced without switching the whole desktop. You might want to try KWin on theRazorQt desktop, for example, to get the best of both the minimal environmentRazorQt offers and the power of KDE's window manager.

The easiest way to get to KWin's configuration settings is to right-click on thetitle bar of any window (this is usually the most visible element of any windowmanager), and select Window Manager Settings from the More Actions menu.


The Task Switcher is the tool that appears when you press Alt+Tab, andcontinually pressing those two keys will switch between all running applicationson the current desktop. You can also use cursor keys to move left and rightthrough the list. These settings are mostly sensibly configured, but you maywant to include All Other Desktops in the Filter Windows By section, as thatwill allow you to quickly switch to applications running on other desktops. Wealso like the Cover Switch visualisation rather than the Thumbnails view, andyou can even configure the perceived distance of the windows by clicking on thetoolbar icon.

The next page on the window manager control module handles what happens at theedges of your screen. At the very least, we prefer to enable Switch Desktop OnEdge by selecting Only When Moving Windows from the drop-down list. This meansthat when you drag a window to one edge, the virtual desktop will switchbeneath, effectively dragging the window on to a new virtual desktop.

The great thing about enabling this only for dragged windows is that it doesn'tinterfere with KDE's fantastic window snapping feature. When you drag a windowclose to the left or right edge, for instance, KDE displays a ghosted windowwhere your window will snap to if you release the mouse. This is a great way ofturning KDE into a tiling window manager, where you can easily have two windowssplit down the middle of the screen area. Moving a window into any of thecorners will also give you the ability to neatly arrange your windows to occupya quarter of the screen, which is ideal for large displays.

We also enable a mode similar to Mission Control on OS X when the cursor is inthe region of the top-left corner of the screen. On the screen edge layout,click on the dot in the top-right of the screen (or any other point you'dprefer) and select Desktop Grid from the drop-down menu that appears. Now whenyou move to the top-right of your display, you'll get an overview of all yourvirtual desktops, any of which can be chosen with a click.


Two pages down in the configuration module, there's a page called Focus. This isan old idea where you can change whether a window becomes active when you clickon it, or when you roll your mouse cursor over it. KDE adds another twist tothis by providing a slider that progresses from click to a strict hover policy,where the window under the cursor always becomes active. We prefer to use one ofthe middle options - Focus Follows Mouse - as this chooses the most obviouswindow to activate for us without making too many mistakes, and it means weseldom click to focus. We also reduce the focus delay to 200ms, but this willdepend on how you feel about the feature after using it for a while.

KDE has so many features, many of which only come to light when you start to usethe desktop. It really is a case of developers often adding things and thentelling no one. But we feel KDE is worth the effort, and unlikely some otherdesktops, is unlikely to change too much in the transition from 4.x to 5. Thatmeans the time you spend learning how to use KDE now is an investment. Dive in!

Tags: articles, dolphin, fonts, kde, linux-voice, linux-voice-issue-2-2014, visuals