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Is KDE 4.2 the Answer to the Linux Desktop?

Is the Linux desktop ready for mainstream users?

The developers behind the latest KDE Linux desktop release would probably say yes, that it lives up to the promise of the first KDE 4.0 release a year ago.

KDE 4.2 is the second major point release for the KDE 4.x desktop. Its codename, "The Answer," also telegraphs its goals. It builds on features first revealed in KDE 4.0 with an improved Plasma desktop interface and KWin window management.

The new desktop is a challenger to the GNOME Linux desktop and could also prove to help the Linux ecosystem in its challenge to Microsoft Windows, as well.

But the proof is in the end-users' use.

KDE's press release on the 4.2 launch said "the KDE Community is now confident we have a compelling offering for the majority of end users."

"But with improved release guides and liveCDs, the barrier to testing out and learning about KDE4.2 is very low," said Wade Olson, KDE developer. The last version release was aimed at early adopters. With 4.2, developers are keeping mum about who should adopt and when.

"We're not recommending that users move to KDE 4.2, as we believe in choice, but we're not giving caution or setting up Under Construction signs either," he told InternetNews.com. "We're proud of how far KDE has come in just six months, and try to be very clear with different aspects of our desktop and application suite concerning maturity levels."

Key parts of the KDE 4.2 release are the improvements to the Plasma desktop interface, which KDE developers claim make the desktop easier to organize. Plasma uses the concept of widgets to help organize the desktop and provide access to applications. Among them are the ability to make any Plasma applet into a screensaver as well as the ability to track system activities such as downloads in the system tray.

The Dolphin File Manager has also been improved for accessibility, such as opening folders automatically when you you drag a file over them. Power management has also been improved with the PowerDevil tool, an integrated part of KDE 4.2 to maximize battery life for mobile computing needs.

OpenSUSE developer Will Stephenson's noted a few key additional features in KDE 4.2 that end users might notice. "What is new there is a nifty 'middle-click to ungroup' feature, so when you are working on a set of related windows, middle click, they pop open on the taskbar where you can switch quickly, then when you are done collapse them into a group again with another middle click," Stephenson commented.

(Novell's SUSE Linux users tend to use KDE moreso than GNOME; some features from KDE 4.2 were backported into the OpenSUSE 11.1 release last month.)

Stephenson pointed out that new Taskbar grouping in Plasma is an obvious but essential feature.

He added that KWin now has what he views to be mature desktop effects.

"No fuss. These effects just make working on the desktop a little bit smoother without getting in your way or introducing stability and configuration difficulties," Stephenson stated.

Not everyone was happy with the KDE 4.0 desktop when it first became available in 2008. Linux creator Linus Torvalds reportedly changed from being a KDE user to a GNOME user as a result of his experiences.

KDE's Olson noted in reference to Torvalds move that it's not uncommon to take criticism when trying to explore, learn and innovate. He said KDE develpers are hoping that people will notice the large gains in functionality, features, stability and performance that 4.2 brings over 4.1, in the same way that 4.1 improved upon 4.0.

Red Hat Fedora Project Leader Paul Frields also struck an optimistic tone on the KDE 4.2 release.

"The many Plasma enhancements for usability, and the return of functionality that some users found missing earlier in the 4.x series, should make KDE's audience happy with the new release," Frields told InternetNews.com. Fedora is planning on including KDE 4.2 in the upcoming Fedora 11 Alpha set for February 3rd.

OpenSuse community manager Joe Brockmeier commented that OpenSUSE users have had both positive and negative viewpoints on the KDE 4.x desktop releases thus far.

"It's a big change, I think everyone would agree on that front, and people don't always like a shift in the way they interact with their computers," Brockmeier told InternetNews.com. "It's called 'personal' computing for a reason -- people tend to get very emotional about the way that they interact with their systems, and so some people expressed really positive reactions to the new direction and enthusiasm for the new features and so forth, others are still pretty attached to the 3.5 interface."