Friday, 15 October 2010

KDE 4: The KDE SC in Kubuntu and Fedora

Although not one of my main desktop environments any longer, I have been keeping track of KDE development now and then and feel it has improved a great deal. Ever since the 4.4 releases it actually seems stable and light enough to use and while not all features and functions present in KDE 3.5 may have been replicated (at least Kwikdisk and Kdiskfree are back), the 4.4 series has marked the point where KDE has finally become usable again. I have to admit, it looks good too. I actually enjoy booting into the new KDE.

With that in mind, I've had a look at the last two releases of Kubuntu and Fedora. Both are frequently compared, and again in the current LinuxFormat magazine issue, but usually it is about the new features they introduce and so-called newbie or user friendliness. It is about looking at the entire distribution and almost always features the main Gnome release.
Once upon a time Kubuntu, apparently thanks to playing step child to Ubuntu and starved of resources, presented a rather poor KDE4 experience and was derided to the point where it was common knowledge that if you “want to use KDE don't use Kubuntu”.
A big thank you to its committed and apparently small developer team anyway. I'm sure they did the best they could.
Well, these days are over, and over the last few releases (I ignored all the ones between 7.04 and 9.04) it too, just like KDE, seems to have made great strides.
In the case of Fedora, it didn't even have a separate KDE edition until fairly recently, but Fedora 13 KDE struck me as one of the best KDE desktops around. Whether this is due to the KDE community within Fedora having become more demanding or if simply the trend of one CD per desktop environment/ WM has caught on I cannot say. Perhaps KDE 4 had just become too big to ignore.
In any case, these days when I want to test drive one of the two I download the KDE version (for Xfce there really are better distributions around, unless you absolutely want to stick with Ubuntu or Fedora and just want Xfce4 on top).

In Kubuntu 10.04, the first in a long time for me, KDE 4 makes a good impression. The whole distribution is rock solid, looks great and has all effects working, including extra enabled ones like magic lamp, desktop snow and wobbly windows. Several Plasma widgets on the desktop. Everything works well as expected, although I wasn't really sure what to expect except that nothing should crash. No Nepomuk, Strigi or Akonadi running by default. I think all the major distributions have learned to leave file indexing turned off.
The now Oracle OpenOffice and Firefox toolbars appear well integrated looks-wise. A pleasant desktop with compositing turned on. Easy to add applications with the Kpackagekit front end to apt. Only problem is that fonts almost consistently look awful in applications outside the KDE suite, documents in OOo and some web pages in Firefox, even after installing mscorefonts. This improved after fiddling with font settings and anti-aliasing, but other distributions do a better job from the start. Easy to add proprietary drivers with the Hardware driver installer which identifies your piece of kit for you and downloads and sets up the appropriate driver if you tell it to go ahead, and it all works beautifully. Both wireless network and ATI/AMD card were set up like this with minimal effort. Knetworkmanager is not my favorite but it works too. Cpu frequency scaling worked out of the box. There is something called Startup Disk Creator which I understand is for installing Kubuntu to other machines from USB stick rather than for actually running from it.
Kubuntu 10.04 is an LTS release and has KDE 4.5.1 available in a ppa repository, a nice touch if you're going to have it around for years. The upgrade brought me up to the latest look with monochrome icons, which I am afraid makes it look even more like the latest of that other OS.

Kubuntu 10.10 was released with KDE 4.5.1 and introduced rekonq as the main browser, a changed installer with the ability to install restricted multimedia codecs during the process and an improved and supposedly even faster backend to Kpackagekit as well as improvements to the interface and package search. Some features like the improved installer are of course inherited from the main base and not exactly KDE or Kubuntu specific. Apart from this it appears mostly like an update to 10.04, which of course it is.
Kubuntu desktop in use
All in all not bad, I really enjoyed Kubuntu and it was the only one of many that was able to set up this laptop quickly and with no fuss to get working. Kubuntu has left its past troubles behind and can truly be recommended, although some may still feel there are better KDE distributions out there.

I tried Fedora 13 KDE a few months ago and came away with a very good impression as to the sharp and professional looks, and Fedora 14 KDE beta is no different. It is also fast, even when running from cd. What stands out is how similar the desktops are in many ways. It is both KDE after all but still... Fedora comes with almost the same collection of software as Kubuntu, only that it's offering Koffice instead of Openoffice, but they're even coming with the same three respective modules for presentations, spreadsheets and word processing. Both of their office menu sections are populated with Okular for document viewing and Kontact and Korganizer and their sub modules. Same for the graphics, internet and multimedia sections. The only distinguishing features seem to be the distro specific tools like Fedora's network tools. Although both set up the resolution correctly to the same values, Fedora again looked sharper and more professional. For a start you'll be struck by their new dark-blue KDM splash screen, with the icons  slowly fading in over the width of the monitor. While Kubuntu has stuck with a KDE background Fedora always introduce their own backgrounds. The bottom panel was also thinner in Fedora and appeared cleaner with less icons, closer to the default, which gave it a sleeker, smarter look. The monochrome tray icons stand in nice contrast to the background. Fonts are crisp and of a readable size.

A clean Fedora 14 beta KDE desktop
The use of Koffice in Fedora 14 means fonts look the same all over KDE but also crisp in the browser and the whole desktop feels more integrated. On the other hand, due to Fedora's stance on free software it is considerably harder for the average user to set up codecs and in particular the often necessary proprietary drivers for your graphics and wireless needs. No handy one click installer that identifies and does the work for you.
Fedora uses Knetworkmanager as well. It comes with a tool called LiveUSB Creator which is supposedly to help you install Fedora to USB stick so you can carry your favorite OS with you. Unfortunately it didn't work for me but Fedora 14 is still in beta. I fully expect it to work when the final is out. Oh yes, and file indexing is turned on in this Fedora by default, like it or hate it.

Unsurpringly, both these KDE editions are very much shaped by the nature of the main project behind them. However, I would say that both Kubuntu and Fedora have managed to create valid KDE distributions but cater to different groups of users just like their Gnome counterparts.
I would recommend Kubuntu to the typical home user or somebody who wants KDE 4 for the desktop and just wants to get up and running quickly with all the convenience of driver and codec installers. Alternatives could be PCLinuxOS, Mint KDE or VectorLinux KDE 4 edition. These even go a step further and come with most codecs and drivers. In the context of this article Kubuntu is the easier one to administer.
Fedora with KDE remains a little more technical and will require a bit more time and knowledge or willingness to dig to set up, but will reward with better integration and sharper looks.
Yes I know, looks aren't everything, but we're talking about KDE 4 here...and this post has gotten far too long already.

Update:  After test driving Fedora 14 KDE a bit longer I have come to the conclusion that both distributions are in the same league in terms of performance - both feel heavyish even on a triple core. Fedora 14 possibly a bit more, probably due to SELinux and fully encrypted drives.
After a few weeks of use the Plasma desktop as well as some applications like Dolphin file manager crashed far too often for my liking in Kubuntu, both 10.04 and 10.10 releases. Between the two Fedora 14 KDE, now gone final, is definitely my preferred choice.


  1. I'm using KDE 4.5.2 with Sabayon Linux, and must say that KDE 4 is now an excellent DE. The only niggle I have is that KWrite does not save a file the first time I enter the file name: I have to try again, and occasionally KWrite crashes. KWrite exhibited this problem in KDE 4.5.1 but didn't when I first installed 4.5.2, so why it has started doing it again is a mystery to me. Other than that, I'm finding KDE a pleasure to use.

  2. @Fitzcarraldo
    Thank you Fitzcarraldo, good to know. I must admit that I'm pretty much wowed by the transparency and transition effects in 4.4, and in 4.5 it just kept getting better.
    There is a lot of potential for problems that I did not test, like mounting network drives and printing, that would require more in-depth.

  3. I guess you didn't try the Kubuntu Startup Disk Creator but it does exactly what you say makes the Fedora option better. Except that it will probably work if you try it. I think IMHO that does make it the better option.

  4. @skreech2
    Ah, thanks, so they're both doing the same thing really.

  5. KDE desktop and software are awesome. In fact they are so awesome and full of goodies you can't find in GNOME so I recently switched to KDE full time. I absolutely love the desktop widgets and the ability to create different desktop profiles with Activities feature. And tagging and rating files so that this is seen across the applications is also very cool.


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