[PC-BSD Testing] KDE's new Plasma netbook interface shines in small places

Jeff dejamuse at yahoo.com
Sat Jul 25 06:22:23 PDT 2009


        
          KDE's new Plasma netbook interface shines in small places
          A
new Plasma-based custom KDE desktop shell is designed to deliver a
better user experience on netbooks and other devices with small
screens. Ars takes a look at the prototype to see how it compares to
the conventional KDE desktop environment.

          By 
          Ryan Paul
          | Last updated July 24, 2009 - Ars Technica



        
          
          
          
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          KDE Plasma Netbook shell
      
    
      
          
              
                  Marco Martin
              
          
      
  
  

                        
            
              
                
                            The
Linux platform is beginning to gain mainstream acceptance on low-cost
netbook devices. The growing popularity of netbooks presents a major
opportunity for the open source operating system, but it also comes
with some challenges. One of the most significant problems is that much
of the open source software that is available today for the desktop is
not designed to deliver an optimal user experience on small screens.

Linux distributors and application developers are exploring
alternate user interface concepts that will work well at low
resolutions without compromising productivity. There is also a clear
need to boost usability as netbook devices are broadly intended for the
regular consumer market. The KDE desktop environment has recently
gained a new specialized netbook interface that leverages the strengths
of KDE's unique Plasma technology. Ars tested it on Kubuntu to see how
it compares to the conventional KDE desktop experience.
                            
                
              
              
                
                                
About Plasma

Plasma is a versatile framework that provides the underlying
infrastructure of the KDE desktop shell. It hosts several core parts of
the user interface, including the panels, desktop icons, and launchers.
Plasma's rich architecture encourages a clean separation between
functionality and presentation. The presentation layer is resolution
independent, which gives it an advantage on devices with unusual screen
sizes.

The individual desktop widgets that make up a Plasma-based
environment are called plasmoids. They communicate with Plasma's data
engine backend to retrieve information which is then displayed to the
user. Plasmoids are placed in "containment" objects which control how
plasmoids are organized on the screen. Users can have multiple Plasma
"activities," which each have their own sets of containments and
plasmoids. Plasma's modular approach is advantageous because it makes
it much easier for developers to build a custom desktop experience
without having to completely reinvent the wheel.

The KDE netbook interface consists of custom Plasma containments and
a special theme for KDE's KWin window manager. A slim panel at the very
top of the screen provides access to the Plasma activity switcher and
displays notification area icons. The environment has two activities:
the Newspaper activity, which shows informational plasmoids, and the
Applications activity, which serves as a launcher.

Newspaper containment

Unlike the desktop version of KDE, the netbook interface doesn't
allow plasmoids to be arbitrarily rotated and placed in the desktop
space. The Newspaper activity has a special containment that organizes
plasmoids into columns and has scrollbars to permit overflow. As the
name implies, it is modeled after a newspaper layout. When the
newspaper containment is in editable mode, which can be toggled by
clicking the Plasma icon in the bottom-left corner of the desktop,
users can click an drag plasmoids to rearrange their order in the
layout.

The newspaper containment is designed to work with the growing
assortment of plasmoids that are used today on regular KDE desktops.
For example, there is a calendar, a weather widget, a Twitter
interface, a todo list that synchronizes with Remember the Milk, an RSS
tool, and a messaging notification display that will show you incoming
e-mail and instant messages. I tested many of these in netbook
interface's column layout.

The newspaper containment feels a lot like Internet dashboards, such
as iGoogle or Netvibes. It makes a wide range of information
immediately accessible in a manner that is well-organized and easy to
navigate. The current implementation still has some bugs, however, and
needs additional refinement before it will be ready for widespread use.
Widgets that don't fit neatly into columns can be somewhat problematic.
Some widgets are stretched too wide or don't use enough vertical space.

Application launcher

The KDE netbook developers believe that conventional application launcher interfaces, like the one in the Ubuntu Netbook Remix,
misuse the desktop and don't provide enough functionality. To improve
on the concept and do more than just display a static list of icons,
the KDE netbook developers are repurposing krunner, KDE's interactive
query-based launcher.

The Applications activity has a "search and launch" containment that
behaves a lot like krunner, but is spread out across the whole desktop.
When the user types a query into the search box, the contents of the
containment will be populated with launchers that match the query.
There are many features that the developers plan to add as they flesh
out the search containment, such as a strip that will save the user's
favorite launchers.





We really like the idea of using a search-based application launcher
directly in the user interface. We''ve explored the benefits of that
approach in previous articles, particularly in our latest review of
GNOME-Do. The manner in which this functionality is integrated into the
KDE netbook interface is intriguing and has some noteworthy advantages.
It boosts the discoverability of the query system by making it more
accessible to regular users rather than hiding it behind a keyboard
shortcut.

Window management concepts

The netbook environment uses some of the sophisticated window
management features that are facilitated by KWin's compositing
capabilities. Instead of displaying a task list, for example, the top
panel has a button that users can click to invoke KWin's "Show Windows"
feature, a clone of Apple's Exposé. The environment also uses a custom
KWin theme that saves screen space by eliminating window titlebars and
automatically maximizing all windows. A button with an "X" icon in the
top panel can be used to close the active window.

Artur Souza and Marco Martin, the developers behind the project,
introduced it to the KDE community in a presentation at the recent Gran
Canaria Desktop Summit. In a blog entry,
Souza says that the custom interface was well-received by the KDE
community and has already attracted some attention from hardware
vendors and Linux distributors.

"We want to create a new user experience on these devices. KDE is
not about a specific project anymore, it's all about the user
experience: starting on the desktop shell and going far away on social
interaction, media, etc," wrote Souza. "I really hope that the
community and also vendors can see the potential that we have in our
hands and start helping us on this journey and to believe that it's
possible."

Marco, who also wrote a blog entry about the desktop summit presentation, has published a video
that demonstrates the netbook user interface in action. You can see the
special containments and other features that are part of the
environment.

Conclusion

The KDE netbook project is still in the early prototype stage and
will not be ready for the upcoming KDE 4.3 release. Lead Plasma
developer Aaron Seigo has listed it in the roadmap for KDE 4.4, which means it could be ready for users in January.

The prototype is an intriguing real-world demonstration of Plasma's
versatility and the strength of KDE's architecture. It's also a good
example of how creativity and innovation can move Linux beyond
traditional desktop paradigms and make it shine in small spaces. For
more details, check out Souza's paper about the project and presentation slides.
                                
              

                          

                        
            
          



      
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