Build the Perfect Desktop With KDE

Tuesday Dec 20th 2005 by Carla Schroder

Looking for a good Linux desktop for users and admins alike? Here's one that's easy for users but never dumbed down for experts.

As much I would like to believe I am as brilliant and charismatic as Linus Torvalds, it's really not worth the effort, because it's so not true. But Linus and I do agree on one thing: KDE is an excellent desktop. It looks good and it works well- what more does anyone need? Best of all, it doesn't simplify by removing functionality, like a certain well-known desktop project does. You want a simpler, cleaner interface? Might I suggest organizing the menus and configuration dialogs with common functions on top, and advanced functions available on a different level? Throwing away functionality seems a tad daft.

KDE is extremely customizable, which is a boon to Linux distribution packagers, corporate and other business users, and finicky end users who want everything just so. It can even be locked down into a particular customized configuration, which is useful in public environments like Internet cafes and public libraries, and on tyrannical corporate desktops.

Today we'll look at what sort of applications are available for KDE, where to find them, and some ideas for building your own super-powered Kryptonite-proof workstation, customized to your exacting personal specs.

Finding KDE Applications
Of course there are a few nits in the brew- even KDE is not perfect. Like why are there so many orphaned menu entries, and no automated way to get rid of them? Why is configuring video still so painful? This should be a done deal, don't you think? But I still have to manually edit xorg.conf for basic tasks like changing the resolution and color depth. And even though KDE since version 3 has become noticeably peppier, it's still not a good choice for old slow PCs.

One of the biggest hassles is just finding anything. I have no idea how many different KDE applications there are, there must be at least a skillion. How can a hardworking admin possibly build her super-duper ideal powerhouse workstation without knowing all the possible choices? Not to worry, for here is a list of places to get KDE stuff. is a great place to find stuff. Programs are neatly tucked into categories like "Network", "Printing", "Multimedia", and are rated by users. You can filter by ratings; the default is to exclude anything under a 30% approval rating. While is a third-party software repository, not part of the official KDE project, you'll find a lot of good stuff here.

Want to pretty up your KDE desktop? Try Here be wallpapers, themes, screensavers, fonts, splash screens, skins, bales of emoticons for all occasions, icons, clipart, and sound effects.

To get information on official KDE applications, visit On the right navigation menu, find "Applications."

Want to find documentation on a particular application? Try You should find the same documentation installed on your system, but if it isn't, now you know where to look for it.

Building Your Tuff KDE Workstation
Finding your way around KDE isn't all that difficult, and most times the online help is decent. There are still times when you get an unfinished help page instead of a user manual, but fortunately not as often as in older times. Some distributions, like Debian, package the help docs separately, so make sure you have them installed.

KDE has a lot of hidden gems. Here are some of my favorites, found in KDE 3.5.

OK, everyone knows what Konqueror is. Yes, it's a Web browser and a file manager. But do you know what it can really do? As a Web browser it has some growing up to do; it's notorious for choking on Javascript. But other than it's a wonderful program. It comes with excellent tools like a Web-age archiver, for saving Web pages in a single file, and a built-in Babelfish button for translating pages. There are buttons for changing Java and Javascript support and browser identification on the fly, instead of wading through a Preferences menu. There is even a "Open With Firefox Web Browser" button. Its password- and cookie-handling are supreme, giving the user ultimate control.

You can enlarge images on Web pages (when there is a single image displayed) with the View menu. KDE loves right-click menus, and Konqueror is no exception- right-click on an image to see what you can do to it.

Konqueror also handles image collections in a friendly fashion. Open any folder containing a lot of images in Image view. You'll get a left-side pane of thumbnails, and single images displayed on the right. You can even rotate images in this view. Want an instant Web gallery? Switch to any other view (tree, list, icon, whatever), then use Tools -> Create Image Gallery to build a simple HTML photo gallery.

Even more excellently, Konqueror supports about every known protocol, including network protocols, which means you can use it as a client or viewer for almost everything: FTP, RDP, VNC, Samba, compressed archives, images, text files, WebDAV... see the KInfoCenter for a complete list. For folks like me who prefer to work from a file manager, this is heavenly.

Desktop Customization
You may have up to twenty- that's right, count 'em, twenty- virtual desktops, and you can give them names. My needs are simple, I have six: Root, Work1, Work2, Remote1, Remote2, and FunCrap. That keeps me pretty well organized. Each virtual desktop can have a different background, which is nice for keeping track of where you are, and for displaying nice family pictures, or whatever you like to have on your desktop.

Bored with static images? Then configure your desktop to display a slideshow. Bored with using your own images? Then download new ones- right-click on the desktop, click "Configure Desktop", "Background", "Get New Wallpapers." Easy as falling asleep.

The Panel can contain anything: menu icons, menus, applets- just right-click to change stuff. You can even create more panels and sidebars. I like to have the Run Command applet for launching X apps from the command line, instead of tying up a terminal. KNetLoad is a nice simple network monitor, and KSensors monitors CPU temperature, fans speeds, CPU load, and motherboard voltages. These tuck compactly into the panel.

There are maybe ten applications that I use a lot. These go into the "mine" menu. There are a few X applications that I like to run as root occasionally, such as Konqueror and Konsole. These go into the "root" menu. A third menu contains "Stuff", which are apps that I use once in awhile. My goal is to be one-click away from my stuff, no matter how much stuff I need. (Invoke the menu editor by right-clicking on the big K.) Managing simple needs is no big deal; managing complexity takes good tools and skillz.

That's just a sampling of what you can do in KDE; once you start digging into it you'll find all sorts of neat features, shortcuts, and customizations. I have this funny idea (which seems alien to a certain segment of the computing world) that computers should do the work, and make my life easier. The best thing about Linux is you can have it however you want it – command line, all the graphical bells and whistles, or some happy point in between. It can take a bit of time and effort to get everything organized. But unlike Windows, Linux gets better over time- it doesn't decay until you are forced into a reformat-and-reinstall. So improvements can be incremental, surgical repairs work fine, and you won't risk borking the entire operating system when you make cosmetic changes.

Next week we'll look at KDE Kiosk, which is a nice tool for quickly setting up and replicating a customized desktop.

See the infamous Gnome/KDE flamewar ignited by Linus.

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