KDE 4.2 usability issues – Part 1

I usually use GNOME and am quite happy with it. Recently I decided to try KDE 4.2 because some GNOME applications are lacking features I need. KDE 4.2 makes a nice impression, however KDE is lacking very much behind GNOME in the usability section. In this blog entry I wrote down what annoys me most about KDE 4.2 and how I think it should be fixed. I mainly wrote this article to suggest improvements to the KDE developers and not to make KDE look bad.

For testing I used Kubuntu 9.04 Alpha and its KDE 4.2.1 packages. I guess most issues apply to KDE itself, however some may originate from Kubuntu’s packaging. UPDATE: All opinions represent my personal view and as I’m no usability expert one might argue how significant my opinion is.  I wrote this article  mainly to show KDE developers what a normal user with no tech background would expect from his desktop environment. While my propositions certainly need to be discussed I believe that my critique is appropriate in most cases.

Kickoff menu (KDE application launcher)

kickoff

KDE’s application launcher Kickoff: Note the superfluous Applications label over System Settings. The hard disk Windows_Vista is missing in Places althorugh it’s shown in Dolphin.

places

Dolphin Places Bar: All disks are shown. However the language is German althorugh I switched KDE’s language to English.

Let’s have a look at the Kickoff menu. The first thing I noticed about it is that the tabs on the bottom do not “feel” right. If you hover about a clickable item in KDE the item usually changes slightly to indicate that it is clickable. For example the icons in the panel become brighter. The tabs in the Kickoff menu miss this effect and therfore it suggests that they are not clickable.

More things I don’t like:

  • The “Applications” label next to “System Settings” in the Computer tab is irritating, because System Settings is not really an application. The label should be removed.
  • Notice that my other hard drive “Windows_Vista” is missing in the Kickoff menu. This also applies to USB drives. I like the idea of places in the Kickoff menu but showing only some places is quite useless.
  • The applications list requires too many mouse clicks. When you select a category the category list is replaced with the contents of the category. To see the category list again you have to click on the left arrow. Far too many clicks if you try to find something. I would recommend just extending the menu to the right when the user selects a category, leaving the category list visible. In times of default screen widths of 1024+ this is really no issue, besides that, who works with other applications while the launcher is open? UPDATE: KDE developers suggested that extending the menu to the right would require too much mouse movement. As this is a thing of personal preference I hope that an option will be added.

    The icons of the application categories are too big and wasting much space, if they would be smaller scrolling could be avoided.

My other wishlist items for the Kickoff menu:

  • Adding applications to Favorites should be easier. For example place a clickable star next to the applications name when the user is hovering over it. The right click context menu should be removed, because users do not expect to find a context menu in another menu. “Add to panel” and “add to desktop” can be done using drag and drop.

    kfav

    My suggestion for handling favorites.

  • An option to put the five tabs (Favorites, Applications, Computer, Recently Used, Leave) of the kickoff menu directly into the panel. This would save a lot of clicks.

Desktop

I generally like Plasma, especially since putting icons back on the desktop was reintroduced. However there are some (mainly preferences) issues left:

  • desk11

    Desktop icon: The (+) button from Dolphin is missing while hovering over it.

    Icons on the desktop (or in folder views) behave slightly differently than in Dolphin. For example no (+) buttons appears while hovering over an item. Why is Dolphin’s folder viewer component not used for folder views? Consistency is very important from an usability point of view. UPDATE: Dolphin’s folder viewer seems not to be suited as a Plasma widget, mostly because of background and transparency issues. So I guess making the Plasma widget more like Dolphin is the best solution.

  • When right clicking on the desktop I notice that the context menu presents me two different settings: “Appearence settings” and “Folder View settings”. This may make sense from a technical point but is very confusing. Both preference dialogs should be merged.
  • Desktop Settings: The whole “Desktop Activity” section is useless. Please replace it with a simple checkbox “Allow icons on my desktop”. UPDATE: KDE developers pointed out that more desktop activities will be added in the future. However there should still be a label explaining what the choices do in normal user language.
    “New Theme…” should be called “Download Theme…”. The “Get New Wallpapers…” should be moved up to the Picture combobox and also be renamed to “Download Wallpapers….”. As the monitor on the right only shows the preview for Wallpapers it should be moved to the corresponding section.

  • Test Activity Settings: Besides its strange title it makes a good impression.

Dolphin (File manager)

Dolphin preferences: After clicking on “Use current location” Dolphin adds file:/// infront of a local path. “Use default location” should be replaced with a radio button and called “My home directory”.

Dolphin is a very good KDE application. However I am missing a decent file search function like that in Mac OS X Finder. Is this planned for KDE 4.3? I certainly hope so.

Clicking on “Network” in Places presents me with “Network Services”, “Samba Shares” and “Add Network Folder”. How is a user supposed to know what “Samba Shares” means? In my opinion the best solution is just display the scanned local network with different icons for different services, i.e. Windows logo for SMB, printer icon for IPP, router icon for UPNP,  disk icon for SFTP, terminal for SSH. Dolphin’s group mode could be enabled by default for that and would provide a good experience.

Besides that I found two very minor issues in the preferences dialog:

  • The General tab should be on top. (consistency!)
  • In the Startup tab Home Folder should be renamed to “Folder to show in new windows” and it should consist of two radio buttons: “My home folder” and “Custom folder” together with the location input textbox. Besides that the button “Use Current Location” appends “file:///” in front of the path which could be confusing. “Use Default Location” should be removed.

Konqueror (Web browser)

Konqueror should be retired or radically changed. It tries to combine too many tasks (file browsing, web viewing, file preview) in the same program and does nothing of them well. File browsing should clearly be removed as Dolphin has matured to a very good file manager.

Konqueror showing a PDF file: The toolbars are overloaded, the user has no clue what belongs to the browser and what to the PDF viewer.

File preview could still be useful while browsing the web, but please add a simple option to save the file you are currently viewing (toolbar icon!). Merged Okular and Konqueror toolbars are very confusing (happens when viewing PDFs with Konqueror), seperate them, i.e. put all Okular components in the area where the website would appear and add a yellow bar “This is a preview of PDF-Documentfilename.pdf <Save>” over it.

Konqueror’s worst part is its HTML rendering capabilities. Most Web 2.0 sites don’t work with KHTML (GMail, Google Calender, iGoogle to name a few). Please, please switch to WebKit by default. I know, many people don’t like Apple having control over KDE’s HTML component. But what’s so bad about it? Nearly all websites are tested with WebKit and it’s actively developed by many people. It also follows web standards and Qt already provides support for it. KDE can fork WebKit it if it does not like Apple’s decisions. UPDATE: Strictly speaking this is no usability but a technical issue, but most users just notice that Konqueror is not able to render their favorite web page.

Then there are a lot of things Konqueror has to learn from Firefox. First of all non intrusive questions for storing passwords. After that a nice bookmark system like in Firefox 3 would be nice. I especially like the combined bookmark/history search with page title display in the Firefox location bar. Then the default configuration should be less annoying, I mean the default warnings about cookies, SSL, etc. I suggest this should all be put in a security/privacy dialog that is displayed at first start and has a “Normal” and “Paranoid” preset.

Many people would suggest, that I should just use Firefox. But this is no solution because Firefox is a GNOME application and terribly integrated in KDE, i.e. open/save/print dialogs, file handling, etc. I would however be very happy with a Firefox KDE port to replace Konqueror. (possibly this is even the best solution when done right!)UPDATE: As Qt/KDE Firefox ports seem to die faster than they are created the probably most realistic option is to port Arora to KDE and replace Konqueror with it.