SolutionBase: 'Konquering' the desktop with KDE

If fear of a windowless environment has kept you from running Linux, KDE may be your answer. Jack Wallen explains what you'll find running a windowing environment such as KDE on your Linux workstation.

A task bar, a menu, clickable icons, a system tray, and a customizable look make up the standard operating system GUI. It's what you expect of an operating system's GUI; it's what you get with Windows, and exactly what you get with KDE running on Linux.

It's the same metaphor, layout, and methods; the biggest difference is the underlying system, which the average user never sees. Still, people seem to fear change. I'm going to alleviate those fears by showing you what you'll find running a windowing environment such as KDE on your Linux workstation.

Author's note

For the purposes of this article, I've installed a fresh version of Kubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn), The Gimp, and OpenOffice on my test workstation. I've also run full updates (using Synaptic), but that's it. Little configuration has been done outside of a few window behaviors that better suit my working style.

It doesn't matter what distribution of Linux you're running KDE on. KDE pretty much works the same no matter what version of Linux is underneath the surface.

The system I'm working on contains the following specs:

  • CPU: AMD 2800+
  • RAM: 512 MB
  • Video: VIA Technology Integrated VT8378

It isn't spectacular and is somewhat out-of-date, but is up to par with what many businesses would still be running on a desktop.

A quick look around

You probably already know your way around Windows pretty well, so I won't do a side-by-side comparison to a Windows GUI. Instead, I will simply illustrate the components of the GUI that will immediately be familiar with users who are familiar with the Windows GUI. Here are the components I will deal with:

  1. Desktop
  2. Pager
  3. Panel
  4. System Tray
  5. Desktop Icons
  6. Mouse Menus

The KDE Desktop

By default, Linux doesn't boot into a graphical environment. Operating systems that do often boot into GNOME. However, if you log off of a GNOME session, you can switch into KDE by making a selection from the Session menu. When KDE starts, you'll see a desktop like the one shown in Figure A.

Figure A

The default KDE desktop with three minimized windows.

What you see is a standard desktop. It's very basic, clean, and very similar to those desktops of the Windows operating systems. At the bottom is the Panel, where you'll see these items:

  • The K Menu: Bottom left.
  • The System Menu: Second from bottom left.
  • The Show Desktop button: Third from bottom left.
  • The Quick Launcher: Fourth from bottom left.
  • Minimized windows: Labeled techrepublic_kde.doc, Layers, Channels, Paths..., and The Gimp, in our example.
  • The Pager: Labeled "1" and "2".
  • The System Tray: Marked with the Speaker icon, the Network icon, and the Klipper icon.
  • The Clock applet
  • The Trash Can

The Desktop is easily configured by pressing the right mouse button anywhere on the desktop above the panel. The resulting menu, shown in Figure B, will have an entry for Configure Desktop. This is very similar to pressing the right mouse button on the desktop in Windows and choosing Properties.

Figure B

From this menu you will also create clickable icons (more on that later.)

The resulting new window, shown in Figure C, is where you will configure the look and feel of your desktop.

Figure C

The biggest difference in the Background settings between KDE and Windows is that in KDE you can configure the background settings for one or more desktops.

You can add items and behaviors that can enhance the desktop experience by pressing the Behavior button. From this section, seen in Figure D, you can add a Menu Bar, edit the action of the mouse buttons, and configure Icons to show for various file types and device types.

Figure D

You can create your own mouse menu by selecting Custom 1 or Custom 2 from the Mouse Button Action drop down lists and selecting Edit.

Suppose you want to configure the Desktop background; there are some interesting tricks for this. Go back to the Configure Desktop window and press the Background button. In the Change The Background window, you'll see a few things that vary from the Windows wallpaper configuration.

The first thing you'll see is the drop-down for which desktop you want your settings to apply to. If you click the drop down you will see that you can apply the settings to either All Desktops, Desktop 1, or Desktop 2. This setting refers to the Pager which we will discuss momentarily.

If you click on Advanced options you can configure KDE to use the kwebdesktop application to download various images from the web. If you select Get New Wallpapers, you can download various wallpapers from


The pager is a desktop metaphor that has been with Linux for quite some time. Effectively, this system allows you to have far more screen real estate than you would normally have. Suppose in your office, you have two desks. On one desk, you do all of your bookkeeping chores; on another desk, you do all of your face-to-face chores. Having two desks keeps various paper work and jobs from getting confused with one another and it gives you far more space to work; that is how the pager works.

By default, the KDE desktop gives you two pagers: Desktop 1 and Desktop 2. You can have as many as twenty desktops.

To configure multiple desktops, you'll make changes in the Desktop properties screen. In the Desktop Properties window, press the Multiple Desktops button. You can take care of three configurations:

  • Number of Desktops: The number of desktops you want to use.
  • Desktop Names: The label you want to give each Desktop.
  • Mouse Wheel: By enabling this, you can change desktops by moving your mouse wheel.

Naming the desktops is actually quite helpful. Most times I will name each desktop with the work I will be undertaking on that desktop. So, I will often have a desktop named Writing, another named Network, one named Graphics, and still another named System.


Let's move on from the Desktop and head toward the item that will be most familiar to the Windows user: the Panel. Sometimes referred to as the Kicker, the Panel will be the place from where many of your applications will be launched as well as where they are minimized. The panel is, to many, the heart of the desktop.

The Panel is a simple bar that runs across the bottom of your screen; it can also be set up to run on the sides or the top. The Panel can be highly configured: You can add applets and icons to it and change the look and feel of it.

Configuring the Panel is simple: Right-click anywhere on the Panel that doesn't house an icon, tray, menu, or minimized application. When you right-click the Panel, you will see a menu appear, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E

Not only can you configure the existing panel, but you can add and remove panels as well.

Select Configure Panel from the menu. The Panel Configuration window, shown in Figure F, is very similar to the look and feel of the Desktop Configuration window.

Figure F

There are quite a few options to take care of here.

The first thing you will see is the placement and size of the Panel. My personal choice is to shorten the panel and center the placement, but this is outside of the norm, so we'll leave it as default. You can also change the size of the Panel.

As in Windows, you can set up your panel to auto-hide, consequently giving yourself even more screen real estate. One aspect of panel hiding that differs from Windows is the hiding buttons. If you enable the panel-hiding buttons, as shown in Figure G below, you will see a small arrow pointing in the direction the Panel will move. You can configure the Panel to hide to the left or right.

Figure G

You can enable both buttons to slide the panel either way.

Once you've hidden it, you can bring the Panel back by pressing the arrow once again. Of course, with the panel hidden, how do you get to your minimized applications? Simply press the middle mouse button (probably the mouse wheel). The resulting menu -- the Window List -- is shown in Figure H.

Figure H

This is a simple way to bring back your applications.

The window list is simply a clickable listing of the applications currently running. Even if an application is minimized, you can bring said application to the desktop by selecting it from the Window List.

You can also add more pagers to the desktop. There are five different types of panels you can add:

Dock Application Bar: This allows WindowMaker applications be docked.

External Taskbar: A bar that can take the place of the taskbar on the Panel so that there can be more room for minimized windows.

Kasbar: A replacement for the KDE panel with a totally different look and feel.

Panel: Add a second KDE Panel.

Universal Sidebar: This is a similar sidebar that used to belong to Konqueror. It holds clickable icons for applications, bookmarks, directories, and networks.

The Kasbar

The Kasbar is a very interesting tool that hearkens back to the look and feel of Next (or AfterStep). Take a look at Figure I; it illustrates one way the Kasbar is used. As you can see, I hovered over the minimized icon for OpenOffice, and a thumbnail of the window appeared.

Figure I

Click on the Kasbar minimized icon and the window will appear.

Although the Kasbar is a neat take on some old-school ways, it probably won't have much of a place with your users migrating from Windows.

System tray

The system tray, shown in Figure J, is exactly what you would think it to be. Here you will find tiny applets that offer up system information or tools. By default, KDE has the Sound Applet, the Klipper (the copy tool), and the KNetworkManager applet. These applets are the only available applets by default. There are certain applications (such as the personal time tracker KArm) which, when minimized, will go directly to the system tray.

Figure J

If you press the left mouse button on any of the three applets shown, a menu will appear.

The clock is not really a part of the system tray, but just an applet on its own. As with any of the panel applets, you can move the clock by hovering your mouse on the left edge of the clock until you see the vertical bar and arrow appear.

Desktop icons

Most users wouldn't know what to do without Desktop Icons. By default, KDE doesn't have any desktop icons. Creating icons is very simple: Right-click the desktop and select Create New. From the Create New menu select Link To Application. Once this entry is selected, a new window (Figure K) will appear that will allow you to create the necessary icon. The one possible drawback is that you will have to know the location of the command to run (or the name of the command, which must be in your user's $PATH.)

Figure K

Ensure you press the icon button (the button with the blue gear) in order to give the icon a unique graphic for the application icon.

There is, of course, another way to create a desktop icon. Select the System menu (located in the Panel to the right of the K Menu) and select Home Folder. The Konqueror browser will appear in the users home directory. Select the small red Root Folder icon to place the browser in the / directory. Navigate to /usr/bin and locate the application you want to add the icon for.

Click and drag the icon to the desktop and an icon will appear. The only change you will have to make is to right-click the icon, select Properties, and edit the icon button so you won't have a desktop full of blue gears. Once the icons are created, they will all be single-click icons.

Final thoughts

KDE shares so much familiarity to Windows. Some feel as if this was done intentionally because Microsoft just got the desktop metaphor right. Some, on the other hand, feel as if it was done because it was what users were accustomed to. At any rate, KDE did do many things correctly, and your users will feel right at home using the KDE GUI.