Writings of a techie wizard
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Fri, 17 Jun 2011

It's a well-known custom for Linux users to rant about some aspect of their OS. Unlike the Mac community, which gushes about how wonderful their OS is, or the Windows community, whose writings about their OS often read like soldiers' letters home from a war zone, we Linux types view ranting as a force for change. Or at least, as an explanation of why we personally no longer use the festering pile of dung we are ranting about.

The particular festering pile under the microscope in this post is KDE 4. A few months ago I gave in to long-standing temptation and got a new computer. Another thing about the Linux world is the meaning of that phrase, "get a new computer". It does not mean, as it does in the Mac world, "go to the store and buy the One True Machine To Rule Them All"; nor does it mean, as it does in the Windows world, "go to the store and exercise your power of choice by picking one brand of pre-packaged Windows machine that has the same bugs and misfeatures as all the other brands of pre-packaged Windows machines". In my case, it meant going to a computer show and buying a motherboard, a CPU (AMD, not Intel), memory, and a power supply; going to Micro Center and buying a hard drive (the show was all sold out, and Micro Center's sale prices on hard drives are pretty low anyway); assembling the computer, hooking up the keyboard, mouse, and monitor from my old computer, turning it on, and installing Linux.

It was at the "installing Linux" phase that the fun started, the issue being, of course, which Linux distribution to install. This is another concept that is foreign to the Mac and Windows worlds, where people simply can't grok that "Linux" is not a marketing label for a corporation, it's just an operating system that can be packaged in different ways for different purposes and preferences. I had run OpenSuSE for years on my old computer, so that got the first try. However, I ran into some issues with video drivers, and when I got tired of digging around the OpenSuSE site looking for a fix, I decided to try Ubuntu instead.

I already expected some friction because when I upgraded my old machine from OpenSuSE 10.something to 11.something a while back, I found that KDE 4 was now the default desktop, and I was astounded at how slow and bloated it was compared to KDE 3 on that machine. I couldn't get KDE 3 up and running fast enough. If I wanted to be forced to upgrade my hardware every few years just to keep up with software bloat, I'd run Windows, thank you very much. (Apple is heading this way too, but not to the same extent, at least not yet.)

But with the new machine, I figured the hardware ought to be fast enough to handle it, so I decided to at least give KDE 4 an honest try. The first thing I realized was that I have no use at all for all the "Plasma Desktop" features that are supposedly so great that you won't be able to resist them. Maybe at some point I'll find out that there is some killer feature in there that makes it worth it, but I'm not holding my breath. At least I can close all the "Plasma" windows on my desktop and just ignore that whole subsystem. (But it was still cruft sitting there taking up hard drive space, and processes taking up memory that I couldn't just kill because I didn't know what else in KDE 4 depends on them.)

The next thing I realized was that I can't stand Dolphin as a file manager. (I already kind of knew that from my previous brief bout with KDE 4 on the old machine, but now I have definite proof.) Konqueror was fine, thank you very much. But of course the geniuses of KDE 4 had removed Konqueror as a file manager from the standard menus, so I had to remove all the Dolphin references and replace them with Konqueror references by hand. Thanks a lot, I don't think.

However, even Konqueror turned out to be less likable than in KDE 3. For one thing, there are irritating little bugs that weren't there in KDE 3, and which relate to functionality that's been there forever, so you wouldn't expect bugs to just appear out of nowhere. One example: delete a directory in Konqueror when you have the directory tree displayed in the left pane and the current directory in the right pane (which is my normal way of operating). The right pane updates correctly to show that the deleted directory is no longer there. The left pane does not; you can hit "refresh" all day and it will continue to show the deleted folder. Even after you have clicked on the deleted folder in the left pane, and had Konqueror tell you that it's not there, it still displays in the left pane. The only way to fix this is to exit and then restart Konqueror. How could this basic piece of interface have gotten broken? Don't they test these things? I ended up running the KDE 3 version of Konqueror under KDE 4 as my file manager, which meant yet another round of adjusting menu items and settings by hand.

Then I discovered that, not only did the genuises at KDE 4 break previously working functionality, they also flat-out removed functionality that had been there in KDE 3. I discovered quite a while ago that Kontact (at least, the KDE 3 version) lets you store your calendar, contact list, to-do list, etc. in "groupware" folders in your IMAP email. This is great; I can share all that stuff among multiple machines (at a minimum, I need my primary desktop and my laptop to both see the same data) without having to worry about setting up separate network infrastucture for each one. I really don't want to have to set up, say, an LDAP server just to share my contacts; IMAP email is everywhere anyway, so why not use it for this simple, obvious added functionality?

Well, guess what KDE 4 removed from Kontact? All of that IMAP groupware functionality is gone. Well, perhaps that's a bit strong. Technically, it's not quite gone, because digging around on Ubuntu's forums turned up some ways to edit config files by hand to (supposedly) enable the sort of thing that was easily set up through the standard settings GUI in KDE 3. Now to me, if they went so far as to remove all those settings from the standard GUI and make you edit config files by hand, they might as well have removed it altogether. I run a GUI desktop like KDE so I won't have to edit all those configs by hand. But even so, I tried all that, and it still didn't work. Apparently, from the forum traffic, I'm not the only one who has observed this. Maybe there's some magic words I haven't put into the configs, and if I can find out what they are, I could get this to work. But I don't have the time or the inclination to go to all that trouble for something that should never have been broken in the first place. Instead, I started running the KDE 3 version of Kontact under KDE 4. (Are you beginning to see a pattern here?)

I'm actually surprised, looking back, that I didn't switch back to a full KDE 3 desktop session at this point. By that time, I did have a fair number of settings established in KDE 4 that I didn't want to have to re-establish in KDE 3, so I hoped that I could get away with running a KDE 4 desktop but using KDE 3 versions of applications almost exclusively. (Oh, yes, the pattern I just referred to kept on with a vengeance. In fairly short order, I had to dump KDE 4 versions for KDE 3 versions of pretty much all the applications I use, because the KDE 4 versions kept throwing weird curve balls at me. I won't bother listing them all here; you'd get bored. It's worth noting, though, that for one application in particular I had to use the KDE 3 version from the start, because there is no KDE 4 version at all: KEdit, the basic "notepad-equivalent" text editor. This one just baffles me: wouldn't that be the easiest application to port to a new version, not to mention one of the simple, basic ones that you would never want to be without?) But I should have known it was a vain hope.

What finally pushed me over the edge was when I found that, even though I was running the KDE 3 version of Kontact, the "groupware" stuff I talked about above ceased to work, simply because I was running it under a KDE 4 desktop. I confirmed this diagnosis, of course, by starting a KDE 3 desktop session (by this time I had one installed, something in my subconscious having convinced me that the switch was inevitable) and seeing that all the neat groupware stuff worked just fine. Let me be clear: the groupware stuff had been working under a KDE 4 session, and then it stopped, when I hadn't changed anything that should have had any effect on that functionality. I had rebooted the machine because of a kernel upgrade, but that shouldn't have affected Kontact, should it? I was peeved enough that I actually spent some more time burrowing through the various config files that deal with this functionality; all of them looked the same as they had when it had been working under KDE 4, and Googling and searching forums turned up nothing helpful. Once again, if I wanted stuff that had been working to suddenly break for no apparent reason, and to be unable to diagnose the problem and fix it even by digging into config files by hand, I'd run Windows, thank you very much.

So here I am, writing and publishing this post in a nicely working KDE 3 desktop session, running nicely working KDE 3 applications. Are they perfect? No, of course not. But they work well enough to meet my needs, and after this experience with KDE 4, I don't think I'll see any reason to change again any time soon.

Oh, to answer an obvious question that someone is sure to ask: no, I'm not interested in switching to Gnome. I do have a Gnome desktop session installed on my machine, but I only use it when I'm curious about how some particular GUI I'm working on will appear in a Gnome desktop. I have nothing in particular against Gnome; it just doesn't fit the way I work. And once more, if I wanted to be forced to switch around the way I work every time somebody came out with a shiny new desktop that I just have to try, I'd run...well, this one could be Mac just as well as Windows, but you get the idea.

(One other note: towards the end of the Odyssey recounted above, I set up a Linux computer for a friend, and started him out with KDE 4, after a brief period with Gnome, only because it's the default desktop on Ubuntu and I didn't have a Kubuntu DVD handy, made it clear that it didn't fit the way he was working with the computer either. He went through the Odyssey much faster than I did; within a couple of weeks I had installed and switched him to a KDE 3 desktop. That was another factor that helped to finally push me over the edge for my own machine; when your friend, a Linux newbie, has a machine running smoother than yours does, something's gotta give.)

Postscript: 64-bit Linux Sucks Too

One thing I forgot to mention above is that, since I had a brand spanking new multi-core 64-bit processor, I figured that I should install a 64-bit version of Linux to take full advantage of it. In fact, I did this twice, with both OpenSuSE and Ubuntu. What a mistake. Even though 64-bit has been around for a number of years now, there were still a lot of packages without 64-bit versions, which takes away a lot of the benefit of running 64-bit in the first place. But what finally pushed me over the edge and made me wipe the hard drive and start again with 32-bit versions was that the graphics in the 64-bit versions of both OpenSuSE and Ubuntu simply sucked. The desktop themes were limited (and didn't include the ones I preferred), the configuration options were limited (and didn't include a number of options that I had spent considerable time tuning on my old machine), and worst of all since I do a lot of writing and programming, the font rendering was atrocious, even when I had tried all possible combinations of settings for smoothing and anti-aliasing and so forth.

I should make clear that none of what I'm ranting about caused me any really serious problems, in the grand scheme of things. Sure, I spent extra time getting my new computer set up, but I was expecting to do that anyway. And I still had my old computer up and running (in fact, it still is, though now it mainly just provides a filesystem for storing backups), so I could still get things done while I was messing around with the new one. Mainly it was just a big disappointment; all the work that has gone into KDE 4 and 64-bit Linux, and they're still not ready for prime time.

Posted at 19:38   |   Category: rants   |   Tags: computers   |   Permalink
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