The first beta version of KDE 3.4, the last release in the current branch, was released on Thursday. But this release is not as important as KDE 4, which is due out later in the year. A beta version of Qt 4, on which KDE 4 will be based, was released at the end of December, with a final version due in the first half of 2005.
Qt is developed by Norwegian software company Trolltech, which releases the cross-platform application framework under both commercial and open source software licences. Eivind Throndsen, product manager for Qt, said significant improvements made in Qt 4 will boost the performance of KDE applications.
"A notable improvement is in the areas of start-up time and resource consumption -- the speed changes should be noticeable," said Throndsen. "We have revised the entire toolkit -- across the board it is smarter about how it uses resources."
In initial tests Trolltech found a 20 to 30 percent speed improvement in the new version of Qt, according to Throndsen. In this test the current version of Qt Designer, Trolltech's GUI designer application, was tested on Qt 3 and compared with the new version of Qt Designer running on Qt 4. Trolltech will carry out more comprehensive performance tests before it releases the final version of Qt 4, said Throndsen.
Richard Smith, a KDE developer, said the performance improvements in Qt 4 are likely to have a considerable impact on the performance of KDE, but for individual functions it will depend on whether it was KDE or Qt deficiencies that were causing previous versions of KDE to run slowly.
Aside from the performance improvement, Qt 4 includes features aimed at developers, including a porting tool that will make it easier for programmers to port applications from Qt 3 to Qt 4.
It will also include improved support for alpha blending windows -- rendering semi-transparent windows on the computer screen. Qt 3 only has support for alpha blending in top-level windows, while Qt 4 will allow developers to make any window semi-transparent, said Throndsen. This may be useful for applications that run in the background, but which users want to keep an eye on, such as a terminal window that is connected to a UNIX server.
The latest KDE beta, version 3.4, does not have a significant number of new features as developers are concentrating on the next major release, according to KDE developer Smith. "There is not a lot of really new stuff," said Smith. "Everyone's focusing on the changes from KDE 3.4 to 4."