Ubuntu 9.10 (karmic Koala) on Netbooks - Part 3 (Kubuntu Netbook)

In Part 1 of this series, I looked at the "standard" Ubuntu distribution, and found that with some adjustments, it could be made into what I considered to be a fairly nicely usable netbook. In Part 2 I looked at the Karmic Netbook Remix release, and found it to be significantly improved over the previous releases, at least in cosmetic terms.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

In Part 1 of this series, I looked at the "standard" Ubuntu distribution, and found that with some adjustments, it could be made into what I considered to be a fairly nicely usable netbook. In Part 2 I looked at the Karmic Netbook Remix release, and found it to be significantly improved over the previous releases, at least in cosmetic terms. Now, in Part 3, I am going to look at "the new kid on the block", the Kubuntu "Technical Preview" of the KDE Netbook Plasma-Netbook project.

The first, and probably most important, thing to say at this point is that this is still a development project, and it is still very much in the middle of dynamic development; it is not scheduled for release until February 2010. I was prepared to temper my expectations and comments based on this status, but in fact what happened was that I was completely blown away. It is very, very impressive.

The concepts and implementation of KDE Netbook are quite different from those of UNR, and I have been struggling to find a way to do them justice without getting bogged down in endless descriptions of details. I'm going to try to describe it (at least superficially) in the same way that I did UNR. I have a feeling that won't do it justice, though.

The initial desktop has three main areas of interest. There is a Task/System/Icon/Status/Whatever bar across the top of the screen, with many of the usual icons and controls on it (Battery status, Network/Bluetooth status, Audio control, Notifier, Clock and Lock/Shutdown). There is a rather large horizontal bar across the screen, which contains large, colorful icons for most of the typical menu groups (Office, Internet, Multimedia, System and so on). Between that menu bar and the top of the screen there is another horizontal bar, initially empty, which turns out to be a "Favorites" area.

When you click on any of the menu icons, the contents of that menu are shown in the bar, and a "Home" icon appears at the top left of the screen which will get you back to the top level menu. I assume from this structure and action that menus are by definition only one level deep, but that is arguably a good thing anyway.

I will say again here that the icons are very large and colorful, and seem to me to be particularly well suited to a netbook display. I think they are much better than those of the other two major contenders in this area. I would say that UNR is not bad, but the menu bar icons are too small and the text too large - the goal here is supposed to be to make things simple and intuitive, and good pictures beat reading text at that every time. Moblin... well, uh, Moblin... What the heck are those stick-figure icons supposed to represent, anyway? Why use icons that are so abstract that the user is going to have to read the associated text to figure out what they mean anyway?

Getting back to Kubuntu Netbook, when you click on a launcher and start a program, the window does NOT automatically come up maximized (unlike UNR). It is a window with normal decoration and controls, so you can minimize, maximize or close it as you wish. It seems to me that average users are often disturbed or confused when the click on something and the whole screen changes, so I find this approach better than UNR automatically maximizing everything you start, or Moblin creating new "Zones" and putting things into them every time. There is one other interesting effect when you start a program - the Task Bar (panel) across the top of the screen disappears. If you move the mouse cursor to the top edge of the screen, or if you return to an empty desktop, it comes back. This is an interesting variation on "Autohide" that I have not come across before, and I find it nice and intuitive.

Things get interesting when you want to start another program. If you either minimize the open window, or just click on the desktop outside of that window, the window disappears! Gone without a trace! Well, not entirely without a trace, but at least without the usual icon on the task bar or whatever. If you look at the top left corner of the screen, you will see that it says "1 running app". Click on that, and if you have a graphic card that supports advanced graphics (the Intel Atom/945 is good enough), you get a tiled presentation of the main desktop and all currently active applications, and you can then click on any of those to select one. If your graphic driver isn't good enough (neither my HP 2133 VIA nor my HP 1010ez Radeon was), nothing happens. Don't despair, just fall back on the old standard Alt-Tab to select windows. Again, if your graphic driver is good enough, you will get a spiffy "rotating wheel" of windows to choose from; continue holding the Alt key, and each time you press and release Tab it will move to the next window. Wow! This is a sure-fire way to impress your friends. If your graphic card isn't up to that, you will get a more typcial-looking list of active applications to choose from.

Ok, enough already about the user interface. It's good, it's flashy, and I could write about it for a lot longer and I don't think you would get a lot better feel for it. I'll just add a few words about specific applications included in Kubuntu Netbook.

As this is a KDE distribution, I suppose it is not too surprising that it has the Konqueror browser installed, but at least it has a link to install Firefox. The really good news for most users, though, is that it includes OpenOffice, rather than the more obscure Koffice. It has Dragon Player and Amarok for Multimedia, a reasonable selection of games and educational programs, and Ksnapshot and Gwenview for digital picture viewing and organization.

Finally, there is the "Newspaper" panel. Here's my theory on that. The KDE developers have taken a lot of criticism since the release of KDE 4. They have said all along that they are working toward a much larger goal, and the changes would pay off in the long term. I think the Newspaper panel is included as an example of how that payoff can come. When you select it, you actually get a different desktop from the original "Application" panel. It includes a news feed reader, weather reader, calendar and note block. I haven't really investigated it yet, but I assume all those and others are selectable and configurable, so you could have things like micro-blogger applets and such on there too. I suspect that this is one of the areas where there is going to be a lot more development before the final release comes out, but it already looks very interesting.

To wrap it all up, if you need a finished, stable desktop then you probably don't want to risk loading Kubuntu Netbook quite yet. There are some quirks, rough edges and bugs still in it. But if you want to see some of the latest, greatest ideas in netbook desktops, or if you just don't find either UNR or Moblin very pleasing, this could be just what you are looking for. Trying it from a Live USB stick is quick, easy and painless, so go for it!

jw 6/11/2009

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