KDE 4.3 is awesome

It’s been a busy few weeks at the university, with mid-year assessment (in all it’s various forms) having to take precedence over everything else.  Now that it’s over and students are on holiday, I’ve finally gotten around to doing the things I’ve been putting off for a while…like installing the beta version of KDE 4.3 on Kubuntu Jaunty.

The 4.x series of the desktop is getting more and more impressive with every iteration, so much so that I felt I needed to put it on show a little.  I’ve been playing around with it for a few days now and while it’s still a little buggy, it’s stable enough for me.  In this post, I’m going to go through some of the applications I use most often, and give my own thoughts about why I’m loving this update.

Desktop showing the Lancelot menu
Desktop showing the Lancelot menu
Folder view with expanding folders
Folder view with expanding folders

Desktop.  The Folder view widgets on the desktop do a great job of keeping it clean and useful, and I love the way they expand on mouseover to make navigation really easy and intuitive.  The Lancelot menu is brilliant, keeping unused applications out of the way, but making it simple to find them when needed.

Dolphin file manager with Konsole view (bottom)
Dolphin file manager with Konsole view (bottom)
Dolphin file manager with Split pane, Information, Places and File tree views
Dolphin file manager with Split pane, Information, Places and File tree views

File management.  There was a lot of controversy when the KDE developers decided to
create Dolphin and replace Konqueror as the default file manager, but it was clearly the right move.  There are a couple of things that I love about Dolphin, including the Information side panel, split view mode, Terminal view and the integration of Nepomuk semantic search.

OpenOffice.org word processor
OpenOffice.org word processor

Work stuff.  I tried using KOffice2 even though it’s a platform release (because it looks so very cool), but there are a few issues that keep me from switching from OpenOffice.org, the main one being that it doesn’t support OpenDocument or MS Word files as well as OpenOffice does, and the fonts look terrible.

BasKet note taking application (showing default example)
BasKet note taking application (showing default example)

I’ve installed and am using BasKet notepads for my note taking application, which unfortunately is still a KDE 3.5 application.  There were some concerns about the project stalling when the lead developer decided that he couldn’t continue maintaining it, but it seems as if it’s been taken up by others and may yet have a future.  I hope so because it’s a great application, even in it’s current state.  A project to watch out for in this field is SemNotes, a semantic note taking application being built on Nepomuk (see here for screencast).

Okular universal file viewer (showing PDF with annotations)
Okular universal file viewer (showing PDF with annotations)

Okular is a universal document viewer, although I don’t use if for much other than PDFs.  The feature I like most is the ability to annotate documents, although the default colour scheme of the notes isn”t great.

Calendar in Kontact
Calendar in Kontact

I used to use Kontact for email for the longest time but then I switched to Thunderbird for a while, then Spicebird and finally back to Kontact.  In terms of functionality, nothing comes close to it right now.  I’d like to say that I use Akkregator for my feeds, but it’s missing something that I can’t quite put my finger on.  The interface also hasn’t changed much in the past few years and it seems very slow.

Firefox web browser
Firefox web browser

I have to admit that I’m using the 3.5 preview release of Firefox as the web browser, rather than Konqueror.  While Konqueror was awesome a few years ago, it hasn’t kept up with the changes on the web, and is really starting to show it’s age.  There’s a lot happening at Mozilla that Konqueror jsut can’t keep up with and unless there’s a radical change of pace in it’s development, I can’t imagine using it again.

Amarok media player
Amarok media player

Multimedia.  I’m always switching between different media players, but generally I’ve been keen on Songbird and Amarok for managing my whole library, and Audacious as a light-weight player for quickly playing single files.  Gwenview (the image viewer) has been given an overhaul and

Gwenview in Browse mode with Information side panel on view
Gwenview in Browse mode with Information side panel on view

does a brilliant job of managing image libraries.  Amarok is a bit buggy right now (although I am running the beta version of 2.1) and it’s still lacking some functionality that was present in 1 (the port to Qt4 means a lot of catching up has to be done), which is why I use Songbird on occasion.  But as with other KDE apps right now, it’s in a state of transition and every release is building on the solid platform that was laid down with 2.0.

Marble desktop globe showing satelite view
Marble desktop globe showing satelite view

Marble.  This is a great tool that’s something along the lines of Google Earth and Maps, but it’s open and a native KDE application.  I’ve included these screenshots showing a satelite view, as well as a

Marble desktop globe showing Open Streetmap view
Marble desktop globe showing Open Streetmap view

street view using Open Streetmap.  It’s already got Wikipedia and Flickr integration for additional information, as well as being able to overlay additional data, like temperature and precipitation maps.  It’s a young project that’s come really far and has the capability to be incorporated into other KDE apps, like using it together with geo-tagging photos in Digikam.

The one thing that I can’t find anywhere is a decent podcast catcher…something like Gpodder for Gnome, but native to KDE.  I know that Amarok has one but it’s not working for me and besides, it’s lacking the finishing touches that would win me over.  Little things like being able to read a summary of the podcast would be so useful but is currently impossible.

I’m also not a fan of Kpackagekit, as it’s still very much in development and doesn’t always work very well.  Generally the command line is quicker anyway, but there’s always Synaptic if a GUI is needed.

Anyway, that’s a brief overview of some of the apps that i use and while most of them are still in beta, there’s so much happening in KDE right now that this post will be outdated very shortly.  Sigh…

If you’re interested in following the developments in KDE, check out KDE.News

Managing digital libraries

I just re-installed Mendeley after moving from Fedora to Kubuntu and in the process came across a few other posts / sites discussing the problem of managing large numbers of research articles.  Here’s a few of the more interesting ones I came across.

The more time I spend with Mendeley, the more impressed I am.  However, I’m a bit concerned that when importing my library this time, I’m short about 100 articles and have no way of knowing which ones didn’t make it.

Looking forward to trying the 0.6.5 release of Mendeley…

Lyx: separating content and style through document processing

It’s been a while since I posted anything here, mainly because I haven’t read anything interesting in that time, which is mainly because we’ve spent the past month or so gearing up for undergraduate exams.  Now that exams are effectively over, we’re marking…sigh.  Together with the exams, our department is on a writing workshop in the hope that by the end of the year we’ll each have a peer-reviewed article ready for publication.  While this is a great way to bite the bullet and get something out, it does take away time from the more interesting task of finding and blogging about cool stuff.

So it’s the weekend, I have a huge pile of scripts to mark and an article to complete for review on Monday…and here I am, working on this post.  But it’s work-related, so I don’t feel bad.  The reason it’s work-related is because I’ve recently started using a document processor for writing articles, called LyX.  A document processor differs from a word processor (like OpenOffice) in that it attempts to separate the process of writing from the process of typesetting, or formatting.

This separation of content and style is hardly a new concept but has been increasingly evident in the whole Web 2.0 hype that makes use of the idea that content wrapped in meaningful XML tags can be syndicated in almost any form and presented in almost any format.  In the early days of the web, it was also being addressed in the argument against HTML tags that described the formattin of content, rather than it’s structure.  CSS is what allowed that separation to take place, but not to the degree that XML does.  While this isn’t really the place for that discussion, I just wanted to highlight the point that the separation of content and formatting has been an issue since we started using computers to write documents (here’s a great video by Michael Wesch that demonstrates this idea really well).

The earliest word processors gave everyone the power to format content, which could be argued is a good thing because choice is important, right?  While the ability to decide text colour, font size, page margins and the thousand other options present in a word processor may be great for that letter to your mom, it’s almost meaningless when it comes to academic writing, the formatting of which is already determined by either your institution or publisher.  So when I write, why should I have to bother with formatting?

This is where LyX comes in.  By separating the writing process from the typesetting process, Lyx gives the writer the ability to concentrate on writing, rather than mucking about with trying to figure out how to insert and keep track of in-text citations and all the other soul-destroying aspects of computer-based academic writing.  It also allows you to output your document in any of the major formats you require.  For example, my institution uses the APA style of document formatting, so when I’m done writing, I literally press a button that outputs my work to a PDF document, already formatted for publication.

This post has gotten incredibly long, so I’ll end with a few links to more information if you’re interested in checking it out.  A word of warning though, if you’re not used to the idea that content and style are fundamentally different, there’s a steep learning curve when switching to something like Lyx.