With the growing popularity of netbooks, it is no surprise that many Linux distributions and software developers have created customized versions of their software to run on them. Some of the popular choices include Ubuntu’s Netbook Remix and Intel’s Moblin. Not to be counted out, KDE now has a version of their desktop environment designed for netbooks. While it is still under heavy development, I thought now would be a good time to get a little preview of what is to come. For the purposes of this preview, I installed Kubuntu Netbook Edition, but you can conceivably use any distribution that will support your netbook.
The Plasma Shell
Upon installation, KDE Plasma Netbook begins just like a regular KDE session. One of the good things about it is that it actually is a full KDE installation. The only essential difference is that the Plasma shell is catered for the smaller screens of netbooks.
The panel sits at the top of the screen with three primary sections: (1)Window Picker (2)Activity Bar and (3)System Tray. The window picker relies on Kwin’s “present windows” effect, zooming out to show any running applications. The activity bar switches between plasma activities. By default there are two: applications and newspaper. The system tray functions as it normally does in KDE.
I call it the “window picker” only because I do not know the official name for it. It functions perfectly well, although users who are used to a taskbar might take some time to adjust. You cannot see which windows you have open without activating it, but it will tell you how many are currently running.
This falls in line with the full-screen philosophy most netbook environments have adopted. If users tend to maximize windows on the small screen, there is no point in having multiple windows appear at once. When you select one window, the others disappear beneath the plasma shell.
Running applications is very easy with KDE Plasma Netbook. All of the categories are listed as icons right in the middle of the screen. To start a program, simply drill down through the categories as you would in a menu. Menus can be harder to navigate on laptops in general and sometimes just downright annoying on a tiny netbook.
Other methods of application launching do still exist. Click the binoculars icon in the top right, and a search box will open that seems to rely on the same back-end as Krunner. Typing in a partial application name or category will bring up a list the user can choose from. Krunner is also still available by pressing Alt-F2.
Rather than having the user drop widgets onto the desktop, KDE Plasma Netbook creates an entirely separate screen (or activity) for your widgets. They essentially exist within a desktop window that even has a scroll bar, so you could theoretically have pages of widgets. You can switch between the applications screen and the newspaper screen with the activity bar at the top. KDE shortcut keys also work for all functions, just as they normally would.
I did not notice any immediate access to file management, other than starting Dolphin from the application launcher. This might be an oversight on my part, but either way, it is certainly not as obvious as Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which has a right panel for file management. Since there is an area for icons, however, it would be very easy to add shortcuts to Dolphin and any of your favorite folders. The other issue was speed. It seemed somewhat slow on my Eee PC 900, but it should perform better on Atom-based netbooks. On the positive side of Linux mobile computing issues, I had no problem connecting to my WPA-secured wireless network with the new network manager or dealing with the battery using the power management widget.
Overall, this desktop shell looks promising as an alternative to the standard KDE Plasma setup. Users will definitely appreciate the easy application launching and window switching. Although it is still under development, KDE Plasma Netbook appears fully functional, and I recommend anyone interested should give it a try.
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