The main difference between KDE 3 and KDE 4 is that the former is fixed and static while the latter is dynamic and interactive. For a trivial example of that go to System Settings / Desktop / All Effects and activate Snow. Now hitting the Meta+Ctrl+F12 keys (or Win+Ctrl+F12) will fill your desktop with falling snowflakes.
KDE 3 always displayed the contents of the user's Desktop folder on the desktop but in KDE 4 you can use plasmoids to display any containment on Plasma. Say what? Yeah, that's part of the problem: KDE 4 has a whole new lingo.
OK, let's start with the basics.
Plasma is the screen you see when you start KDE 4. It includes the panel -- that's the task bar running along the bottom -- the Plasma toolbox -- the thing up in the top right-hand corner that looks like a cashew nut (it's also known as the cashew), and in the example above a containment -- the shaded translucent area displaying the contents of the user's Desktop folder.
Perhaps a more practical example of KDE 4's desktop dynamism is that it doesn't just restrict you to displaying the contents the Desktop folder. You can display the contents of any number of folders, even networked ones, and changes to them are displayed in real-time. If you run an automated daily backup for example you can open view of the server's backup folder to provide a handy visual check that everything's working as expected.
The other major feature of KDE 4 are its widgets and plasmoids, which are almost one and the same. Widget is the generic term for any small application that directly manipulates specific data. They may come from a variety of sources such as Google Gadgets and the Mac OS X dashboard. Plasmoids on the other hand are Plasma-specific widgets native to Plasma itself. Here's a widget/plasmoid that displays network activity ...
... and here's one showing the weather forecast ...
(Yes, I know it's tilted. You can position and resize widgets any way you like!)
Add widgets by clicking on the cashew and choosing Add Widgets. Then just drag-n-drop to the desktop. If you want to find more, click the Install New Widgets button at the bottom of the Add Widgets window and select Download.
What sorts of things get widget-ised? All sorts of things! At the time of writing the highest rating widgets included a notifier that sits in your panel telling you how many unread messages are in your GMail account, a plasmoid to stream audio from the internet, a Facebook viewer, and one for send fast SMS via a Greek mobile provider! And heres some more cool ones.
But what use are all those widgets if you can't see and monitor them when you apps are full-screen? Easy. Ctrl+F12 toggles the widget dashboard, darkening your application and bringing them to the foreground.
Almost everything's a widget in Plasma, including the K menu. If you don't like the Kickoff or Classic menus, try something different. Lancelot's very popular. And because it's a widget you can run it alongside the K menu to see which one you prefer.
In short, Plasma and KDE 4 allow you to build your own interactive desktop. If that seems a little daunting, check out what others have done ...
You'll find even more here.
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