7 cool KDE tweaks that will change your life

KDE's Plasma desktop offers a ton of options to customize your environment for the way you work. Here are seven to check out.
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The great thing about KDE's Plasma desktop is that it's universally familiar enough for anybody to use, but it's also got all the knobs and switches needed to become a power user. There's no way to cover all the great options available in the customizable desktop environment here, but these seven tweaks can change your Plasma experience for the better.

These are based on KDE 5. Most of them also apply to KDE 4, although in some cases extra packages are needed, or the configuration options are in slightly different locations.

1. Get a full-screen app launcher

The thing about starting with all the options in the world is that you can imitate anything, including GNOME. When GNOME3 came out, it introduced the crazy idea of having a full-screen application launcher, combining a complete application list with a favorites section in the form of a dock and providing access to a dynamic list of virtual desktops. This idea was "borrowed" by Mac OS X as Launchpad, and now it can be mimicked with KDE's Plasma Desktop.

For me, the full-screen launcher's appeal isn't that it can imitate GNOME3; it's about getting an alphabetized listing of all the applications on my system so I can find them without having to guess which category they were tagged into.

To create a full-screen launcher on Plasma, add the Application Dashboard widget to your kicker or desktop. Once added, you'll have a button to access it. On KDE 4.x, install the Homerun package, which provides a file in /usr/bin that you can use to launch a similar interface.

The app launcher's interface is robust. Type to search for a specific application or use your mouse or arrow keys to navigate and browse. On the left are your favorite applications and on the right are categories, including one that lists everything alphabetically.

Application Dashboard

2. Manage your fonts

For the artistically inclined (or just those addicted to fonts), KDE provides a very good font manager. Launch it as Font Management.

Font management

For the everyday desktop user, a font manager provides a centralized interface for font previews, installation, and removal. For artists, the KDE 5 font manager enables the creation of font groups and the ability to enable and disable them quickly and easily. This means that if I'm working on graphics for a tabletop RPG set in the Old West, I can quickly deactivate all the futuristic fonts and activate the old classic and Western-themed fonts to make my Inkscape and Scribus interfaces easier to deal with as I work. It's a great tool, and one that's relatively hidden.

3. Start and stop autostart

I get asked a lot about how to make things start (or stop them from starting) at login. For big, important services like CUPS or Apache, the answer is easy to find, but for smaller, user-centric services the answer can vary from desktop to desktop. In Plasma, it's pretty intuitive, but also flexible.

In System Settings, the Startup and Shutdown control panel features the Autostart category. Here, you can view services that autostart when you log in. The interface allows for several categories of services, such as .desktop files (nearly any GUI application installed on your system has one) or even custom scripts.

KDE System Settings

This is as useful for starting services as it is for stopping something from autostarting. For a while, I was using a file-sharing client daily, so I let it autostart as a convenience. Although I used it less after the project was over, I had no reason to uninstall it entirely, so I just stopped it from autostarting.

4. Set window rules

Have you ever been embroiled in a repetitive task only to realize that at least half of the steps involve constantly repositioning and adjusting the windows that pop up? I notice it any time I'm writing an article or documentation that requires several screenshots, or when I'm composing in Qtractor and find myself losing the mixer and synth windows.

While the quick fix is to set the Keep above others option in the window's right-click menu, that only lasts as long as that instance of the window is open. KDE's Window Management control panel lets you hard-code rules for windows that match a variety of conditions.

To create a rule, open System Settings and click the Window Management icon. Select the Window Rules category on the left. Create a new rule.

Window rules

You can base a rule off the string in a window's title bar, its class, host name, or other properties. The easiest way to focus in on a window is to use the Detect Window Properties button. Once set, you can prescribe where the window appears, the size at which it spawns, how it behaves, and much more. I have several rules for application windows that I have specific arrangements for, and it has invariably transformed, for the better, the way I work.

5. Remap your keys

The desktop isn't the only thing you can customize in Plasma. Your whole keyboard is open for customization, and it's amazing what you can do.

Keyboard settings are found in the Input Devices panel of System Settings. In the Advanced tab of the Keyboard category, you can make all kinds of adjustments, including the two I prefer.

The Caps Lock key, while useful on a typewriter, is (as far as I can tell) entirely vestigial in modern typing. In the rare instances that I need to write in capital letters, I either use the Alt-Shift-u macro or a stylesheet rule in Emacs, or I just hold the Shift key. Most Chromebooks, not insignificantly, have dropped the Caps Lock key in favor of a Search key.

Keyboard settings

If you similarly have no use for Caps Lock, KDE lets you adjust the function of that key.

In addition to the Caps Lock, I usually find at least one other key on any given keyboard that I never use. Sometimes it's the Menu key, other times it's an extra Alt or Control on the right side of the keyboard, or an extra Forward Delete, or an extra Enter. In KDE, you can set a spare key to what is called the Compose key. The Compose key is a prefix key; you press it, and then you press some other sequence of keys to compose a new character. For instance, pressing Compose followed by an e, followed by an ' produces the é character. Pressing Compose followed by a 1 and then 2 produces a ½ character.

ASCII characters in Compose

There are lots of "hidden" characters. They're not terribly easy to memorize, but you start to remember the ones you use a lot. Get a list of all possible combinations here: /usr/share/X11/locale/en_US.UTF-8/Compose.

6. Create a Qt look-alike

It's probably already configured by your distribution, but a common problem people run into (especially those who are experimenting with their system) is why their GNOME applications don't look the same as their KDE applications. Most distributions take care of this in advance, but things can fall out of sync if you accidentally remove a package or a config file that controls the theme settings.

Theming GNOME/GTK applications

On the Plasma desktop, KDE can theme GTK applications so that everything looks like its using the same toolkit and the same theming engine. In the System Settings in the Application Style panel, you can set the theme that your GTK apps use, the font, icon set, a fallback theme, and cursor style. It's not very exciting, but it's a tremendous relief to someone who accidentally removed a theming configuration and has been stuck staring at raw GTK widgets for a week.

7. Connect your computer and your phone

I'm not a heavy mobile phone user, but I work from home, so I'm required to have one. I activated something called KDE Connect, located in System Settings, because it sounded appropriate: I have a mobile phone, so I'll install the thing that says it's for mobile devices. Zero expectations.

As it turns out, KDE Connect is a really great bit of interstitial glue binding together Android and KDE. Can you control the mouse cursor of your desktop with your phone? Yes, you can. Can you type input from your phone to your computer? Yes—should you ever inexplicably prefer a touchscreen to a proper keyboard. Can you send files back and forth between devices? Yes, you can do that too. Get notifications from your phone in the notification widget of KDE? Got it.

It even has multimedia controls, so when you answer a call on your phone, Amarok or VLC pauses the music you're playing while you take the call, and then resumes playing when you hang up.

There are plenty of other little features, and that's what makes it so nice. It's one of those applications that doesn't do anything that you'd consider absolutely necessary, but it does a lot of little things that make life easier.

KDE Connect

There are so many more tricks and tweaks for the Plasma desktop than I could ever cover here. What are your favorites? Feel free to share them in the comments.

Seth Kenlon
Seth Kenlon is a UNIX geek, free culture advocate, independent multimedia artist, and D&D nerd. He has worked in the film and computing industry, often at the same time.

12 Comments

The font manager in Plasma 5 is nothing new. KDE 4 already had it, too.

Good point. I don't think I meant to imply it was new to KDE 5 as opposed to KDE 4, I just got carried away with using 'KDE 5' instead of just 'KDE'. Thanks!

In reply to by armakuni (not verified)

KDE connect is awesome. I use it in other desktops using kdeconnect-indicator.

Here we go again for the unpopular one:
TRY OUT ACTIVITIES

Yes, many people feel Activities being redundant to multiple desktops, but no, they are far more powerful. I have defines one Activity called "Photo", when I switch to it the following changes to my "Default"-Activities take place:
- Change of the Wallpaper (just because ... ;-)
- Change of the Plasmoids on the Desktop to present me a folderview of my photos folder
- Opening an Instance of Dolphin
- Displaying in the Windows-List shortcuts for Gwenview and DigiKam.

So it is one click and I'm set for this task.

There is plenty that you can do with Activities and they are not difficult to set up. E.g. you may want a system management activity with a cheatcode wallpaper, the package manager opened and an instance of Konsole right there for you ... or a multimedia activity with an extra taskbar with media control buttons? Just do it.

Agreed!

I used to be in the "what's the point?" camp, but I actually make great use of Activities now that I work from home. I have an Activity for work, which I start my day on. When I'm done with work, rather than closing all of my reference docs and terminals and dolphin windows, I just switch over to my Home activity. Clean workspace for the rest of the day.

Works great.

In reply to by benQ (not verified)

Couldn't agree more. I miss activities whenever I have to use any other desktop. I wish it would be even more powerful and wide-reaching and that more other apps would support it.

In reply to by benQ (not verified)

For me, KDE defines open-source, in a way. If i wanted a restrictive, whatever-the-devs-dictate kind of interface, I'd use Windows or MacOS.
I find GNOME/XFCE/Cinnamon/etc/etc very limited in functionality. They may be "good enough" but KDE provides a landscape where one can run free :)
Is that too deep?

Not too deep :-)

On rainy afternoons, I sometimes configure KDE to mimic other desktops, just to prove that when one starts out with unlimited features, one can always cut them down to something simple. In other words, in my mind at least, all other desktops models can be achieved as subsets of KDE.

In reply to by Ken (not verified)

"When GNOME3 came out, it introduced the crazy idea of having a full-screen application launcher...... This idea was "borrowed" by Mac OS X as Launchpad".

Simple Finder. Dock. Things that go back well before the GNOME project even started.

There isn't much in tech that isn't borrowed from someone else in some capacity these days. But when a company "borrows" from it's own ancient past, it's not really borrowing, is it?

Simple Finder was a mode, not an on-call application launcher.

Borrowing is good. It's what free culture is based upon. But I think there are polite and impolite ways to borrow. Sadly, some groups borrow without giving credit or acknowledgement. Happily, others borrow and cite inspiration. It's not a legal obligation in any scenario, but culturally it's significant.

In reply to by Beeble

KDE Connect and Qt/GTK integrations is awesome!

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