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Richard M. Stallman
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Your Rough Guide to Plasma.

the default Plasma desktop in KDE 4.1-beta1. So I've chosen to become Shane's Personal Plasma Steward. This in turn makes me much more aware of things, that I personally take for granted which aren't so natural (yet) to others. One of those things is "How does this thing work?" (for "plasma" as value of thing). Let me explain on a high level how you can use Plasma and make the most of it, starting with a default Plasma desktop.

Plasmoids and Containments

The essence of Plasma revolves around two basic concepts: Plasmoids and Containments. Plasmoids are Applets, small applications that live on the desktop. Containments are applets as well, they act as container for Plasmoids. That's it. Really. On a default desktop, there are two main elements: the Panel and the desktop itself. Both are containments in the Plasma sense.

The Panel

The panel holds a couple of Plasmoids, starting from the left, there's the Kickoff application launcher. You can use it to start applications, open recently opened files and the usual logout/shutdown options. There's also a structure that allows you to browse through your applications. The layout has been optimized for the usecase that is most common: starting an application. The default tab is the "Favorites" tab that holds you most-used entries. In the beginning, you'll probably find yourself using the Applications tab more often. Once you have found out what your most frequently started applications are, right click on the items and add them to your favorites (or directly into the panel or on the desktop. Note that you need to "unlock" Plasma by means of right clicking on the desktop for any kind of modification). If you prefer KDE's traditional menu-style application launcher, change it to use that by right clicking on the menu button "Switch to Classic Menu Style"

The next icon (looking like either a desktop computer or a laptop, depending on the type of machine) is the devicenotifier. Plug in a USB disk and it will pop up a dialog that lets you open the device in Dolphin.

The next item on your panel is the pager. It allows you to switch between your virtual desktops. If you change the layout of the pager through the "number of rows" option, it will also affect the layout and animations that are shown in KWin's DesktopGrid effect -- (Switch on desktop effect, press [CTRL]+F8 to see it.) For bigger pagers switching on "Display windows icons" on the pager makes sense.

The taskbar is up next on the panel. It shows an area for all open windows on the current desktop by default. You can make it show all windows by checking "Traverse Windows on all desktops". Right clock on the window frame, choose Window behaviour, find this option in the "Focus" dialog. KWin's The expose effect offers similar functionality, it lays out all windows on the screen, start typing to filter the list, navigate with either mouse or arrow keys. The size of the text on the taskbar items can be set in Systemsettings | Appearance | Fonts | Taskbar.

Next on our default panel is the digital clock. This clock can display the time in different timezones. The sizing of the clock is half witchcraft, but you can partly influence it. The clock will adjust its font size to the area it is given by the surrounding containment (that's the panel in this case). If you choose to display the date, this date will be rendered using the "Small font" option from Systemsetting's Font dialog. The time will take the rest of the space. That means that for those who want it, it's possible to screw up the clock's display. On the one hand, the clock has to obey the user's setting for Small font (this setting reflects the "smallest readable font", by its very own definition, it simply does not make sense to use fonts smaller than that). So in the end, you'll choose yourself the amount of information displayed, and if that fits. If you want to display more information, make the panel larger or put the clock on the desktop where it can grow freely.

The rightmost Plasmoid in the default panel holds the systray, which is used by traditional applications as a dock. There's not a lot to say about it, other than "Plasma developers don't like the systray for its archaic architecture and want it to go away today rather than tomorrow". You probably know it from other desktop (even Operating Systems) already. It's basically a dumping ground for all kinds of things that you can better leave to their own plasmoids.


If you have unlocked your desktop (you can do that by right clicking on the desktop, or when no application has the focus with [CTRL]+L), a small Plasma logo will appear in the bottom right corner (it's commonly named the "cashew"). Click on this cashew, and the panelcontroller opens. The panel controller allows you to reposition, resize and realign the panel. The Plasmoids living in this panel will adjust their size automatically. Plasmoids have basic knowledge about sizing, provided by the containment. They're programmed to take advantage of that size, and inform the applet about how much space they possibly need. In the end, the containment gives a possible size to the applets, the applets obey.

Adding Applets

Unlock the desktop and you'll be able to add and remove Plasmoids from panel or desktop. You add Plasmoids by simply dragging them where you want them. Right click on an applet to remove it. The "Add Applets" dialog also allows you to mark certain applets as "Favorite" so you can find them back more easily. The "Install new widgets" button allows you to add widgets you've previously downloaded. Currently it supports native "Plasmagik" packages and Mac OSX dashboard widgets. Widgets you install this way can then be accessed just like regular, preinstalled widgets.

The Desktop

The desktop is in fact another containment. One that doesn't put size constraints on the applets. Applets can be moved and sized freely. On the unlocked desktop, Plasmoids will show a frame when you move the mouse over them. This applet handle allows you to move, resize, relocate and realign the panel. It also allows you to drag Plasmoids on the desktop. The buttons in the corner are used to resize, rotate configure and remove the applet. When rotated, a Plasmoid will act magnetic towards 12 o'clock, so it's easy to get them back into sensible position. By default, most applets keep their aspect ratio when they're being resized. If you want to freely resize an applet, hold the [CTRL] key pressed while resizing.

Right clicking on the desktop also offers you to configure aspects such as the wallpaper used, and the Plasma theme. Both actions offer to download new wallpapers and themes through KNewStuff.

With open applications, it quickly gets hard to see the Plasmoids on your desktop. The Dashboard gets those Plasmoids in front of you, much like the "Show desktop" functionality you're used to from traditional desktops.


KRunner is a versatile mini-commandline. You can use it to start applications, open webpages, access bookmarks, search through your desktop data, calculate short equations, and many more. Pressing [ALT]+F2 opens the Krunner dialog. You just start typing and KRunner will start searching matches as soon as you've entered more than two characters. You can open the settings dialogue to learn about KRunner's functionality, provided by plugins. You can navigate through the matches using the tab and arrow keys.

If you want to know what's going on on your system, there's the "Show System Activity" button, giving you quick access to a list of windows and processes, with options to monitor their output and kill processes.

"Activities" or the Zooming User Interface (ZUI)

The desktop toolbox, accessed via the top right corner has a button for zooming out. Plasma allows you to have more than one activity. Basically, that is multiple desktop containments hosting multiple sets of Plasmoids. Zoom out from your current activity, choose "Add activity" to create a new containment, zoom in to your new containment and customize suiting your taste. Plasma's zooming and KWin's desktopgrid are similar in that respect, but there is a fundamental difference. While virtual desktop are used to group and organise windows, Plasma's activities are used to group and organise plasmoids. This way, you can switch between activities and have relevant plasmoids supporting the task you're currently trying to accomplish. You can create a "Freetime" activity, with comic strips, a puzzle and other Plasmoids, and a work activity, with relevant RSS feeds, calculator and calendar.

That's it. Hope some of you understand Plasma better now, and that this blog helps those that feel lost initially do a little less so.

[ Tue, 27 May 2008 15:55:23 +0200 ] permanent link

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