The K Desktop Environment (KDE) Project has made available a beta of KDE 4.1, the new version of its widely used open source desktop environment.

The first beta of KDE 4.1 is to allow testers and community members to identify bugs and regressions, so that 4.1 can fully replace KDE 3 for end users. Techworld reviewed KDE 3.2 desktop back in March 2004.

KDE has sometimes been touted as open source software's closest approach to the functionality and manageability of Microsoft’s Windows, but nowadays it exists alongside other desktop projects such as GNOME and OpenOffice.org.

KDE says the highlights of the 4.1 beta is the greatly expanded desktop shell functionality and configurability, the fact that the KDE Personal Information Management suite has been ported to KDE 4, as well as the "many new and newly ported applications."

On the user interface side, the menus, panels and desktop are controlled by a system called Plasma, and it now ports multiple and re-sizeable panels. The application launcher menu (Kickoff) has been "comprehensively polished with a clean new look and many optimisations," while the Run Command dialog "allows power users to quickly launch applications, open documents and visit sites."

Performance gains in composited window management provide "better ergonomics and eye candy, including a Cover Switch alt-tab feature and the mandatory wobbly windows effect."

Meanwhile Kontact, the KDE personal information manager, and its associated tools have been ported to KDE 4 and will be released for the first time with KDE 4.1. Kontact has been tweaked to make it more useful in business settings, including new components such as KTimeTracker and the KJots note-taking component, which offers better support for multiple calendars and timezones and more robust email handling.

KDE also says that many applications have now been ported to KDE 4 or have seen great increases in functionality since KDE 4 was launched. These include Dragon Player (a lightweight media player), the KDE CD Player, a new printer applet, as well as Konqueror, which assists with web browsing sessions thanks to an undo mode, and improved smooth scrolling. Other changes include a new picture browsing mode, and the file manager (Dolphin) gets tabbed views.

Another useful utility is the addition of Zeroconf networking to several utilities, taking the pain out of setting up remote access.

KDE says that there has been a "refinement" throughout the frameworks, with developers enriching the core KDE libraries and infrastructure.

It is thought that KDE 4.1 beta 1 is, or soon will be, available for most Linux distributions, as well as Mac OS X and Windows. KDE.org did not respond to Techworld at the time of going to press. The complete source code for KDE 4.0.80 may be freely downloaded.

Last July Ubuntu Linux founder Mark Shuttleworth urged the three large desktop projects (KDE, GNOME and OpenOffice.org) to synchronise their efforts with a common release cycle. KDE 4.1 is scheduled for final release on 29 July, six months after the release of KDE 4.0.