Plasma Active - a New Approach to Tablet Computing

Adapting to Different Tasks

It is the two tabs on the sides of the screen that are unique to Plasma Active. The tab on the right, when dragged out, reveals a wheel of Activities, each represented by a thumbnail image. A few selections are predefined, including "Introduction" that provides some information on getting started; "Vacation planning", set up for just that; and "My first activity", which invites you to make your own. You can delete, customize or add activities using icons that are visible with the Activity wheel.

Figure 3. You can have an Activity for all the things you need to do—and for the things you want to do.

Selecting an Activity changes the desktop background and desktop widgets to those associated with the Activity. Choose the vacation planning Activity, and you are presented with a picture of a hay field as the desktop background and have the KDE weather forecast widget and bookmarks for OpenStreetMap, Wikitravel and a rail operator on your desktop. You can open a browser and start booking your holiday, but if your child (or you) suddenly has an overpowering urge to play Solitaire, you can just switch to an Activity set up for games. If you check the task bar by pulling down the top panel, you will see that it shows only the applications from the current Activity, so your holiday booking in the vacation planning Activity is safe from little fingers accidentally closing the browser or upgrading you all to first-class transatlantic travel. Once your child (or you) have had your game-playing fix, you can use the Activities wheel to get back to booking your holiday quickly.

Getting Smart with Nepomuk

The tab on the left of the screen reveals Plasma Active's "Recommendations": links to files, widgets and contacts that might be relevant to the current activity. This is based on Nepomuk, KDE's semantic storage technology, which draws links between items based on the context of their use. Marco explains that this enables "the information stored on the device by users to be kept in a central place, allowing them to treat in the same way and display in a coherent way everything, regardless if it is a file, a contact, a bookmark or information about a location, linking them together with semantic information". What this means in practice is that the Recommendations are able to be more than a list of recently used or most-accessed files, suggesting documents that often are used at the same time as those presently open or often used within the current Activity (the recommendations are tailored to each Activity). While writing this article, it suggested some irrelevant items, but the system quickly learned to suggest screenshots I had collected and suggested adding the Linux Journal author guidelines and Plasma Active Wiki pages to my bookmarks. The idea is that the system learns from its user and becomes ever more useful over time, and based on my experience, I give it a cautious thumbs-up.

Figure 4. Plasma Active provides Recommendations of files and actions that are relevant to the task you are working on.

Nepomuk has, since it was first introduced in KDE software in 2008, been the target of many complaints about resource usage, something that is likely to be of even greater concern on a low-powered portable device. Marco, however, points out that "on a mobile device the stored data is very small compared to a desktop, and measurements have shown that with the limited number of items in it, the memory usage stays very small", while, of course, using a central store also "avoids the necessity to build different storage/indexing for every application". Aaron agrees: "the devices we currently target are all in the 600MHz to 1GHz range with 256MB or more of RAM. On these devices, it works acceptably". Nevertheless, the developers have been working on "numerous optimizations and improvements", and Aaron acknowledges there is always the possibility of "stripping out Nepomuk for some very low-end, in terms of hardware and user interaction, scenarios". I did not come across any of the slowness that sometimes accompanies extensive indexing on the desktop.

It's All about the Apps

The basic user interface seems slick and well thought out, and through Activities, it does offer something different from the competition. However, a computer is only as good as its applications, and if Plasma Active is to be a success, KDE must provide a compelling suite of touch-friendly applications.

Figure 5. The applications that already have been adjusted for use with Plasma Active, such as the image viewer, work well.

A few "Active" variants of established KDE applications already are available. These include those that have been largely designed from the ground up for Plasma Active, such as the Web browser and image viewer, both of which were easy to use. Some other applications, such as the media player Bangarang, have received modifications to make them a little more touch-friendly. There are dedicated Active versions of the Kontact suite of groupware applications. Each of these are easy to use with a stubby finger, but their interfaces are so different from their desktop counterparts that even if you are an experienced Kontact user, you will find they take a little getting used to. Calligra, KDE's productivity suite, also is available in an Active version, but it felt slow on the device I used. However, Calligra's underlying technology already has been used in the successful FreOffice viewers for Nokia's mobile phones, so it is likely the performance will improve.

Some other applications, such as Dolphin (the KDE file manager), have not been adapted for touch-friendly use—and it shows. A similar interface is used in the Open and Save dialogs of most applications, but these will all be improved in future versions.

The most essential of applications on a tablet, the on-screen keyboard, works very well with easy-to-touch buttons and a sensible layout. It appears when needed, and it can be switched from the bottom to the top of the screen if desired.

Figure 6. The on-screen keyboard is easy to use and can be moved out of the way when needed.

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We also have MsAccess97

Tyrwhittse's picture

We also have MsAccess97 around for one of those reasons. That reason is older webapps and older databases. Many companies don't want to pour resources (read money) into auto tools updating the software. While I understand having had to support such apps in the past, the risks with not upgrading are far more expensive. How many companies have policies, procedures, and filtering software setup explicitly to protect their computers from malware that affects IE7 but not newer browsers?

Usually, neti pot amoeba is

Anonymous's picture

Usually, neti pot amoeba is not a big problem if it is present in tap water and you drink it. The problem might occur when it somehow manages to get up into your nostrils. This quite rare infection typically occurs when people swim or dive in warm freshwater rivers and lakes.

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strippers's picture

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Plasma Active appears to be a

Flight Enthusiast's picture

Plasma Active appears to be a solution to an issue I've been faced with. I'm currently in flight school. I been looking for a way to use my flight simulator training software on a big screen. This is awesome!

looking forward to it.

Malcolm's picture

I have been looking at tablets for a while now, but I haven't been happy with the offerings from Apple or Android. I am thinking of getting an Archos 101 9G just to load Plasma Active. It looks beautiful and I am now using Activities on my Desktop after reading this.

I have to say, I've been reading a bunch of KDE haters on these Plasma Active sites and I have to say, Where's the Gnome offering?

Installing the GUI

adonai's picture

I have read many articles on various graphic user interfaces used on tablets, but my question is simple - how do you actually install on the tablet. I have tried running ubuntu from an image on an android tablet on top of the android, and vncviewer to access it, but I would like to install a complete arm os on the device. Any help would be appreciated, I keep on drawing at straws and losing.

Kind regards, adonai

there is more for changing

meanpt's picture

I own an hp touchsmart tm2 tblet laptop which has a nice touch screen and did test this thing. Despite the buggy behaviour of the underlining os for which the kde community is not accountable, I found the concept and everything unintuitive and ended with a panefull skin of my pointing finger due to repeatedly have to pull down the applications's screen. Closing our ecpanding windows were a pane too, and I had to use the stylus. Moreover, the very small default character and icon sise seemed to have been chosen by peopel suffering from hypermyopia. By the same time I tested the x86 android 4.x and everything went smoothly, regarding the interface.

Activies Works

Observer's picture

I, like many others, was confused about activities until one day I sat down and figured it out. Now, i can't do without it.

I have an activity for my weather with browser window showing local doppler radar and hurricane tracking site since this is Florida along with the 7 day forcast.

Another activity is for my flightgear flight sim where I have 3 sections of the screen.

One window has fgrun to start the sim and one has blender where I create objects for it and konqueror for copy files after creation and also use as web browser if i need FG related materials.

If i were a programmer, i would have my editor, terminal to compile, file manager etc. that i would need to code.

The good thing is that as you start and stop activities, you don't have to waste time for the applications to start, it is all there ready for you. And you can have a large amount of activites defined.

I can see how this is useful for tablets more so than desktops.

Plasma Active is...

Anonymous's picture

simply disgusting.

I really mean it. I don't like KDE but Plasma Active seriously is repelling in more then just one way. If I'd see someone I know using it... I don't know, it'll be like catching someone pick nose and eat what came out but worse.

Plasma Active

JSTC's picture

Your argument doesn't make sense. What exactly did you not like about it? Or are you someone that hates something you never really use or used?

Full circle

Anonymous's picture

Oh please, when were you born? In the days when people were bigger than their operating systems, they generally chose to organize their work and play in directories. Remember those, in good ole Unix or (gasp) MSDOS? Everything to do with an project (or Activity if you insist) went in one folder. Documents, to-do lists, data, pictures, code, everything in one place where you needed it. It was powerful and simple. As long an application (we called them "programs" then) was on your path, you could invoke it to work on the files right there in your working directory. The minute I saw Windows I knew it was WRONG. Suddenly the focus of activity was no longer the directory. Everything now revolved around the application. The application captures your attention and tries to keep you in its ambit, like shops and malls do. And because the application has no idea where other stuff relevant to the project is, it puts its files in default places, such as folders called "My Documents". I have been endlessly mystified how people could put up for so many years with such a naff idea. It makes no sense to put all data from one application in one folder, ignoring the actual contents of the data. It's like having a dinner party with all chairs in one room, all the tables in another, all the food in the basement, and all the drinks in the atic. Now, with much fanfare, KDE has discovered that it make a lot of sense to organize things around... Activities! Sorry if I'm not quite overwhelmed.

I would like to thank Justin Ryan for sharing his thoughts on th

Jellellsea's picture

When I first heard about it, I did not think about it as software discrimination and am glad I had the opportunity to consider that perspective. But like most of the feedback in the comments here, I disagree with Mr. Ryan.

KDE Plasma Active looks great

Anonymous's picture

I must say that KDE Plasma Active is the only tablet interface that I actually like visually and even more so functionally (at least from what I could see from some videos and descriptions of it). I really hope more tablets with it will be vaialable in future. It would especially be awesome if Linux friendly hardware companies like System76 and ZaReason could help make it a success.

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