Using KDE activities

If you are using KDE, then you might have heard of activities.  And, possibly, you have been avoiding them.  That, at least, describes my situation until recently.  Well, it almost describes my situation.

Some personal history

I started using KDE4 soon after I had installed opensuse 11.3, when I sensed that Gnome was heading in an unwelcome direction.  As best I recall, at that time KDE was at version 4.4.4.  And I started using it without paying attention to activities.  I had configured my session to have 4 desktops, which I could switch between.  And I found out, probably from a forum thread, that in order to have different backgrounds on each of the desktops, I would need to use activities.

So I gave activities a try.  I had to define four different activities, and define a separate background image or color for each.  I had to configure my session for different activities on each desktop, and then I had to define which activity to use for which desktop.

It worked after a fashion.  It was quite fragile.  I would login on some days, and find that I had the wrong background for the particular desktop.  This was frustrating, for my purpose in using different backgrounds was to make it easier to recognize where I was.

When opensuse 11.4 came out, things were much easier.  Instead of configuring different activities for each desktop, I could configure different widget sets for each desktop.  And the background color or image went along with the widget set, so that I could have the different backgrounds without having to mess with those fragile activities.

The current scene

Although the KDE developers had provided a simpler and more robust way of having different backgrounds, they kept activities around for other purposes.  I did not hear much about them, though some of the settings were still available.

More recently, an icon for the activities manager appeared on the panel.  The icon is those three colored dots that you can see near the bottom left of  this linked image of an opensuse 12.3M2 screen.  The same icon is present in 12.2.  It was probably added for KDE 4.8.  Clicking on the icon brings up the activities manager.  In opensuse 12.2, that showed five predefined activities.  With 12.3M2, it shows three predefined activities.

From the presence of that icon, we at least know that the KDE folk are trying to encourage use of the activities feature.

At last, a use

A message that I saw elsewhere persuaded me to give Kontact a try.  I was not at all sure that it offered anything that I wanted, but it never hurts to try.  But there was a problem.  I have pretty much organized how I am using my 4 configured desktops.  And adding Kontact would only add clutter, since Kontact is intended to be kept open.

It occurred to me that I could run Kontact in a different activity.  And that got me back to playing with activities.

I quickly discovered that I was right in my original estimation.  Namely Kontact does not offer anything that I actually want.  I’ll note that while I do use akregator, that works well outside of the Kontact suite.  However, it also occurred to me that I have another use for activities.

If you have read my posts on akregator, you might have noticed that I am using konqueror as a browser in association with akregator, but still using firefox for most ordinary browsing.  And that left my browsing desktop a tad cluttered, what with two browsers open all of the time.  So I have now moved konqueror and akregator to a second activity.

My setup

Here is how I am currently doing things:

My first step is to configure mouse action for desktops.  For that, I right click on the desktop (outside of any application window), and select “Mouse Actions”.  My personal choice is to set the middle mouse button (or clicking on the scroll wheel) to bring up the application menu.  I prefer that to using the menu button at the bottom left of the panel.  But that’s just a preference, and not related to activity use.

I then set the vertical scroll mouse action to switch activities.  Thus, turning the scroll wheel while the pointer is on the desktop background, will switch to the next activity.  That allows easy activity switching without having to go through the activity manager menu.

Next, right clicking on the panel allows me to bring up the task manager settings menu.  There I have selected both “Only show tasks from the current desktop” and “Only show tasks from the current activity”.  That keeps the task bar pretty reasonably clutter free.

Distinguishing between activities

It is useful to know which activity I am currently using.  My primary way of doing this is with the desktop settings (right click on an empty part of the desktop).  There, I have the layout set to “Desktop” for my primary activity, and I have it set to “Folder View” for my secondary activity.  So I can easily tell which is which, because of the icons from my Desktop folder that show up only in the secondary activity.

With opensuse 12.2 (on which I am typing this), I went into the activities manager and disabled the other three pre-defined activities.  To do that, I just clicked on the small button that looks like a stop button.  That way, the mouse scroll wheel only switches between the two activities that I am using.  With 12.3M2, I left all three predefined activities enabled, but I am only using two of them.  I use a different background image for the currently unused activity, to help distinguish that.

I currently have “different widgets for each desktop” set, mainly to also allow different backgrounds on each desktop for easy recognition of where I am.

Using those activities

I’m a command line type of user.  So I normally have an open Konsole session on the right bottom of the screen, where I can type in CLI commands.  I already had that set to show up in all desktops.  Right clicking on the top margin of the window, I can also set it to show in all activities.  That setting is remembered, so automatically set when Konsole is automatically started on my next login.

I similarly have amorok as part of automatic session startup, and I have likewise configured it to be present in all activities.  That way, if I click on the tray icon, I can manage whatever music I might have playing from any activity.

After logging in to a KDE session, I move to my secondary activity and start konqueror and akregator.  Then I move back to my primary activity to get on with my usual work.  Although akregator is only present in the secondary activity, its tray icon shows in all activities and on all desktops.  So I can see at a glance if there are any new messages to read.


Overall, this seems to be a congenial arrangement.  I shall probably continue working this way, and perhaps also find other things to do in the secondary activity (perhaps game playing).

There does still seem to be a little remaining fragility.  I have my session set to restore a manually saved session, with Konsole and amorok both part of what I saved.  I made sure to save the session while on desktop 1 of my primary activity.  But, it still logged me into my secondary activity instead of what I had saved.

I logged out, used CTRL-ALT-F1 to get a terminal prompt.  Logging in there, I did:

rm -rf /var/tmp/kdecache-$USER

I then logged out of the terminal session, used CTRL-ALT-F7 to retrieve the GUI login screen, and logged in.  This time, it started with my primary activity.  I’m not sure whether that will break again in the future.


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About Neil Rickert

Retired mathematician and computer scientist who dabbles in cognitive science.

5 responses to “Using KDE activities”

  1. Tom says :

    Thanks for the post on activities.

    Just a quick correction, you don’t have to use activities to have a different background on each desktop.

    Under System Settings go to Workspace Behavior. Under Workspace chose Desktop and then Show an Independent Widget Set.


    • Neil Rickert says :

      Just a quick correction, you don’t have to use activities to have a different background on each desktop.

      I must have not explained that clearly enough.

      It was back with KDE 4.4.4, that I had to use activities to set different backgrounds. That changed in the next version I used (probably 4.5.something), and I have been doing that the way you suggest ever since.


  2. manny says :

    Probably the best word for activities might be *desktop Instances* or something like that


    • Neil Rickert says :

      That’s about how I have been using them. I configured 4 desktops and two activities, which is effectively 8 desktops.

      I’m not sure that was the intention.

      I’m inclined to think that activities were a bad idea. If they were to disappear, I would just go with 6 desktops instead. That would work quite well (4 x 2 was more than I needed).

      When I first started using KDE4 (I think that was version 4.4.4), you could not set a different wallpaper or color on each desktop. But you could set a different wallpaper on each activity, and a different activity on each desktop. So that’s what I did, but it was very buggy probably because it was too complex.

      The ability to configure separate backgrounds and widgets on each desktop is closer to what people want. So KDE gave use that, somewhere around 4.5 or 4.6. With that change, much of the need for activities has evaporated.


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