Best KDE/Plasma distro of 2016

The end is near. I mean, 2016 has less than a month left on its credit. We should now step back and contemplate. Which distribution merits our highest regard, most excitement, best praise, prolonged use? However, before we can declare the final result, we need to do it step by step. First, Plasma.

Overall, Year 2016 was a fairly tough one for us Linux users. Whether you like it or not, Ubuntu plays a very big part in how the world of distros turns. The pendulum of fortune sways heavily toward the gravitational pull of what Canonical does, and when Ubuntu mis-delivers, a large number of other distributions suffers for it, both directly as they be based on Ubuntu, and also indirectly, through the erosion of hope and good karma. Still, despite these challenges, we can sift through all the trouble and search for the nuggets of happiness. The desktop environment candidate for this article is Plasma, and to some extent, KDE.

Candidate 1: Netrunner 17 Horizon

Technically speaking, this distribution belongs in the past, but I had it reviewed early in January, which means that it is a valid nominee for our little competition here. This is a very interesting distribution that has undergone some big changes recently. The LTS version has been forked into a brand-new product called Maui, which I have yet to review, and the original name now belongs to the rolling edition based on Debian. But that’s a future topic.

Netrunner 17 proved to be a fairly good, balanced distribution, offering solid, incremental improvements over the previous release, Netrunner 16 Ozymandias, which won our KDE/Plasma contest last year. Much like its predecessor, it blends simple, out-of-the-box experience and accessibility with some fairly good looks from the Plasma forges of aesthetics. It also delivers on the usability front, and this turned out to be an important milestone, given the fact that Plasma seems to have moved away from those excellent early results coated with enthusiastic feedback and adoption into a middle-of-the-ground lackluster grind. This desktop environment been plagued lately with a significant number of bugs and regressions, and it makes for a very difficult use case overall.

Netrunner Horizon managed to dodge most of the Plasma traps and provide a balanced, rounded experience, and it signified a hope-flavored turning point in the distroscape. However, whether this trend continued later throughout the year, we will discover by looking at some other candidates.

Netrunner 17 Horizon

Candidate 2: KaOS 2016.01

I was never really fond of Arch Linux, but I am fascinated by all the attempts by different communities to make Arch friendly and available to the masses. KaOS is one such distribution, inspired by Arch but largely independent. My experience has always been kind of mixed, but the 2016 checkpoint was quite disappointing. The distro offered phenomenal looks, average support for the typical day-to-day stuff, and then failed during the installation process. As such, it is a candidate, but one that we should treat as DNQ. Shame really.

KaOS 2016.01

Candidate 3: Kubuntu 16.04 Xenial Xerus

Alas, the wave of bad luck did not stop there. My experience with Ubuntu 16.04 LTS was quite negative overall, heightened by the huge gap between my expectations and the actual results. The much-awaited release failed to deliver the same level of goodness as Trusty, and instead, we were showered with bugs and problems all over the place.

Kubuntu 16.04 inherited many of these woes. We ended up with a desktop that offered a bland Plasma presentation layer, incomplete support for network protocols or smartphones, and a broken package manager. Multimedia was fine, but then, the positive things were offset by dozens of little issues, all of which seemed to be either regressions compared to previous editions of Plasma, or brand new problems. All in all, Xenial Xerus was an underwhelming release that undercut the magic of Plasma by yet another notch.

Kubuntu 16.04 Xenial Xerus

Candidate 4: GeckoLinux 421

This is a rather interesting distribution. It’s a spin of openSUSE Leap 42.1, intended to be friendlier and more accessible to new users by offering the simple everyday goodies that people expect in their operating system. The idea is quite noble, but the realization is nowhere near as perfect as it sounds.

GeckoLinux struggled to improve on the foibles of its parents, and it failed to redeem Plasma, too. Lots of the broken stuff that we encountered in the Xenial review manifested here as well. Limited smartphone and multimedia support, no Bluetooth, broken printing. GeckoLinux did introduce some customization, but it was not enough to make up for the usability issues.

Geckolinux 421

Candidate 5: CentOS 7.2 KDE

This may sound like cheating, but I had CentOS 7 reviewed again through 2016 no less than four times. It all started with a successful attempt to install this classic, conservative distro on my UEFI-powered Lenovo G50 machine. The initial test involved the KDE version, a pre-Plasma desktop.

Admittedly, I had spent a lot of work in taming and customizing CentOS, with a threshold of forgiveness and patience that goes beyond my typical review methodology. However, the end result was surprisingly good in a very comforting, heart-warming, predictable fashion, with an expectation that if you do things right and by the book, CentOS will not suddenly bite back. Instead, it plods along, not as shiny or bright as some of the modern youngsters around it, but with a certainty of quality and stability that few can match.

In the end, CentOS 7.2 KDE turned out to be a fairly good choice for everyday use. The start was quite rough, but then I added extra repos, sorted out the networking piece, installed third-party codecs and software, and managed to tweak the distro to a nice degree. Some outstanding issues remained, including smartphone support and a problematic audio stack, but it was way beyond what you would normally expect from what is essentially a server distribution. The additional tests with other desktop environments proved to be even more successful, but this was an important milestone, and a sweet win for KDE in 2016.

CentOS 7.2 KDE

Candidate 6: KDE neon

What’s the best way to follow up a review of on old, traditional distro? It is with a bleeding-edge Plasma offering, and KDE neon is exactly that. It’s a specially tailored distribution designed to highlight the advantages, improvements and all the new features of the Plasma world, without being burdened or overshadowed by the internal development mechanism of any which particular distro.

However, we cannot deny or ignore the Ubuntu 16.04 underlying structure, or the fact that neon struggled in some of the same areas that other distributions did throughout 2016, including a less-than-perfect multimedia and smartphone support. There were also problems with the package management and the installation, but the stability was quite good, and the performance was adequate. Then again, Neon did infuse the Linux area with some hope that Plasma is still very much alive and kicking.

KDE neon

Candidate 7: Kubuntu 16.10 Yakkety Yak

Our last candidate for this article – there are several other distributions that have been released since, and which I have tested, alas my review release schedule did not allow me to include them here – is the autumn Kubuntu edition. Yakkety Yak proved to a fairly decent product. For the first time ever, Plasma had a spotless smartphone support and the networking side of things was good. There were still severe bugs with package management and some of the programs, and one or two application crashes crept into the session after what seems to have been a mediocre but stable year for Plasma. Customization remains another sore point, but the performance and battery usage have improved.

Strangely, despite some of the issues that the Plasma still exhibits, Kubuntu 16.10 was a passable distro that redeemed its family name, as well as the whole range of other desktops in the past year or so. It is a welcome departure from a sub-par string of unlucky offerings, and it does remind us that Plasma is an excellent bag of great technology with an extreme potential for success and user adoption.

Kubuntu 16.10 Yakkety Yak

And the winner is …

Now, which one of these distributions ought to be crowned the king (queen?) of Plasma – and KDE? Well, looking at 2016, it was another difficult, complex year. As Linux grows bigger, it becomes more challenging to stay on top of things, and community projects are not coping with the sheet amount of work they need to cover. The necessity for QA and professional polish is growing exponentially, and the introduction of disruptive solutions like PulseAudio, Systemd, Wayland, and others only makes things even more complex.

All that said, taking all the factors into consideration, Netrunner 17 Horizon delivers the best KDE platform of the year.

Or it would deliver … if we could count the vote.

Unfortunately, the Netrunner 17 Horizon cannot be included as a valid entrant, because the distribution is no longer available for general use. This means, even if you do like the advice in this article, you cannot really enjoy it.

Netrunner 17 was not a perfect distro, it had its share of problems and bugs, but it came as close as possible to offering a complete, whole user experience among the various other contestants. This would have been the second year in a row that Netrunner earned the top accolade. It is always good to see that some extra effort can transform the stock Plasma and the underlying operating system into a friendlier, more fun product. Alas, it cannot be.

Therefore, we must focus our praise elsewhere.

Kubuntu 16.10 Yakkety Yak seems to be that distro. As I’ve called it out, it is a cautiously good distribution, with a perilous formula of aesthetics, stability and general usability. Overall, it improves on the stock Plasma experience, it offers some slick, modern tricks, and users can enjoy practical stuff without too much hassle. There are still bugs and problems, but the overall trend is mildly optimistic.

The journey is indeed perilous, and we will have to see how the latest crop of Netrunner Core and Maui behave, especially considering the architectural and branding changes. Kubuntu may have won this round by default, and it will have to look over its shoulders for its cousins.

Conclusion

Time is a finite, precious resource, and I was unable to test every Plasma distro out there, so my apologies for missing out on your favorites. The cycle of fun never ends really, and we will have additional distributions come under the spotlight of rigorous scrutiny, and we will include them in the contest next December. By no means is this list all-comprehensive or ultimate, but it is indicative of a whole year of deep experience, a heavy emotional roller coaster, and some big hurdles lying ahead.

Plasma has all the ingredients to succeed, but the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts, and at the moment, we do not see the critical mass of stability and quality coming from Plasma. It does not dominate the desktop scene, and it’s wrestling against an overwhelming tide of rapid changes and a burgeoning black hole of bugs. The last few months do show some recovery, and Plasma could yet emerge victorious, or it could end up being another cogwheel in the sludge of software, evolution, open-source, and shattered illusions. Time, our greatest friend and enemy, will tell the tale. For now, if you are keen on exploring Linux, and you have a liking for Plasma, Kubuntu seems to be the best choice. Do expect a rough ride, and keep your enthusiasm in check.

Last but not the least, we have talked a lot about Plasma, but maybe we should let Plasma talk too, share its side of the story? This is a hint, a teaser if you will, but there’s going to be an exciting little event fairly soon. Stay tuned, and look for the other desktop environments and their nominations!

  • Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker

    I think that Manjaro KDE is a much better choice for an Arch-based distro than KaOS – I’ve never had a good install of KaOS (by default, it wants to install the EFI boot partition into /boot, *not* /boot/efi).

    Glancing back at your reviews, it’s been 11 months since you reviewed a Manjaro distro (Xfce), and 23 months since you last reviewed Manjaro KDE. Calamares is now the default installer, Plasma is the default KDE environment, and you can even install the 4.8.9-1 kernel, which should solve the Realtek issue. Please consider giving it a try in your upcoming review schedule.

    • bladerunner6978

      +1

    • Dedoimedo

      I will see what I can do.
      Dedoimedo

  • Zachary Jones

    Based on your last Netrunner Rolling review, I’m… kinda nervous that you’re gonna set your laptop on fire this time. Granted, Debian’s a more stable base than Arch, but still. Hopefully the Ubuntu version manages to not suck.

  • http://all-tech-thoughts.blogspot.com Carl Draper

    Well best years best KDE distro should be Debian Stretch because I’ve been using Sid for awhile now with Plasma 5 and it is surprisingly stable for a testing release, i use it for my main desktop machine.

    • Starbuck2001

      I agree, Debian Stretch is _really_ good with Plasma 5.8.4!

  • http://m.gooplusplus.com/?radio&w=1200 Nibbler

    A sleeper KDE candidate you may want to watch for is MX-16 KDE. A few reviewers were quite impressed with Debian-based MX-15 KDE. The core XFCE version of MX-16 is now RC1 with a KDE version likely to appear in early 2017.

  • Arizon

    Where is Linux Mint 18 KDE?

    • bladerunner6978

      I’m still waiting/anticipating Linux Mint 18.1 KDE, with Plasma 5.8.*
      That’s gonna be nice.

  • bladerunner6978

    Manjaro KDE Edition-16.10.3 would’ve been a good candidate to test.

    Actually, I’m running with Manjaro KDE Edition (16.10.2), but it’s quite impressive, and snappy, on my old Laptop, once it’s booted up.
    Manjaro will help you get over your fear of Arch Linux.
    :->

  • Wally Johnn

    Netrunner 17 Horizon KDE5 is again available for download, but it may still need a little more work; little things like changes not activating after applying, especially when changing window themes, icons, etc.

    The Start Menu is nice and clean, the best I’ve seen, even better than PCLinuxOS – unless you change the icon and windows themes; then it can’t be changed back. I loved the power buttons on the side of the navigation pane. Nice and colourful, 3D, glossy. The way I love my buttons. But once changed it cannot be reverted – so you’re left with the Windows 10 type system tray icopns.

    If you add a panel it defaults to the NH17 panel, not the Neon KDE5 type panel. That is a good thing, imo, since I find the default KDE 5 start menu cumbersome, imo. (You can navigate to the right using arrows but there is no back arrow, so you have to navigate to the top of the window and use Window 7 type navigation. Yes, we’re used to it in most file browser windows, but it is not as smooth as working in Windows 8, for example.)

    KWallet could be disabled and it didn’t cause the system to hang. I did not bother installing Opera to see if it always complained that it needed KWallet, though, although FireFox seemed to work fine.

    Because of these and other little niggles it was removed almost immediately. One major niggle was while it was very easy to format the disk drive as GPT, no matter where you wanted to save the non-UEFI bootloader it would say that it was being installed on sda, even when you explicitly told the installer that you wanted it on sde, for example. That was a deal breaker for me. I surmise that it equated the GPT formatted disk as an UEFI disk and therefore wanted to install it on sda0. Unfortunately that was where Windows10 resides – on a non-UEFI disk. I didn’t bother testing fyrther after that.