The concept of addons is an interesting one. At some point over the past decade or two, companies developing (successful) software realized that bundling an ever-growing code base into their products in order to meet the spiraling tower of requests from their users would result in unsustainable bloat and complexity that would not warrant the new functionality. And so, the idea of addons was born.
Addons come in many flavors – extensions, plugins, applets, scripts, and of course, widgets. A large number of popular programs have incorporated them, and when done with style, the extra functionality becomes as important as the core application itself. Examples that come to mind: Firefox, Notepad++, VLC, Blender. And then, there’s the Plasma desktop environment. Since inception, KDE has prided itself on offering complete solutions, and the last incarnation of its UI framework is no different. Which begs the question, what, how and why would anyone need Plasma widgets? We explore.
A good meal needs no seasoning
Other than what the chef put in, of course. And that’s largely true. If the desktop environment offers all the necessary functionality, then it really needs no extras, right. Then again, is it even possible to do that? Can you really satisfy the needs of all the users out there without making a horrible, over-complex monster?
Well, Plasma is definitely trying to do so. As I’ve outlined in my Plasma secrets article, there’s a wealth of hidden goodies under the hood, and you just need a bit of curiosity to dig them out and use them. Moreover, the system has been designed in a modular fashion from the start, and you can definitely see that when you use something like Krunner or Dolphin or Clementine. Lots of the functionality that users take for granted comes from plugins, and they are provided with the system. In the worst case, you just need to enable them.
Then, Plasma also allows you to install various aesthetic addons – icons, themes, fonts, decorations. This is done using built-in system wizards. Alas, this part of the desktop framework is rather messy. We’ve seen that in my Plasma 5.12 LTS review. If you want to install a new theme, there’s a 63% chance you will end up with a dud; either it won’t install at all, or it will silently fail after it’s supposedly configured. There does not seem to be any strict convention on packaging, and you need a bit of luck to get around. Still, the important thing is that the desktop provides for an extensible framework that lets you customize the system look & feel without manual work.
Lastly, Plasma itself is also rich in features – sometimes too much, one might say. But it does have a reasonably logical workflow, and you can tweak, change and edit pretty much everything, at the cost of going through many deep menus and clicking lots of little buttons and options. It’s not just the desktop that you can customize – you have activities and workspaces, a whole multi-dimensional cube of features. That in itself creates a sense that system addons are not really required.
So what about widgets?
Aha. Well, you have them. Click on the little hamburger menu in the top left or right corner of your desktop, depending on your distro, and surprise surprise, there’s a whole list of options! Among them, widgets. Likewise, click on the hamburger menu in the right corner of the system panel (usually bottom), and it will expand the panel settings. Here too, you have the option to install widgets. So they are quite prominently featured. But do you need them?
Let’s start with a secret: the items you on the panel (system area stuff, the clock, etc) – those are actually widgets. You just don’t necessarily treat them that way because you don’t consider them widgets. But even the show desktop or minimize all widows button that you may have seen (or in fact added) are actually widgets. So they are right there, all around you.
So what if you want more more widgets?
Now, finally, we can delve deeper into our topic. If you want to “extend” your Plasma desktop, beyond the defaults that you get (which already include dozens of extra plugins and extensions in one way or another), are there any good widgets around? I spent a couple of hours playing, installing and removing widgets, trying to see if there were some hidden gems in the non-default list that perhaps should be made a mandatory part of the Plasma desktop environment, or they may have somehow escaped attention, and yet, they are the best thing since turbo-charged fuel-stratified injection became the norm in cars. In other words, can Plasma outdo Plasma?
We’ve already discussed some of these in the past. For instance, Event Calendar, as a replacement to the standard clock & calendar widget used in Plasma – this was a workaround for when the clock would show at full panel height whereas other icons were smaller and vertically centered. But on its own, Event Calendar has merits, including Google calendar sync, weather updates, timer, and more. We also talked about Show Desktop and Minimize All Windows – with the latter providing the more classic functionality people normally expect. All in all, there are some useful extras, but that’s a trivial answer to the question I asked earlier. Let’s continue.
New kids on the block
One of the widgets that comes to mind is a small, permanent, embedded browser window. On its own, it’s not revolutionary, but then, you can have it there, and showing specific content if you need it. This might be useful for developing websites and testing layout. Then, there could be an online portal or service that constantly refreshes and shows information, like say stock prices, and you don’t need to think or worry about opening a browser and keeping it there. The desktop browser widget serves as a sort of dynamic banner. Again, you can achieve the same with multiple browser windows launched the conventional way, but it’s a nice little thing that might be quite useful.
This widget is something like a half-panel or better yet – a quicklaunch area without the rest of the panel stuff. You can place one or more launchers on your desktop, and then drag ‘n’ drop applications onto them. There’s also an element of visual customization. Does this serve any purpose, you may ask, especially since you already have desktop shortcuts, folders, plus panels with icons. Well, not really. In fact, I did find this particular widgets to be slightly clunky. The worrying thing is that it stands prominent among the available choices, and it often features on various popularity lists. That says a lot about Plasma widgets in general.
While the concept is nice that you can save space – the launchers can be extra tiny as opposed to desktop icons or panels, where you might need bigger size for overall clarity – it’s not realized the best way. I did not find a way to rearrange icons. You can play with settings and change spacing, alignment and such, but it was never a fun, smooth exercise.
Windows 10 menu
Well, if you think Plasma does not have enough variety with no less than three different menu layouts, you can also use a Windows 10 like substitute, which gives you a modified classic view. Now, there’s no revolution here, just a somewhat different way how items are presented, grouped and listed. The one thing missing are apps on the right side of the menu (feels nude with so much blank space, it should auto-collapse if there’s nothing there), and it definitely works better with Breeze Dark theme.
This is a rather powerful yet confusing widget. It allows you to share files in several easy ways, without having to overthink the backend part. Say you want to tweet something, send a file to a device, or just make a bunch of text available online. Share lets you do this, and then some. It has a built-in list of functions, so when you drop a file, it will just do that quickly. Perhaps too quickly.
While playing with the widget, I almost skipped a heart beat when it suddenly, almost without any prior warning, uploaded a ‘file’ to Pastebin, definitely without asking for confirmation. The drag ‘n’ drop turned to online data instantly. Luckily, I had not really copied anything onto the widget, but it still did fire, and showed me the uploaded (empty) entry on Pastebin. You could easily end up accidentally placing important personal data on a public board. This needs more finesse and an extra safeguard or two.
The widget did not detect any devices. I’m not sure what kind of devices we’re talking about – internal partitions, external disks, network shares, filesystems. There isn’t enough information, and you can’t really customize the list. Potentially, this could be a useful asset, but in its current form, it feels raw.
The name is self-explanatory. This widgets allows you to create desktop one-liners, and help you remind of the various tasks and actions you might want to do, and as such, it is a potential replacement for sticky notes we saw in the past, or the good ole text files. The widget is fairly rudimentary, and it does not seem to have any fancy color scheme, highlights, warnings, reminders, or anything similar, nor any sync with calendar entries, say like Event Calendar. Works fine, but then, it does not really introduce anything revolutionary that already isn’t covered by defaults.
I continued testing a little more, and the list covers the usual suspects: various CPU, memory, disk, temperature monitors. On the negative side, the stuff gets pretty repetitious very quickly. On the bright side, every single widget actually installed and worked, regardless of what its functionality might be. There were no ghosts or duds, as we’ve seen with other aspects of the system addons mechanism. In this regard, there might not be that many widgets available, and if you’re looking for a short best-of list, you won’t be awed or amazed or see much that isn’t mentioned above, but then, you won’t be disappointed either. At least the widget installation is foolproof.
A good meal needs no seasoning, indeed. And Plasma is a proof of that, with the widgets the best example. Remarkably, this desktop environment manages to juggle the million different usage needs and create a balanced compromise that offers pretty much everything without over-simplifying the usage in any particular category. It’s a really amazing achievement, because normally, the sum of all requests is a boring, useless muddle.
Plasma’s default showing is rich, layered, complex yet accessible, and consistent. And that means it does not really need any widgets. This shows. The extras are largely redundant, with some brilliant occasional usage models here and there, but nothing drastic or critical that you don’t get out of the box. This makes Plasma different from most other addons-blessed frameworks, as they do significantly benefit from the extras, and in some cases, the extensions and plugins are critical in supplementing the missing basics.
And so, if you wonder, whether you’ll embark on a wonderful journey of discovery and fun with Plasma widgets, the answer is no. Plasma offers 99% of everything you may need right there, and the extras are more to keep people busy rather than give you anything cardinal. After all, if it’s missing, it should be an integral part of the desktop environment, and the KDE folks know this. So if you’re disappointed with this article, don’t be. It means the baseline is solid, and that’s where you journey of wonders and adventure should and will be focused. Take care.
Cover image: Freeimages.com/Bernard Delobelle.