Two years ago, the Plasma desktop was just another offering in the Linux pool, with a modern but overly complicated interface, bereft of enthusiasm and brimming with problems. Then, suddenly, it changed. Like a primordial being crawling out of a mineral soup, it started morphing into a slick, fast, elegant desktop. And now, it’s become the leading force in the Linux world.
Several months ago, we looked at Plasma 5.12, the LTS release, and I outlined all the different issues and problems surrounding it. The KDE team has its ear(s) to the ground, and there’s been a lot of positive momentum and hard working invested into making Plasma amazing. Sometimes, the mission is set back by regressions in the distro space. If only the emotional rollercoaster wasn’t so swingy. Now, we have another chance to be dazzled – or shocked. Plasma 5.13 is in its last beta stages, and I took an opportunity to check what gives. Not one but TWO tests. After me.
First test: live session
After sampling the savory teaser announcement for Plasma 5.12.90 (essentially 5.13 Beta), I went about getting the necessary live media for testing. I chose the KDE neon Stable dev branch, figuring the User edition might not have what it takes, with the Unstable version being probably too raw for usage and showcasing. It would help highlighting what exactly is included where, so that testers (or users) can more easily narrow down their options.
Look & feel
I fired up the image on my Lenovo G50 laptop, and soon enough, I was logged inside an stylish, pleasing desktop. The familiar DNA is there – Plasma colors, classic desktop layout, a wealth of options and customization hiding just below the surface, never in your face if you don’t want or need it, but there to unleash the full power of Plasma. That alone, however, has never been enough. But recently, there’s much more consistency and determinism in the Plasma UI design.
There are also a lot of papercut fixes. For instance, the panel resize now features the actual pixel value when you drag the panel up or down. The number shows for a second before it disappears once you stop the vertical movement, or once you depress the mouse button. Finally, the OCD brigades can rest at night, safe in the knowledge they can be precise about getting the Plasma panel height just right. A rhyme.
The clock widget is also of normal size, the system area icons are positioned like Austro-Hungarian soldiers, waiting for the parade. The system menu comes with a more powerful right-click context functionality. The actual options will change, depending what icon you choose. For instance, with Firefox, you can edit the entry, add to desktop or panel (and this also changes, depending on what type of task manager you use), or launch ordinary or private windows. With Discover, you can also check for system updates, and so on. Very cool.
The menu also fully cycles (with the middle-mouse button scroll). If you reach the bottom of the list, it goes back to the top, so you don’t need to do any tedious go back, go up, whatever. This is a refreshing and useful little change.
Now, the Wireless connection double prompt is STILL there. I had to provide the passphrase for the access point twice. Not nice. If you copy files to a Samba share, the timestamps will be reset, still, and this is a rather annoying thing, because you lose the temporal granularity of your work. For instance, you can’t sort documents based on the time of their modification anymore. On the bright side, possibly because KDE neon is running an older Ubuntu base, Samba functionality works, unlike the recent crop of 18.04 releases.
As a software tester, one of the first programs I need is a screenshot tool, so I can document my games. Well, Spectacle has improved dramatically in the 5.13 release. It has a separate settings and image save buttons now, yay! It still creates windowed images with a huge alpha border. That’s quite unnecessary, because there’s a reason why people want to take screenshots of just a particular app window. The alpha border is at least symmetric now, with identical left and right margins.
Spectacle also has the option to record your screen – lovely jubbly – but this is just a stub, because you need to install one of the several popular desktop recording software available in Linux. However, the attempt to integrate and combine the two modes is very commendable.
Better than before. More streamlined. The categories make sense, the visual hierarchy makes more sense, and there’s an overall workflow redesign, which should make it easier for ordinary people to find what they need. As always, you have the option to change the visual layout – you can use the classic KDE layout from the olden days, the tree view or the icons view, which gives you something similar to the Ubuntu Unity settings menu.
The fonts are pretty good in Plasma 5.13 – and improving. The default systems settings are reasonable, but now, you have more control over the font system than before. If you leave the anti-aliasing settings with Vendor Default, you won’t have the option to change the sub-pixel rendering and the hinting. But if you set the dropdown to Enabled, you can make changes.
This is sweet on several levels – better sub-pixel rendering control than before PLUS you can actually see how different choices affect the font look. There are notable differences between RGB and BGR and whatnot. Seriously notable differences. The combo of RGB plus slight hinting gives the best results. The effect is immediate and immense. It’s like someone cleaned my eyes with the purest coconut water.
Browser and Media integration
The name of the game: integration. Plasma 5.13 is working hard on making your desktop experience a unified one. Smooth and seamless. Part of this mission is giving you full control over browser actions the same way you get over your media. In essence, the media control widgets becomes a browser control widget, too, and you can pause, resume or cancel downloads or media playback in your browser windows. Both Firefox and Chromium-based browsers are supported. This looks cool, and the teaser images are really neat.
Unfortunately, at the moment, the execution still isn’t perfect – I hope things will click into order with the official release. First, there’s not enough information around HOW you can actually get this working. It just says you need to enable Plasma Browser Integration, but there’s no widget for this, or a package in the system repos.
The process is two-fold – not unlike Gnome extensions, and this is NOT what users want or need. I had to install a browser addon from the Mozilla Firefox online repository first. After I did that, the system complained that it could not connect to the native host – this is the same type of ‘host connector’ error like the chrome-gnome-extension nonsense. But then, the problem is even bigger, because the Stable dev branch of KDE neon does NOT have the necessary package. I had to manually grab it from the Unstable repo and install it. There was a compounded problem with Discover here, so I used dpkg on the command line. Eventually it was all in order, but it’s a high toll for getting the functionality to actually, um, function.
Now, once I had the package in place and Firefox started without any errors, it was really neat and impressive. The ability to control your browser actions from the system area in a transparent and consistent way, similar to other ‘media’ applications, is a great thing.
We talked about this nifty program in the past. And it’s just gotten better. The integration mission, remember. This utility lets you connect your Android devices to your Plasma desktop and manage them seamlessly, including audio, video, volume, Bluetooth, plus some rather exotic things like notifications, mail, news feeds, and more. You do need to install the app from the Play Store, and both devices need to be on the same network, but once paired, it’s all good. Moreover, you do need to allow KDE Connect to access your phone notifications, though. Hopefully, some day, iOS and Windows Phone apps will be added, too.
If you switch your system menu to the dashboard-type menu, you’ll have a full screen overview menu not unlike Unity or Gnome to some extent. In the past, I’ve always felt this was a bit cheap, with icons that are too large, and not enough detail or precision. Plasma 5.13 does a better job of putting things together, although there’s still room for additional visual improvements. You can separately access categories, favorites and search inline for either apps or widgets. Neat.
The KDE terminal emulator has also been facelifted. By default, it shows no tabs, but you can change that in the program settings. Once again, you have the full power of customization, if you fancy it. I believe the default gray-on-black color scheme should be changed to white-on-black or black-on-white for best visual effect. The one thing that confused me is the ZModem option – I found this in the menu and clicked happily. Not sure what it does, and from the error message, I’m not really sure I need it. But the error message itself is unnecessary. Why not have the package in the first place? Or tuck this deeper into the settings, just like tabs, which are far more valuable and useful, and yet, they are not shown by default.
Second test: installed system
My eight-boot mixed Windows-and-Linux setup on the G50 laptop also includes a KDE neon instance, at the time of this writing and BEFORE the update, running Plasma 5.12.4. I updated the system, and half an hour later, I had the beta framework gracing my desktop. This is still with Xenial (16.04) as the baseline, and the same is true of the live image actually. It’s not using the new 18.04 distro, but that’s something we will probably see in the coming weeks or months.
Things were looking even nicer here than in the live session, as my box has already been pimped to beauty, with extra decorations, a nice wallpaper, and a combo of Breeze workspace theme with the Breeze Dark desktop theme. The media control applet has been redesigned, and it’s more posh than before. Elegant touches everywhere. Me likey.
Login and lock screens
Both these birds have nicer feathers now. Small changes, smart and meaningful.
This is a big one. Plasma is fast. Lean and fast. The system was tolling only about 450 MB on idle, and this is at least x2 and often easily x3 less than contemporary Gnome-based systems, and comparable if not better than mission-focused lightweight MATE and Xfce desktops. Instant response, even with compositing turned on, you get smooth transitions and fast multitasking. I only have praise for the efficiency of code and the end product.
Problems and bugs
Now, Plasma 5.12.90 being beta, there were issues. Of course. These actually look and feel like pure dev problems, so I’m actually not too concerned. I am more worried about actual UI functionality issues, because those require fundamental logical changes. Most of what I encountered in this test was packaging chaos and ongoing work. Indeed, there were no less than two sets of updates available in the span of less than one day, bringing in dozens of updated Qt libraries and such.
The big one – Discover does not work. Like at all. I tried to run the program, and it just wouldn’t start. From the command line, the errors are more meaningful, if just as ugly. I’ve found half a dozen references to this on Arch Linux and KDE forums, a lonely bug report from six months ago, and several suggestions on missing packages, all of which were present and accounted for in KDE neon, to no avail. Discover is no-go. And this also complicated my browser integration package installation. Most likely, by the time you’ve read this article, it will all have been fixed.
plasma-discover QQmlApplicationEngine failed to load component qrc:/qml/DiscoverWindow.qml:162 Cannot assign to non-existent property "showCloseButton" Errors when loading the GUI invalid kns backend! "/etc/xdg/ksysguard.knsrc" because: "Config group not found! Check your KNS3 installation." invalid kns backend! "/etc/xdg/servicemenu.knsrc" because: "Config group not found! Check your KNS3 installation." Discarding invalid backend "ksysguard.knsrc" Discarding invalid backend "servicemenu.knsrc" setting currentApplicationBackend PackageKitBackend(0x1031d00)
Another problem is – there are two programs with the name discover. One, called just that, and I don’t know what it does. The other, plasma-discover, which is what we – or users – need. Worth figuring if there’s a name clash here.
There were also a few other issues that might not be fully fixed in the official 5.13 release. Kate always moves the ‘active’ document tab to the far left, and this is confusing if you rely on spatial memory to place your documents. This really becomes messy if you have dozens of text files open, like I normally do.
The laptop was hot during testing, even though Plasma is a frugal beast, but we will discuss that more when I review KDE neon separately. I’ve also noticed long boot times, both in KDE neon and the recent Kubuntu, so I’m still not sure what this is about, but again, something to discuss and troubleshoot at a later date.
The touchpad was jittery. I had to tweak it before I could use the system with wild abandon. Mouse settings were also tricky. The option to choose single or double click is no longer available. Instead, the functionality is located under Workspace configuration.
This is not intuitive, because those two are separate, and people may actually launch the mouse applet individually, through the menu and not through the system settings tool. Moreover, there’s some visual difference between the complete bundle and standalone utilities. This isn’t a big inconsistency, but it’s worth figuring out if there should be both, or if they should differ in looks.
The biggest problem with my test was that a certain library related to Kirigami was missing, whatever it may be, and this made half the settings in the settings menu unavailable. There were no workspace or desktop themes, no icon themes, no wallpaper, no option to edit the screen lock settings, and no option to install any new decorative packages. This feels like a pure beta bug, though.
The issue shows consistently both in the live session and the installed neon system.
There’s also a small visual bug with Vault – the new Vault button is positioned too far down and left, if we look at the top of the popup interface. Either it needs to move, or the word Vault needs to move, or the Dolphin file manager icon needs to be re-positioned. Not a biggie though, but the Devil is in the details.
And I guess that would be all. Now, what’s the number of screenshots I decided to use for this article? 42. Which only makes sense in the grander scheme of things. Right.
Plasma 5.13 is (going to be) a very nice release. It builds on the solid foundation that is the LTS edition, and adds cool, smart touches. The emphasis is on seamless integration of elements, which is what separates professionals from amateurs. It’s all around how the WHOLE desktop behaves, and not individual programs in isolation. And Plasma is making great strides, offering a polished version of an already mature and handsome product, with extra focus on fonts, media and browser connectivity and good performance.
There are some rough patches. Apart from the obvious beta issues, those goes without saying, KDE Connect ought to be a true multi-phone product, the network stack really needs to be spotless, and that means full Microsoft Windows inter-operability, Spectacle should allow for configurable shadows and alpha channel, and I want to see if the decorative backend has been cleaned up, i.e. can you search and install new themes and icons without encountering useless errors and inconsistencies.
But all in all, I’m quite impressed. The changes are big and noticeable, and above all, meaningful. You don’t just get features for the sake of it, you get things that improve the quality and consistency of the desktop, that maximize fun and productivity, and there’s deep thought in orchestrating it all together. It ain’t just a random bunch of options that happen to work. I like seeing patterns in things, and I’m happy when there’s functional harmony. This spring season of distro testing hasn’t been fun, and Plasma 5.13 is balm for my weary wrists, so hurting from all that angry typing. More than worth a spin, and highly recommended. Full steam on, Tuxers.