Best Linux Desktop: KDE's Plasma

Monday Jul 21st 2014 by Bruce Byfield
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KDE’s Plasma earns best Linux desktop honors due to its design, customization and innovation.

From ratpoison to Unity, I must have tried just about every Linux desktop environment available. The best Linux desktop, in my view: my main computer continues to run KDE's Plasma. No other alternative can match its design philosophy, configurability, or its innovations on the classical desktop.

Nor am I alone in my preferences. At a time when the Linux desktop offers six main alternatives (Cinnamon, GNOME, KDE Plasma, LXDE, Mate, Unity and Xfce), KDE Plasma consistently tops reader polls with an average of 35-40 percent. In such a diverse market, these figures indicate a broad appeal that other Linux desktop alternatives can't match.

I believe that one of the main reasons for this appeal is the KDE design philosophy. GNOME and Unity may offer a more aesthetic-looking default, but only at the cost of simplifying both the desktop and the utilities in the name of reducing clutter.

By contrast, KDE goes to the opposite extreme. KDE applications typically include every function you can imagine. Sometimes, they can take a version or two to organize the menus in a meaningful way, but applications like Amarok, K3B, or digiKam go far beyond the most common use cases. When you run into problems with them, they usually offer solutions.

Moreover, with KDE applications, you have the opportunity to learn. GNOME and Unity designs may be quicker for new users to pick up, but KDE applications give users the opportunity to explore and learn new techniques and options. While the apps for other desktops leave users perpetually at novice levels, the KDE equivalents offer the chance to add to your expertise.

Linux Desktop: Configuring Everything

What I call the completist philosophy of KDE is especially obvious when you start to customize.

All Linux desktops give you options for changing wallpaper and fonts. However, none match the options available in Plasma. With eight hot spots, several dozen desktop effects (most of which are practical rather than eye candy), and the ability to change the behavior of individual windows, Plasma has a strong claim to being the most customizable of all the Linux desktops. You can even swap out the interface itself for another format.

In fact, at a time when many alternatives have banished icons from the desktop, immobilized the panel, and eliminated panel applets, Plasma not only makes provisions for all three, but supports an extensive system of widgets to place on the desktop. What's more, these tools are not just the minor utilities that are part of GNOME 2 and Mate, but also additional pieces of functionality, such as alternative menus and task bars and virtual keyboards for accessibility.

Best of all, you can customize as many or as few of these features as you wish. If all you want is the standard cosmetic alternations to the Linux desktop, nothing forces you to go any further. But, if you do want to explore, these alternatives are always there, awaiting your explorations.

Linux Desktop Classic Innovations

Probably, what I like best about Plasma is the way that it combines the classic desktop with enhancements that can improve your work-flow.

Those who want a classical Linux desktop of the type offered by Mate or Xfce can quickly set one up, although the procedure in KDE is somewhat different. Yet, if you want more you can easily add more.

Instead of being stuck with one set of icons, you can use the Folder View widget to add several to the desk, or else swap the display on the desktop with just a few clicks. Alternatively, you can place different icons on each virtual workspace. All these choices mean that, instead of a generalized desktop or an impossibly cluttered one, you can have specialized desktops for different tasks or projects.

Similarly, for those who regularly work on projects that require several different applications, you can use the Oxygen theme and group them together in different tabs of the same window. You no longer have to fumble through windows as you work, and can remain more focused on the task at hand.

Remember the difference that tabbed web browsers made for using the Internet? The same innovation is even more useful for productivity on the desktop.

However, by far the greatest innovation is Activities, a superset of virtual workspaces that offer fresh options for organizing the desktop. You could, for example, have different Activities for work, school, and home, each with its own layout and set of icons, widgets, and links. You might also opt for a separate Activity for each project or work account, or have one in which news links are arranged in newspaper-like column, or another in which all the hardware-monitoring widgets are always a mouse-click away.

Essentially, Activities open the possibility of no longer organizing the desktop by application, or even by documents. Instead, Activities make organization by context or by task easily available choices. They take some rethinking, but the possibilities are unique to KDE Plasma.

In fact, I know of nothing comparable to Activities or many of the other KDE innovations on other Linux desktop environments.

Doing Things My Way

KDE Plasma has its faults. The unfriendliness of the tools for configuring the personal information manager have to be seen to be despised, and KMail can be as flaky as fillo. In addition, Plasma has yet to include a convenient desktop tool for switching between Activities, while KDE's fondness for meaningless application levels and sub-systems sometimes adds a needless layer of complication as you try to remember -- for example, whether Akonadi or Phonon is the tool for managing personal information.

Still, I can live with a few shortcomings, and I know that other desktops have their own limitations.

What matters to me is that KDE gives me the tools to work the way that I prefer, and offers a Linux desktop that is both familiar and innovative. The truth is that, after several years of relying on Plasma's enhancements, I feel half-crippled whenever I attempt to be productive in another environment.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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