KDE Plasma 5: The Silent Revolution

Monday Aug 7th 2017 by Bruce Byfield
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KDE's Plasma 5 demonstrates that the age of innovation on the Linux desktop has not ended.

I admit it, I was wrong. Contrary to what I have been saying for several years, the age of innovation on the Linux desktop has not ended. It was simply proceeding quietly in KDE's Plasma 5.

For years, I fell into the habit that the age of innovation in desktop environments had ended because of users protesting new releases of GNOME and KDE, and the lukewarm response to Ubuntu's Unity. After about 2012, the largest innovations on the desktop appeared to be coming from Linux Mint, half of whose efforts were devoted to MATE, a fork of GNOME 2, which was first released in 2002, and half to developing Cinnamon as a full- featured desktop,a process now well-advanced.

Armed with this view, I frequently characterized Plasma 4 as a kitchen-sink desktop, more concerned with cramming in any remotely useful feature than in improving the user experience. In marked contrast to GNOME 3, Plasma 4 frequently repositioned features. Particularly in the Systems Settings, new features were dumped in an Advanced tab, and took several releases to be suitably positioned.

Meanwhile, Plasma 5 came out in 2014. It was discussed mostly in terms of updating Plasma to use the Qt 5 toolkit and streamlining the code. Moreover, because KDE projects have different releases schedules, most distributions were slow to switch to Plasma 5. I saw it in virtual machines, but I rarely used it for prolonged periods.

All of which is my defense in depth for not noticing how Plasma 5 was developing. However, since Debian upgraded to it the other month with its new Stable release, I have been using it daily. After exploring it with the thoroughness that only comes with regular use, I realized that my characterization of KDE had become obsolete without me realizing.

Plasma 5 is every bit as much a kitchen-sink desktop as Plasma 4, but it has quietly added a user experience that, with the latest 5.10 release, is unmatched by any other Linux desktop environment -- an experience, moreover, designed for today's users, rather than the outright beginners for which other desktop developers imagine that they must design.

KDE Plasma Secret Enhancements

Contrary to my superficial impressions, Plasma 5 does innovate. For instance, after years of struggling to make search with Nepomuk user-friendly, Plasma 5 replaces it with Baloo, and lets users search for applications and files from the menu. Mostly, though, what is noticeable is a general clean-up and rationalization of the desktop -- an emphasis epitomized by the default set of outline icons. Much of the thanks for this improvement seem due to the KDE Visual Design Group, which started working around the time that the first versions of Plasma 5 were released.

Part of the improvement is the usual cleaning up of feature creep that has always been part of a major Plasma release. Just as the release of Plasma 4 removed the obscure panel types that had crept into the KDE 3 release series, so Plasma 5 eliminates the equally obscure templates for Activities -- Plasma's alternate desktops. Instead, the Activity templates are reduced to only two, the Desktop and the Folder View, which are all that is really needed.

Similarly, the tools that configure and shape launchers and widgets are available in Plasma 5 only for widgets. The change is only sensible, because, while you might choose to rotate a few widgets like the Activity Toolbar in order to place it against the left or right side, where it takes up less room, why would anyone want to rotate an application launcher? Moreover, since the right-click menu already includes options for configuring and positioning icons, why not place the option to resize icons there as well?

Yet another example is the removal of the option to configure the wallpaper and desktop launchers separately for virtual desktops. The option is unnecessary since Activities already include it.

At the opposite extreme, a few much-needed features have been added to make Activities more accessible. Where Plasma 4 gave each Activity only a name and an optional icon, Plasma 5 adds when the Activity was last used, and the choice of adding a brief description of each Activity.

Other enhancements finally place features in sensible places. After years of Plasma 4 releases opening horizontally scrolling lists of widgets and activities, Plasma 5 has the lists open in the upper left corner of the screen. The result is much less awkward, although an option to resize the width of the windowed lists might be useful. The desktop toolkit, which offers features for configuring the desktop and working with it, is also moved to the upper left corner rather than the upper right, where it is easy to overlook. In fact, if you want, you can even configure the desktop toolkit from right- click menu so that it is not visible, which can help to prevent inexperienced users from clicking the wrong launcher.

However, probably the most noticeable change is the lack of a search field in the menu. Instead, with the cursor placed in the menu, users can locate an application or a file simply by starting to type. With each character, a list of suggestion appears, until only one (or none) remains. If you have in mind the imaginary user who has never touched a computer, this change may seem obscure, but, really, does such a user exist anywhere, let alone using a Linux desktop environment? Instead of following this time-honored assumption, Plasma 5 has a more accurate picture of the modern user, and designs accordingly.

Not every part of Plasma 5 succeeds. For instance, the Krunner command line for experts uses some of the desktop's standard features such as auto-completion, but oversimplifies to the point that the Plasma 5 version is less efficient than Plasma 4's. However, the general standard is set, and most of the bad design choices leftover from earlier releases are eliminated. Nor is the result bloated, since the first emphasis in Plasma 5 was the rewriting of the code for greater efficiency.

The Shuttleworth Challenge Answered

in 2008, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth challenged free software developers to develop interfaces to rival Apple's. Shuttleworth's efforts to answer his own challenge failed, as he tacitly admitted when he announced in April 2017 that Ubuntu would abandon Unity for GNOME. GNOME was more successful in interface design, although the original assumptions in the design had to be modified by the adding of extensions.

Now, in the latest releases, Plasma has quietly answered Shuttleworth's long- ago challenge. Just as importantly, it has done so not by copying OS X, but offering its own vision of the modern desktop. With the latest Plasma 5 releases, KDE has both the features and the advanced design to make it the most innovative desktop environment on Linux.

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