KDE Plasma Desktop review: I'm still not switching from GNOME

Jack Wallen shares what he likes and dislikes about KDE Plasma and reveals who might be best suited to use the open source desktop.

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Image: Jack Wallen

I have to confess: I don't give KDE a fair shake. It's not because I don't believe it to be a strong take on the Linux desktop, it's just that I prefer a much more minimal desktop. Also, I was never a big fan of the old taskbar/start menu/system tray combo. I leaned more toward the GNOME way of thinking and doing things.

Recently, a reader called me out on my lack of KDE coverage, so I thought it was time to offer up my take on where KDE Plasma stands, and who might be best suited to use this open source desktop. Comparing Plasma to my usual GNOME desktop is really quite challenging, given these two desktops are night and day. It's like comparing the works of Clive Barker to that of William Gibson--they're both incredibly good at what they do, they're using the same tools to tell stories, but in very different genres. 

So instead of doing the usual comparison, I thought I'd take a more creative approach to the task. I'll even lay out my conclusion right here:

GNOME is e.e. cummings, whereas KDE is Alfred Lord Tennyson. One uses the minimum amount of "words" to convey the subject at hand, while the other opts to use a flooding flourish of words to great effect. One says:

let.
.simplicity
open.
.your.
apps.

While the other states:

With the single tap of the phalange, a world of wonder shall open and display for you the tools with which you might explore new worlds, new ideas, and unheard of possibility.

What in the world am I getting at? 

Let me explain.

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GNOME

I've gone on and on about GNOME. At this point, there's little to say about the current iteration of GNOME that I haven't already said. In fact, my summation of GNOME in my piece Is GNOME or Unity the desktop for you? is the same statement I'd make today about this particular desktop:

GNOME is for users who need a desktop to get out of their way. They want to focus on applications and require as much screen real estate as possible. GNOME users don't care so much about tweaking the desktop--they simply want a desktop that is reliable, predictable, and polished.

With that said, let's take a look at the latest release of KDE, by way of the KDE neon project.

KDE Plasma Desktop

Okay, first let's talk about the name. Is it KDE? Is it KDE Plasma? No. It's just Plasma. The name Plasma was introduced upon the release of KDE SC 4.4. To some, of course, it's still KDE. To others, it's KDE Plasma. I've even seen it referred to as the Plasma Desktop.

Name aside, what sets Plasma apart from GNOME? 

Just about everything.

At first blush, one could draw the conclusion that Plasma is what happens when the Windows 7 designers channel the macOS desktop designers to add enough panache to the desktop to create something completely different--and yet not.

Why not? Because in the end, Plasma holds on to the tried-and-true desktop metaphor of taskbar/start menu/system tray. There's a good reason for that--in a word: Familiarity.

Actually, two words: Familiarity and ease of use.

Sorry, Tennyson took hold and turned two words into five. Let's reword that.

  • Familiarity

  • Usability

Thing is, there's poetry hidden on the Plasma Desktop, just waiting to be released. You might think the developers and designers stopped at that collaboration between Windows 7 and macOS desktop, but you'd be wrong. Why? Plasma has a few tricks up its sleeve. One trick comes in the way of widgets. 

But wait, doesn't the macOS desktop have widgets? Fancy that, it does. Desktop widgets are exactly what you think they are--small applications you can add to the desktop that do anything from a simple analog clock, application launchers, menus, calculators, dictionaries, clipboards, device notifiers, and more. This is very familiar territory here--nothing you haven't seen before.

That's telling. But alas, there's more, my friends. 

What are KDE Plasma activities?

There's no way to "simply put" what an activity is in Plasma; however, you can think of them as virtual desktops that allow for more fine-tuned control over your experience. That's a bit vague. But seriously, what are activities? 

Again, virtual desktops with a bit more control. For example, you could create one activity for programming and add a number of developer-related widgets to that desktop. Next, you could pin developer-specific applications to the taskbar. 

You could also set certain privacy restrictions for different activities. For example, you could create an activity specifically for web browsing and then set that activity to clear the history of that activity after one month (oddly enough, that's the shortest time frame you can set). Thing is, the clearing of activity history doesn't actually dive into browser history. 

So what does history clearing do? 

After a quick test, it doesn't clear the history of the KWrite text editor--even after clearing all history of all apps on the current Activity.

What gives? Why add a feature if said feature doesn't do what it's supposed to do? 

Truth be told, Plasma activities are somewhat of a mystery--one that most new (and/or average) users won't ever bother using.

This little foray into widgets and activities brings me round to one of the reasons why I decided Plasma wasn't the desktop for me some time ago.

It doesn't really know who it is. Is it e.e. cummings or Alfred Lord Tennyson? Barker or Gibson? Is it Windows 7 or macOS? 

On the surface, Plasma is a fine take on the traditional desktop; it's stable, fast, and incredibly easy to use for anyone who has worked with any sort of desktop interface. Plasma stumbles when it introduces new features but doesn't define them in such a way as to make them stand out as truly useful or unique. 

Don't get me wrong, I like Plasma. Every once in a while it's nice to install the latest version of Neon to see what the KDE developers have done with the desktop. Sadly enough, however, they haven't done much to refine the features that could set it apart from desktops of the past or present. Plasma is a taskbar/start menu/system tray desktop with a few extra bells and whistles that do little to entice me into making the switch from GNOME.

Again, not that Plasma is bad. For anyone who prefers the traditional desktop, you would do well with Plasma. But once you start digging into some of the other features, confusion might set in, and you'll find yourself wondering, "Why is this here?"

To go back to my original analogy, Plasma is to desktops what Tennyson is to poetry: There are a lot of beautiful words used to describe something where fewer words would do.

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