My go-to Linux distribution when I’m setting up my workstations is Fedora. I have been using it since Fedora Core 1 and RedHat 9 before that. I can’t even remember what RedHat version I started with now. I often try other distributions out and sometimes use them for a few months but I always end up jumping back to Fedora.
Fedora defaults to the Gnome desktop environment so I have used Gnome as my primary desktop environment for many years. Again I’ve tried others such as Cinnamon and XFCE but I always end up back in Gnome. In recent months I’ve heard a lot of good things about KDE Plasma so I thought I would give it a shot for a week. This is a report of my findings.
I’ve tried KDE Plasma many times in the past but every time I’ve hit blockers very quickly which has stopped it becoming my primary desktop environment. Typically really bad crashes that would lose work. With KDE Plasma 5.11 I figured these kind of bugs should have been ironed out and there were a lot of positive reviews, so it was time to experiment.
I first installed the Fedora KDE spin on my test laptop which is a Lenovo ThinkPad x220 and spent an evening getting familiar with it. I was quite happy with it. Fedora’s dnfdragora was a bit annoying and didn’t seem to work correctly but I could hide that away. I decided to install it on my primary laptop, a Lenovo ThinkPad x260 for a week to see how it would fare with my day to day tasks.
This was actually going to be a tough week for testing. I had to go to Finland for some meetings and give a presentation. I was a little concerned about jumping in the deep end like this, especially as it would be difficult to roll back whilst I was away but it would be a really good testing outside of my comfort zone.
Some of my findings may be due to the fact I was using the Fedora spin of KDE Plasma rather than another distribution. But I think it is worth putting them down anyway. In my tests I tried to use KDE applications as much as possible. I know I could have used Gnome/GTK applications instead but I wanted to test as much of the native stack as possible.
For the most part it worked and it worked really well. KDE Plasma runs much smoother than I remember, it is also more keyboard friendly than I remember (I use a lot of keyboard shortcuts in Gnome). I was able to mostly customise it the way I wanted to and KDE’s native applications seem to work pretty well together.
Visually it is amazing. It has come a long way since the KDE 4 days and apart from a few icon choices I think everything is well polished. I’ve even used KDE’s cursor theme (Breeze) on my Gnome desktops for a while.
The battery icon gave a much finer-grained detail of how much power I had left (I was going whole-days on battery). Gnome typically only has 3 bars in its battery icon, although you can make it show percentages. I’ve always liked Konsole and it still seems to be pretty good. Many of the KDE apps just worked as good replacements for their Gnome counterparts.
Dolphin is a really good file manager. It if no secret that not many people enjoy using Gnome’s Nautilus in its current state. Although I don’t have much of a problem with Nautilus I really like Dolphin.
I used Okular to give the presentation from a PDF export of the slides I had. I liked the fact it had presentation options. It has options for transitions but these appear to be a bit slow and clunky to be usable, you also cannot control the transition time so I just turned them off. In addition it did crash once during transitions whilst I was testing. When it came to give the presentation it worked although it dimmed my screen and the mirrored projector image when idle. In gnome if I was presenting this kind of thing would be inhibited automatically.
In Gnome I love SimpleScan it is great for scanning multi page documents, cropping and saving them as a PDF or just one-off JPEGs of a receipt for work. KDE appears to have a tool called Skanlite. I didn’t get a chance to test this fully but I couldn’t see a way to handle multi page documents well in it. Maybe it works. There are a lot of good features in it though.
I was doing a lot of hex/decimal conversion work in the last week and KCalc helped with that, although I just didn’t find the UI quite as intuitive as Gnome’s. If I want to copy part of a number to clipboard I am out of luck.
I have a Samsung curved 29″ ultra wide monitor on my main desk in my home office. Fedora 27 in general hates this monitor, especially Wayland but Xorg isn’t happy either. When waking from DPMS it appears to disconnect and then reconnect which causes GDM to crash, especially when I connect it to the NVidia 1050Ti card on my main desktop. In KDE Plasma it didn’t crash but triggered several screen re-configurations before I could actually log in using it. I was impressed that it appeared to dynamically add/remove monitors, KDE Plasma has never been able to do that in my previous tests. But the colours were off, it looks like it wasn’t using the correct colour profile for the monitor. Blues were purple and it just wasn’t a good experience.
KDE Plasma has an interesting concept called “Activities”. They are pretty much like virtual desktops but appear to have a little more isolation. I tried using one for all the terminal sessions I had open for vim and ssh sessions and one for web and email. This didn’t work out too well as the background would glitch badly after transitioning until I dragged a window all over the background. It was very distracting. Luckily KDE Plasma supports virtual desktops too so I enabled those and all was well.
The battery on the x260 was definitely drained quicker in KDE than Gnome, I got a few hours less out of it. This could be subjective but my laptop feels like it is running hotter most of the time. I don’t have any scientific readings for this though. I hear this is going to improve with the next release.
Crashes! Still so many crashes! Now, Plasma desktop didn’t crash for me, this is the first time I tried KDE Plasma and not have the whole desktop crash. But some of the bundled applications were very unstable. The “System Settings” application would crash about 50% of the time I did a search inside it. The software centre, also called “Discover”, crashed a lot and reported applications in a quantum state of both installed and not installed at the same time.
I tried to configure KMail with one of my mail accounts. Once I got this configured no folders would show up. I closed it and reopened it, the mail was there but when I clicked on a folder the list only showed the date field, not sender or subject. Apparently those fields were enabled but I couldn’t find a way of changing the size of them to make them visible. So I gave up on that and went to my trusted Thunderbird.
I travel quite a bit for work. I have been to Finland 3 times in the last 4 months. I travel via Amsterdam due to where my local UK airport is located. This means I use my laptop in a total of 3 timezones when I travel. Which is why I appreciate the fact that Gnome will detect my timezone when I travel and correct itself accordingly. I couldn’t find any way of doing this in KDE and it is a pain to do this manually when every other device I own can manage this automatically.
One of my biggest gripes with KDE Plasma will be a minor thing to many but it breaks my workflow quite a bit. I often have several SSH sessions open in several terminals at once whilst testing during my day job. I need to enter something in one and see log output in another two for example. Gnome’s alt-tab will bring all terminals to the foreground at once when I use it to task switch, if for example I also have a full screen web browser open. KDE’s won’t so I have to individually switch to each one to bring it forward. I couldn’t find any way to fix this and it is a big deal for me.
I really like the way KDE Plasma is heading. I will definitely be keeping it on my x220 which will be used as a demo machine for a workshop I’m giving at MariaDB M|18. But it isn’t quite there yet to be used as a daily driver for me. The x260 will go back to Gnome in the next few days.