KDE Plasma 5.5: The Quintessential 2016 Review
Look & Feel
Plasma 5 has seen consistent refinement over the year with its default Breeze theme, and has finally come to par with Oxygen in terms of day-to-day completeness. It also features a new font called “Noto”, a Google-developed affair with a more complete character set. While it may not be as unique as the Oxygen font, it's practical, well maintained, and an example of the KDE Community willing to pull good work from other projects.
Icons have been greatly expanded with thousands of graphics being added to the roster. Where at the beginning of the year you routinely saw a patchwork of Oxygen and Breeze icon assets in applications, it is now rare to catch an Oxygen icons in use except for situations where a Plasma 4 era application used hardcoded icons, and even then many of those situations have been addressed.
There are some inconsistencies in the usage of these icons as the set has a monocolour half and a vibrant half. Occasionally you can spot where a settings panel or an application may mix the two halves, creating a jarring effect where several options are extremely colourful, and one is monocolour. This has improved considerably over time, and is not as blatantly obvious as it was circa Plasma 5.2.
Previously the Breeze icons could also appear fuzzy if an application did not follow strict guidelines to the letter, which made the otherwise crisp monochrome icons appear horrendously fuzzy at least one place in every application, but as of 5.5 I was unable to find any such issues, and inspecting the icons has revealed that this truly is an issue of the past with Breeze internally offering icons in a complete range of sizes.
GTK Breeze Style & Application Theme
A major regression when Plasma 5 was released was the lack of a GTK Breeze style, fracturing the appearance of applications as Plasma 4 had done. With Plasma 5.5 the Breeze widget style has been ported to GTK and now you can work with a mix of Qt and GTK applications using consistent themes. Both GTK 2 and 3 themes are offered, but in some minor details the GTK 2 styles have slight differences due to the capabilities of the ageing toolkit. Despite this, you would need to pay close attention to catch these differences, and unless you specifically look for them you will probably not notice.
The Breeze widget theme has also been refined in several places, cleaning up some lines and adding some additional finish. Context menu highlights will now go to the edge, and titles in context menus have been made much more conservative.
The Breeze workspace theme has seen some heavy adjustments between 5.4 and 5.5. Previously Breeze used indicator lines over top task entries but has switched to more traditional boxes, shadows have been made more conservative, adjustments have been made to widget containers making their corners a bit sharper, and the notes widget has been completely squared off with the peeling-corner effect removed. Taken as a whole the changes make the entire desktop feel just slightly more refined and professional.
Breeze in 2016 Verdict
One general complaint I hear about Plasma Desktop and friends is spacing and alignment issues. This continues to be a bit of a soft spot, especially on an application-level, but to a lesser degree spacing issues can present on the desktop. For the biggest offender you simply need to turn to the System Settings suite to see this in action, and no amount of overall polish can cover for many of the legacy settings screens. Some screens align everything in the center, others have it all to the left, some things are broken into sections, others use dividers. On the desktop much of the legacy layouts are not an issue, and layout issues become more of a nitpicking exercise with grievances more along the lines of “the spacing is slightly different”. Really, the major issue is legacy application structure holding back the desktop. Despite this, many of the core KDE applications such as Dolphin don't have these problems and for the most part the worst offenders generally tend to be applications which aren't used on a daily basis.
With GTK being supported now there are no longer situations where an application looks out-of-place when it could otherwise blend in. There are very minor rough edges with the GTK style, but there are no deal-breakers and everything works well. One note worth mentioning is that GTK has changed how themes work which has broken Oxygen for newer GTK applications, so users hanging onto Oxygen may find that Breeze will be more consistent in the long term.
Overall even just in the last release the look and feel of a Plasma installation has dramatically sharpened, and finding rough edges which were readily apparent in previous releases have been sanded polished. You can still find the very odd fuzzy icon or inconsistency if you dedicate your time tracking them down, but it takes effort, and there's no longer obvious and sweeping theme-level issues which detract from the experience. On a very personal level I've been one of the holdouts still using some Oxygen components (to the ire of some other VDG members), but I'm finally at a point where I'll use Breeze once I've updated my machines.
The wallpaper sucks though.