KDE Plasma 5.5: The Quintessential 2016 Review

Written by Ken Vermette in Software on 8 January 2016. Page 4 of 9. 75 Comments

The Desktop

Plasma 5.5 offers a polished environment which is composed of lego-like “Plasmoids” or “widgets” which can be used to assemble a complete desktop. By default Plasma offers a default desktop similar to Microsoft Windows, with a panel on the bottom, a system tray, and a comprehensive launcher - but you are able to radically alter and adapt your desktop to something completely unique, or imitate other environments if you choose.

Widgets & Components

Using Plasma 5 you won't find old offerings like “Eyes” or “Bouncing Ball” widgets which Plasma 4 and older desktops showcased, and generally developers are avoiding “tech demo” features which real users will not use on a daily basis. Plasma 4 users will find that Plasma 5 offers a more comprehensive library of widgets to choose from, though the selection is different in some cases; artists may gain a colour picker while on-the-go laptop users will lose a weather widget, and it's a case of what features you really want. Many widgets are available for download but generally quality will take a bit of a dive once you stray from bundled widgets, and some downloaded widgets do not function at all burying several gems which can be found.

Plasma widget drawer

Plasma 5 has a wider selection of bundled alternative widgets offered in a default installation with several clocks, launchers, and single-purpose widgets joining the fray. By adding so many widgets and alternatives into standard installations, more desktop configurations can be created using stable and regularly updated widgets.

Plasmoids carried over from Plasma 4 sometimes offer a different set of options, such as the calendar, which does not show holidays but lets you zoom between months and years. Features are still being added with some confirmed for 5.6, like holidays. Plasma 5.5 has more functionality than Plasma 4 at this point, but it's dispersed into different and more meaningful areas.

Plasma has always used a lock/unlock mechanism for you to make sure your carefully crafted desktop isn't accidentally muddled, and when unlocked adding widgets is accomplished by a slide out drawer using drag and drop to shuffle things about. Since the beginning of the year the widget drawer has evolved significantly with a two-column layout and previews for almost every widget. Widgets can be filtered by category, and downloaded widgets can be uninstalled.

Plasma has adopted an android-esque long-click to widgets so you may hold your mouse on any part of the widget to drag or show additional options, which can optionally be disabled for an older method which required interaction with a fly-out toolbar. Plasma 4 users will appreciate the undo system available since Plasma 5.2 which gives you a few minutes to recover deleted plasmoids and undo major changes. The Plasma 5 widget drawer also shows what widgets you already have, and how many are in service.

Panels in Plasma 5.5 have seen the least evolution, and are basically unchanged since Plasma 4. Editing panels can still be awkward in some ways, but it works and when finished you typically won't need to make further adjustments. It's not a broken process, but with the evolution of so many other aspects of desktop customisation it does feel comparatively awkward, with things like resizing a panel accomplished by dragging a button.

Stability & Resource Usage

Plasma 5.5 has a reputation for frequent crashes on some systems, in some cases being completely unusable. Historically this has been caused by a combination of bad graphics drivers, old Qt installations, and Plasma 4 leftovers from “dirty upgrades”. Generally users tend to fall into two extremes; those who find Plasma 5 to be rock-solid and those who find it unusable, though the percentage of users in the latter category are rapidly dwindling as updates are issued.

The clipboard tool provides QR codes you can quickly scan.

Plasma 5 is and will remain more sensitive to driver issues with its more thorough use of OpenGL scene graphs, so there's a chance new hardware or buggy drivers could in the future destabilise Plasma 5 again. This isn't expressly a fault of Plasma 5, but when upgrading graphics cards, drivers, or distributions this is a consideration which should be made, especially for gamers who live on the bleeding edge and may be more likely to encounter an unstable driver or untested graphics card.

Plasma is commonly known as the heaviest “bloated” desktop environment available, but this is no longer strictly the case as Plasma 5 has made strides in efficiency, making it more competitive with other full-featured desktop environments like Gnome 3 and Unity. Plasma 5 also takes very little to no CPU when idle. File indexing for search is also extremely lean and unless there's a significant number of files to index, you won't notice when Baloo is scanning your files. For day-to-day usage there's really no appreciable difference between Plasma, Gnome, and Unity in terms of raw performance, and on semi-modern hardware you'll find it's as fast and smooth as anything else. Akonadi does spoil this to a large degree, but if you disable applications which use it Plasma is significantly leaner for low-spec machines.

Some Plasma pop-ups in the system tray do take a noticeable half-second to initially load when first opened, such as the media player applet. Side-by-side seeing things like the older volume applet outperform its newer counterpart in activation times are noticeable, but are equally fast to activate on subsequent clicks until the system unloads them again. This is a result of the widget not being loaded until used, which does invoke that extra delay with QML and its more intense rendering engine building the widget... But this is absolutely a tiny quibble.

The new volume pop-up is cleaner and visually attractive.

Plasma Desktop in 2016 Verdict

Overall Plasma 5.5 still is roughly as efficient as other “full” desktop environments. There is room for some minor parts to be tightened, but they aren't deal breakers for anyone wanting a system that feels performant.

Users from other environments will find that Plasma Shell is incredibly modular, but with that comes some complexity in arranging and managing widgets. It can be a daunting task to reconfigure Plasma to imitate Gnome 3 or Unity but it's equally impressive to know it can be done. You'll also always notice the modular and configurable nature of Plasma in things like context menus when interacting with the desktop, as you will always see entries for tasks like unlocking the desktop or configuring the current component. In regular usage it may never be as “clean” in that regard to more locked down environments which don't need to show configuration details, but the desktop itself is highly polished.

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