KDE Plasma 5.5: The Quintessential 2016 Review

Written by Ken Vermette in Software on 8 January 2016. Page 5 of 9. 75 Comments

Desktop Widgets

There are so many widgets released and updated for Plasma 5 that they cannot be covered in a single point. Great strides have been taken to make widgets more visually consistent and polished compared to Plasma 4, and when comparing the old to the new it's no contest to say which is more appealing.

Application Launchers

There are three launchers bundled with Plasma 5, each with different goals and strengths targeting different use-cases.

From left to right; Kicker, Application Menu, and Dashboard.

The reigning default is the “Kicker” launcher, which is a single-pane tool broken into favourites, applications, computer, history, and leave. It can be searched if you start typing and you pass your cursor over a section as you proceed to select what you want. Kicker has a moderately efficient workflow given the large featureset it supports, but remains on the bulky side, so you'll want to use favourites for faster selection.

After Kicker came an upgrade to the older “Application Menu” launcher. While not strictly “new” the launcher was converted to QML and given several improvements. Along the side is quick access to session options and favourites; these are unlabeled to conserve space. The main widget is composed of traditional menu-based lists with “recent” items at the top and application categories filling out the body. You can optionally show recent contacts you have interacted with as well. At the bottom is a search box, but you can start typing to search immediately without needing to click on it. This launcher is more efficient than Kicker, but in exchange you lose out on the computer section and user display.

Brand new to Plasma is the Dashboard Launcher. Unlike the other launchers this is a full-screen utility which will display everything otherwise available in Kicker. The main advantage of the Dashboard is the fact that it uses the entire screen to display more at once, but compared to Kicker and Application Menu the Dashboard is less polished and a little more chaotic looking with the glut of information it spreads across the screen. Because it does block the screen you cannot drag and drop items to or from the dashboard.

Task Managers

Plasma bundles two task managers and both offer several standard features such as window thumbnails, the ability to pin applications (hiding the launcher while open), and group applications.

The traditional (and aptly named) “Task Manager” doesn't do much more than this, but there's also the “Icons-Only Task Manager” which is now included. It's more compressed than the traditional task manager by showing only icons, and also has some alternative behaviours. When clicking a group of icons it will launch the “present windows” desktop effect if available. The icons-only task manager is directly targeted to users who may migrate from Gnome or Unity who are accustomed to the vertical dock launchers.

When clicked, any entry with 2 or more windows will activate the “present windows” effect. Note the tag on the top entry indicating this.

Other Widgets

There is a new User Switcher widget which is dedicated to managing sessions quickly, which can quickly flick you to other running sessions or user account, including TTY interfaces. It also has controls for logging out, locking the screen, and leaving.

For artists and graphics designers there's a new Colour Picker tool which will store a history of colours pulled from a built-in eyedropper. This tool will also display the colour code on the history palette, and you can select a colour format to display. At the moment it is focused on RGB formats so HSL and CMYK needs are out in the cold, focusing more on digital artists. Clicking on any colour in your history will offer several formats including hexadecimal, CSS-style RGB, and Qt-oriented code snippets which can be copied to your clipboard.

The KMix widget has been replaced with an new Audio Volume widget which hooks into PulseAudio. The new widget is much more visually consistent with the desktop with a set of volume sliders you can access to control various hardware channels along with mouse wheel support to control global volume levels. One downside to this widget I encountered was the fact that the icon may not necessarily show the true volume level if there are multiple volume channels, and I didn't see a clear way to select the master channel to mitigate this. I found this out when testing the media player widget and the unexpectedly loud volume sent my cat flying across the room. Sorry Java, I thought it was muted.

Plasma also has an Activity Pager which offers faster activity switching, treating activities more like virtual desktops and hiding the various controls the full activities manager offers. Unfortunately it doesn't offer any configuration options, making it one of the most bare-bones widgets available, but it makes switching activities far more accessible.

I'm also going to pick on the timer widget a bit, as it controls awkwardly when compared to other widgets. Just about every widget will take some measures to adapt to their positions, such as a widget showing as a button in the dock but expanding its controls when shown outside. Instead, the timer will always show the time left… And nothing else. There's no easy way to adjust the timer aside from using the scroll wheel, it will awkwardly flash certain colours to tell you what state it's in, and there's no buttons to clearly operate it with. This is my first time seeing the widget, and it's just the most broken thing.

Plasma desktop didn't need something like this to make the other widgets look good, but here we are.

There's a new Media Player widget which is absolutely wonderful. It uses a generic media player protocol (MPRIS2) allowing it to communicate with any compatible media application, including non-KDE applications. Visually it looks great offering basic controls and cover art in a pretty sleek package, and was clearly a very thoughtful design in a well-made package.

There are several other widgets including Disk Quota trackers, various system monitors, a few toy widgets, a new Quick Launcher, and others. Quality is quite high across the board (except that timer) and there's a high level of design shown in each specimen.

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