KDE Plasma 5.5: The Quintessential 2016 Review
Today much more than a decade ago our phones and tablets have become an extension of our computing experience, and Linux desktops have had a difficult time when vendors only gave weak lip-service to open-source support, making some of our most powerful tools some of the most painful. Maybe your music player could sync, if you were lucky you could transfer some files, but chances were slim that anything meaningful could be done without getting your hands very dirty, and even then different devices could present radically different challenges.
The Killer Feature
About a year ago Plasma put KDE Connect on the table as a serious contender for your device connection needs, and today this killer tool is standard and easily available for people with Android devices or devices compatible with Android applications such as Blackberry, though iPhone users will be out in the cold. KDE connect is now included with Plasma, but you can also run it on other platforms such as Gnome, Unity, and Elementary.
The tool doesn't talk directly with a device's native protocols and requires an app to be installed on the device. Once you have the app everything is joined over wifi via an incredibly simple pairing process, and devices will automatically be paired whenever you are connected to the network. Paired devices get a host of features that offer deep and meaningful integration which goes both ways.
File transfer is an obvious staple and using KDE Connect Dolphin will show you your phones' contents. Unlike older methods of file transfers there's no storage unmounting required and you can continue using your phone as usual. There's no limit on what file types you can transfer or where you can put them, unlike MTP which can make transferring anything other than music or photos impossible depending on your device. You can also "share" content from your phone through KDE connect such as one-off photos without using complex applications, and by default they'll just appear in your downloads folder.
KDE Connect also features a media remote which allows you to control compatible music players, such as Juk or Amarok. It works flawlessly and from anywhere in your wifi range you can adjust volume, scrub the track, play, pause, and skip songs. KDE Connect is also clever with this remote and will pause media on your computer when you receive a phone call, a feature you'll wonder how you lived without. This little touch is really nice because you don't need to scramble to mute a booming computer while answering the phone. KDE Connect doesn't support playlists, so you can't see your current playlist or switch playlists from remote machines. This is also a one-way feature, and you cannot control what a phone or tablet is playing via a computer, which is a downer for people who dock their devices on speakers.
Beyond these features, there's a larger grab-bag of functionality included; it will sync device notifications, you can see incoming messages arrive on your computer, send pings, and even use your phone as an impromptu touchpad and keyboard. On your desktop many of these features appear as a tray item which will also serve up battery information. Finally, it will also sync your clipboard so you can do things like copy a web address on your computer then paste it on your phone.
With a glut of utilities included it could be seen as a bit invasive or concerning for some - especially if you have several family members with access to a connected machine. Thankfully there's a settings area where you can configure what devices have access to which features. Both phones and computers can choose what services they will offer and receive independently, and they can have unique permissions for every device they connect to. For Plasma Desktop you will find options for connected devices in your System Settings under "Hardware". Despite this well-thought of permission system there's no passwords or codes required to reconfigure what is available, so someone could gain unwanted access if both devices haven't disabled any offending features. Allowing users to optionally set a password or PIN for extra protection would make this system feel much more secure, and it might be a good idea for KDE Connect to send notifications to affected devices when permissions are being toggled elsewhere, but for single users the current solution works well.
It's not wrong for two computers to love!
Despite being targeted for phone-to-computer connections, KDE Connect can pair any two devices including traditional computers and laptops running Plasma. The features between two computers aren't at parity with phone-to-pc connections with some utilities like media controls being non-functional, and paired computers will spit out errors if you try to perform unsupported actions if you try them, as they don't seem to know some things won't work but still present the options. Other features like clipboard and file sharing work well and feels almost magic. During my testing I paired my main computer with my testing laptop and copied web addresses, files, and commands between so seamlessly it felt almost as if I were using one device.
In an office environment KDE Connect has a niche it can occupy for small businesses, and in a network with several machines KDE Connect is proving to be a useful tool for streamlining the passing of documents and files. Windows and OSX support is the missing piece here.
KDE Connect in 2016 verdict
With such a great piece of software, it's one of those things where you have a wishlist of features you want to add because it's already doing so well. I'd really like to see KDE Connect eventually branch out to systems including Windows, iOS, and OSX. I'd like to see is the single file sharing tool allow you to set where transferred documents, images, and media are saved; if I send myself a document, I'd like to put it in my documents folder.
As it stands now if you have an Android device or multiple computers with KDE Connect you are doing a harmful disservice to yourself every second you aren't using this feature. The only downside is the hopeless addiction you'll face once you use it. KDE Connect has a very bright future, and with its plugin-oriented design you can expect it to further intertwine your devices. Plasma as a technology is aiming to make devices convergent, but until the day you can plug in your phone as a full desktop computer this is the closest you can get to device singularity.