KDE Neon: The Rock & Roll Distribution
What does it mean when developers behind one of the world's most popular desktop environments decide to jump into the deep end and fork a distribution? Depending on who you ask you’ll hear madness, excellence, confusion, and excitement as onlookers figure out the exact nature of a new breed of beast and guess what it will do.
KDE neon is a new distribution freshly forked from Ubuntu being driven by prominent KDE contributors and figures. When initially announced some mixed messages marred the event, but since then the project has found its footing and expectations are seemingly being set...
Neon is entirely unique as a product produced by a community which always made generalist software; Plasma and KDE software is offered by Suse, Red Hat, Arch, Slack, any distribution you can name. Neon is in direct competition with those systems, and several people decried this new distribution as opening the potential for favouritism.
The message from Jonathan Riddell, the project lead, is loud and clear: neon is one of many KDE projects, one of many distributions offering KDE software, one of many solutions. Neon is “one of many” in every respect, and the creation of this one project does not mean the neglect of the many others.
“One of many” is a bit of a lie though; there’s actually two main variants of neon; a user edition and a developers edition. The aim of the project as a whole is to start on a rock-solid Ubuntu LTS base while having the toolkit, frameworks, desktop, and applications roll with rapid updates by pulling and building them directly from the KDE release chain. Both editions are 64-bit only.
This break-neck pace means that developers using neon will get updates within hours of a commit, while users will get upgrades within hours of a release. This fits the KDE-oriented release cycle well as Plasma, Applications, and Frameworks release at more frequent intervals than most non-rolling distributions.
The user edition will wait for officially released software packages to consume, which are tested and should prove stable and pleasant to use. The developer edition will build and release software before it has been released, with a further “stable” and “unstable” option available for download. Users looking for a daily driver will want to stick with the user edition which is safe; testers and developers needing to see what’s in the pipes will want the more unstable developers edition.
At the time of writing this review the KDE neon User Edition had officially been released just a couple days ago, trailing behind the official release of the Developers Edition by some months. I downloaded and installed neon once in May during the tech preview, and again today to see the state of a fresh release ISO, barely an hour old, and finally the unstable developer version.
For full disclosure, while bias is being avoided, this review is written by a member of the KDE VDG. The views and opinions expressed in this article are soley those of the author. This article does not represent the opinions or views of the KDE VDG, the KDE community, or any member or project therein.
Getting the ISO onto a USB key, the Ubuntu roots of neon become apparent when you fire up the Ubiquity installer. Aside from a water and surfing themed brand overhaul of the installation slideshow, it’s a very standard *buntu installation process. This is mildly interesting as KDE folks are pushing Calamares for other distributions, but neon has not adopted it. This may be a case of “don’t fix what isn’t broken”, or a more temporary arrangement, but this does bring up an important point; KDE neon is not vanilla, and it’s not even using exclusively KDE software. More on this later.
Originally I did try to install neon mid-May, running into a nasty installer bug which stopped the system from completing an installation. While this had a workaround and was fixed, it is about the only hiccup I can report. If I had of downloaded my ISO just a few hours later, I wouldn’t have had any problem at all; a very responsive turnaround time to issues. This happened during the “tech-preview” phase of neons’ release while developers were actively advertising known issues which they cleaned out.
The installation of the newly released ISO went smoothly without an issue. Just like other systems using the Unity installer, you fill out forms as the installer chugs away copying files, updating, and configuring. This process goes very quickly, and you can reboot to a ready installation in under 15 minutes.
User Edition First Impression
The very first two things you’ll notice about KDE neon is that it’s unexpectedly fast, and surprisingly spartan. Neon does in fact offer up-to-date KDE applications, but the neon team has chosen not to install a great deal of them by default. The expectation is that users will install what they want, instead of the shotgun approach most distributions take when they load several dozen applications alongside plasma.
When I first tested neon in May I assumed the neon team was waiting for applications to be built in order to add the usual comprehensive suite, as at that point there was very few applications provided. While several applications were swapped around it seems like the minimal approach will be the status quo. The typical neon installation includes Firefox, Gwenview, VLC media player, Discover, and several utilities. You won’t find the likes of Libreoffice, GIMP, log viewers, or even disc burning software preinstalled. The line on this is that the installed applications present the bare minimum of what all users require, and that anything else is considered “extra”.
This approach is very clean; instead of uninstalling things or deciding to live with it, you skip to getting the software you desire. It’s pleasant knowing that many of the same developers who work on KDE applications managed to resist the urge of shoving their work into a distribution under their control; I would have called the exact opposite thinking neon would be a shmorgishborg overflowing with every app the developers wanted to show off.
Some odd choices.
I do find three odd choices which stand out though; the inclusion of Firefox,VLC, and Imagemagick.
Firefox is understandable, many people use it and almost reflexively install it, but it’s a pity to see that a Qt-based browser such as Qupzilla - which is quite good - not being showcased, especially since it has all the features required for common browsing.
The other application is VLC media player which was chosen over Dragonplayer; VLC is an excellent media player, but it’s also the most complicated media player available, with even it’s most basic settings being beyond most users.
ImageMagick was also installed, and for a distribution being so lean in so many places I don’t entirely understand if the inclusion was intentional, as Imagemagick display stuck out like a sore thumb.
Services are included. PPA tools, not so much.
Various service-oriented packages are installed, such as KDE Connect, so you can trust that connecting your phone or tablet will work properly. This is good since it’s things which you may not know you can look for, but won’t notice if you don’t use. Generally speaking, if it was a useful background utility which didn’t impose too much weight, it is seemingly included.
One thing you won’t be installing easily are PPAs, such as proprietary graphics. As a matter of fact, it seems that PPA management is entirely omitted. You can easily re-add it by installing a package named “software-properties-common”, and from there it seems to successfully add PPAs from the command-line again. You could also manually edit the PPA file. If you are the type of user who uses many PPAs for various reasons and expects a user-interface to do it, or expects several Ubuntu PPAs not included in neon, you’ll either want to stick with *buntu brand systems, or be ready to get your hands dirty getting package archives running on your system.
All testing was done on an Asus K550L laptop, the same as the Plasma 5.5 Review posted in January. Included is an Intel i54200-U dual-core 1.6GHz processor with integrated (Haswell) graphics, and 6GB RAM. Installation was done via USB pen drives.
The boot process was fast, barely giving you time to see the unified GRUB and splash themes. Plasma itself had no performance issues or slowdowns. I had seen reports of a shutdown issue where turning off a machine might take an extra couple minutes, but this has either been fixed or did not affect my machine. For such a new distribution, there are few issues like this.
On a fresh boot you can expect neon to take about 320-350Mb of RAM, though it will consume more as you begin using services and using various parts of the desktop. CPU usage is negligible, and Intel graphics had no problem offering all the accelerated effects of the desktop.