KDE Neon: The Rock & Roll Distribution
Written by Ken Vermette in Software on 20 June 2016. Page 2 of 2. 74 Comments

Wayland Session

The next step was installing the plasma-workspace-wayland and seeing how neon operates with Plasma 5.6 on Wayland.

Better, but not ready.

Compared to Plasma 5.5, Wayland is in better shape and is somewhat usable for simple tasks. Unfortunately as a session continues you will notice more cracks in the presentation until it becomes obvious it’s still a fragile mess. You can easily provoke Plasma into crashing, swapping out alternative launchers being one example. There’s also the odd moment where windows seem incorrectly placed, such as advanced tooltips which had a habit of appearing in the corner - rather than under the mouse. The task manager remains useless. Opening VLC failed when video did not embed into the player, and an odd flicker prevented any kind of interaction. Finally, there are issues with shadows, making them appear as black rectangles.

Despite these negatives, several aggravating issues present in 5.5 are simply gone. The mouse-cursor no longer seems to warp around frequently, and in almost every interaction the correct cursor is displayed. A lot of “less noticeable” fixes are present, and more in general works.

Overall there are several gotchas which don’t make it appropriate for daily usage as of Plasma 5.6; but you could tolerate it if you felt daring for short bursts.

Developer Edition - Unstable

With the user edition working well I decided to shake things up and give the developer edition (unstable) a spin. The unstable developer version will land you with the in-progress Plasma 5.7 (currently numbered as 5.6.90), where developers are furiously adding features & fixes. Running the unstable version comes with the reality that updates could bring severe regressions to various Plasma and application components as developers actively commit untested updates.

For a developer-centric edition, one of the first things I found odd was that development software was not included with the rather minimal application base. I don’t know how worthwhile it might be, but adding an extra step unique to the developer edition installer allowing you to add dev packages and fetching IDEs would have been quite nice. QtCreator, the big-daddy IDE of the Qt community refused to install from the repository due to package issues... It seems the one thing I won’t be doing with the developer edition is development.

Wayland on Developers Edition

KDE neon Developer Edition comes with bleeding-edge Plasma/Kwin which will land in 5.7, so I decided to see how Wayland would fare. Remember that time I ripped on how Plasma 5.6 with Wayland isn’t ready? Literally four paragraphs ago? As of Plasma 5.7 (again, 5.6.90) it’s getting real hard to tell Wayland and X apart.

Several bugs present in 5.6 are gone; certain shadows no longer become oddly solid, Plasma hasn’t crashed in spite of my most thoughtful attempts, and the task manager works to a satisfactory degree. The VLC issue I mentioned? Gone. Even effects like resizing “Wobbly Windows” is silky smooth. I’ve never seen that before.

There are still bugs.

It’s still not perfect though and you can spot issues, though not anything I would call a “show-stopper” for more regular Wayland usage if you are willing to accept rough edges;

Certain tooltip windows are incorrectly placed and steal window focus. Resizing some wobbly windows doesn’t wobble. Sometimes icons don’t show up in the task manager. Transitioning from the login screen to the desktop wasn’t smooth. Some issues like embedded windows in the System Settings application sticking out, are questionable if you’re looking at a Wayland issue or a System Settings issue.

Those bugs aren’t deal-breakers.

I’m finding nothing that would stymie an early adopter from dogfooding Wayland as a daily driver, and some of these complaints are becoming incredibly nitpicky. “Some windows not wobbling on resize” is not exactly what I would call a deal-breaker. Resizing System Settings to fit its contents didn’t ruin me. About the worst issues were with the new task manager, which is totally new and receiving huge amounts of attention - I wouldn’t be surprised if these issues were mostly fixed already.

All that being said, this is only basic usage on a single-screen laptop. I haven’t tested games or applications which manipulate the mouse in any way, multiple screens, or much else. You’ll want to test your applications thoroughly to ensure they will work, especially if they are using exotic input mechanisms or use embedding.

Since KDE neon updates the moment KDE software is released, this guarantees Plasma 5.7 will land for neon users a few short hours after the release. At that point I genuinely question if I’ll be using X11 on my laptop. Switching back to X after using such a functional Wayland session makes all the tearing and flickers of the ancient beast seem so much more painful.

The elephant in the room

We can’t talk about Neon without acknowledging that Kubuntu is already offering an Ubuntu base, both feeling very similar having fresh LTS releases, and Kubuntu having received Plasma 5.6 via the backports PPA. Every Kubuntu LTS release from this point forward will likely result in some planetary alignment where both distributions will feel extremely similar, and it’s at about this point I imagine most users will be likely to migrate between the two if choosing fresh installations. They will also differ the most towards the end of the LTS lifecycle, where Plasma and applications will be several generations ahead on neon.

Kubuntu will remain handy for business use

Odds are, corporate or business users will likely stick with Kubuntu. Stability means something very different to businesses who are allergic to change, where they are more concerned for users needing features exactly as-is. Kubuntu LTS releases will stick with more outdated versions of Plasma and friends, so their users will know what to expect.

Kubuntu seemingly has no answer to the update issue

Outside of very specific use-cases neon really hits Kubuntu exactly where it hurts hardest: updates. In the early days Canonical set Ubuntus cadence to a Gnome-centric schedule, which simply doesn’t align with the KDE/Plasma release cycles. This always put Kubuntu at a disadvantage as users would be a version or two behind on their software unless they installed backports - which could still lag behind for months.

Ubuntu also typically packages older versions of Qt, the software which drives Plasma and KDE applications. Plasma requires the latest or near-latest version of Qt, running poorly on older versions or sometimes becoming unusable. This puts Kubuntu in a tight spot; if they track the latest Qt they might run afoul of the Ubuntu-side, while tracking older versions of Qt would result in a less stable desktop. Ultimately they followed the Ubuntu-provided version of Qt, making Plasma almost a second-class citizen on its own variant distribution. Neon sidesteps all these issues entirely by packaging the version of Qt appropriate for that version of Plasma - usually the latest - meaning compared to Kubuntu neon will likely offer a more stable experience at any given time.

All this means Kubuntu users tend to be stuck on older less stable versions of Plasma, compounded by unsuitable versions of Qt. Somehow it works, but after using neon it becomes apparent that it doesn’t work nearly as well as it should.

Plasma moves very quickly, and neon exploits that to the hilt. If you are a Plasma user on Kubuntu, neon really will make you ask just how attached you really are. Beyond the more direct access to Canonical infrastructure Kubuntu enjoys, it’s hard finding reasons not to ditch it for neon.

Conclusion

KDE neon is coming out of the gate with a very strong showing. It’s not flawless by any means, but for a desktop which didn’t technically exist until recently it’s an impressive feat. The developers expertly handled the technical preview and you can see the care and attention given to addressing feedback and ensuring it would be applied to the penultimate result.

The bad

The main cons behind the system mainly revolve around the fact that several package archive management facilities are not included by default, making it just a little bit harder than it needs to be when adding 3rd party repositories. While I could install things like proprietary drivers with some elbow-grease, I didn’t see an easy way to do this through the UI.

Because of this, I do need to say I feel like I’ve been slightly cut off from the strong Ubuntu infrastructure somewhat. This could simply be a mental block from a squeamish long-time Kubuntu user who has very rarely strayed away from official Canonical offerings.

I was disappointed that the developer edition didn’t include more developer-centric packages, applications, or even just installer options. I also had an issue where an attempt to install the Qt Creator IDE failed because of several package conflicts - this was a sore strike in my books for an edition aimed at developers, not being able to install a key development tool using system packages.

The different

Depending on who you ask, the lean application base could either be a pro or a con. Purists who don’t want any extra fat on their systems will love the spartan application rollout. On the other hand users expecting an OS which is complete for most day-to-day tasks will find they need to install numerous applications on a fresh installation, possibly needing a mental checklist to ensure they have it all. For travellers sticking neon onto a laptop, you'll want to ensure you are prepared with the applications you need - or check to see if you'll have internet access to install anything you missed.

The applications bundled also feel a bit weird. VLC media player, while great, seems like killing a mosquito with a cannon. Imagemagick feels out-of-place. Finally, while every other distribution and their fork uses Firefox, I was disappointed to see Qupzilla did not showcase what an excellent Qt-based browser could so. These decisions have justifications either way, and I wouldn’t call any of them good or bad - just unexpected.

The great

KDE neon feels amazing. There’s simply no other way to say it. Despite the fact that it’s still using an Ubuntu base, this is the first distribution which is successfully luring me away from purely Canonical offerings.

Neon is fast and resource-friendly, and one of the first serious distributions which I think shows Plasma as the highly optimised environment it is. You could argue that’s because a huge number of applications and services were dumped from the default installation, but as I’ve said before this is because the applications haven’t progressed nearly as quickly as the desktop, not making the same strides in efficiency. The services and applications you need can always be added, and you’ll use the resources they need by doing so, but if you don’t use them you won’t pay for them in performance.

I’m genuinely interested to see how neon fares on lower-end machines.

Neon isn’t a purist distribution either; despite coming from the KDE community, it doesn’t mind preloading non-KDE applications. Neon also allows you to install Gnome/GTK applications, and doesn’t attempt to wall-off non-Qt products. It really does just aim for a good experience, even if that experience isn’t strictly KDE.

Recommendations & final thoughts

KDE neon is an excellent system with a bright future, but it’s also a very young system and it has a couple minor rough edges.

Early adopters of new systems or consumers of cutting-edge software will find significant value in neon. Users who prefer to make their own application choices - even if it’s a little extra effort - will appreciate the slimmer application footprint.

Users who need to use lots of PPAs from Canonical and friends may want to take a more cautious approach, and ensure they can easily add them and install applications or updates from a PPA before making the dive. Without directly managing your PPA file, it’s much harder to see what’s on your system. This is one area where neon is a bit messy.

Since its announcement, other distributions have also created similarly structured variants built on their own flavours. OpenSUSE Tumbleweed has created two variants named “Argon” and “Krypton” which follow the same themes of stable cores and rolling direct-from-repository environments.

For users who need PPA-based software, I recommend neon only if you have passable knowledge about adding PPAs the old-fashioned way. As neon is LTS-based, it will be a long time before you need to consider setting up everything from a fresh installation, so this isn’t something you’ll need to worry about often.

Neon is a fine new distribution which really showcases what a clean and unfettered vision of Plasma can look like. If you’re a distro-hopper who likes Plasma, neon should be your next stop. I highly recommend neon to all Kubuntu users, or users who want a debian-based KDE experience; neon feels like the fix to Kubuntu’s frustrating update cycle. If you are a Suse fan, Argon, and Krypton will likely prove interesting if Debian/Ubuntu bases don’t interest you. Anyone just looking for a solid Plasma experience will find that neon has come out as one of the top KDE-oriented distributions.

Editor's Note: Ken asks that if you found this review helpful and wish to consider supporting the work done by KDE/Neon, consider making a donation to KDE.org.

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