Updated: February 21, 2018
Several days ago, I published a long and detailed review of Plasma 5.12, the new KDE LTS release. It was a very decent experience. Now, Plasma still packs a lot of issues and has some cardinal functionality problems, mostly with network shares and smartphones, but it's a very polished, smart and elegant desktop environment, and the next five years of KDE will have a pretty solid foundation.
But then, the KDE quality does vary between distributions. Kubuntu Aardvark is one example, my last review of KDE neon another. Which is why we must embark on another neon testing journey, off the back of my Plasma test. Some of the stuff will be similar, but now, I will be judging those from the context of an operating system, and the user perspective rather than just looking at the desktop environment in isolation. In other words, if you fancy Plasma, should you neon? After me.
Setup and whatnot
I spent a limited amount of time in the live session. But the findings I have from the Plasma 5.12 review hold. You get some text intruding into the boot sequence, the super-annoying double prompt for Wireless password, Samba copy timestamp bug, screenshots have shadows, and a few other cosmetic glitches. The biggest issue with these is that I've already mentioned them a million times, and they ought to be fixed. Hint, they are being fixed, at a stellar WARP 9 speed, so great job there.
The installation was relatively painless, despite the fact I have a fairly complex EFI/GPT multi-boot configuration with eight operating systems, a mix of Windows and Linux on the Lenovo G50 machine. The partition discovery setup was long, the slides pretty, the progress bar accurate, the GRUB setup fast, in contrast to most previous Ubuntu-based installations. I reused an existing home directory, created another user in order to compare the two, and finally also upgraded the stable version of Plasma (neon User Edition) to stable dev. I later performed another installation with the dev release directly, and finally, a lot of the bugs and issues that I mentioned here have already been or are being addresses, so think carefully before you fire.
KDE neon is a pretty thing. Consistent, stylish, well-thought out. You get a lot of flexibility in customizing the desktop to your liking, but this is a Plasma thing, and not unique to neon. That said, you still get a bunch of ghosts in the system addons, be they icons or themes or decorations. One gallon of bleach please, for this ought to be cleaned up, so that only relevant and compatible content shows, otherwise it severely mars the professional approach. If you yearn for more info, take a look at the Plasma 5.12 review please.
Average. The defaults just aren't good enough as they ought to be. You will actually need to tweak the anti-aliasing settings (RGB, slight hinting) to see an improvement. The font color remains problematic still, though it's better than before, and the size is too small for eyes that are pushing into the third decade of life. Developers need to remember they are actually a minority - and often NOT the intended target audience. We will talk about this - AGAIN - very soon, including some practical suggestions on how to nail the one font to rule them all.
Wireless worked without issues - the Realtek woes are long behind us, and it took only 2.5 years from the moment I bought the laptop to actually see it fixed, cue in irony or sarcasm or cynicism. The thing is, if you do it well, you can never tell them apart. Printing to Samba shares, nyet, fail, Wireless printer, yup. Samba timestamps, as we mentioned.
KDE neon ships lean and mean, hence VLC and that's it. But then, it played my songs fine, including titles from supported smartphones. The same with HD video. Samba playback remained tricky. I also did some testing with VLC 3.0 daily build from a PPA and managed to temporarily destroy my package manager, but that's a story for another day. Yes, I know, VLC has been officially released, and a review is coming soon, but when I did my testing, it was what it was.
Alas, not as good as I hoped. The iPhone support is bad. Windows Phone and Android worked fine.
Package management & updates
Discover is still a joke. The program has so many issues it's ridiculous. No ratings or screenshots for displayed applications, you need to click to see reviews (why), the UI has all sorts of glitches, repo management remains clunky, and worst of all, you get discrepancies in search results compared to the command line. Avoid. If you stick with apt-get, you ought to be fine.
The default set is very slim, especially consider the media download size - 1.8 GB. You get Firefox, Okular, VLC, GwenView, and little else besides. Not even an office suite. I had to download LibreOffice, GIMP, Steam, Skype, and a few other programs. A matter of minutes and megabytes.
I spent a little bit of time playing - icons, themes and such. Nice and sweet. A combo of adapta and Papirus on top of Breeze, works like a charm. Top that with beautiful notifications, music integration, music notifications on the lock screen, and other bells and whistles, and you have yourself a pretty desktop.
A mixed bag. KDE neon did not prompt or offer any proprietary drivers, and Intel firmware seems like a reasonable request, especially in the age of Meltdown and Spectre and all them shenanigans. The web camera seems to be broken. The video is blank, but if you take screenshots, you do actually see your face. Suspend & resume worked fine. Fn buttons, all good.
Say what you will about Plasma, but it has gone on a diet recently, and it excels when it comes to performance and responsiveness. Mind, nothing beats the Xfce-powered MX-17 Horizon, but this is a close second. Sprightly, fast, slim, nimble, quick. Very cool. On idle, memory usage is only about 400 MB and the CPU ticks at just 1-2%. Wunderbar.
If we take into consideration the battery is currently rated at 82% capacity, the time of almost three hours with the battery at 80% (of its available chemicals) and 50% brightness is pretty decent. This translates to about four hours and change on a full charge and a brand new battery. Very neat overall. Among the better results we had on this particular laptop.
Other issues & observations
There were a few other problems. Most notably, accessibility tools are missing and/or are misconfigured, which is not what I'd expect from a modern distro. This is simply something that cannot be omitted, and realizing how little focus there is on this, I'm gonna start testing this more and more.
So. KDE neon 5.12 is a reasonable distro. It is MUCH better than Kubuntu Aardvark but not as sweet as my 2017 favorite, Zesty Zebra. That said, it had none of the horrible problems that I saw in the 17.10 release. It's fast, there were no real errors, you get multimedia playback out of the box, reasonable smartphone and network support, and the bleeding edge of what Plasma can deliver.
On the other hand, there are some really life-sapping annoyances in the system, which do not belong in year 2018, or even 2008 for that matter. Better hardware support is needed. The decorations need a cleanup. The software arsenal is thin. Discover needs a miracle. Overall, neon behaves like a developer-focused system, and it has that rough, test-commit feel about it. It does try to balance the best of all worlds - an LTS base combined with the latest Plasma, but that's no excuse for sloppy work or bugs.
It can do better, and we have the most splendid Kubuntu 17.04 as the golden benchmark from now on until the end of times, we few, we happy few, we band of geeks, for he who tests with me together, shall be my code brother, may his git ne'er be so vile, and the persons of all genders now in bed shall feel themselves accursed, and hold their VR sets cheap ... I think you get the idea. I got carried away. Let's summarize. KDE neon 5.12, fresh, cool, sleek, needs more apps, better package management, better overall peripheral support. But there's a lot of potential and hope, and I think we will see cool things in Plasma this year. 7.5/10. Worth checking.