Updated: June 26, 2019
One of the fundamental states of matter is having a good desktop environment on which you can do all manner of work and entertainment. In 2019, the list of adequate choices for this complicated task is quite narrow, and soon to get narrower, with the demise of Windows 7 in a few months (or years, if you will). But that may not necessarily be a totally bad thing, because there's Plasma.
I've been using KDE in a serious, production-capacity fashion for a while now, and I'm quite happy. Which means every few months, I get to sample the new ideas and concepts being introduced into this desktop environment, alongside various ergonomic improvements and fixes. The KDE folks have been hard at work making Plasma as good and smooth and professional as possible, and release after solid release, this is exactly what's been happening. The things are steadily getting better. Time to check version 5.16, then. Let us.
To get the latest edition installed, I fired up my Lenovo G50 laptop, which runs KDE neon as part of its eight-boot collection. Inside the distro, I created a new user - for which purpose you will discover in a different article, and ran the upgrade in parallel.
Like the last time, I was quite aggressive, and I put the laptop to sleep once, and later on rebooted the machine in the middle of the update cycle. Typically, this is not something one should do, but I did, and everything was peachy. KDE neon is very robust, and it managed to soldier on without any problems. The upgrade took about one hour, faster than the last time.
Good things keep falling on my head
Plasma 5.16 is essentially much like its predecessor, which I found quite solid - but then, there are some differences. First, the most obvious one is the use of a brand-new, community-made wallpaper, which you will see if you're using the stock background (it will change upon upgrade). But there's also a subtle change in the overall look & feel, with slightly larger and somewhat flatter interface elements, like buttons. This creates a potentially more modern appeal, but it takes away from some of the classic sharpness that Plasma has.
I'm not sure if I like this - undecided. It's not ugly but it does feel a little gimmicky. These aren't massive changes, and most people will probably miss them. However, if you're a keen observer, you will see them. I still need to figure out how this works on larger, higher-resolution screens. Something to contemplate and wonder about in the coming weeks.
But other than that, I found Plasma 5.16 to be predictably solid and interesting. You get new notifications, visually polished up widgets and panels, better consistency when using different themes, and more intuitive controls. Notifications wise, you now have a level bar counter that lets you know for how long the popup will linger, and you get notification grouping. Some visual work is still needed, as the applet feels a bit crowded, and the scrollbars are too close to the actual notification content.
When you copy files, the copy dialog is much more readable than before. It's just the new layout that's bothering me ever so slightly. I understand that the change leads to higher legibility, but it also dances dangerously close to what Microsoft did with Windows 10, which can feel toyish. On the other hand, this could be quite clever, as it will seem friendly and more familiar to Windows users, and if they come, flock they shall, or something.
Look & feel
I also found out that the workspace and desktop customization has changed. Previously, these two were bundled together, but now they are separate. It actually makes sense, but the veteran users may take a little while figuring out the new hierarchy.
However, I do like that you can now find themes and desktop addons directly inside Discover, and this whole thing leads to a much more consistent and unified experience. All in all, Plasma is getting better and more intuitive all the time, which isn't a trivial thing to achieve with a super-customizable desktop, and yet it is happening. Plus, it is so much easier to customize the window decorations and titlebar buttons now.
I am also quite happy that Plasma now uses Super + L and Super + D shortcuts - they are very familiar to Windows users (at least those happy using their keyboard for some of these admin tasks), and it's something I've done - and written about - in the course of my long adventure with the Slimbook Pro2 laptop. Small things. Important things.
KDE's native software manager has also improved. It's faster, more responsive, the messages make sense. Overall, it works and behaves well - a far cry from the mess it was only a couple of years ago. I've started using it more and more rather than ignoring it and going for an apt-get experience. The scrollbars still bother me. They simply intrude in a rather weird way, especially in the side panel. Needs rework.
Important fixes here, too - and some new bugses. The icon is different - I liked the old one to be frank. Then, while the program is better integrated with the system (including privacy improvements), I wasn't able to unmount vaults through Dolphin, something that should be possible. Well, if the right-click option is there, it ought to work, but it didn't.
Of course, Plasma remains as tight as a tiger. If anything, Plasma 5.16 is ever so slightly sprightlier than the previous edition. Seems impossible, and yet, there it is. Very nimble and elegant. CPU usage stood at about 1% on idle, and memory consumption after boot was about 460 MB. The numbers are similar to what we've seen in the past.
Within only a few hours of using the system, I had a fresh batch of updates, almost 400 packages. The main reason is that I'm using the Developer Edition (Stable), so the changes and fixes happen much more frequently. But again, this new batch of packages installed quickly and reliably.
Plasma 5.16 is almost a boring release, in that it is predictable, stable, robust, a continuation of an excellent line of desktops that are fun, elegant and smart to run and use. But this is exactly what you want from a tool you use everyday. Excitement is only good in small doses. You want something solid for real work, and Plasma definitely nails it in general, and with its 5.16 guise in particular.
The volume of changes and new features isn't massive, but it is still delivered with flair, plus stability, plus improvements. There were a few small issues here and there, and some things warrant visual polish while others require philosophical introspection vis-a-vis taste and appeal, but these are relatively small, innocent niggles. The Plasma desktop is definitely making great strides, and if you want to explore the latest and greatest, grab yourself KDE neon, and start enjoying.