Plasma 5.17 review - The show must go on (and be good)

Updated: October 23, 2019

It's happened again. The KDE team has released a new version of their desktop environment. Seemingly a small increment, based on the numbering scheme, it still brings a wealth of changes, improvements and whatnot to the desktop scene. That means there's only one reasonable outcome: some proper testing.

And so I did. I fired up my neon instance sitting cozily in the eight-boot Windows-and-Linux setup on my G50 laptop, let the system run a whole bunch of updates, and an hour later, I had the Plasma 5.17 desktop up and running. Now, let's see how it fares and what it offers. After me.

Teaser

First impressions

The update process proved its resilience once again. As always, doing many things in parallel, I had the process stopped a couple of times, resumed, I did a whole bunch of work and even restarted the Plasma Shell once or twice throughout. Neon chomped through these obstacles without a problem. Of course, this ain't something newbies should be doing, so don't listen to Papa Dedo, but it does prove the nice elegance behind this desktop.

Desktop

About

Visual tweaks

Overall, I like less the more plasticky - or touch-optimized - looks since Plasma 5.16. Not bad, but it feels a little less sharp, somehow. Moreover, the system area icons are too closely spaced, which we will remedy in a dedicated tutorial. Application windows come without borders, something that you won't necessarily notice right away. A fresh little tweak, though. However the desktop itself seems to come with the left and top border frame, but I'm not 100% sure. Looks like it.

Window borders

Windows borders, zoomed

You can also use the Do not disturb mode for notifications - handy when you're presenting or trying to focus, and you happen to be using software that is likely to be twitchy, like messaging clients and such.

Notifications, DND

Endless customization

As always, you can do anything and everything in Plasma. Even hide the desktop toolbox - which lets you add desktop workspaces, widgets, activities and such. Everything can be finely tuned to your taste. This also includes new wallpapers, and new wallpaper options. It's actually quite funny how much variety and flexibility there is around something as seemingly trivial as the desktop background. But yeah, it is important, and it add flair and color.

Desktop toolbox

Wallpaper sources

Wallpaper slideshow

Nice 1

Nice 2

One thing that's just unnecessary - Night Color. This whole thing is another modern buzz, and it serves no ergonomic purpose. However, in the true KDE fashion, at least you have a lot of ways you can configure the night mode, including color temperature, geolocation, and how and when it's activated.

Night color

I didn't like that Dolphin previews folder contents by default, but again, you can change this easily:

Dolphin privacy

Discover

The package manager slash application center has been improved - it's one of the most noticeable elements of Plasma to undergo change in the past years, but it's still somewhat clunky. The super-thin scrollbars that just look wrong, especially in the sidebar. Moreover, in my Kubuntu LTS image, the system warms what type of updates you get, like 40 application updates and 3 security updates. I'm not seeing this anymore in neon, and I have to launch Discover to see the manifest, which feels like a waste of time.

Scrollbars in Discover

Scrollbars in Discover, sidebar

The fact the scrollbar actually goes all the way up, into the search box is really jarring.

Updates available, no details

I want details!

Speaking of package management, oddly, I couldn't find the KDE Partition Manager via command line, but it did show in Discover. Might be just the package naming convention, but this is equally annoying, because I expect simplicity, and that also means meaningful application names. Most of the stuff is just cryptic technobabble today.

More consistency, more speed

Plasma 5.17 aims to offer a better user experience. For most people, this translates into how fast and responsive the desktop is, and how consistent it looks. The new desktop lets you tweak the session to a deeper level than before, and you can even export your current look & feel so that all other screens and session prompts look and behave the same. The same applies to the boot splash screen, the desktop loading splash screen, the lock screen, and the login screen. I used the word screen too many times. Screen.

Login tweaks

One thing that did surprise me was - if you access the advanced options for SDDM, it allows you to enable automatic login, with your desired session of choice. The dropdown preselects Openbox. This must be simply because it's alphabetically superior to Plasma, but otherwise, it makes no sense.

Advanced SDDM settings

But the sync is cool:

SDDM sync

With the boot splash change, it took a while for the change to be applied - probably because it triggers the creation of a new initramfs image. But then, the change didn't take hold, because the boot sequence was controlled by Manjaro, and I haven't updated the bootloader there. So if you're multi-booting, and your Plasma system isn't the default one, you might need to do some extra work to actually see and enjoy the changes you've set.

Boot splash

I also couldn't see any improvement in the time it takes to reach the desktop session, whatsoever. The whole shell scripts, native C++ whatnot doesn't seem to have any effect. I timed how long it takes to get to the fully functional desktop, I did this with two rounds of Plasma updates, bootloader update, I changed the usage of the UUID notation in /etc/fstab to device numbers, to avoid any possibility of a slow boot, and yet, the total boot times remained unchanged. More or less as below:

systemd-analyze
Startup finished in 6.041s (firmware) + 5.167s (loader) + 7.990s (kernel) + 1min 1.927s (userspace) = 1min 21.126s
graphical.target reached after 1min 1.917s in userspace

Stability

And then, I even had a crash! W00t. I've not seen one in Plasma in Kubuntu or neon in quite a while, and all of sudden, here we go. Very naughty. Yes, this is neon Developer Edition, but still. Combine that with no change in the total boot speed, I'm not happy.

Plasma Shell crash

Conclusion

Plasma 5.17 comes with some nice, refreshing changes and subtle improvements. But then, it also introduces some noise - changes that don't really contribute to the overall desktop experience. Discover still has some rather rough edges. There's also the premise of hope that isn't realized. My desktop login speed isn't any faster, although the desktop remains as tight and smooth as ever.

All in all, Plasma 5.17 is a resilient, flexible product. It's pretty and elegant, it's responsive, and it continues the wave of enthusiastic development that's been around for the past few years. The only thing is, the formula is almost perfect, so adding any further changes now carries the risk of spoiling it. Indeed, some of the latest introductions aren't that spectacular. I'd say the focus should be on connectivity, and making sure everything works tightly and smoothly, and then slowly adding layers of finesse that would make this desktop even more appealing and accessible to newbies. Because let's face it, as brilliant as Plasma is, Linux remains a dark, hostile territory to most Windows users. But if there's one Linux desktop that could make them switch, this is it. We're done, off you go testing and exploring.

Cheers.

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