Updated: February 17, 2020
Here we go. The KDE team has released the latest version of Plasma, numbered 5.18. This also happens to be a Long Term Support (LTS) release, which in Plasma parlance means two years of support. Since I'm an avid user, and even have Plasma deployed in my production setup via Kubuntu 18.04 running on a Slimbook Pro2, it's time to set scopes on the future, and see what gives.
I did my testing on Lenovo G50, which happens to be my hardware scapegoat de jour. Also, I have KDE neon installed there, Developer Edition (Stable), so I get to see all the little changes and fixes and whatnot almost as soon as they are introduced. This means I had a chance to sample Plasma 5.18 since the earliest build, and now that we have the official release, I must share me experience. Avanti.
This may not interest you much, but I had a lot of problems with the pre-stable versions of 5.18. More than once, there were broken packages left and right, which left the system in an inconsistent state, and I had to do a lot of manual cleaning. Then, one of the updates undid the Breeze Dark theme, in that the panel was suddenly transparent, and would not show the right colors. This was fixed soon thereafter. I've not really encountered these issues with previous Plasma releases.
Starting pkgProblemResolver with broken count: 1
Starting 2 pkgProblemResolver with broken count: 1
Investigating (0) libkuserfeedbackcore1:amd64 < none -> 1.0.0+p18.04+git20200206.1148-0 @un uN Ib >
Broken libkuserfeedbackcore1:amd64 Breaks on libkuserfeedbackcore0:amd64 < 0.9.90+p18.04+git20200125.0032-0 @ii mK IPb >
Considering libkuserfeedbackcore0:amd64 -3 as a solution to libkuserfeedbackcore1:amd64 10
Added libkuserfeedbackcore0:amd64 to the remove list
Fixing libkuserfeedbackcore1:amd64 via remove of libkuserfeedbackcore0:amd64
Also, System Settings would not launch at some point, due to:
systemsettings5: symbol lookup error: /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/qt5/plugins/kf5/kirigami/org.kde.desktop.so: undefined symbol: _ZN8Kirigami13PlatformTheme24setActiveBackgroundColorERK6QColor
The fix was to actually delete this file. Go figure.
So what's new?
Overall, Plasma 5.18 shifts a little away from the over-plasticky stuff we've seen in the 5.16 release back to a bit more mature look. The notifications are cleaner. The panel no longer has the menu on the far right, which feels tidier, but then, you need to add a spacer because the clock widget is too close to the workspace edge. Similarly, the system area is too crowded, and I had to use a manual trick to increase the distance between the icons.
If you want to edit the panel, then just right-click > Edit panel. The interface is now somewhat different - most notably, you have the controls at the top center of the screen, too. This new layout replaces the desktop menu, which used to be shown in either top left or right corner, and allowed you to access Activities, Widgets, and a bunch of other settings. Once you're done editing the panel, the top element won't go away. So it's two clicks rather than one. Perhaps there's a perma-toggle somewhere, but I've not found it. Leaving the extra configure toolbar floating is not an option, because it conflicts with the use of Krunner. Some more work is needed here, methinks.
Visual consistency improvements
A lot has been done to make Plasma more pro and posh. This is apparent all over. For example, the Gtk applications render almost as they would natively in other desktop environments. The application styling is more consistent. Nicer icons - especially Kate.
If you want to edit themes, you can. Some options still aren't exposed. I think the scrollbars are somewhat wider, which helps - both when it comes to efficiency and accessibility, so that's a good thing. Being able to control this, like say shadows, would make even more sense.
The volume applet has been redesigned, but I think it's over-complicated. The sound card icon and the white mute button (rectangular) simply don't match the rest of the applet style. In general, there's a clash with the cleaner if more dense look pre-5.16 and the more "touchy" design since, and this is probably the best example.
Other than that, the browser integration has improved - you still need to manually install the add-on, but once it's there, you can control the browser playback from the system area. You now even get lovely media thumbnails for Youtube videos, for instance. Cushty.
The package manager looks nicer now. Cleaner, more consistent. And the scrollbars no longer cut across the logical partitions in the program's interface. This has been an outstanding issue for a long time, and it's finally been fixed. Overall, you'll have more fun using Discover. Almost a proper store frontend the way ordinary folks envision their "shopping" experience. It's also faster, snappier. Jolly good.
Discover also lets you grab all the decorative stuff for your desktop - although you can do the same through System Settings. The download pages have been revamped and look nicer. However, there's still some chaos under the hood, because there's no guarantee the shown themes or elements will install or work, and there's no single unified and 100%-proof install method.
A new option in Plasma - user feedback. You can send anonymous information to the project team, so they can improve their product. You can change the level of verbosity, but even at the highest settings, the data provided is quite innocent, and contains nothing that would be even remotely personal on any level.
Dealbreakers: Dolphin network copy & stream
And then, just when I thought this would be a majestic release, I encountered some really annoying errors. First, the Samba copy issue remains - the timestamps always gets set to "current" - and the files lose their original creation and modification times. In effect, this makes Plasma useless for any type of network-based backups in a mixed Windows-Linux setups. And given the fact Windows accounts for 90% of the desktop world, it would be more than prudent to have this fixed properly.
However, even worse, since 5.17.XX, if you want to play media files stored on remote shares, i.e. stream, the files will be copied to the local cache (~/.cache) first. This happens in Dragon and VLC. In previous releases of Plasma (including 5.17, or say the 5.12 LTS I have on Kubuntu Beaver on my Slimbook), VLC does the job without any problems. Not so anymore.
Yup, whatever change was made to KIO now also borks VLC. This is absolutely useless. Say you have a 1.5 GB video file you want to play. Even if you're connected via wired network, with a good 1000Mbps throughout, it would still take you 15-20 seconds before you can watch. If you're on Wireless, probably much more, and if you're copying from Samba, an eternity. This problem does not exist in Xfce of Gnome, which use Gvfs rather than KIO. As a user, I actually don't care, I just want simple, fast playback. Worse, this is a regression!
Then, some other, old problems remain. Wireless deactivated/activated stuff on login. Samba printing. Screenshot shadows when using Spectacle ... Sigh.
Perhaps, hopefully, by the time you read this review, the network copy issue will have been resolved. Perhaps not. As it stands, as I type these words, I don't really know what to do. I was actually happily planning on upgrading Kubuntu 18.04 to Kubuntu 20.04, which should have Plasma 5.18, sometime in the summer, after the first dot release that fixes most of the initial bugs. But now, I'm not so sure. I work in mixed environments quite some, I often stream video and music from remote shares, and I can't bear to spend minutes waiting for the content to be uselessly, needlessly cached to my local disk like it's 1995.
There are many cool things, smooth and elegant improvements in Plasma 5.18. But somehow, the old stubborn problems simply get neglected and ignored, as if that's going to solve them. Instead, they stay and just ruin the perfection and hard work that's gone into Plasma. If not for the Dolphin issues, this would definitely be one of the more polished, refined, well-executed releases of this phenomenal desktop environment. But I guess there must always be something to threaten my sense of freedom and the fragile hope that I keep investing in Linux. All in all, more than worth testing, but there are big, unresolved problems for people who also happen to use Windows and/or dual-boot or whatnot. Let's see what happens.