Plasma adventures - 5.19.4 tried and tested

Updated: September 23, 2020

Well, well, here we are. So you may be wondering, why am I testing Plasma 5.19 so belatedly. The answer to that question is multifold. One, I've spent some time away from Linux, recharging my proverbial batteries. Two, recently, I've encountered a bunch of problems in Plasma, and decided to slow down, lest I poison my own good experience with this otherwise phenomenal desktop environment.

Now that I've recuperated - look at me, I'm smiling, you can't see the scars, ha ha - it's time to take a look at what seems to be the latest crop of the Plasma. On my KDE neon box, after a series of rigorous updates, Stable Developer Edition mind, the splash screen read 5.19.4, which puts us half way to 5.20. All right, let me walk you through this endeavor.

Update

This didn't go smoothly. After I updated from 5.18 to 5.19, I noticed two big problems. One, Wireless connectivity was all borked. KDE Wallet would pop up but fail to accept my otherwise legit password. So I had to manually reconnect to my access point(s) to get the network back. Two, the desktop, as you can see below, looks all mangled and whatnot. The system area sits in the middle of the screen, and the icons-only task manager is all skvooshed to the left.

I thought this was a result of botched updates, so I purposefully changed nothing, and ran a second round of updates. This fixed the Wireless problem but not the panel issue. And then I realized what the problem was. It was my tweak to the icon spacing what dunnit. Shame to see disruptive changes in Plasma like this, but anyway, once I removed my plasmoid tweak, all was swell. I also got several emails from readers, pointing out this exact same problem (caused by the same remedy). This highlights how fragile the Linux desktop is, and that there isn't any smart self-healing mechanism that could or would check and then restore the integrity of different parts if and when things go bork. Also, I will show you soon how to tweak the icon spacing in the Plasma desktop systray starting with version 5.19 onwards - although I think the new defaults are jolly.

Messed up desktop

But there's more. First boot after the upgrade to 5.19.4 - the workspace complained about the filesystem mounted at /home not responding. Which sounds utterly bogus, as everything was fine and working. I've never seen something like this before. And it never happened since. Go figure.

Filesystem error notification

Look & feel

I have no complaints in this regard. Pretty, stylish, polished, slick - and improving. There are some old, outstanding niggles, but they can be relatively easily solved. For instance, the font color not being pure black. That said, Plasma is the only desktop environment that lets you fully and transparently edit the color schemes for each and every theme, and make your own custom versions - without any command-line hackery.

Desktop

System tray, menus

System area

New icon spacing is fine - no need for tweaks.

Then, I saw there was an upgrade option available. As it happens, neon being a testbed, the underlying system is decoupled from the overlying desktop environment. So you can have the latest Plasma set with the Ubuntu 18.4 base, or you can also upgrade to 20.04. We will attempt that separately. But it is a little annoying in that there's still more to be done - and my Developer Stable Edition is already quite busy with updates anyway.

Upgrade option

New stuff, hot stuff, stuff stuff

I did a little bit of poking around. You get some sensible improvements in the usability and workflow. For example, Settings. Then, lots of little papercut fixes. Then, some problems, like the red icon on red background for application removal in Discover.

Settings

System info

Discover

Performance, stability

Yes, no. Plasma 5.19 is sprightly. I am surprised and amazed how much goodness gets added on the responsiveness front with every new desktop version. But I guess when you want to optimize, you can, and the results are most pleasing. Combined with application optimization, it's a really cool thing. For example, playing HD videos in Firefox now tolls far less CPU/GPU than in the past. Very neat. It's not magic just careful improvements.

System monitor

What I don't like is the tradeoff - tons of bugs and system instability. We had the whole upgrade whatnot, and then, kdeinit5 crashed a dozen times in about as many minutes. Not sure what the cause is, but it seems my neon usefulness is approaching the point of fresh install. True, I tortured it quite some, far more than an ordinary user ever would, but I still expect robustness and resilience.

Crashes

Lastly, not everything is pristine speed wise. Samba - much better responsiveness than ever before. However, flat throughput is still capped at about 4 MB/s. But I guess we'll get there eventually. Discover wasn't as nimble as before, and rather surprisingly, neither was Kate. The tab management feels more sluggish. All in all, it feels like the KDE team is pushing hard, and this is good, but the progress should never come at the expense of quality and stability.

Conclusion

I like the momentum in the Plasma space. The last three years have been phenomenal, and there does not seem to be any fatigue, which typically affects most software projects after a while. Given that Plasma has been chugging on for a looong time now, this is rather impressive. What worries me, though, is that each new version brings in more fragility, more bugs. And this brings me back to the fundamental issue with the Linux desktop. It's simply not robust enough to be a day-to-day system for most people.

My mind simply cannot reconcile with breakages and compatibility issues. They feel like the easy way out of difficult situations with legacy models and usage patterns. Instead of creating a smooth transition to whatever the new thing is, what most projects seem to be doing is - break stuff. Why should plasma 5.19 be any less stable than say 5.18 or 5.15 or whatever. All in all, there's decent progress in Plasma, most notably the visuals and the responsiveness of the desktop, but these seem to come at the cost of good ole stability. Hopefully, future versions of Plasma will be able to give us both. That said, despite my grumbling, if you're after a solid desktop, Plasma is still the indubitable winner. Version 5.20 test coming soon!

Cheers.

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