Plasma 5.21 review - Very slick, just one or five oily patches

Updated: March 8, 2021

Can you hear the drums, Fernando? There's a new Plasma release out there, marked 5.21. Which means test I must and see what the future of this typically phenomenal desktop environment brings us. Now, if you've not followed my KDE adventures lately, then I was kind of pleased with the LTS edition, similarly enthused when it comes to Plasma 5.19, and really happy with 5.20, which I felt should have been the LTS. It was everything I could have hoped, and then some. Well, almost.

This makes today's experiment all the more interesting. There's an almost Ancient Greece drama level of tragic heroism in Linux, so any good or decent release must often follow with a disappointment. But hopefully, it ain't going to be the case today. Begin to explore, we shall.

Teaser

Firing up

Not trivial, it turns out. KDE neon, which be the flagship what brings you the latest Plasma edition would not boot on me laptops. Not one, but two distinct hosts - the 2015 G50 laptop with Intel processor and graphics and the 2020(1) IdeaPad 3 laptop with Ryzen/Vega combo. Oh oh.

I had to actually run an in-vivo upgrade in the installed KDE instance on the G50 box, plus try the new desktop in a virtual machine. But this is quite alarming, especially since I have no problems booting the latest crop of Ubuntu distros on either of these systems. Something bad is afoot.

Look and feel

If we ignore the above fiasco, Plasma 5.21 looks the part. Oh yes it does. Very elegant, very slick, very mature. By default, the system comes with the Breeze theme, which now features white window borders. If you want the mixed look, dark panel, white application - you can try the new Breeze Twilight theme. Previously, you had to mix the Global Breeze theme with the Desktop Breeze Dark theme. However, it differs from the older releases in that the window accent color doesn't change. I find this less than ideal, because there's less separation between fg and bg windows, active and inactive. One small step for KDE, one step back for ergonomics.

Desktop

About

Twilight theme

Another important change - the system menu. First, the old menu ain't gone, and you have multiple alternatives. All of the KDE stuff is there, and now you get a fourth layout, which is sort of new, modern hybrid, but not necessarily bad. It does remind me of Windows 10, minus the overload of Web apps and promo stuff that no one needs. In general, the new layout needs a bit more contrast and love, but it's not a bad thing.

Menu 1

Menu 2

You also get a reworked music overlay applet. When you play songs and videos, the system area integration is very lovely. This adds to the overall look and feel. I have to say, there's calmness to Plasma 5.21, and the wallpaper is joyous.

Music

Discover is also getting better. Cleaner, more precise, more integrated, like a proper store. Tons of tiny bug fixes around, and I'm starting to really warm up to this tool. Shame it took so long for it to mature, but it is definitely at the top of the range. It still has nerdy bits and pieces, but we're almost at a point where any desktop extra, be it an application addon or a widget or whatnot can be managed through a single interface.

Discover

Discover, application addons

Now, there are also tons of changes under the hood, like Wayland support, but the stuff that the user actually sees and appreciates, you get spit and polish, right there. There are also some problems, as we shall demonstrate immediately.

The saga of fonts and scaling

The color ain't perfect, but you can change this relatively easily. The scaling is decent, but I discovered some problems. Under Settings, I found several categories that do not render well with scaling set to 137.5%, which is one of those precise jumps that Plasma allows. I noticed mangled text. Hm.

Font issues

Notice the mangled u and 7. Also number spacing for 1 in 51136.

Firewall

Another tricky one - firewall. A new section ... except, I couldn't turn the firewall on. Clicking the button doesn't do anything. Moreover, there's a completely unnecessary horizontal scrollbar in the interface, presumably for when things are shown, which they aren't. I resized the Settings window, the scrollbar disappeared, and then Settings crashed. I repeated this three times. Fully reproducible. If someone wants to reports this or take care of this, you have the recipe.

Firewall

Settings crash

System Monitor

The one thing that mars the experience is the new System Monitor. I reviewed this tool a few weeks back, and I wasn't impressed. Like many modern things, it's a solution to an issue that doesn't exist. There's nothing actually wrong with KSysGuard, apart from its name. And the fix is a new UI that is slower, less responsive, with rev counter graphs that no one really needs and data scattered all over the place. Data visualization is proper art, and the fact you can make lot of shiny Web 2.0 widgets doesn't make the utility any more useful. Quite the opposite. On top of that, the actual resource utilization part of it was blank. No history. On the G50, when I last tested it, it didn't show the network data. So you get a half-baked release of a successor program, which is inferior to its predecessor. Meh.

System monitor

The Name column was showing twice - I had to remove the second instance.

System Monitor, history broken

Conclusion

Plasma 5.21 is pretty nice. Very refined. But it also has problems, including some there weren't there in the previous release. And this kind of thing always alarms and dismays me. Yes, there will be bugs, but I've yet to find a single Linux-associated project that has ultra-robust, detailed, fully defined, mapped and formalized QA procedure that involves 90% of the total software effort. Alas, no one wants to do the boring stuff. Take the System Monitor as an example - no need for it, KSysGuard could do with minor fixes and maybe a rename, the rev counter dashboard and broken functionality add no value. The font issues are also new. The crashes, well.

That said, this is still one dope desktop environment. It is really way ahead of anything else GUI Linux, and it has hallmarks of a pro product. But not quite. There's always a little bit of that open-source hobbyist chaos lurking around, like an old enemy. Still, I am largely pleased and hope to see more awesomeness from the KDE team. Plasma 5.21 is pretty, elegant, cohesive, consistent, fast, and builds on a solid foundation. Shame about the bugs, but let's hope there will be a fundamental, methodological shift in the approach so that every future Plasma release shines, and there never be random regressions. One can hope. As for 5.21, definitely worth testing and enjoying.

Cheers.