Updated: April 30, 2021
Normally, I tried to avoid bombastic articles with WOWSERS! type of titles. The hype is usually directly proportional to the level of disappointment by the time you're done reading. But my recent escapades in the Linux desktop space prompted me to go for a somewhat gushy piece extolling the many awesome virtues of the Plasma desktop. Because it is, factually, the best desktop environment by a long league. Word.
Of course, what I'm saying is subjective. And you're likely to go - aha, a KDE fanboi! or some such phrase. But let's put our bias aside and judge software by its actual merit - the value it offers to the end user. This article is a sort of summary of years and years of experimentation with the Linux desktop, the many woes and problems I encountered, and then the potential and/or viable solutions. And in most cases, the answer is, overwhelmingly, Plasma. Let's begin.
Any Linux desktop can be hacked to the tiniest ingredients. The question is: how quickly and easily. With Plasma, 99% of customization can be done using bog standard default GUI tools provided as part of the system. There's a very high level of consistency, and you can achieve what you need using the Settings tool. Done.
This customization comes in many shapes and forms. You want your desktop to look like Mac? Done.
You want it to look like Unity in Ubuntu? Also done.
Perhaps you want to try your luck with a Windows 10 skin? Achievable.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. You get a built-in widget management utility. You have multiple options (alternatives) for the system menu and the task manager - and some other tools, too. This allows you to choose the right style and workflow with minimal effort. Feel like using an icons-only layout like in Windows 7 onwards, or the more classic desktop formula with shortcuts and open windows side by side? Easy peasy.
If you want fresh themes or icons, you can use the built-in facility to grab the desired packages. You can also get fonts, new color profiles, and window decorations. Plasma also lets you edit existing themes without resorting to any hax0ry tricks. It's the only Linux desktop environment that allows you to change font color (and often, you need it, because most distros use sub-optimal font colors and contrast), without having to do any manual CSS tweaks on the command line.
Solid software management
This neatly brings us to Discover, the Plasma software management tool. Early on, I didn't like it, at all. It was slow, ugly and cumbersome. Since, it has massively improved, becoming friendlier, faster, more consistent, more useful. Today, it's a very decent and visually appealing piece of code. Discover lets you not only search for applications - complete with screenshots, reviews and support for multiple package format backends, it also allows you to search for system and application addons, like themes, icons, wallpapers, widgets, scripts, and more. All of this is done through a single unified GUI.
Then, we go back to customization. You feel like trying new themes or fonts - grab them using Discover, enable them through Settings. You don't need to fiddle with the command line, you don't need to go around the Internet randomly downloading archives and extracting them here or there and such.
Plasma allows you to create multiple activities. This is a concept that's very similar to workspace, except it takes it one step further. Activities allow you to customize the look and feel of each one, and even use different privacy settings. You may choose to index or show specific files and folders in one activity but not in the other. Great for when you have to use a single device for personal and work needs at the same time, and you require good separation between the two types of tasks.
Plasma comes with built-in encryption for your data. You can configure one or more vaults, which you can then use to store sensitive, personal data. Each vault can also be associated with only specific Activities - so they won't show up in others, for instance. You can also turn network connectivity for specific Vaults if you like. Privacy FTW! Vaults are exposed to the user as mount points - locations - in the file manager (Dolphin), and you interact with them as you would with any other folder, like Documents, Pictures, and so forth. When you're done, you can lock the vault, and your data will not be accessible - within the limits of the security of the selected encryption cipher, but this is true for any such tool.
This phenomenal desktop also comes with an integrated "intelligent" search. Normally, it sits out of the way, but activate it with a special hotkey, and Krunner will show in the center top of your screen. It looks like a search box, and essentially, this is what it is, but it comes with a wide array of functions and capabilities. Krunner lets you perform dozens of Web searches (including incognito mode), convert units, calculate stuff, translate words or phrases, launch applications, search for files or folders, and then some. I've already reviewed this application once, and I intended to do a fresh 2021 take soon.
The fun bits don't end with Krunner. Plasma also features excellent media integration. When you launch your different browsers, the system will prompt you to install the Plasma integration extension, which allows you to control your browsers from inside the desktop. Once you enable these addons, you will see playback controls for video and audio for browser media (say Youtube) in your system area. Very neat. I even tried this in Edge in KDE neon, and the functionality works well - plus, it's quite pretty, too.
The second piece of integration is KDE Connect, a phone control tool that lets you manage your Android devices and any BT-enabled Linux machine, with things like clipboard sharing, presentation, phone notifications, music control, remote control, data browsing, and then some. Again, this is built into the desktop right there, so you don't need to fiddle with any special installations or configurations.
The third piece is the ability to connect to remote machines using the FISH protocol in Dolphin. If you want to work with other machines, copy data to other systems, you can do it all inside the file manager, without having to rely on any great command-line skills. Very convenient and powerful at the same time.
Language & keyboard control
Another nugget of joy. Are you a multilinguist? Worry not. Plasma lets you add new keyboards - and any desired layout variant - simply and easily, including custom shortcuts, virtual layout preview, country symbols and flags. Very cool, and it all works out of the box.
HD desktop scaling
Plasma is the only desktop environment in the Linux world with good fractional scaling. Rather than being limited to just say 100% or 200% view, or even 125% and 150% view, it lets you go down to tiny percentages (up to 6.25% resolution), so you can choose something like 113% or 137.5% if you like. This works quite well, and in my experience, even better than what Windows 10 does. When I tried fractional scaling on a desktop I got about 18 months back, the system tray icons would randomly appear or disappear based on the selected percentage. Plasma manages pretty good (not always perfect) results, but way ahead of anything else.
A full suite of mature applications
Plasma also comes with a decent stack of programs, all homegrown as part of the KDE family. Some of the names include Okular, GwenView, KTorrent, Konversation, Marble, DigiKam, Krita, Falkon, lots of games, and others. Some of these applications are good, a few even excellent. Of course, there's room for improvement, but again, if we look at the application scene in a cohesive way, Plasma offers more programs and with better/higher maturity than other environments.
Speed, jolly good speed. Low resource usage. Boom.
I'm no fanboi. I'm not deluded. Plasma does many things well - and several things not so well or even badly. Specifically, its online accounts functionality is severely neglected. It used to feature more prominently, but it rarely worked well. You would get tons of silly Akonadi errors, services wouldn't run or connect, and over time, the concept got quietly sidelined. Gnome does online accounts much more effectively, for instance.
Similarly, until quite recently, the Samba connectivity in Plasma used to lag quite some behind the other desktops. The situation has improved massively, including better speed, file copy timestamps, network playback and caching, and authentication. But the job ain't done, and there's more to be done here. In particular, Samba printing is a complete no-go - there just isn't the necessary backend code to allow you to connect natively to Samba printers, but, worse yet, the buttons ARE there.
But other than these two things, for the most part, Plasma is a jolly, jolly almost product.
The Linux desktop is a tricky space. It's no arena for amateurs, newbs or those who expect peace and quite all the time. Most of the time, the desktop isn't a passive background for your actual work, you need to actively fight it and wrestle it, and that gets boring after a while. Plasma stands out in this domain as a beacon of consistency, great looks, and excellent functionality. You can use it without having to have nerd epaulettes on your shoulders. In a way, it's approaching the idea of product, the way markets and consumers perceive the concept.
When you consider the fact that Plasma is mostly volunteer work - with some paid contributions, of course, the results look pretty neat. Of course, that's never an excuse for a lack of professionalism, but when you consider the many products out there, with significant backing, and then look at the poor state of their UI, usability and user focus, Plasma starts to look like a real bargain. Recently, I've been warming up more and more to its many sweet features. And by recently, I mean the last 2-3 years. However, let's not forget the soul-wrenching regressions and random bugs. Those are never too far off in the Linux world. But as things stand, Plasma is a really phenomenal desktop, and I hope the KDE team will be able to take it to the next level - make it something that even the normies can enjoy. One can hope.
P.S. I hope you will forgive me the use of Imperial units in the title; replacing miles for kilometers just doesn't make it into a useful phrase.