Plasma ergonomics - Lessons in life

Updated: January 16, 2019

We've talked about Plasma a lot recently. Even since I've purchased a Slimbook laptop and had it installed with Kubuntu, I've been pestering you with all these reports on serious, productivity usage and the various bugs, issues and snags that I keep encountering along the way. While Plasma is a phenomenally flexible and highly polished desktop environment, there are still things that need to be fixed. Most of them touch on everyday ergonomics.

Today, I want to talk to you about several cardinal new issues I've discovered working with the Plasma desktop environment. Now, it does not mean the desktop is bad - consider the fact it's the only actively developed framework out there I do actually want to use in my production setup in the first place, with Trusty + Unity still holding strong on my Asus Vivobook - but it does mean there's a lot more that can and needs to be done to make Plasma superb. As I've mentioned in my perfection & bugs article, we ain't there yet. Follow me.

Desktop, ready

Plasma public enemy no.1: scrollbars

I really like the Breeze theme, but it does have its foibles. Namely, the scrollbars are too thin. Pretty but not very usable. I prefer the robust, thick scrollbars a-la Windows 2000/XP/7, which are always visible, and you can quickly click and navigate, whereas here, you sort of need to aim, and this is even worse if you use a Laptop touchpad.

Configure Breeze

Scrollbar buttons

In the past, KDE had the option to specify the scrollbar thickness. This is gone in Plasma 5, so you're just left with edge buttons in the best case. I've also noticed a huge discrepancy in how different programs interpret and use the scrollbars. For example, Chrome does okay (at least did just before the v70 change), but I'm not sure if this because it has its own thing, the now-obsolete use of the so-called "Normal" theme for the UI, or as a result of my Breeze scrollbar tweaks.

Chrome, scrollbar

With the "normal" theme (RIP), Chrome does this better. But is this due to Plasma or its own tweaks?

Firefox completely ignored the settings. In fact, this is a sad story. In the past, Firefox allowed you to make easy changes to the UI via userChrome.css. I did use this to make parts of the UI bigger when fiddling with the whole HD scaling issue on the Slimbook. But now, apparently, you need Javascript to be able to do the same. Arguably, there are some rather powerful scripts out there, but I find it quite sad that you'd need scripts for something like this. It should be a built-in feature. Accessibility has been completely abandoned in modern products. Everything is shiny and flat and designed for the proverbial 20-year-old fidget spinner whatever. A catastrophe of ergonomics, world-wide.

Scrollbars, Firefox

Tiny and not very visible scrollbars - everywhere.

There's a lot to be said about scrollbars and how you can change this. Now, Plasma ALSO uses the gtk.css file for styling, much like GTK themes, and the principle of how you go about editing stuff is more or less the same. Under /usr/share/themes, find the theme you want to tweak, open it in a text editor, and if you have sufficient knowledge of HTML/CSS and luck, you can make changes. You will need to reload your user session for this, which is annoying. And the whole thing is disheartening. And then, this is Windows 7 - not so kewl perhaps but very easy to see, grab and use:

Windows 7 scrollbars

Kate (text editor)

I encountered a whole bunch of problems using this otherwise reasonable little text editor. Some of these were super annoying and weird, others merely cosmetic. To begin with, the program needs to be more extensible than it currently is. This means more options to tweak the visual layout, more control over toolbars - you can only add certain buttons and functions (this is actually a bigger problem in the desktop environment), and more plugins. Furthermore, Kate should have an option to pop files up when you reach the bottom of the view port so you're not writing at the bottom of the screen. Of course, you can fix this by creating a whole bunch of empty new lines, but that's not a solution, now is it.

Kate text editor

Werking it, one line at a time.

But most importantly, tab management is a pain. Kate view port is limited to something like 8-9 file tabs! Then you get an odd +whatever icon, and if you click that, it lets you quick-search for your files, but this is quite silly. Notepad++ lets you both scroll and have multiple rows of tabs. Also, if you're using the Documents plugin, which I did configure recently, the quick search becomes redundant. Better integration is needed.

Kate, expand tabs button

W00t. Where are the tab scroll arrows!

Hot corners

The Plasma hot corners can be annoying, especially the top right one which spans out your windows and show them all expo style or something. Normally, this is where you slam your mouse cursor if you have a browser open (full screen) or if you want to use the application window buttons. Quite often, I end up with the unnecessary all-windows-shown thingie, especially when using the touchpad, as it's not quite as precise as the mouse, plus the acceleration figures are different.

Yes, you can disable this, but I'd expect something more streamlined. Maybe the system should even detect you have activated the corner but then exited the view within a few seconds (by angrily hitting the Escape key) and/or haven't interacted with any of the open windows, then it should prompt you to disable this particular corner.

Corners

Other things

Menu search works pretty well, but it can be better - more inclusive search terms. Adding new icons to the task manager closes the menu - it should remain open and allow multiple programs to be pinned in one session.

I didn't notice an easy way to add a new folder button in Dolphin. Actually, there is one, but it's not intuitive. You'd expect something like New Folder. No, it's Create Folder (or File). Once you figure this out, you can then add all sorts of nice quick-action buttons, and even rename them if you like. But this should be more straightforward.

Create folder

Dolphin, ready

Global/desktop shortcuts management is a bit tricky. I did mention this in the past, and will again in the future, but there are too many ways to configure these, and each one does things ever so slightly differently. In the end, if you want to do things faster, you will waste time trying to figure out how to do that to begin with.

Shortcuts

Why so many shortcut categories?

And that's enough for today, methinks.

More reading

Of course, it's all connected. Like the Web. Or something:

Plasma & desktop effects

Plasma & HD scaling

Plasma secrets: Remove shadows in screenshots

Plasma secrets: task manager tweaks

Plasma secrets: Custom app launchers - WINE, too

Plasma icons-only task manager: Multiple app versions

Plasma secrets: Make the desktop remember window position

Conclusion

Here we go. I'm not happy with all these problems, but given the stellar track record of bugs squashing in the Plasma desktop space, these should be polished, tweaked and improved in the coming months. Slowly but surely, this desktop environment is gearing toward what every desktop should be: invisible.

The bugsy trends aren't unique to Plasma - this is the desktop all over. The agile thingie, the curse of quality and usability everywhere. Even looking at something like Windows, there are far more annoyances in Windows 8.1 than there were in Windows 7, and then a whole order of magnitude more still in Windows 10. These could be seemingly small things - and there sure ain't enough testing to begin with - but they can mean a world to the end user. And if Plasma wants to be top dog, it needs to do everything better than the competition. Today, I uncovered a fresh handful issues, and that's just a couple of extra months of rigorous usage. It will be interesting to see what happens a year or two down the road. Well, my Plasma journey continues. Stay tuned.

Cheers.

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