How to make the Plasma desktop look like Unity

Updated: September 27, 2019

Over the years, in my production setup, I've used only two Linux desktop environments in earnest - KDE and Unity - well, Xfce to a much, much smaller extent. I've started with KDE 3.5 back in the day (with SUSE 10), ran Unity for as long as Trusty was supported, and I'm now using Plasma 5.12 LTS as part of Kubuntu 18.04 on my Slimbook Pro2 laptop. But Unity has a sweet spot in my heart.

Well, I haven't abandoned the desktop, as it is still installed on the Asus Vivobook machine. I had the system upgraded from Trusty to Bionic a few months ago, and installed both the Unity and Plasma desktops, and then tweaked the latter to look like the former. A small and incomplete transformation. Then I decided to ratchet this up a notch or three. A full makeover. Proceed we shall. If you're impatient, go to the good results section below right away.

Teaser

Attempt 1: Not good

This did not work well. At all. On the Vivobook system, during the upgrade, I've retained all my user data from the first Trusty installation, so we're talking roughly five years worth of stuff, including configurations. This also means Unity themes and icons (which are used in the Unity instance).

When I tried to apply these in the Plasma instance, I soon realized that I got broken, half-complete looks. For example, the Humanity icon theme was there, but I couldn't really use it. In the end, I experimented with multiple panels (plus the annoying visual bug on panel resize), but while I did get somewhat Unity-like looks, overall the results were quite disappointing. Not bad, just not what I was going for.

First attempt, final looks

Attempt 2: Still not good

For the second attempt, I decided to use the latest Plasma build - 5.16 in the KDE neon instance on my G50 laptop. I logged into the user I've created for the Mac experience transformation, and continued from there. Having been impressed with the Latte Dock, I through this could be a good medium for creating the Launcher-like setup.

Latte Dock was stubborn

I found it impossible to make the Latte Dock do what I wanted. Most notably, the alignment. I tried using both the Dock and Panel modes, and the applet would sometimes switch between them, based on the location and alignment I decided to use. The justifier spacers were annoying. You can change the size in percentages, but you must use a slider, so you can never get it quite right. For example, vertical size of 94% meant the top panel was obscured by a few pixels, but the next increment left a gap of several pixels.

Latte Dock tweaks

Two Latte docks

I decided to try using two docks next. You can do this quickly by using the Unity layout in Latte. Indeed, this created a fairly elegant and promising setup. So this was my baseline. I started adding widgets and icons, and began tweaking the look and feel of the different elements.

Two docks in Latte

Soon, I realized the problem that was haunting me earlier was still present. The Latte Dock simply wouldn't let me have vertical scroll. Adding more icons simply forced the vertical dock to resize and change the icon size, too. I found this rather crude. But then, if I unticked the advanced setting that does this, the dock would look very pretty, but about half my icons would be missing. And there was no way to actually scroll up or down and see them the way Unity actually does.

No icon scroll

I have several more icons, but they are truncated and missing; changing alignment didn't help.

Moreover, I found customization harder than with ordinary panels. For example, the menu. I wanted to switch from the standard application menu to dashboard, but there was no Alternatives option under the right click. You actually need to enter the edit mode for the Latte Dock and then right-click on the application icon there, and then you will be able to switch. Not intuitive at all.

Menu alternatives

Themes and icons

I also struggled finding the right themes and icons. Purposefully, I decided not to randomly wander about the Web, and actually use whatever is available through the system interface. At the moment, the functionality is still split between Discover and the old system addons applet, although most of the stuff has gone into the package manager. But while this is more cohesive, looks better, and there are fewer errors, this did not really help me get the themes and icons I needed. For that matter, there was little difference between Plasma 5.12 in Kubuntu and the latest desktop release.

Themes

Icons

Trying to install new icons; the action is successful, but these don't really show in the system settings.

I tried several different versions of Unity, United, Ambiance, Radiance, Yaru, Suru, and whatnot. Very few of them yielded any results. Most simply didn't do anything - and didn't even show in the right section, like Look and Feel. Rather confusing and frustrating I must say. Then, some of the stuff was old - like Ambiance and Radiance are there, but we're talking versions from Lucid rather than anything more recent.

Eventually I did find some, but the text contrast was a bit off. However, slowly, I was making progress, which finally allowed me to achieve what I wanted. Third time lucky as they say. Only five hours of time invested, no biggie.

New themes and icons

Ambiance theme

Almost there, but not quite:

Incomplete looks

Attempt 3: Excellent

All right, so here's everything you need to get this done in a good, smart, elegant manner:

Top panel tweaks

By default, Plasma comes with a panel set at the bottom. Create a new empty panel. Next, you need the Window Buttons and Window Title widgets. These are not available by default in the Plasma desktop, and you will need to compile them yourself. Since this is not a trivial task, I've written a tutorial explaining all the details you need to get these properly configured. However, by the time you read this article, if Window Buttons and Windows Title are indeed available as fully usable widgets through Discover, please install them that way.

Global menu, system tray and USwitch are available by default as widgets. USwitch is a modified version of the User Switcher plasmoid. In my artistic opinion, it looks nicer and offers more options than the original, and it is also closer to what you get in Unity by default.

Top panel tweaks

Left panel tweaks

I added the application menu, changed it to dashboard, changed its icon, and made sure the invocation is done by the Super key - actually Super + F1, as Plasma can't handle meta keys only, but Super is enough to get the menu to show up. I added the icons-only task manager and populated it with, well, icons. Added a trash for good measure at the bottom.

Please note: this is probably one outstanding bug - I found out that you don't get icon scroll, no matter what, either with panels or Latte Dock. I tried resizing the panel, and this would change the icons and their position, but at no point did I get the Unity-like roll. This is quite annoying, but easily solvable with a Plasma fix.

No icon scroll

Ubuntu wallpaper

There are many. Just grab the one you like.

United desktop theme

You can install this one through Discover. Then, change it under Settings > Appearance > Look and Feel.

Ambiance workspace theme

You can grab this from the opendesktop.org (other methods did not work for me). The extracted theme needs to be placed under ~/.local/share/plasma/desktoptheme. Then, you can change this in the Settings menu, similar to the above.

Theme change

Window decorations

Blender Ambiance is one those few decorations that works well and can be obtained through Discover. Search for it under Plasma Addons, and then install it. Next, in System Settings, Application Style, change the window decorations to this theme. Do not forget to tweak the Window Buttons settings accordingly.

Window decorations

Ambiance, Window Buttons tweak

Ambiance color theme

Technically, the desktop and the workspace theme should give you the color scheme you need, but you can also manually download and install it. Then under Settings > Appearance > Colors, you can make the change. I found the font contrast to be insufficient, so in a manner similar to what I do in Breeze quite often, I changed the font color to pure black and made my own custom scheme.

Humanity icon theme

I had to go about the Web to find the right set. It's available on Launchpad, and you can put the extracted set (both Humanity and Humanity Dark) under ~/.local/share/icons.

Humanity icons

Ubuntu fonts

These are available by default in Ubuntu and neon. You will need to download them otherwise.

Results, results, results!

Here we have a perfect top menu, with the right theme and icons:

Perfect top menu layout

This is the Plasma desktop, I assure you!

User switcher:

USwitch plasmoid

Some fine desktop screenshots:

Ready 1

Ready 2

Ready 3

Conclusion

Project Makeover complete. I had never expected this to be such an arduous journey. Thinking back to my Macbuntu transformation attempts, they were relatively simple in comparison - this whole thing begs a script or two to put everything together. But we're done, and successfully so. Plasma is such a delightful, extensible desktop, and it actually lets you do pretty much everything and anything.

I did struggle with the whole panel, dock thingie, and that was probably the hardest part, but once I nailed that, the rest was all about finding the right sources with the correct themes, icons and colors. I am mightily pleased that you can put window buttons and titles into the top panel. That's mega-rad. Anyway, we're done, and hopefully, you will find this article fun and pleasing. If you have any suggestions or requests on similar artistic endeavors, do send them over. Bye bye now.

Cheers.

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