**Please note: KDE Plasma is a desktop environment, not a Linux distribution (distro). However, for those just looking at Linux for the first time, this series is taking a slight detour to review a few of the most popular desktop environments before reviewing some of the actual distros that use them.**
KDE Plasma is one of the most popular Linux desktop environments (DE), but it can’t get out of its own way to claim the crown.
In the previous entry in this series, we explained the role of DEs in the Linux world. Among those, Plasma will always hold a soft spot in my heart. Early in my switch to Linux, I gravitated toward distros that used Plasma as their default DE. Out of the box, Plasma looks good, is incredibly customizable, and competes with some of the lightweight DEs in terms of resource usage.
Customizability and Apps
While Plasma looks very similar to Windows out of the box, all it takes is a few clicks to make it look like macOS or virtually any type of operating system (OS) or DE you can imagine.
Plasma also includes a full suite of applications that round out its features, including an Outlook-style PIM suite, powerful text editor, image viewer, file manager, music player, and literally dozens of other applications. Obviously, different distros package different KDE apps for their users, but anyone can download any applications their distro doesn’t include by default.
One of the standout KDE apps is KDE Connect, an app that connects your Android phone with your Plasma desktop. This gives you the ability to get SMS notifications on your computer, share files, and even use your phone as a trackpad for Plasma.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
A common theme among KDE applications is their sheer power. In many cases, KDE apps offer a level of features and power that is unrivaled across any other DE or even any platform for that matter.
Unfortunately, KDE doesn’t always use that power responsibly. Many KDE apps throw so many features at the end user that it can be overwhelming. Performing the simplest task can often become an exercise in frustration because of the hoops a user has to jump through to get the job done.
A perfect example is KDE Partition Manager, the utility you use to format and partition flash drives, hard drives, and SSDs. There’s no doubt that KDE Partition Manager is more powerful than Gnome Disks, its counterpart for the Gnome DE. Unfortunately, that power is hidden behind a complexity that quickly gets annoying. For example, for all its power, KDE Partition Manager doesn’t have a simple “Format Disk” option in its menus or toolbar. Instead, you have to manually delete the existing partitions and then create a new one to essentially format a disk. In contrast, Gnome Disks has a simple “Format Disk” option that’s readily available.
Another case in point is the KDE PIM Suite. In order to run the various applications comprising the suite, such as KMail, Kalendar, or Kontact, Plasma uses the Akonadi storage service with a Maria DB backend. To be clear, running something as simple as the default email client for KDE Plasma requires running a commercial-grade, multi-user database backend paired with Akonadi, a solution that is notorious for having showstopping issues that often require nuking one’s email accounts and starting over. Even if you don’t experience problems with Akonadi, it still adds significant overhead to what is otherwise a resource-efficient DE.
KDE claims to follow a “simple by default, powerful when needed” approach. Unfortunately, while that may be true for the DE itself, it is often not the case for the apps that are specifically designed to work with the DE. This can lead to a significant dichotomy where some things are incredibly intuitive and others incredibly, and needlessly, complex.
More often than not, I found myself simply installing apps designed for Gnome and using them with Plasma to have simple, straightforward functionality. While this is perfectly acceptable, there are sometimes trade-offs. For example, Gnome Disks is a simple enough app to look and function just fine within KDE. In contrast, using Evolution — the Gnome counterpart to KMail/KDE PIM Suite — or Thunderbird doesn’t provide nearly the level of desktop integration as KDE’s own client.
Bugs, Bugs, and More Bugs
KDE alternates new feature releases with bug fix releases for its Plasma desktop. To be frank, the organization would do well to have several releases that focus on nothing but bug fixes.
There is no doubt that no DE on any OS has more features and customization options than Plasma. Unfortunately, not content to have the most features and then perfect them, KDE keeps adding more and more features to Plasma. Don’t get me wrong; this is not in and of itself a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing if there are major, long-standing bugs in the existing features — and there are.
One example is trying to run Slack on KDE Plasma. When trying to log in to your Slack account, Plasma breaks the login links by making all characters lowercase. This has been detailed by multiple sites for the better part of a year with no fix. This should be a relatively easy bug to fix, and one that impacts one of the most used business applications available, yet it has gone unaddressed for months.
I wish I could say this was an isolated issue, but it’s not. Plasma is well-known for having little bugs here and there that go overlooked in a rush to add new features.
The One That Could Be King
The tragedy here is that KDE Plasma could easily be the best desktop environment available for Linux, or any platform for that matter. By default it has everything most people need and includes a number of quality-of-life apps and services that every DE should have.
Nonetheless, despite my love for Plasma, I find it too frustrating to use on a daily basis. I don’t want to run a commercial-grade, multi-user database and storage solution just to check my email. I don’t want to deal with little bugs that should have been squashed months ago.
I don’t want to have to try logging into my Slack account 37 times before it finally, inexplicably, decides to send the URL string correctly.
As I — and many others — have said, if KDE were to take several release cycles and focus exclusively on bug fixes and consistency improvements, it could absolutely rule the Linux DE space. With its customizability, it could truly offer something for everyone while providing a lean, efficient environment.
As much as I would like to rate KDE Plasma higher, it scores:
3.5 out of 5 stars
Plasma is still a good choice for those who want the ultimate in power and customizability and don’t mind fiddling with their DE to make it work the way they want and keep it working that way despite bugs that shouldn’t be there.
In the article in this series, we’ll take a look at Xfce.