Today’s review is a much requested one, KDE Neon. For those who haven’t heard of it, this brings together a Ubuntu 16.04 LTS base with the the latest KDE desktop and software. The idea here is to get the stability of that LTS core while still getting the latest KDE goodies. This review is going to be a bit different from my usual reviews, as I’ve been using Neon as my main system for over two weeks now. Because of that, if you’re following along in the video review, you’ll see that the theming, panel layouts and so on have been customized to my personal preferences.
According to the KDE Neon FAQ page, Neon is not a distribution. Per their FAQ page, it is “a package archive with the latest KDE software on top of a stable base. While we have installable images, unlike full Linux distributions we’re only interested in KDE software.” Throughout this review, I’ll refer to it as a distro, so hopefully that doesn’t offend anyone.
Taking a look at the KDE Neon website download page, you’ll see there’s a few versions available. The user edition, which is what I downloaded for testing, gives you the officially released KDE software. The user LTS edition gives you the Plasma LTS (currently version 5.8). Personally, I don’t see a point in this, as the whole reason to use KDE Neon is to run the latest KDE. There are also developer editions which can use either the GIT stable or unstable branch.
Installation was quick and easy, using what appeared to be the standard Ubuntu installer. After installation, I logged in and updated my system, giving me Linux kernel 4.8 and KDE 5.10.2. While on the subject of updates, I did want to mention that the Neon users get KDE updays within day of their release, so you really do have a bleeding edge KDE desktop.
Startup and boot was fast, much better than I’ve seen in other distributions running KDE.
The default desktop is bone-stock KDE, which I changed right away. Normally, I don’t do that on distros I’m reviewing, but since this was to be my main desktop and I really don’t like the default theming, a change was in order. For those interested in my theming, I’ll run through that quickly.
I downloaded the Arc Dark Look-and-Feel theme as a starting point. For the desktop theme, I went with Arc Color, and the cursor theme is Pulse-glass. The color theme is Arc as well. I changed my fonts to the Ubuntu fonts, which I feel are some of the most readable out there. Anti-aliasing is enabled, and configured for slight hinting with RGB sub-pixel rendering (this helps with font rendering on GTK apps). Icons are Papirus.
Under Application style, the Widget Style is the Breeze theme. Personally, I prefer QTCurve, but unfortunately, QTCurve currently doesn’t work with Plasma 5.10 (or at least the version in the repos doesn’t, and I didn’t want to take the time to compile QTCurve from the latest source). Window decorations are WindowsK10. In the GTK styling, I stuck with Breeze for the GTK 2 and 3 themes, and duplicated the Pulse-glass and Papirus cursor/icon themes.
Out of the box, Neon is very light on software. The basic KDE utilities (such as the dolphin file manager and KDE Discovery) are installed, Firefox for web browsing, VLC media player, and that’s about it. For the intermediate to advanced user, this is awesome. Install what you want and only what you want…I wish more distributions did the same, or at least offered a minimal setup iso. Having said that, I think new users should stay away from Neon for the same reason. Not that the software center doesn’t make it easy to install software (because it does), but because a new user isn’t necessarily going to know all of the packages that may need to installed for a well functioning system. For example, To make full use of LibreOffice, you’ll need to make sure you’ve installed hunspell, and if you don’t want it to look like an app out of the 90’s, you need to install the kde integration package. You’ll also want to tweak your font settings (as I pointed out earlier) to get decent rendering in LibreOffice. Not that a new user can’t figure these things out, but let’s not overwhelm them all at once.
Since many KDE distros use a distro-specific package manager, let’s take a look at Discover, the KDE Software Center. This tool is really one stop shopping for your software needs. From the home screen, you have a search bar to search for a specific app, or you can browse through the categories. There are pretty good descriptions of the applications, as well as user reviews. Discover also allows you to update existing software, and from the settings menu you can manage software sources. Unfortunately, I found Discovery to be somewhat buggy. Often times, the search would bog down, and updates seemed to take forever. On my system, I added synaptic package manager for browsing and searching for packages, and I typically update software through the terminal (I often add software that way as well).
Unfortunately, because of the Ubuntu LTS base, non-KDE software is often older versions. For example, the Openshot Video Editor is at version 1.4.3; at the time of this video, the current version is 2.3.4. Granted, having an older version of an application doesn’t necessarily mean less stability or features, but if you’re someone who want’s all of the software to be cutting edge, you’ll need to add some ppas or stick with strictly KDE apps.
As far as stability goes, KDE Neon is pretty impressive. Besides Discovery, the only app I had issues with was KDE connect; sometimes it would connect to my Android phone, sometimes not. (And this may just be due to poor signal in my area.) Everything else worked just as it should. There were no crashes of apps or the Plasma desktop. This is a very big deal, because I tried earlier versions of Neon and walked away due to the constant crashing of the plasma desktop.
So are there any downsides to Neon? Well, that depends on your perspective. The Ubuntu LTS core provides a nice, stable base. It’s also not the most up-to-date either. We already talked about non-kde applications; another example is the mesa video drivers are version 12.0; current version is 17. If you’re wanting to use this distro with a new graphics card, you may run into issues. So that LTS base is really a double-edged sword, and depending on your hardware and software needs, may not work out for you. Of course, there is always the option of adding ppas to get newer software, but I’ve experienced stability issues when adding too many ppas to a Ubuntu based system.
There are disadvantages to having the latest KDE as well. I already mentioned the QTCurve issue. Depending on your software needs, you may run into other instances of having a too new KDE version to function with some other piece of software or software add-on.
Another minor annoyance I ran into has to do with dolphin in KDE 5.10. Back in KDE 4, you could add root function to dolphin by going to Control/Configure Dolphin/Services and then selecting download new services. From here, you could download a script that would add an “open as root” option to the right-click menu. In the KDE 5 series, this no longer worked, but there was a work around that allowed you to set this up manually using kdesudo. (Big Daddy did a video on this at his YouTube channel. Here’s a link to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jindUMcwPxU) However, as of KDE 5.10, this no longer works. After doing some reading online, I found this was intentional by the KDE development team, and that in a future KDE release, there will be a way to run dolphin as root without using kdesudo. However, in the meantime, this function is missing from dolphin. Now, I know that conventional wisdom says never use a graphical program as root, and personally, I know my way around the terminal well enough that this isn’t a big issue for me. But for some people, this may be an issue. Hopefully, returning the root privileges to dolphin will come sooner than later, as I could see this as something that may cause a significant uproar in the user base.
Having said all of that, for the experienced Linux user wanting a great KDE experience, Neon is tough to beat. Stability is awesome, and having the latest KDE everything is the icing on the cake.
The question many of you are probably asking is will I stick with Neon as my main desktop. In short, no (although I will continue to use if for a few more weeks to do some kde-based videos). But this isn’t because of some deficiency on Neon’s part. It is more about me and KDE in general. I’ve tried a variety of KDE distros many times over the years, and the same thing always happens. Within a month or so, I’ll get aggravated with KDE and replace it with something else (which, for the past few years, is generally something running the Gnome desktop).
I love how you can tweak every little detail in KDE…how the desktop looks, how the windows behave, KDE Activities and so forth. And because I am so OCD about my computer, I will obsess over every little detail, trying to create the ultimate desktop experience, and never achieve it, always making minor changes here and there. This will cause productivity to take a major nosedive, leading to my frustration, eventually forcing me to scrap the who KDE distro for something else.
So really, the choice is more about my personality than how good KDE Neon is. And it is a good distro…cutting edge KDE packages on a solid Ubuntu LTS core…simple awesomeness. And with minimal default packages, this distro is the tweaker’s dream. But for me it doesn’t work because I can’t get anything done.
I hope this review has proven useful. Be sure to check out the companion YouTube video demonstrating Tilix in action. As always, leave comments and questions below, and I’ll try to get to them ASAP. Thanks for reading, and be sure to share this post on social media.
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