KDE Plasma 6.0 brings the same old charm and confusion

The big new version of the other desktop, complete with improved HDR and a spinning desktop cube

The latest major release of KDE Plasma is here, a decade after KDE 5. This is only the fifth February 29 since KDE 4 in 2008, making this a rare event.

After months of anticipation, what the KDE team is calling the Megarelease 6 has arrived, complete with new versions of the underlying KDE Frameworks 6.0 and the separately numbered KDE Gear 24.02 suite of applications.

The Plasma 6.0 desktop is Wayland-native, and in line with Red Hat's plans to drop X.org, Fedora plans to offer Plasma 6 only on Wayland. This won't be the case on all distros, though, as the announcement says:

We will continue providing support for the legacy X11 session for users who prefer to stick with it for now.

Plasma 6 also offers improved HDR support, if your monitor supports high dynamic range – and your eyes are good enough. If you have problems with color vision, there are also several modes which reduce color usage, a feature we first saw in Elementary OS 7.1.

KDE Neon showing the shiny new Plasma 6.0 desktop, complete with floating panel.

KDE Neon showing the shiny new Plasma 6.0 desktop, complete with floating panel

This release also sees the return of the 3D cube animation when switching between virtual desktops, which was removed in KDE Plasma 5.23 in 2021. Sadly, though, not only is it off by default, but even when enabled it isn't how Plasma switches between virtual desktops – it's an optional extra with its own keystroke. (We also note that the Settings app describes the keystroke as "Meta+C", when actually it's Super+C, but Meta/Super confusion runs very deep and KDE has been getting this wrong for years. Outside of Linux and KDE circles, the more common usage is that Super is the "Windows key" and Meta is Alt.)

Aside from the cube effect, though, we find that 6.0 looks very much like 5.27. In testing on the Thinkpad X1 Carbon Gen 10, we did find that fractional zoom worked better in KDE on Wayland than KDE on X.org, but aside from relatively modest details like that, it doesn't look or work very differently than before. The floating taskbar that appeared in Plasma 5.25 is now the default, and the Applications menu also floats separately above the taskbar. The Settings program has been reorganized, and the Dolphin file manager now defaults to single-click to select and double-click to open.

Even so, the developers' excitement is understandable. It's been a long time since there was a major release of KDE: it's almost ten years since the last one, KDE Plasma 5, which had a trendy new flat look, and which after six years cleaned up some of the damage from the major and controversial system-wide revamp of KDE 4.

The thing is, though, that the big-ticket feature of KDE Plasma 6 is essentially invisible. The KDE tools are mostly implemented in C++ using the Qt toolkit. Although KDE is one of its most visible users, Qt is a third-party product, which orginally came from Trolltech, was subsequently acquired by Nokia then sold off again. KDE 5 is based on Qt 5.x, which is now past its support end-of-life, forcing the KDE folks to maintain their own fork.

With the release of KDE Plasma 6, the project has moved to the current Qt 6.x release series, and soon the developers can turn off the life support for KDE 5.x and the Qt 5 Patch Collection – although a bug-fix release 5.27.11 is planned for next month, that may be the end of the line.

We feel that the slightly incoherent nature of the sprawling KDE project is shown by the way that the KDE Gear collection of applications has its own independent version-numbering scheme: its new version is 24.02, rather than 6.0. We tried out the new desktop via KDE's in-house demonstration distro KDE Neon, which is based on Ubuntu 22.04, running in the latest VirtualBox. It mostly worked fine, with just some minor glitches – for instance, the Restart and Shutdown buttons on the main menu didn't work.

Plasma 6 looks and works very much like Plasma 5.27, complete with the same inconsistencies as in the previous version. For example, some components, such as the System Info and Settings programs, say they're version 6.0; others, such as the Dolphin file manager, say they're version 24.02.00.

The main components, such as Settings and the file manager, have only hamburger menus, although in Dolphin, it's on the right, and in Settings, it's on the left.

The Settings app is version 6, with the hamburger on the left, but Dolphin is version 24.02, with the burger on the right.

The Settings app is version 6, with the hamburger on the left, but Dolphin is version 24.02, with the burger on the right

Others accessories, such as the Kate and Kwrite text editors – both, incidentally, version 24.02.00 – have traditional menu bars. Some programs, such as the Discover software store, have neither. Here at The Reg FOSS desk, we strongly dislike hamburger menus, and we hoped to see an option to permanently banish them across the whole of KDE – and we're not alone. Since KDE is famed for its customizability, we feel that this is a prime candidate for a global setting, but we couldn't find one.

Some KDE 6 apps, though, still have traditional menu bars, such as Neon's two text editors, Kate and Kwrite.

Some KDE 6 apps, though, still have traditional menu bars, such as Neon's two text editors, Kate and Kwrite

If there is a Help menu, then the "About KDE" option does not, in fact, tell you the version of KDE you're running. It has four tabs of blurb, none of which contain a version number – odd, since we thought that was the primary purpose of an "About" box. This is another example of duplication in KDE. Most apps have two "About" menu entries. There's one for KDE as a whole, which doesn't tell you any version info, and another one for that specific app, which is where you'll find one of the two types of version number. There are also three alternative main menus, three alternative task switchers for the main panel, and so on.

We're sure that there are solid historical reasons for these sorts of inconsistencies, but we feel that they make the desktop not only confusing, and as a result, less friendly and discoverable. We suspect that habitual users don't even notice them, but we feel that such things make the desktop off-putting to people trying or considering it.

Other handy options have disappeared over the years, such as the removal of the ability for the taskbar to span multiple displays, or support for BeOS-style tabbed title bars. In an environment with so many options to tweak and settings to adjust, it feels that the ones that we genuinely want are slowly being removed. We really miss the look and feel of KDE 1.x and 2.x, shown to its best in Xandros Linux 20 years ago. Those early versions got the feature balance about right, which is why the Trinity desktop team forked and continued KDE 3 – as seen in Q4OS among others.

If you already liked KDE 5, version 6 looks great. It does all that the previous release did and more, and has updated underpinnings that should make it more maintainable going forward.

If you weren't a KDE enthusiast before, there's nothing here to tempt you. Version 6 fails to remove the duplication of features, the mismatched UIs of different components, and the overcomplexity of the environment as a whole. It's just as complex and fiddly as it has been for the last decade and a half. At least the wretched cashew nut widget hasn't come back.

The duplication shows through, not only in the two versioning systems, but even in the naming. We see no real need for the distinction between the KDE project, the KDE Plasma desktop, the KDE Gear apps, and the KDE Foundation libraries. It puts us in mind of nothing so much as the sort of irritating folks who like to remind us that "actually, it's GNU Linux." Plasma isn't even used to distinguish the desktop from the fondleslab edition – that's also called Plasma. Just call it Linux, and just call it KDE.

Since it doesn't add any major new features, KDE Plasma 6 was the perfect opportunity to take a metaphorical weed whacker to the entire KDE codebase and give it the severe pruning it desperately needs. Eliminate the mixture of hamburgers and menu bars, the double "About" boxes, the myriad config dialogs and so on. Enforce one global UI, one global versioning system, one global naming system. But it didn't happen, and we glumly suspect it never will. It's hard to enforce discipline across a community of developers, and harder still to delete code rather than add more of it.

KDE Plasma 6 will start appearing in rolling-release distros such as openSUSE Tumbleweed very soon. Fixed-release distro users will have to wait rather longer. In the case of Kubuntu users, until October, as the release came too late for Ubuntu 24.04 (we're sure there will be an optional-extra update available very soon). Plasma 6 should be part of Fedora 40, though. ®

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