Customizing KDE's Plasma desktop

Beyond Wallpaper

© Lead Image © sergwsq,

© Lead Image © sergwsq,

Article from Issue 187/2016

The KDE Plasma desktop has so many configuration options, it scares some users away. But if you're patient enough to learn the secrets, you'll find some useful tricks for customizing the Plasma user environment.

Some desktop environments are little more than launchers for applications. By contrast, KDE Plasma takes the perspective that customizing the desktop can reduce the number of mouse clicks and make resources easier to find. The result is a desktop on which almost everything can be customized, but new users might have trouble deciding where to start. In fact, many users never get beyond the basics. Once they have right-clicked on the desktop and selected a wallpaper from Default Desktops (Figure 1), they are satisfied. The more adventurous might select System Settings | Workspace Appearance to select a theme or add icons to the Desktop directory within the Dolphin file manager, but, based on their experience with other desktops, many users see little need for anything more.

Figure 1: Even wallpaper configuration in Plasma offers a wide array of choices.

However, the Desktop and Workspace Appearance settings are only the most basic possibilities. Clicking the desktop toolkit – a rectangle on one side of the desktop, or a semi-circle in a corner – holds the key to many more options (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The desktop toolkit is the key to Plasma's most innovative features.

Select Unlock Widgets, and you are in what might be called maintenance mode. You can tell when you are in maintenance mode because items on the desktop sprout a mini-menu for (from top to bottom) resizing, rotating, configuring, moving, and deleting. Similarly, the panel shows a drop-down panel with options to reposition the panel or to change its size and behavior.

If you choose, you can also add utilities called widgets to the desktop or panel (Figure 3). The mini-menus are a distraction when you are working, so select Lock Widgets to hide them when you are finished configuring. These options differ from other desktop environments, mostly in how they are arranged. Yet, while these options may be the limit of customization on most desktops, in KDE Plasma, they are barely the beginning.

Figure 3: A selection of some of the available widgets.

Multiple Desktops and Icon Displays

Many of Plasma's customizations are designed to provide multiple desktops and to customize the icon set for the current task. This emphasis avoids clutter and positions files, applications, and URLs that a task might require within just a single click.

Even if you prefer a single desktop, you can extend the usefulness of virtual workspaces by clicking System Settings | WorkSpace Behavior | Virtual Desktops | Different Widgets for each desktop. With this single selection, you suddenly have several separate desktops. Even if you only want to make each virtual workspace identifiable at a glance, this selection is a significant advantage.

However, why stop there? From the desktop toolkit, you can create multiple desktops, each with its own virtual workspaces, by selecting Activities. Instead of a single, generalized desktop, or instead of launching applications from the menu – which can take many clicks – you can set up a custom desktop with each resource a single click away, where you can find it with minimal disruption.

The purpose of each activity is entirely up to you. If you place all the files for a project or a client in one folder, you can create an activity for it and select Default Desktop Settings | LayOut to display the folder, turning the desktop into one big file manager. Other folders might be set up for routine tasks, such as writing or graphic design (Figure 4). If you are a gamer, you might want an activity that displays all your favorite games. Other activities could be collections of widgets for hardware monitoring or news. I also have an activity that is a classical desktop with a generalized set of all-purpose icons, and I have even heard of an activity for pulling down URLs for later reading, forming a kind of scrapbook.

Figure 4: The Activities manager is one way of moving between activities.

Nor are you confined to a single desktop layout. Later versions of KDE Plasma 4 come with seven different templates for activities, including a Newspaper Layout for arranging widgets into columns and a Grouping Desktop for arranging icons in clusters (Figure 5). So far, Plasma 5 has fewer options, although more layouts may arrive in a future release.

Figure 5: Each activity can have its own layout.

Each activity also can have its own icons. Personally, I try to confine each activity or virtual workspace to between seven and nine icons, so that I can easily find everything. For example, on my Writing activity, I have icons for Bluefish and LibreOffice for writing, KSnapshot for screenshots, the URLs for a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary, and a link to my running list of articles for tax purposes. By contrast, my Info activity uses a newspaper layout and includes widgets for the local weather, a calculator, a timer, and a unit converter.

Each set of icons can be placed in its directory and the activity set to display the directory. A single directory can be displayed on each activity, or several Folder widgets containing icon.

Another option is to place all the icons in the Desktop folder then use Default Desktop Settings | Filter to display only some of the available icons on each activity. In the file manager, you can also set a file or directory to open in a particular activity. There are no right or wrongs among these options – just whatever works best for you.

Most users don't think in terms of multiple desktops or swappable icons, so adding activities and creating multiple icon sets can be a project that takes weeks rather than half an hour after installation. However, once you are used to the ideas, they can be like salted nuts – after a few, you start hungering for more.

Personally, I started with three activities then added one for a book I was writing. A couple of months later, I added another two. More recently, I deleted the activity for the book after I finished it, then added another one. The general tendency, I notice, is to add more, although I will probably confine the permanent activities to fewer than nine for simplicity's sake. Once you have two or more activities set up, you might also want to customize how you switch between them. Keyboard shortcuts, either for each activity or to cycle forward and back through them, are one solution. Another solution is the Activities widget, which displays the Activities manager, a scrolling sidebar in which each activity is named, and an icon.

My own preference is the Activities bar (Figure 6), a launcher on the desktop that places all activities one click away. I rotate it so that it is parallel to the side of the screen, where it is easy to reach but takes up little room.

Figure 6: The Activities bar is a launcher for activities. Here, the bar is rotated ninety degrees to minimize the space it occupies.

Other Customizations

KDE Plasma's System Settings are far more extensive than any other desktop's, so you will probably want to go through them slowly, a few at a time. Fortunately, the default settings are reasonable enough that most people can live with them, even if they are not ideal. Still, one place to start might be with System Settings | Workspace Behavior | Screen Edges. Plasma's screen edges are eight hot spots (Figure 7), each of which can be customized to perform 1 of 13 actions, such as locking the screen or toggling between windows.

Figure 7: Screen edges are hot spots that trigger different actions.

Three actions – displaying the desktop as a cube, cylinder, or sphere – require hardware acceleration. Probably, you will not want to use all eight hot spots, and some of the actions can be started in other ways, but, after activities and icons, Screen Edges can do the most to increase the convenience of your computing. For personalization, System Settings | Desktop Effects are probably the main collection of options. Many of the effects are frankly eye candy, but choices such as how windows on the desktop change focus or appear in the background can make surprising differences. For example, setting inactive windows to dim is convenient if you work with multiple windows open and sometimes have trouble finding the active window (Figure 8).

Figure 8: The KDE Plasma Desktop Effects range from eye candy and personal preferences to practical options for accessibility.

For disabled users, the most important Desktop Effects are probably those for accessibility, such as Zoom, which magnifies the entire desktop, or Track Mouse, which helps you to keep track of the mouse. These effects can be combined with the on-screen Keyboard widget and the Accessibility and Shortcuts and Gestures sections in the System Settings to make KDE Plasma usable for those with disabilities to an extent that was impossible in earlier KDE release series.

Types of Customization

Beyond this outline, KDE Plasma's settings stop offering alternative workflows and become more a matter of preference. For example, System Settings | Account Details | Web Shortcuts might be convenient if you regularly type URLs, but it would be irrelevant if you maintain extensive lists of bookmarks. In the same way, the Default Applications in System Settings are only relevant if the shipped defaults are not to your liking.

At any rate, such preferences are easily understandable. What makes users shy away from KDE Plasma is usually the customizations that extend or reinterpret the classical desktop. In fact, many cannot see the point of KDE's Activities features, because they are perfectly content with a desktop that does what desktops have always done. To which I can only say: Try these features before you speak. You might be surprised how quickly a custom icon set or a choice of desktop layouts becomes a necessity.

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