The KDE Plasma desktop is great, but most Linux distributions default to GNOME. Why don’t they bet more on KDE? Plasma is more than capable of serving as the basis for a distribution, so why aren’t more KDE-based options available? It turns out that the reasons are mostly technical.
1. KDE has a massive codebase
KDE consists of many parts. There’s the Plasma desktop environment. There are several libraries and frameworks that work in the background. And there are hundreds of applications. That’s a lot of code to learn, and that’s a lot to commit to maintaining and supporting.
But it’s not just the amount of code. Each of these components has evolved over the years. They have captured the complexity that can make them more difficult for people to understand.
GNOME isn’t just a simpler user experience, it’s a simpler software suite. This makes it easier to implement. Many KDE-based distributions are actually alternatives to a distribution’s default desktop, and it takes more effort to make them available than you might expect.
2. KDE has a staggered release schedule
Various parts of the core KDE experience are released with a different release cadence. There’s the KDE Plasma desktop that it interacts with. There’s the KDE Frameworks, which consists of back-end libraries. Then there’s KDE Gear, which consists of over 120 programs, libraries, and plugins.
Each of these packages has its own release schedule. Sometimes a version of KDE Plasma may be released with support for features that require a version of the KDE Frameworks that has not yet been officially released.
This amount of moving parts can be a challenge for distribution maintainers. If you want to build a distribution based on GNOME, you can release a new version every six months after the latest version of GNOME is released. If you want to build a distribution based on KDE, the release cadence is not immediately obvious.
3. KDE is infinitely configurable
The KDE Plasma desktop is perhaps the most configurable desktop interface. This strengthens the more tech-inclined people who enjoy turning their PC into exactly what they want it to be. You can have multiple panels or no panels at all, a global menu bar or application menus, a dock or a taskbar, or anything else you like.
You can easily make KDE Plasma emulate Windows, macOS, or GNOME without needing to know how to code or install additional components.
But this can be a negative for less technical people who may accidentally delete their taskbar by clicking some menus too fast, with no idea how to get it back. This can be a hassle for support teams, who are expected to not only respond to issues with the default layout, but with any possible configuration as well.
KDE’s configurability doesn’t just apply to the desktop. Many KDE applications can be modified in a similar way, with extensive menus and many options. You can remove the application menu, change the icons that appear on a toolbar, or change what appears in an application window. When issues do arise, this configurability makes it difficult for both developers and support teams to replicate the experience.
4. KDE software is more complex
Open the System Settings app in KDE Plasma. The options are seemingly endless. There are categories of options that sound similar. It can be hard to find the specific setting you’re looking for without going to the search bar.
Most of the KDE software is like this: from the desktop environment and the file manager to the text editor. Many have their own long list of preferences. You can even spend quite a bit of time configuring the default KDE terminal.
Every KDE application does a lot of things, which means there’s more code to learn and more complexity to support. The task of understanding and shipping each desktop component requires more effort than in other desktop environments where the software doesn’t try to do as much.
5. KDE has more bugs
As a result of this configurability and complexity, KDE is more buggy. There’s more that the desktop is trying to do, which means developers have to test more.
It’s not enough that the window list actually shows your open windows at the bottom of the screen. The window list should be able to rotate and resize as needed, should you want to move the panel to one side of the screen. This requires additional code to get everything working, giving more opportunities for bugs to creep in.
Similarly, a bug that only appears when using an alternative theme and auto-hiding panels on multiple monitors cannot be dismissed as a niche use case when all of this is available out of the box.
You can listen to KDE developer Nate Graham discuss part of the challenge at Destiny Linux episode 261, such as trying to ensure that custom desktop layouts stay in place whenever you connect or disconnect an additional monitor. Multiple monitor support is simply easier to implement in other desktop environments.
6. KDE is not as polished or consistent
The end result is an experience that doesn’t feel quite as polished. All the components are in place to create a professional and quality experience. But it’s challenging to make sure every aspect of the desktop looks good when every aspect can be easily changed as well.
And despite how configurable KDE is, some problems cannot be easily addressed. There are many inconsistencies in the different applications. Some apps use a menu bar. Others use a hamburger menu button. Some use both!
There are some issues that you have to look closely to see. Scroll bars with different amounts of padding. Frames with rounded blue outlines pressed directly against the edge of borderless windows (as in Dolphin and KWrite). You can’t fix these things without becoming a developer and learning to read code.
These types of problems are not bugs. Addressing them requires a more cohesive vision and a general agreement that “this is the way to do things”. It involves deferring some decisions to the designers and following their recommendations. And it requires having developers who can make the changes. The KDE community faces all three challenges.
Does this mean that KDE is not a good default?
No. There are developments that can make KDE more attractive to distribute. Consider how Valve’s KDE-based desktop for the Steam Deck has read-only system files, like Fedora Silverblue. This can protect you from breaking your system, even on an Arch based system receiving the latest KDE updates. Valve’s choice of Flatpak also ensures that you get the latest apps.
Valve is not alone. TUXEDO Computers uses KDE Plasma on their machines. Some companies choose to go with KDE over the alternatives, but they are only a minority. But there are many reasons to believe that the future is bright for KDE.