Looks & Feel
As of Plasma 5.2 KDE has fully migrated to the new “Breeze” visual style and away from the previous Oxygen mainstay. Previous iterations of the desktop saw only certain portions of the style enabled by default – withholding others like Breeze window decorations – owing to technical issues and performance reasons. Those issues have since been cleared up, and everything has been green-lit for prime-time.
The style includes the usual trappings of a complete theme; icons, cursors, decorations, widgets, a workspace theme, and screen-lock screens. Breeze follows the trend desktops have been paving, moving towards a lighter and less cluttered design, using more subtle effects, and attempting to introduce animations where appropriate. Plasma 5.2 and Frameworks 5 Applications have transitioned to a flatter style, and it’s safe to say Breeze veers towards a more Apple-esque school of design over Google or Microsoft takes on flatness.
Applications in Plasma 5.2, whether using KDE Development Platform 4 or Frameworks 5, all follow a uniform look and feel; this is a stark difference from the KDE 3 to Frameworks 4 jump where KDE 3 applications never received an updated theme due to limited toolkit potential. GTK applications don’t seem to be following along – but that may just be a result of pre-release software. Plasma 5.2 out-of-box looks and feels completely uniform, with all parts and most applications working in unison. About the only exception to this is applications with unique toolkits such as Chrome, Firefox, and Libreoffice, which still stick out – but luckily most of them can at least pick up on the colour scheme so they don’t utterly wreck the unified front KDE has managed to put fourth.
The Breeze workspace theme is at first blush very similar to Oxygen on the desktop, only flatter. The first thing likely to be noticed is the “overline” which marks various elements of the panel, and the use of monochrome icons. The KDE logo in the panel is a more reserved dark grey, as opposed to the shiny blue icon which ruled before it. The Breeze workspace theme feels more like an extra-refined evolution of the Oxygen theme, and that’s not a bad thing; Oxygen was already headed in that direction and it provided a polished desktop feel.
Panels and widgets now make use of a more OSX-like filtering process which brings backgrounds to a consistent luminosity. The effect surfaces the hues of the background into the panels, creating an almost “milky” appeal. The effect is subtle and hard to notice, but it guarantees the panels and Plasma-based surfaces will be readable regardless of the desktop background. Much like anything else in KDE, this extra filtering process is built as a modular option, and can easily be disabled separate from the background blurring process. The filtering process adapts to the colours of the background and the colours of your panels, so if you’re rocking a dark theme the panel backgrounds will instead force the luminosity down to match.
Moving your eyes up you’ll see a vibrant triangle pattern wallpaper, replacing the previous wallpaper of Plasma 5.1 which was a… vibrant triangle pattern. Whoever made the new wallpaper had no imagination whatsoever. But stepping outside of Plasma 5, previous releases of KDE tended to use various blue wallpapers which maintained the ‘brand’ but ultimately felt heavy and even somewhat oppressive, so while the vibrant triangle wallpapers of Plasma 5 may be a hair too colourful for some, the default look no longer feels brooding, and the colourful hit more readily calls the eye.
The mouse cursors have been updated as well, using the more chunky shapes found in the Oxygen cursors, only with a more mac-like colour scheme and flattened appearance. The shadows are barely underneath the icons, making them feel much closer to the content below. Dark and bright cursors are available this time around, with dark cursors remaining the default.
Breeze includes a new icon set to supersede the Oxygen icons of old. The Breeze icon set is split into two distinct halves; small monochrome icons used in task bars and lists, along with vibrant full-colour icons representing files, applications, and categories.
The Visual Design Group heading up the design of the look and feel started the entire design process with a colour palette as their first task, and the Breeze icon set showcases the palette with gusto. Throughout the entire experience consistent colours and appeal are pervasive, and the icons seem to just “match” everything thoughout the environment. The palette used by Breeze is much smaller than that of the original Oxygen, and it helps make the matching scheme more obvious.
The monochrome icons use spot-colour to indicate the potential ramifications of clicking a button, such as red indicating that you may be taking a destructive action, while green hints you’ll create something or successfully finish a task. The mono icons are far less eye-catching than their full-colour brothers, and this helps keep your eyes off the toolbars and trays to more firmly focus you on whichever task you are working on. It can occasionally be hard to pick a monochrome icon from a line-up, but it also means none of them stand out to distract you either.
The colour icons are where the Breeze icon designers have stepped up; where the monochrome icons are reserved, the colour icons are unabashedly willing to step out and announce themselves with sharp lines and recognisable shapes. These icons are flattened but not flat; where the Oxygen icons tried to create shapes and use perspective, Breeze relies on subtle gradients and angular shadows to accentuate depth. The effect gives icons the appearance of layered glossy construction paper, and the icons seem more recognisable by eliminating much of the noise Oxygens’ highly detailed icons created.
Application Theme & Window Dressing
As of Plasma 5.2 applications are fully vested in the Breeze styling, including window decorations and the general application theme. Unlike Oxygen which aimed for the ‘slate’ look by making windows appear to be a slab, Breeze visually separates the decoration from the window with a dark grey on top, and a lighter off-white below. Interestingly, you can manually set the decoration palette used in per-application settings.
The controls and toggles Breeze offers feel ‘lighter’ and visually refreshing, with bright blue highlights and much more reserved flair. Where Oxygen made heavy use of gradients, alternating shades, wireframes, and depth, Breeze looks to present the minimum required and get out of the way. This isn’t to say the design is void of depth, and the theme incorporates shadows on many widgets which are clicked on. By default Breeze also uses a much lighter colour palette than Oxygen previously used, making the design feel fresher, crisper, and ‘cheery’ without being obnoxious.
The new design is also highly animated, and clicking radio buttons or check-boxes has slick little animations. Window title all smoothly fade between active and inactive colours, with every button using a smooth transition.
Panels and Widgets, a Unified Style
Plasma is the most modular desktop available today. Period. Typical Plasma desktops at their core are an assembly of “widgets” and “panels”, which can be moved, configured, and changed at will. Moving from a Plasma 4 desktop onto Plasma 5 almost all of the widgets had to be re-written or heavily re-tooled individually to work on the new platform, which offered a chance for desktop developers to revise the look, feel, and layout of the many pieces the Plasma desktop is assembled with.
In Plasma 4 widget authors generally designed their widgets to their individual tastes which resulted in a mishmash of slight differences that made the components feel like disparate parts hewn together with blatant disregard to the overall look and feel. Some widgets used heavy gradients, others added “shine lines”, some used flat blocks of shading to separate cells while others used rounded rectangles to do so. The representative example of this is the calendar widget opened by clicking the time; in previous releases it had strange spacing heuristics and somewhat random shading, while it’s newer incarnation it’s a dashing and cohesive grid which fits the look and feel perfectly. Desktop widget developers constantly back-referenced visual guidelines and referred to designers for the visual structure of individual widgets, allowing them to work in tandem and create a consistent experience.
Technologically the look of the Plasma desktop has also become more consistent; the “milky” background shading is pervasive throughout the entire desktop style, with panels, popups, and widgets all adhering to the effects engine – unlike Plasma 4 which failed to always apply effects to desktop-laden widgets. In Plasma 4 adding a calendar to the desktop yielded a semitransparent widget with no blurring underneath, but opening the exact same calendar by clicking the clock would yield a popup with full visual effects. In Plasma 5 the effects are now applied to widgets on the desktop the same way they are applied to popups, making the widgets feel much more “solid” and consistent, and far lass “tacked on”. This can obscure your wallpaper more easily, but the consistency is apparent.
Not only are the effects universal on the new Plasma, but animations are remarkably consistent throughout all widgets, and I have yet to notice a single lacking transition. In Plasma 4 occasionally the transitions of widgets could have inconsistent quality, and there were odd glitches; but in Plasma 5.2 the effects are driven by QML, resulting in just about everything on Plasma 5 being animated. While an over-animated desktop could begin to feel counterproductive, the animation in Plasma 5.2 is reserved enough to not become a liability, and while you can appreciate the animation you never feel like it’s trying to distract you or show off.