We’ve all seen those “screenshot tours” of FOSS desktops, but how about a real, guided tour of the Plasma (KDE) desktop? There are still a great many people who simply are not familiar with Plasma’s features. A large number of people never had any computer training, and when they find themselves in such an advanced environment, they feel completely lost. Many people can barely find their way around a single desktop; the concept of multiple virtual desktops is completely lost on them — never mind Plasma’s activities. So let’s take a little time and make some very basic changes to our desktop theme, and then organize our work. After all, that’s what activities are all about.
Some of my favorite features of Plasma are:
- Customizability: we can change just about anything I want
- Activities: allow us to organize our tasks into related groups
- Virtual Desktops (workspaces in some environments): standard fare in FOSS desktops
- Application Set: Kontact, Digikam, Kate, K3B and Amarok — the apps by which I live and die
I realize some people want to jump right in and get to work, and that’s great. Frankly, though, I like to “setup shop” first, to better organize my work and make it more comfortable for me. It is absolutely not necessary to use the virtual desktops and activities, but I find it helpful in organizing my tasks. Neither is there any rule that says my way is the only way, or even that it will suit you at all. But I hope you’ll take what I show you today, and experiment some, to make Plasma work for you. I have long said that Plasma works the way I work. With a little effort, you can make that true for you, too.
Let’s start by making some basic changes to the way the desktop and windows look. We do this at a basic level by changing the theme. First, we’ll open the Desktop (or System) Settings (or Configure Desktop) application. This is the “Control Center,” if you will, for all our Plasma desktop settings. We can change just about everything we want from here — fonts, themes, screensavers, power settings, and much more. For now we are going to focus on the basic theme, so open up the Workspace Appearance module, where we can change the way the windows look, the cursor color and style, and the color scheme of the desktop.
For my windows, I chose “Get New Decorations” and downloaded a decoration called Olympic. There is another I like a lot, called Tragedy. In the “Download New” dialog, I like to order by ratings. I figure highly rated items are probably of higher quality than the others. I frequently find it difficult to see each item well, so I use the details link in the dialog, and frequently just install several items that look interesting to me. We can use the same dialog to uninstall the ones we don’t like. So pick something you like here and install it. Or just select one of the pre-installed decorations if you like one of those. Be sure to click “Apply” if you do make changes.
We can do the same for our desktop theme. Just click on “Desktop Theme” and select a new theme. Use the Get New option to search for and install new themes if you like. I think most people prefer something of a unified theme, so that windows look similar to the general desktop. In order to change the look and feel of our applications, we need to return to the System Settings Overview and open the “Application Appearance” module. If you’re still in the Workspace Appearance module, click the “Overview” button with the “Back” arrow. Then click the “Application Appearance” module to open it.
I tend to stick with the default widget style, but you can change that if you like. The more important item in this module is the color scheme, so click on “Colors.” Again, we can get new color schemes by clicking the “Get New Schemes” button. We can typically find schemes geared toward your particular distro, and that match the desktop theme you chose, in the Workspace Appearance module. Sometimes the changes we’ve made here affect the way icons and other things look. I’ll leave you to your whims here, but suffice it to say, there are many icon themes from which you can choose. Go exploring! Oh yeah, we need to eventually get some work done, don’t we? What say we get organized?
First we’ll want to organize our desktops, then we’ll need to create new activities, and finally, we’ll want to be able to quickly switch between them. Setting up virtual desktops requires a few steps, so let’s do that first. There are two ways to configure virtual desktops. If your panel shows a desktop pager (basically a little rectangle), you can right-click on it and select “Pager Settings.” You can also access this dialog from the Desktop/System Settings control center. In Desktop/System Settings, click on the “Workspace Behavior” module. Hint: you have a little more control from here.
Click the “Virtual Desktops” icon, and use the arrows to set the number of virtual desktops you would like. We can even give them names. We might call one “Office,” another “Multimedia,” and another “System.” Be aware that these virtual desktops will be reflected across all your activities, so you might want to keep the desktop names focused on tasks that apply to all activities. Who says you can’t listen to music while you write code? Thus, having a desktop called “Multimedia” that shows up in your Dev activity is a good thing. You’ll notice a tab called “Switching,” which lets you change the effects you see when you switch between desktops. I’ll leave you to explore that on your own, so for now, be sure to click “Apply” to save changes, and then click on the “Workspace” icon.
Notice the Dashboard option. Here we can choose to “show an independent widget set.” I recommend selecting that. I’ll explain why after we create a new activity. First, we have one more thing we should do to help us with our virtual desktops, and that’s to make some changes to the task manager. Right-click on the panel at the bottom, in a blank space near the center of the screen, and then select “Task Manager Settings” from the pop-up menu. I usually check the two boxes that say to “only show tasks from current desktop/activity.” Now let’s create that new activity.
There should be an Activity Manager icon in your default panel. If not, Plasma has a “cashew” at the top (left or right) corner. Click on that to see the Activity Manager. With the panel open, click the “Create Activity” button (on the right side of the screen). We can choose from one of the included templates, clone the current activity, or start with an empty desktop. Starting with an empty desktop means we’ll need to start fresh, in terms of setting up each desktop with widgets, wallpapers and other decorations. Once we click the option we want, we are immediately dropped into our shiny new activity. If you want, you can open the Activity Manager again, and give your new activity a name. From here, you can also switch betwen activities with a click of the mouse.
Remember that independent widget set I mentioned earlier? Let’s set that up before we go. You can either click on the pager icon for your current desktop, or you can use the [Ctrl]+[F12] keyboard shortcut to actvate the desktop dashboard. You should see a little label at the top of the screen that says “Widget Dashboard.” You can put whatever widgets you like here, but I keep the Activity Bar, a clock, calendar and calculator here for quick access. To add widgets, simply right-click, and select “Add Widgets” from the pop-up menu. Use the [Esc] key to return to your desktop. Now, anytime you hit the [Ctrl]+[F12] shortcut, you have instant access to whatever widgets you added to the dashboard. You can also add widgets to each desktop by following the same process.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of Plasma. Hopefully, you are starting to see how you might want to setup your Plasma environment. You are limited only by your imagination. Be sure to experiment with some of the template activities — the Search and Launch activity might be really attractive to those who are coming from the GNOME world. Now that we have setup shop, let’s get some work done!
Don Parris wears a Facility Services cape by day, and transforms into LibreMan at night. He has written numerous articles about free tech, and hangs out with the Cha-Ha crowd, learning about computer security. He also enjoys making ceviche with his wife, and writing about his travels in Perú.