KaOS 2020.01KaOS is a rolling release distribution whose team chooses to focus on one CPU architecture (x86_64), one desktop environment (KDE Plasma) and one application toolkit (Qt). The project publishes regular, monthly snapshots of the distribution. The January snapshot featured a few interesting changes. In particular, the distribution now features signed kernel modules for added security and supports installing non-free NVIDIA video drivers during the install process if an NVIDIA card is detected. KaOS has also replaced the Calligra productivity suite with LibreOffice.
The latest snapshot is a 2.1GB download. Booting from the project's media brings up a menu offering to start a live desktop environment, start the desktop with non-free NVIDIA drivers, or run a hardware detection tool. When the system boots, the KDE Plasma desktop loads and displays a welcome screen. This window provides quick access to the system installer, a list of available packages, and links to the distribution's forum and install guide. The provided documentation seemed clear to me and includes screenshots to guide new users in setting up the distribution. The welcome screen also features a second tab which provides the default usernames and passwords for the live media.
KaOS may be unique in the way it sets up Plasma. The desktop places the panel vertically down the right-hand side of the screen. The application menu is located in the upper-right corner and the system tray at the bottom-right. In the middle are a few quick-launch icons and the task switcher. It makes for a fairly busy panel by default, especially when notifications, the update indicator, and network connection icon are all trying to grab the user's attention.
KaOS 2020.01 -- Running the Falkon web browser and the Dolphin file manager (full image size: 501kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
KaOS uses the Calamares graphical installer to get the distribution up and running. Calamares does a nice job of walking us through picking our time zone from a map, picking our keyboard layout, and creating a new user account. Calamares will also show us the distribution's release notes and can walk us through guided or manual partitioning. I went with the manual option which is quite flexible and supports a great range of filesystems, including ext2/3/4, JFS, and Btrfs. The installer suggests XFS as the default. I switched this to Btrfs and it worked well for me.
Once the installer finishes setting up the distribution on the hard drive it offers to reboot the computer. In my test runs, Calamares crashed as it was closing, producing an error report. This did not impact my ability to boot the installed system, but it was an unfortunate part of my first impression of the distribution.
Booting into my fresh copy of KaOS brought up a graphical login screen. We have the option of choosing between a "Plasma" session (running on X.Org) and a "Plasma Wayland" session. The X.Org session is the default. The login screen features a mostly white and grey background and white text. This caused some problems. For example, it was impossible for me to read the time and almost impossible to see the session options because the text and the background are the same colour in places. This seems like an obvious oversight, or the result of the KaOS team all having monitors of a resolution where the wallpaper and elements line up differently than they do on my screens.
I tried both the X.Org session and the Plasma on Wayland session. The Wayland session was, for all practical purposes, unusable. The desktop would load, but the screen resolution was unusually low, making it hard to see most desktop components and the mouse pointer did not work. The X.Org session worked as expected and, with the exception of some settings issues I will mention later, the desktop ran smoothly.
Once we get signed into the desktop a welcome screen appears. This is a different welcome screen than we saw during the live session. This one includes several tabs full of buttons that launch settings modules and other tools. The first tab mostly includes general desktop settings such as themes, widget styles, colours, and mouse behaviour. The second tab deals with wallpaper. One tab includes links to documentation, user forums, and alternative (ie newer) kernels. The documentation includes tips on posting support questions with system reports that will help developers assist users who are having trouble.
One tab in the welcome window is called Advanced and it handles user accounts, systemd settings and network management. Then there are two tabs providing a general overview of the distribution's philosophy and news updates such as new releases.
I started out trying KaOS in a VirtualBox environment. The distribution mostly ran well and integrated into the virtual machine automatically. Desktop performance was slow at first, however I was able to improve the experience by disabling compositing, file search and some visual effects. After that Plasma provided average performance in the virtual machine. When I switched over to running KaOS on physical hardware the experience was better. Plasma was much more responsive and applications opened quickly. The distribution correctly handled my screen resolution, wireless card, and audio worked out of the box. KaOS supported running in both UEFI and Legacy BIOS modes.
The distribution is heavier than most. A fresh install of KaOS took up 7.3GB of disk space and signing into Plasma consumed at least 715MB of RAM. This is more than most desktop distributions I have run lately and over 40% heavier than the last distribution (SolydXK) I ran with KDE Plasma.
When new software updates are available we can click on a red icon in the system tray which opens a simple, graphical update manager. This utility will list new packages it knows about and we can update all available packages in a batch. The update manager seems to only support an all-or-nothing approach to installing updates. Though only one small update was listed the first day I was using KaOS, 179 new packages were downloaded (total size unknown). I think this gap between what was reported and what was downloaded came from the package manager not refreshing its repository data before I clicked the update icon. The updates all installed without any problems.
KaOS ships with a graphical package manager called Octopi. The Octopi window lists packages on the left and categories of software on the right. There is a search bar at the top of the window. Near the bottom of the Octopi window is an information area which can display details of selected packages and status information during operations.
Octopi can handle installing, removing, and upgrading software. I only used it for installing and deleting software and it worked well in both situations. I'm not a big fan of Octopi as I find its approach to searching and filtering packages a bit cumbersome. However, it is functional and, thanks to the underlying pacman package manager, it is fast too.
One handy tool Octopi includes is the ability to collect information about the operating system and dump it into one big text file in our home directory. This information gathered includes package data, some logs, and statistics that may help other users or developers identify and fix problems. The project's documentation mentions we can attach this text file to requests for assistance to provide a better picture of the operating system for others to see. The information seems to be pretty general and, when I went through it, none of it seemed specifically identifying so it should be safe to post on user forums when asking for help.
KaOS 2020.01 -- Getting system information through Octopi (full image size: 229kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The distribution ships with a relatively small collection of desktop software, with applications coming from the KDE/Qt family of software. The Falkon web browser is included along with the Quassel IRC client, and LibreOffice. The Okular document viewer is available along with the KDE Connect software for interacting with Android phones. I found the Dolphin file manager and Krita drawing program included. To manage the look and feel of the desktop the KDE System Settings panel is available and it contains more features, switches, and options than I'd care to try to count.
KaOS ships with the K3b disc burning software, the Kamoso web cam utility, and a few multimedia applications. The mpv, SMPlayer, and SMTube applications are installed for us along with a full range of media codecs for playing audio and video files. We are also treated to the Marble virtual globe and KDE's useful Help documentation.
KaOS 2020.01 -- The KDE System Settings panel (full image size: 233kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
There is a short-cut for Skype which simply opens a web browser to display the Skype website. Digging a little deeper we find the GNU Compiler Collection, the systemd init software, and version 5.4 of the Linux kernel.
While the included applications are mostly in the KDE/Qt family, there are alternatives available through the distribution's repositories. I was able to easily install the Firefox web browser, for example, and there are often alternatives to the default programs.
While I was playing with KaOS I made a handful of observations about using the distribution, mostly with regards to little quirks or features that kept catching my attention. The most obvious one was the way in which the update notification icon in the system tray turns red and pulses when new software packages become available. I found this unusually distracting and a feature I wanted to remove right away. It is probably helpful for people who always want to install every update immediately, but I don't want to interrupt my work every time a new package enters the queue and having a throbbing red icon on the screen is something I find hard to ignore.
While I was using the live desktop session, opening the Falkon web browser would cause repeated prompts for a wallet password. (Four prompts appeared in succession if they were dismissed.) These prompts did not appear when I was running KaOS from my hard drive.
Once I tried to change the Plasma desktop's screen orientation, just to see if it would work upside down. Not only did Plasma immediately stop responding once its picture was flipped, but the next day I signed in to find my desktop had rotated again (this time 90 degrees) and the environment was non-responsive. The cure for this ailment was to sign into a text console, delete my .kde directory and then sign back into the desktop session.
The Wayland session did not work in any practical way in VirtualBox. While Wayland can function on physical hardware, it always felt a little stiff, as though the desktop was responding a little after I provided input. While in VirtualBox, screen resolution was severely limited and the mouse pointed did not work. The keyboard did response, but using the Wayland session was not practical.
KaOS ships with a number of shell aliases built in. Personally I don't like these and tend to remove them as the flags added to the aliased commands can cause errors or unexpected behaviour when mixed with the flags I typically use. I suspect these aliases are intended to be time saving devices, but for someone like me who is accustomed to using few or no aliases, they trip me up.
There is a neat feature built into Plasma that I quite like which allows the user to individually configure how specific applications display notifications. This on its own is helpful. What makes it even better is individual programs can be told to override the desktop's Do Not Disturb feature. In effect this means we can silence most applications' notices (like e-mail, updates, and network connectivity) while keeping notifications from the media keys and screen brightness enabled. This is a feature Robert Rijkhoff mentioned wanting to experience during his review of Zorin OS earlier this year.
I tend to have mixed feelings when I dive into a new snapshot of KaOS. On the one hand I appreciate it when developers have a vision for their distribution. I like it when a small team like the one behind Linux Mint or Void seems to have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish and focus on that without getting bogged down trying to make something that tries to appeal to everyone and ends up getting spread too thin. A focused project tends to have a sense of polish about it and a clear approach to doing things.
On the other hand, I tend to find distributions which aim for software or toolkit purity (for example, only shipping Qt-based or GTK-based software) impractical. There are lots of programs in the GTK camp that work very well and lots in the Qt camp that work beautifully. Ignoring some of the best tools the open source community has to offer, on either side, simply means I'm going to spend more of my time hunting down the utilities I feel are the best ones for the job.
All of that is to say that I appreciate what the developers are doing, but it's not necessarily an approach I want to use. Which means, for the sake of this trial, I was trying to focus more on whether KaOS did a good job at what it was trying to do (focus on one desktop, toolkit and architecture) rather than whether I liked it.
For the most part I think KaOS does a good job. It took me a while to get used to having the login options, panel, application menu, and window buttons on the right side. But once I shifted to this way of doing things, I had to admit it was more efficient than the defaults most distributions use. I'm used to having everything on the left, but it's probably equally helpful to group everything on the right.
The Plasma desktop did a good job for the most part, especially when running on physical hardware. At least it did in the X.Org session, the Wayland session still is not practical in my test environments.
I really like the welcome window, most of the default applications, and the Calamares installer. My only consistent issue tended to be with visuals. Specifically the pulsing red update notification icon and the way the login screen hid the date and the session options. White text on a white background is not a good combination, visually.
Otherwise, I think KaOS did a pretty good job at delivering a solid experience. Some of the default applications were not to my taste and the distribution is surprisingly heavy in memory, but the performance was still solid. There were a handful of bugs or little issues that annoyed me, but it was possible to work around them all. KaOS may not be my cup of tea, exactly, but I can see it would have strong appeal if you are a fan of the Plasma desktop and rolling release distributions.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: