New Feren OS Does Plasma Better

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Feren OS now is built around Ubuntu Linux 18.04 and the KDE Plasma desktop instead of Linux Mint. The Cinnamon desktop version could retire later this year.

Ubuntu’s parent company Canonical last spring released Ubuntu 18.04, Bionic Beaver, as a Long-Term Support edition, good until April 2023. Canonical released a newer version, Ubuntu 19.10, Eoan Ermine, last October with a nine-month support cycle that ends this July.

The Feren OS developer last month released a new version of this pseudo rolling release, code-named “Yttrium.” This new Feren OS 2019.12 snapshot, dubbed “Feren OS Next” through the beta process, represents the distro’s new development direction, with a highly customized Plasma design.

A Feren OS popup menu provides access to specialized Plasma UI features

Right-click anywhere to get a popup menu that provides access to specialized Plasma UI features without cluttering up the desktop view.

The Feren OS community also released a mostly maintenance snapshot update for the Feren OS Cinnamon version, which is now called “Feren OS Classic.” The developer of the British-made Linux distro explained in the change notice over the holidays that no decision had been made about keeping the Cinnamon desktop version beyond its approaching end-of-support date.

This new Feren OS release meets the goal of mixing something familiar (the Cinnamon desktop) with a more capable desktop (KDE Plasma 5) to make a better distro. It comes with a transition tool that literally rolls the updated system components in the 2019.12 snapshot release into the modified KDE desktop.

The transition tool gives current users an option to keep many of their existing Cinnamon settings. The result is a look and feel that resembles the Cinnamon design. The tweaked user interface provides improved functionality. Current users, at least for now, can skip using the transition tool and continue with the existing Cinnamon desktop.

A Feren OS popup menu provides access to specialized Plasma UI features

The desktop design looks and mostly feels like the Cinnamon Classic desktop. Five more styles allow you to tweak the view with a menu click. Differences in the Plasma UI are more evident as you navigate around the screen and menus.

The transition is not flawless, however. The shift from Cinnamon to Plasma comes with quite a few trade-offs and developmental glitches. Deciding between the Feren OS Classic or the new Feren OS with its tweaked KDE desktop could be a tough choice for die-hard Cinnamon users. The modified Plasma design might soften the loss of the Cinnamon desktop for some who otherwise dislike the Plasma environment.

Behind the Scenes

This is one of the biggest snapshots in the history of Feren OS, according to the developer’s change announcement. The KDE Plasma design is an extremely stable and lightweight desktop environment that pushes beyond Cinnamon’s capabilities.

Plasma has much more support from the community as one of the major desktop environments available in Linux, the developer noted. For those users who stick with the Cinnamon version, that update includes mostly cosmetic changes to themes and minor visual tweaks.

The original release date for the new snapshot was delayed by two months so the finalized product could be as polished as possible for a first release. The new Feren OS was a year in the making.

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For existing Feren OS users, the new Plasma desktop offering may be a little jarring. The developers swapped new default applications that are more in tune with the KDE software family.

Major changes in the KDE Plasma default application set touch productivity and system tools. I was able to finesse some of the Plasma system settings to retain parts of the Cinnamon look and feel, but the KDE and Cinnamon desktops ultimately are different in both the UI and under the hood.

New Look and Feel, Sort of

The Feren OS website presents the new version’s change of direction as a familiar experience with a desktop that is more refined and better than Cinnamon. At first blush, that assessment is mostly accurate. However, the Feren OS version of the KDE Plasma desktop is so well integrated and edited that the Cinnamon look and feel is generally the more predominant UI.

Until you get into the system settings, it is difficult to distinguish one or the other except for a few features. The KDE style design is well blended with the overall appearance of Feren OS running the Cinnamon desktop. Many of the operational changes and the subtle tweaking to blend the two styles into one become more obvious the longer you go through menus and work with the applications.

For instance, Feren OS’ theme utility is now an expansion of the Global Theme tool in KDE Plasma in the new Feren OS. A related significant back-end change is that in Feren OS Classic, the overall theme page in System Settings -> Themes has been ported to Plasma as an expansion of Plasma’s Global Theme changer. This results in even more settings that can be changed, including the Files look and feel, GTK Theme and more.

The updated menu styles bring a new degree of menu functionality. You can add this functionality as a widget and as an optional title bar button. This lets you put your application menus back in the panel, or as a button in the title bar of every window.

Another example is the Simple Menu, a Slingshot-style menu for Plasma. It is the default menu for the default Feren OS (aka KDE) layout. It is definitely a different menu experience than the main Cinnamon menu.

Feren OS default menu

The Simple Menu, a Slingshot-style menu for Plasma, is the default menu for the new Feren OS (aka KDE) layout.

Tiled Menu is also available in Plasma as a replacement for the CinnVIIStarkMenu for the Cinnamon desktop’s Familiar layout option. Tiled Menu is a grid-based menu somewhat similar to Microsoft Windows Start Menu.

Layout Options

One of the things I dislike in KDE integrations other distros use is the helter-skelter approach to styles and layout options, as well as system settings. Refinements to those layouts in the new Feren OS Plasma schemes were welcome.

The developer significantly reduced the number of available layouts to six style choices. I like the focus on quality over quantity. It tames the dizzying settings choices in Plasma.

These six layouts cover the most common layout styles. The Layout options are a nice improvement over the few default choices available in the Cinnamon desktop.

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The Cupertino Layout provides a typical panel and dock scheme with global menus and left-sided window buttons. The Redmond and Familiar Layouts are similar. Redmond offers a classic panel and menu style, while Familiar is a more modern variation on the Redmond Layout.

Tablet Mode provides a bigger panel with a virtual keyboard button but otherwise is the same look as the default Feren OS with a bottom panel instead of a Latte Dock. The final Layout option is Ubuntu Unity, with the panel hugging the left side of the screen.

Not the Plasma You Know

I give much credit to the developer for making the KDE Plasma desktop environment more inviting and unified than found elsewhere. I have grown fond of the Cinnamon desktop. If Feren OS Classic goes away, the prospect of going to Linux Mint — which just announced its major upgrade to version 19.3 with Cinnamon, MATE and Xfce desktops — or taking up the recently released Ubuntu Cinnamon Remix or another distro using Cinnamon looms heavily.

Waiting out the developer’s decision about discontinuing Feren OS Classic later this year remains a safe option. Still, I discovered that with some work the transition tool for the Cinnamon-to-KDE Feren OS produced a UI close to the computing experience of the Cinnamon desktop, thanks to how the developer patched and tweaked the Plasma desktop.

Those alterations made KDE Plasma and the newly introduced applications very usable and familiar. The numerous patches and edits the developer applied make the KDE desktop in Feren OS new and inviting.

Check out the long list.

Not a Smooth Ride

Be aware that the upgrade path from the Cinnamon desktop/Feren OS Classic edition to the new Feren OS is not one fit for all installations. Transitioning to the new Feren OS Plasma desktop requires getting past several stumbling blocks.

I kept the Cinnamon desktop on a primary computer and rejected the roll-up to KDE option. I applied only the non-Plasma update, the Feren OS Classic 2019.12 snapshot. That kept my desktop layout fairly intact. Problem solved if the Classic edition is supported long term.

I applied the upgrade transition to the new KDE Plasma desktop on a second computer. Then I burned the newly released ISO to do a new installation on a third computer. The results on the second and third computer installations were different in several key areas.

I am not a stranger to the KDE Plasma desktop environment, and I preferred it to Plasma — at least until now. I spent considerable hours configuring each one to reflect settings as nearly identical as possible to have a straightforward comparison to the Cinnamon desktop.

I had trouble with the rollover into Plasma on the second computer. I took the option to preserve compatible settings from the Cinnamon installation. When the second computer rebooted, the look and feel were nearly identical to the first computer. As expected, KDE-centric applications were added. Quite a few GNOME-based applications were gone.

Some Flawed Results

Several of the missing applications were key production and testing tools that I use. So assessing the replacement applications and looking for alternatives within the Software Center was time-consuming. Since I was familiar with the Plasma environment, I had a head start in realigning my software selections. If you are not familiar with the KDE software family or the Plasma desktop, you can expect a longer learning curve.

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Another major problem was the time I spent going through the massive panels of settings. KDE is different from Cinnamon. As flexible as I found the Cinnamon desktop, Plasma has even more usability. You have to get used to it first, though.

For example, KDE’s settings tools are a lot less organized or unified compared to Cinnamon’s system tools. Getting a close look and feel to match my computing routines with the Cinnamon desktop became more frustrating and challenging the longer I focused on tweaking configurations.

Those issues also were present with the virgin installation on the third computer. Unlike the Cinnamon roll-up to Plasma with the second computer, however, the third computer’s installation avoided some of the look-and-feel issues by presenting the chance to start with a clean slate.

Some Usability Issues

I suspect the developer has not yet worked out all of the glitches involved in melding Plasma onto the new Ubuntu Linux base. The previous Feren OS was based on Linux Mint, which in turn is based on Ubuntu. With the latest Feren OS release, I initially experienced problems with some of the settings.

The most bothersome problem involved task-switching features that relied on displayed animations. Displays such as desktop fade and cube motions, along with cover switch, flip switch and grid display, either failed to work at all or suddenly stopped working. The same thing happened with some of the desktop effects.

I finally tracked down the cause. The displays and animations need the OpenGL graphics engine, which is installed. However, a checkbox deep in a settings panel that loaded OpenGL at startup was not enabled. Once I found the cause, it was an easy fix, but on subsequent reboots, I had to go into settings and re-save the checkbox to enable OpenGL.

The problem still came and went. My first response was to reboot the computer. Sometimes the screen would lock up, causing the same response. I had a hunch that one or more applications caused a conflict as I was opening numerous unfamiliar applications, both for suitability purposes and general fault-checking.

I eventually found yet another well-hidden checkbox that needed to be enabled. It overrode the ability of individual applications to turn off OpenGL.

Bottom Line

Overall, Feren OS’ Plasma patches do a fanciful job of going beyond a Cinnamon desktop-like appearance and functionality. Or the patches do a workable job of bringing most — but not all — of the Cinnamon features and applications to the KDE environment.

Feren OS Classic and the new Feren OS install with only the Vivaldi Web browser. A handy Web tool lets you automatically install other browsers. It also lets you remove Vivaldi if you wish.

In almost any Cinnamon desktop-running distro, numerous panel applets and desktop desklets failed to install and run. The desktop cube almost never was compatible.

Not so with Feren OS with the KDE desktop. The cube task switcher actually works. Widgets, AKA applets and desklets install and work on both the screen and the panel. Those successes are rare with the Cinnamon desktop.

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