What desktop Linux needs to succeed in the mainstream

You might be aware of the recent Linus Tech Tips videos about switching to Linux, including one with some complaints about KDE software. For those of you who are following along, I want to let you know that we’re working on fixing the issues Linus brought up, and you can track our progress here. Thankfully most of the issues are fairly minor and should be easy to fix.

This blog post is my version of Sway developer Drew DeVault’s post about the videos, regarding the question of what desktop Linux needs to go mainstream. Drew emphasizes accessibility, and I agree, but with a slightly different conclusion:

Desktop Linux needs to be pre-installed on retail hardware to succeed in the mainstream.

That’s it.

Allow me to explain.


People get hung up a lot on features and usability, and these are important. But they’re means to an end and not good enough ends by themselves. Quality means nothing if people can’t get it. And people can’t get it without accessible distribution. High quality Linux distros aren’t enough; they need to be pre-installed on hardware products you can buy in mainstream retail stores! “The mainstream” buys products they can touch and hold; if you can’t find it in a mainstream store, it doesn’t exist.

Think about it: why do normal people use Windows or macOS? Because the physical computer they bought included it. iOS or Android? Because it was shipped by default on their physical smartphone. The notion of replacing a device’s operating system with a new one doesn’t exist to “the mainstream”. Only the “three-dot” users ever do that, and they’re about 5% of the market. If the only way to get your OS is to install it yourself, you have no chance of succeeding in the mainstream.

As for features, people generally use only a very small fraction of what’s available to them. When it comes to usability, most users memorize their software rather than understanding it–and you can memorize anything if you really have to. A better user interface helps, but it isn’t needed for the memorizers and mostly benefits power users (the 30% of the market “two-dot and up” crowd) who recognize patterns and appreciate logic, consistency, and good design. So these are not good enough on their own.

This doesn’t mean we should forget about features and usability! Not at all! But if the goal is to “go mainstream,”we have to understand the true audience: hardware vendors, not end users. The goal is to have a software product appealing enough to get picked up by vendors when they go shopping for one, because that’s mostly how it works. Companies like Apple that do their own custom top-to-bottom hardware and software for big-name products are rare. Most build on top of 3rd-party software that requires the least integration and custom work from their in-house software team. If your software isn’t up to the task, they move onto the next option. So when some hardware vendor has a need, your software better be ready!

And what do hardware vendors need?

  • Flexibility. Your software has to be easily adaptable to whatever kind of device they have without tons of custom engineering they’ll be on the hook for supporting over the product’s lifecycle.
  • Features that make their devices look good. Support for its physical hardware characteristics, good performance, a pleasant-looking user interface… reasons for people to buy it, basically.
  • Stability. Can’t crash and dump users at a command line terminal prompt. Has to actually work. Can’t feel like a hobbyist science fair project.
  • Usability that’s to be good enough to minimize support costs. When something goes wrong, “the mainstream” contacts their hardware vendor. Usability needs to be good enough so that this happens as infrequently as possible.

It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to do that stuff. This is how Windows conquered the PC market in the 90s despite being terrible! And our stuff is much better!


I see evidence that this is already working for KDE. Pine ships Manjaro with Plasma Mobile and Plasma Desktop on the PinePhone and PineBook Pro, respectively. Valve also picked Plasma Desktop for the Steam Deck, replacing GNOME for their new version of SteamOS. I see KDE software as well-positioned here and getting better all the time. So let’s keep doubling down on delivering what hardware vendors need to sell their awesome products.

What a great laptop needs

This post is at least partially aimed at any hardware vendors who may be reading along.

If youโ€™re here for just the KDE-specific stuff, feel free to skip this post.


I’m picky about laptops, since I use one as my sole computer for both work and play. I probably spend at least 10 hours a day on it, so this experience ought to be as pleasant as possible. ๐Ÿ™‚

Two characteristics define a laptop:

  1. Portability
  2. The limitations that stem from portability, such as a certain number of components being hard or impossible to replace

Achieving a good product requires a balance here, but ultimately portability is key or else the machine doesn’t get used as a laptop and mostly sits in one place, defeating the point of buying a laptop. To avoid this fate, it needs to be thin and light. Any components that have to be non-upgradable to achieve this must be excellent. Let’s start with the basic input and output devices; they have to be so good that you won’t need to upgrade them:

Highest-quality screen

The screen is your primary window to the computer and generally no part of it is easily replaceable or upgradable. So it needs to be good, with a resolution that allows 200% scale at effectively 120-130-ish DPI (meaning 240-260 physical DPI), accurate color reproduction, and enough brightness to use outdoors–generally 400+ nits. It also needs a decent enough black-to-white refresh rate that you won’t see ghosting. A high-resolution webcam on top with a privacy shutter is also highly desirable.

Most laptops get this completely wrong. In particular, nearly all 13.3″ and 14″ screens have a 1080p resolution which makes everything much too small and requires fractional scaling, or they offer a 4K resolution which has the same problem and additionally consumes far too much power. Many 15″ QHD screens are in the same boat. And a lot of screens are embarrassingly color-inaccurate, dim, or ghosty. It’s 2021; this is just not acceptable anymore. Nobody stuck with a crappy laptop screen is happy with their computer. Get this right!

Highest-quality keyboard

Carting around an external keyboard isn’t practical, so the built-in one needs to be excellent. It must have good tactile feedback and key travel for accurate and comfortable typing, or else you’ll hate it. For professional uses, it also needs dedicated Home/End/PageUp/PageDown keys to enable fast text navigation so you don’t need function key chords to access them. Bonus points for a Super/Meta/Windows key on both sides of the spacebar, a microphone mute key, and media playback keys.

Though the average tactility of PC laptop keyboards has markedly improved in the past decade, there are still few perfect key layouts. HP bizarrely removed the right Ctrl key on their laptop keyboards. Lenovo refuses to add Home/End/PageUp/PageDown keys to the non-numberpad keyboards of anything other than ThinkPads. But ThinkPads put a PrintScreen key between the right Alt and Ctrl keys, so you accidentally open Spectacle 20 times a day. MSI laptops have a weird, nonstandard layout. I could go on.

Highest-quality touchpad

If the touchpad isn’t close to perfect, people will be tempted to carry around a mouse, which takes up space and weight and is uncomfortable to use in many situations (e.g. on an airplane). To avoid this, the touchpad must be fairly large, have a smooth glass surface, and incorporate the highest quality, highest resolution hardware drivers. This should be easy to get right, yet I’d say at least 50% of PC laptops still don’t, and this is true of basically every manufacturer. I don’t get it.

Highest-quality speakers

Like the touchpad, if the speakers aren’t excellent, people will feel the need to use headphones–another thing to carry around. Decent volume and good sound reproduction at both the high and low ends are a must. Front/upward-facing speakers are the minimum acceptable standard here, with quad speakers being preferred, and bonus points for an integrated subwoofer, however small. Some Lenovo consumer laptops have a 5.1 speaker setup in the display hinge which I think is a genius idea, since they’re always pointing right at you! Sound from these laptops is amazing. If you haven’t used one of these, you you might not realize that sound from a laptop can actually be good! Unfortunately this is the exception, because the speakers on most PC laptops are a muffled, disappointing afterthought.


That’s it for the basics. I don’t think anything here should be too controversial, but nearly every PC laptop gets at least one of these things dramatically wrong. I’m not talking about the bargain-bin $400 garbage laptops; you should be able to get all of this in anything you pay $1500 or more on. But there sadly just isn’t a manufacturer that consistently nails the basics with even their high-end machines. And beyond that, you also want to take maximum advantage of the laptop’s portability, which means:

Battery and energy efficiency

The battery should be big enough to last at least 8 hours with light use, ideally more. This generally means a large 55+ watt-hour battery, and larger is better especially for the bigger screen sizes. Also important is good hardware support for power-saving modes and features. A certain amount of this that can be tweaked and improved with software, but the hardware element is fixed. So it needs to be good. A 2-3 watt idle power draw should be the target. At this level, you can actually work untethered without having to sprinkle power cords around the home and office.


After that, we need to make sure it’s useful for serious work:

CPU, GPU, and cooling

The laptop needs a powerful processor so it doesn’t feel slow in 5 years and make you want to replace it, and it needs a cooling system to let the processor reach its potential. Desktop-level performance is not the goal here–we know that’s the compromise with a laptop. But it should still be fast and powerful. Today, that would largely mean a beefy AMD Ryzen CPU, which also helps with energy efficiency. Intel need not apply.

Personally I don’t want or need a dedicated GPU in a laptop for my use cases, but I know many people do. An AMD GPU is strongly preferred here so you don’t have to deal with NVIDIA’s buggy drivers–and this goes for on Windows as well as Linux!

Replaceable hard drive/SSD

This lets you upgrade to a higher capacity disk in the future if needed. I’ve seen people junk perfectly good Apple laptops because they ran out of space and couldn’t upgrade without buying a whole new computer. What a waste! Another less obvious reason is so your data isn’t lost if the laptop loses the ability to boot up or even power on. Being able to remove the storage medium and put it in a different computer or an external dock greatly aids in troubleshooting, data recovery, and migration.


Beyond that, everything else is really just a nice-to-have. Personally I like the 2-in-1 touchscreen form factor, a unibody (not stamped) aluminum or magnesium case, a 16:10 or 3:2 screen aspect ratio, 2 full-sized USB-A ports, a USB-C port on each side that’s capable of charging, and a garaged pen. But I could excuse those as long as the machine got everything else right! Sadly, few do. It’s a real problem. If you are a PC vendor, and you get everything above right, you’ll have a product better than 99% of your competitors!

Postscript: what about the Framework laptop?

I love the Framework laptop. It’s just what the market needs, and I eagerly look forward to buying one some day! If you haven’t heard about it yet, seriously, check it out.

Unfortunately it has a few drawbacks that prevent it from being the ideal laptop: its inappropriate screen DPI, keyboard without dedicated text navigation keys, poor speakers, and hot power-hungry Intel CPU. Since these components are replaceable, it’s possible that in the future better versions will become available. However that hasn’t happened yet, so alas, it is not the holy grail laptop.

Why pre-installation is so important

Linus Sebastian of Linus Tech Tips recently did a long-form chat about the Steam Deck and Linux in general. A major complaint was that Linux is too hard to install, and this gets to the heart of why I believe pre-installing our software on devices like the Steam Deck is so important.

The truth is that Linus is right; a Linux-based OS is too hard to install. Only huge nerds can manage it or even have the courage to try in the first place, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed in the process. But let’s face it: this would be the case for Windows or macOS as well. Imagine if every computer was bought as an empty shell and the user needed to choose an operating system, research compatibility, flash a USB drive with the selected OS or buy a DVD or something, and then install it. You think grandma is gonna do that? I don’t think so. How about a busy professional? Forget it.

The only way this works is if the OS comes pre-installed on the physical hardware that people can buy. Then the overwhelming selection process and the technical fiddliness are gone, and people can just start using what they bought. …Like they can when they get a Steam Deck, which comes with Plasma. Or one of the other devices with Plasma pre-installed.

Pre-installation is the only way to grow Plasma out of the clubhouse of the uber-nerds like us. Which means we need to focus on the kinds of issues that are barriers to vendors wanting to ship their hardware with Plasma, or to regular people using the system normally.

This is what matters!

This week in KDE: KDE-powered Steam Deck revealed!

Big big news today: Valve has announced the Steam Deck–a handheld gaming device running KDE Plasma under the hood! This is a big deal, folks. By using a Linux-based OS, Valve is hugely improving the gaming space on Linux, (eventually, hopefully) removing a blocker for a lot of people. And by running KDE Plasma, tons of people will gain exposure to our software when they use the device docked with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse–because yes, you can do that! This thing is a real computer and can be used like one too!

I’m really excited for the Steam Deck, and I see it as evidence that my plan for KDE World Domination is both achievable and in progress. We are going to get KDE software onto every device on the planet, folks!

Full disclosure: I worked (and am still working) on QA for the KDE software side of this project

In addition to that very exciting piece of news, KDE contributors continued plugging away on the usual crop of cool stuff:

New Features

System Monitor and sensor widgets can now display load averages for many sensor types (David Redondo, Plasma 5.23)

Bugfixes & Performance Improvements

Dolphin no longer sometimes crashes when hovering the cursor over the “Activities” item in the context menu (Harald Sitter, Dolphin 21.08)

Gwenview and Dolphin no longer crashes on launch if DBus is not available (Alex Richardson, Gwenview and Dolphin 21.08)

Okular no longer sometimes fails to display FictionBook books (Yaroslav Sidlovsky, Okular 21.08)

Improved the reliability of sorting in Dolphin when folder sizes are using real on-disk sizes (Christian Muehlhaeuser, Dolphin 21.08)

Empty folders in the trash now display the placeholder text “Folder is empty” instead of “Trash is empty” (Jordan Bucklin, Dolphin 21.08)

In the Plasma Wayland session, KWin no longer sometimes crashes when unplugging or re-plugging certain external displays (Xaver Hugl, Plasma 5.22.4)

The ksystemstats daemon (which provides sensor data to System Monitor and the various sensor widgets) no longer crashes on launch for some people with certain hardware (David Redondo, Plasma 5.22.4)

Info Center now displays correct information about non-x86 CPUs (Harald Sitter, Plasma 5.22.4)

KWin’s DRM pipeline has been completely overhauled to offer far-reaching improvements, such as faster speed and startup time, automatic recovery from certain driver bugs, and a modernized infrastructure to make future improvements easier (Xaver Hugl, Plasma 5.23)

When using Plasma’s optional systemd startup feature, KWallet now unlocks properly when it would otherwise be able to (e.g. the wallet is named “kdewallet”, its password matches the login password, and all the necessary PAM bits have been set up properly) (David Edmundson, Plasma 5.23)

When using Plasma’s optional systemd startup feature, the Baloo file indexer now starts up correctly (S Page, Plasma 5.23)

Info Center now shows a placeholder message when the Energy page would be blank, instead of, well, a blank page (Harald Sitter, Plasma 5.23)

In the Plasma Wayland session, left or right-clicking on an app’s System Tray icon no longer causes that app’s icon to start bouncing near the cursor as if it were being launched (David Redondo, Plasma 5.23)

Slightly reduced the resource usage for all QtQuick-based KDE desktop software (Aleix Pol Gonzalez, Frameworks 5.85)

Selecting a custom app/binary in the System Settings Default Applications page now works (David Edmundson, Frameworks 5.85)

When using a custom Plasma theme that lacks graphics for a UI element that Breeze does have graphics for (e.g. the header bar thingy that you see at the top of a lot of applets and notifications), the Breeze theme graphic is no longer inappropriately used anyway (Aleix Pol Gonzalez, Frameworks 5.85)

User Interface Improvements

Thumbnail previews now respect the scale factor and always look sharp and crisp (Mรฉven Car, Dolphin 21.08)

Kate now ships by default with a session, which means that all of its session-specific features like automatically remembering open documents get enabled by default (Michal Humpula, Kate 21.12)

When showing arrows in the scroll tracks, the arrows are now always visible, rather than only being visible when hovering the cursor over the track (Jan Blackquill, Plasma 5.23)

In the Plasma Wayland session, the virtual keyboard state’s enablement/disablement status is now remembered when you restart the system (Xaver Hugl, Plasma 5.23)

System Monitor now exports a global menubar so that those of you who use a Global Menu applet can find things there just as you expect (Felipe Kinoshita, Plasma 5.23)

Buttons for sensors in System Monitor’s customization UI now look better (Noah Davis, Frameworks 5.85)

Traditional in-window menubars in QtQuick-based KDE apps now look like they do in other apps (Janet Blackquill, Frameworks 5.85)

…And everything else

Keep in mind that this blog only covers the tip of the iceberg! Tons of KDE apps whose development I don’t have time to follow aren’t represented here, and I also don’t mention backend refactoring, improved test coverage, and other changes that are generally not user-facing. If you’re hungry for more, check out https://planet.kde.org/, where you can find blog posts by other KDE contributors detailing the work they’re doing.

How You Can Help

Have a look at https://community.kde.org/Get_Involved to discover ways to be part of a project that really matters. Each contributor makes a huge difference in KDE; you are not a number or a cog in a machine! You don’t have to already be a programmer, either. I wasn’t when I got started. Try it, youโ€™ll like it! We donโ€™t bite!

Finally, consider making a tax-deductible donation to the KDE e.V. foundation.

1 year update on the ThinkPad X1 Yoga laptop

Last year I replaced my old laptop with a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga, and I wrote a preliminary review of it. This laptop is my only computer, used for both work and play. I’ve had it for a year, gotten used to some of my initial annoyances, and discovered a few new ones. So I thought I’d provide an update with some more long-term impressions.

What’s still annoying

Location of PrintScreen key

I have not been able to get used to having the PrintScreen key between the right Alt and Ctrl keys. I hit it by accident and open Spectacle all the time. So I have re-bound it in the Keyboard KCM to be a second Meta key, which is much more useful. Now I can do window tiling with one hand! However this means I lose my PrintScreen key. I initially re-bound the stupid useless Insert key to be a new PrintScreen key using xmodmap, but that only works on X11, and I have not yet found a Wayland-compatible solution that I am capable of making work over the long haul. I did succeed in performing the re-mapping using config files and submitted a merge request upstream to offer “Insert key is Printscreen” as a keyboard option, but it was rejected. Since applying the patch locally relied on modifying system files, my changes gets blown away on every system upgrade. Our keyboard KCM is in need of a generic and user-friendly way to let people re-bind keyboard keys without having to mess around with config files.

Battery life

Battery life remains lower than I would prefer, even after a number of kernel upgrades. I usually limit charging to 90% to preserve battery longevity, but when I let it charge to 100%, I’m still getting 5 hours max, even when I baby it and don’t use power-hungry apps. This is quite disappointing. The laptop I replaced easily got 8 hours, even with a smaller battery. So I know it isn’t my software being an energy pig. I haven’t done any international travel over the past year due to the pandemic, but once I do, this will become a real pain real fast.

Screen resolution and aspect ratio

While I love the sharpness of the laptop’s 3840×2160 4K display, this resolution is overkill for its 14″ screen size. At 200% scaling, things are too small. Currently I am using 200% scale with 11pt Noto Sans font, which takes advantage of a bug in Noto Sans in that 11pt is 22% bigger than 10pt, not 10% bigger like you would expect. The super high resolution also results in excessive power consumption, contributing to poor battery life. And the 16:9 aspect ratio is not ideal.

Later models of this laptop have a 16:10 screen, but with the same excessive 4K resolution. Boo.

A 14″ laptop screen ideally needs a resolution of 3200×2000 so that when you scale it to 200%, you get an effective resolution of 1600×1000. This is still perfectly sufficient to make the individual pixels invisible, but would draw less power and yield un-problematic 200% scaling for perfectly crisp and pixel-aligned visuals.

Lousy Intel CPU

This laptop has an Intel Comet Lake 10th gen Core i7-10510U CPU manufactured with a 14nm process. While it is faster than what I had before, performance is disappointing compared to AMD’s Ryzen CPUs, which also generate less heat and consume less power due to their more advanced 7nm manufacturing process. Graphics performance is also quite bad, though the 11th gen version is apparently much better. But overall a monster Ryzen 4800 or 5800 series CPU would be a much better fit, providing superior performance, lower heat, and better battery life. Sadly Lenovo does not offer those CPUs in this laptop. They should, because AMD’s offerings are clearly better in almost every way. You’d lose Thunderbolt support, but I haven’t plugged in one Thunderbolt device in ten years of owning laptops with Thunderbolt ports. I don’t even know if any of then work.

Can only charge it from the left side

It’s a minor thing, but after a year of use from many locations, it’s annoying to have to wrap the cord around the back of the laptop when I happen to be somewhere where the nearest power outlet is on my right side rather than my left side. This might be less of an issue if the machine got better battery life so I didn’t have to keep it plugged in all the time–but it doesn’t, so I do, and it is.

Wobbly USB-C ports

This is a common problem in many laptops, but I expect better for an expensive one. There is really no excuse for USB-C cord to be super wobbly after plugging it into the laptop. It makes the whole thing seem flimsy and weak. More firmness would be much appreciated.

What’s still great

Everything else! The touchpad, rest of the keyboard, speakers, display quality, build quality, durability, portability, port selection, and design are all wonderful. The software issues I ran into before have largely been fixed (at least in the Plasma Wayland session, which is almost usable day-to-day for me). With the above-mentioned problems fixed, it would be a perfect computer.

Alas, they persist, and I have not found one that meets all of my requirements. The hunt continues…

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga: 6 month impressions

I’ve now had my Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga laptop for about 6 months, so I thought I’d provide a quick update about how it’s going to use this laptop every day with openSUSE Tumbleweed running KDE Plasma. Let’s explore what’s changed since then:

Keyboard

Initially, I complained about some aspects of the keyboard layout, but I’ve gotten used to the Home/End/PageUp/PageDown positioning, and the swapped position of the Fn and Ctrl keys. These are fine now. Lack of media keys is okay too since I’ve used the Shortcuts KCM to set my own. However I just can’t get used to the PrintScreen key being between the right Alt and Ctrl keys. I probably press it by accident 10 times a day and bring up Spectacle when I don’t mean to. One of these days I should get around to using xmodmap or something to turn it into a right Meta key, and they maybe make the F11 key which currently does nothing be the new PrintScreen key.

Speakers and audio

In my initial review, I had some complaints about the speakers and audio configuration. It turned out there there were issues both in the Kernel and PulseAudio that prevented the speakers from reaching their full potential, and all of those issues have been resolved now. The speakers sound awesome (for a laptop, of course). In addition, all the software issues in Plasma are fixed too. Everything audio-related is now perfect. I love listening to music on the machine. It sounds so good!

Camera

The camera’s lag has gone away due presumably to improvements in some layer of the software stack beneath KDE. The quality is still not fantastic, but that’s generally what you can say about any laptop webcam these days. It’s sufficient for Zoom and BigBlueButton meetings.

Power Management

Over the last 6 months, power management got worse and worse. Battery life continually declined and then eventually the battery started spontaneously reporting its charge percent as 0% while unplugged. At other times it would refuse to charge. This was a disaster for, well, actually using it as a laptop!

I called for warranty service and a technician replaced the battery recently. The issues immediately disappeared. I haven’t experienced any more buggy behavior, and the battery life has increased to about 6 hours with real use, which is probably acceptable given the fancy 4K screen. Hopefully there are more wins to be had through additional kernel optimizations in the future. I guess my original battery was just a lemon.

Finally!!!!

Screen/Graphics

I love the 4K screen! Everything is so sharp and crisp!

..a little bit too much so, perhaps.

4K turns out to be kind of overkill for a 14″ screen. Its resolution of 3840×2160 pixels effectively becomes 1920×1080 with 200% scaling, but the thing is, 1920×1080 makes everything rather too small on the screen. It would be ideally suited for a larger 15.6″ screen, but at 14″ and even 13.3″, you need to use fractional scaling or increase the font size to make things big enough to be legible. So that’s what I’m doing: I currently have the scale set to 200% and I use 11pt fonts, making everything approximately 10% larger with no blurriness since it doesn’t scale icons, lines, or pixmaps. It’s as if I had an effective resolution of 1745×981.

Lenovo offers this laptop with a 1440p screen option, but that’s not right either: its 2560×1440 resolution, when scaled to 200%, gives you only an effective resolution of 1280×720, which is much too low and everything on the screen becomes comically large! Well maybe not comically large, but too large for my tastes, at least. ๐Ÿ™‚ All windows need to be maximized, and even then, they will feel starved for space. This might be an acceptable resolution for a 12-13″ screen, but not 14″.

I think the ideal high DPI resolution for a 14″ lies between 1440p and 4K; something like QHD+, which is 3200×1800. You’d have effectively 1600×900 with 200% scaling, which would be perfect. 4K should be saved for the 15.6″ screen laptops which will have room to fit an enormous 90+ Wh battery required to provide adequate endurance with such a power-hungry panel.

There’s one more problem with the 4K screen: it’s driven by an integrated Intel UHD 620 GPU which simply cannot push the pixels fast enough. I regularly experience dropped frames and choppiness in full-screen GPU-accelerated animations. Even worse, full-screen CPU-bound rendering (like YouTube videos in Firefox) will kick the CPU into overdrive and massacre the battery life. Gaming? forget about it.

The situation would be improved with either Intel’s 11th gen architecture or AMD’s Ryzen CPUs, both of which feature radically better integrated graphics capabilities. But I’m stuck with the old Intel UHD 620 which is pathetically underpowered for the hardware that’s being thrown at it. Oh well. Lesson learned.

On a happier note, the touchscreen now works out of the box due to distro patches for the problem I mentioned in the initial review. However I still haven’t managed to get the 10-bit color support working.

High DPI scaling

Every single scaling issue I found is now (or already was) working on Wayland!

On X11, all the major issues I ran into are fixed, but there are still a lot of minor rough edges. Many are virtually unfixable, sadly. Ultimately Wayland is the future, so it’s good that it’s been selected as an official KDE goal and is improving at warp speed right now!


Conclusions

I’m happy with this laptop now. It does what I need and it’s a pleasure to use. Here’s what’s great about it:

  • Build quality
  • Quality of input and output devices: keyboard, touchpad, screen, and speakers
  • Uses LVFS for firmware updates (and this actually works)
  • Two full-size USB ports and a full-size HDMI port
  • Rechargeable pen that lives and charges in its own little garage

What would make it perfect:

  • Move the dang PrintScreen key to somewhere on the top function row, and maybe put a second Meta key in its current location
  • AMD Ryzen 4800U CPU for faster software compilation times and better integrated graphics
  • QHD+ screen resolution instead of 4K, for diminished power consumption and perfect 200% scaling
  • Even larger battery capacity; 51 Wh is not very impressive in a 14″ screen laptop anymore
  • USB-C ports on both sides so you can charge it from the left or the right

The superfast Ryzen-powered KDE Slimbook

I’ve had the privilege of testing and using the brand-new 15.6″ Ryzen-powered KDE Slimbook laptop for the past month. During that time, I worked with the Slimbook developers to perform QA and polish Plasma for this laptop. They’re awesome people who hosted our Plasma+Usability & Productivity Sprint last year at their offices. I’d like to share my impressions of their latest laptop.

Full disclosure: this laptop was sent to me for free for testing and development, so I have no financial skin in the game. They haven’t asked for it back yet, but I plan to either send it back, or purchase it, if I want to keep it. My configuration retails for 930โ‚ฌ (roughly $1,075), which is a steal for what you get. Regardless, what follows is what I believe to be an honest, unbiased review.

Performance and battery life

Here’s what I know you’re all waiting to hear about, so I’ll just start with it: performance with the 8-core/16-thread Ryzen 4800H CPU is unbelievable!

I can compile KWin in five minutes, compared to over 11 with my top-of-the-line Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga with a 10th generation Intel i7 processor. Everything feels smooth and fast. The power of this machine is awesome, and the Ryzen CPU makes it heaven for people who need to perform processor-heavy tasks on a regular basis.

Despite this, case temperatures remain cool and the fan remains off when the machine is not under heavy load. The thermal management is excellent–far better than on my ThinkPad.

Additionally, battery life is amazing. The machine idles at around 3 watts and goes up to only about 7 or 8 with average tasks that don’t involve compiling KWin. ๐Ÿ™‚ Because of this and the positively enormous 92 watt-hour battery in the 15.6″ model, I get about 12 hours or more of real-world, actual usage battery life.

OMG WTF

This level of battery life is just incredible. I’m honestly jealous, as my ThinkPad gets barely 4 hours with average use and never appreciably cools down. In practice, it means that I can work with the Slimbook from any room in my house without having to worry about where the cord is, while with my ThinkPad, I’m always tethered to the nearest plug and it’s always toasting my lap. The Slimbook is a clear winner for travel, obviously. There’s no compromise between power, battery life, and cool temperatures. It’s pretty impressive, really.

Case and ports

The KDE Slimbook’s understated magnesium case is lovely. Medium silver is my favorite case material/color as it strikes an excellent balance between not showing fingerprints and not showing dirt.

The whole machine is incredibly thin and light for a 15.6″ screen laptop: 17mm (0.67 inches) thick and weighing exactly 1.5kg (3.3 pounds). Despite this, it is nice and rigid, without much flex. It definitely feels durable enough to throw in a backpack and travel the world with.

I generally prefer small and light laptops and for this reason I usually go with 13.3″ and 14″ laptops–but the 15.6″ KDE Slimbook is actually barely larger: it fits into the same compartment in my travel backback that I slot my 14″ ThinkPad into.

The lid opens with one hand–no need to hold down the bottom. This is a nice touch.

The case has a good assortment of ports, including two goodies that are becoming increasingly rare on thin-and-light laptops: full-sized ethernet and HDMI ports! In addition you get 3 USB-A ports, one USB-C port, a MicroSD card reader, and obviously a headphone/microphone combo jack. The laptop supports WiFi6. It includes a fairly hefty 90-watt power adapter with a right-angle barrel jack plug which weights 0.49 kg, but the USB-C port supports charging just as you would expect.

Here’s what it looks like under the hood:

Access is super easy. You just remove nine philips head screws and then the bottom cover pops right off.

The RAM, wifi card, and SSD are all upgradable. My unit came with a single 8GB RAM stick in single-channel mode. I asked the SlimBook folks about this and they said that the 8GB configuration ships in single-channel mode like this, but all other configuration options (16GB, 32GB, and 64GB) will include two sticks and support dual-channel mode.

Despite the enormous battery, there is clearly room for an even bigger one if some of the internal components were rejiggered a bit. There’s a big empty space to the left of the right-most fan that’s just empty right now. Obviously you wouldn’t want to put a battery right next to the heat pipes, but potentially the speakers could be moved closer to the top of the case and made upwards-firing, which would leave enough room at the bottom of the case for the battery to be even wider.

Display

Overall the laptop’s screen is perfectly nice.

It’s a 1080p 15.6″ (197mm) matte non-touch panel with 100% sRGB coverage, the combination of which results in everything looking roughly the right size on screen. However I find myself wishing it were a 4K panel. The pixels are a bit big for my tastes and double the pixel density on a screen of this size would make everything so much more sharp and crisp looking, especially text. This would of course reduce the battery life a bit, but the machine’s cavernous 92 watt-hour battery would surely be able to handle it. I personally would be willing to go down to only 7-10 hours of battery life in exchange for a higher resolution screen, and I wish it were at least an option.

There is no visible ghosting, and the refresh rate is just fine.

The maximum brightness level is fine for indoor use, but a bit dim for outdoor use. It’s usable, but not as nice as if it got about 100 nits brighter, as my ThinkPad’s screen does.

Colors look good, but they do feel a little bit washed out and de-saturated to me, and the black level is not as dark as I would prefer. This is a function of the display surface being matte rather than glossy, and it’s why I personally prefer glossy screens. Yes, you get more reflections and glare with a glossy screen, but in exchange you get richer colors and darker blacks, and glare can be offset with a brighter backlight. Now, if you’re a fan of matte screens, obviously, this is all a feature, not a bug. ๐Ÿ™‚ However those of you who are willing to accept the trade-off of glossy screens are out of luck, as the laptop only comes with a matte screen.

There is no option for touch or 2-in-1 functionality, which should not be a problem as a 15.6″ touch laptop is kind of a silly idea in the first place.

Keyboard

Text and symbols on the final keyboard will be using the Noto Sans font, breeze icons for the function keys, and the Plasma logo for the Meta key! My unit did not have this yet, but the final shipping units will.

The keyboard is a bit of a mixed bag from my perspective.

The keys themselves have a satisfying feel and bottom out firmly. However the activation force could be a bit higher for my tastes, and the larger-than-average keys initially caused me to accidentally press adjacent keys more often that usual. I got used to it eventually though. Overall, the typing experience is pretty good, but not amazing–at least when compared to a ThinkPad keyboard! Keep in mind that I’m a keyboard snob who spends most of the day typing, so the KDE Slimbook’s keyboard would probably it would be considered excellent by most people. It’s certainly leagues better than those horrible low-travel “maglev” or “magic” keyboards plaguing certain high end laptops.

However the keyboard does have a real drawback: the fact that the keys themselves are silver with dark gray text. This makes the text a bit difficult to read under dim-but-not-dark lighting conditions. Black keys with white text would be far superior, and in fact the older KDE Slimbook laptop already had this setup! This version should do the same, so I find it a bit odd that it does not. Unfortunately the keyboard backlighting is dim and uneven, and often makes things worse:

I generally keep the keyboard backlight off except in very dark conditions where it actually helps. In comparison, the text on my ThinkPad’s keys are more visible, and the backlighting is more useful in more lighting conditions.

In the end it’s not a huge deal as my old HP Spectre was afflicted with the same problem and I lived with it for four years. Still, higher contrast would be better.

On the plus side, the keyboard layout is very good. You don’t have any bizarre departures from normalcy like putting the PrintScreen key between Alt and Ctrl and the Fn key in the bottom-left corner as on ThinkPads, or replacing the right Ctrl key with a fingerprint reader in in newer HP laptops. There’s none of that nonsense here! You get a conventional layout with a few real improvements, like the inverted T arrangement of the arrow keys, rather than having smooshed up and down arrow keys. And I really like the a column on the right side of the keyboard with Home, End, PageUp, and PageDown keys:

Having the Home and End keys close to the arrow keys makes efficient text processing a snap, and it’s easy to hit Ctrl+PageUp/PageDown with one hand for fast tab navigation. This is present on the 15.6″ model that I have, but not the 14″ model. It would be nice to have it on that one, too.

Unfortunately, the function keys are annoying. They behave as F keys (F1, F2, F3, etc.) when pressed; to access the secondary functionality, you have to hold down the Fn key in the corner, which makes it irritating to do things like quickly adjust the volume or the brightness. I wish these features were triggered by default without having to hold down the Fn key, which is how most laptops seem to have it set up these days, or at least they offer it with a function lock feature. Unfortunately there is no option for this with the KDE Slimbook.

Additionally, a minor annoyance concerns how to toggle keyboard backlight: there is one key to increase the keyboard backlight’s brightness, and another to decrease it (there are two brightness levels). This is unnecessary fiddly, and I wish there was a single brightness level and a single function key that toggled the keyboard backlight on and off, or cycled through the modes if there have to be multiple brightness levels.

As one final nitpick, I would prefer play/pause, back, and forward media keys, and a microphone mute key. However the lack of these is a pretty minor thing as it’s easy enough to assign them yourself them in the System Settings Global Shortcuts page.

Oh and one more really final thing, this time just for Americans: a US American layout is offered, complete with wide Enter and Shift keys. My unit has an ISO English keyboard layout, so that’s what the photos depict, but a US American layout is available. Not to worry. ๐Ÿ™‚

Touchpad

The touchpad is serviceable. Usable. But not amazing.

The physical feel is fine–not wonderful, but fine. It doesn’t have a glass surface, but the plastic surface is smooth, not rough, and will probably become smoother over time. So that’s good. However there is a small amount of play in the touchpad such that you can press it down a tiny bit and hear a low but audible click without it actually clicking. By contrast the touchpad on my Thinkpad is rock-solid, and does not move or emit any sound until you click it.

Tracking is fine, but the resolution could be a bit higher to make cursor movement feel smoother.

Overall there is room for improvement, but it’s not terrible. It’s notably not as good as my ThinkPad’s touchpad, but it’s usable. In practice I suspect that only very picky people or those who have used Apple hardware will be disappointed, while people who have only ever used typical crappy PC laptop touchpads and think all touchpads are terrible will just plug in a mouse like they always do. ๐Ÿ™‚

Speakers

The KDE Slimbook’s speakers are surprisingly good. I was honestly not expecting much from them as they are just two small downward-pointing stereo speakers, but they produce good sound with a high maximum volume and even a bit of bass. At the high end, the sound becomes a bit tinny, but they are just laptop speakers, after all. ๐Ÿ™‚ Listening to music on the SlimBook is pleasant and enjoyable overall. A very good showing in my opinion.

Camera

The KDE SlimBook’s camera is also surprisingly good! Its picture quality is adequate and the responsiveness is excellent. This is a welcome change from the camera in my ThinkPad, which is visibly laggy. Maybe this is a driver issue, but the SlimBook’s camera is just better to use.

Software integration

The KDE Slimbook ships with KDE Neon as the operating system, which runs like a top. Boot is very fast; pressing-power-button-to-login-screen is about 11 seconds. Everything works just like you would expect. The hardware’s features are all fully supported out of the box–except for the infrared facial recognition camera which we in KDE haven’t managed to add support for yet. So boo us! It’s an omission we’re hoping to address in the future. One final thing is that the volume up/down keys on my unit send double events, so pressing them increases or decreases the volume by 20%, not 10%. This is a firmware bug that the Slimbook folks are tracking down and hopefully it should be fixed soon. In the meantime, you can change the volume step value to 5% in the Audio Volume applet.

Otherwise the hardware-software integration Just Worksโ„ข, exactly as it should.

In conclusion

There are very few compromises with the KDE Slimbook. You get a thin, light, rigid, and durable laptop with a nice screen, a powerful CPU, and crazy battery life. It’s nice to type on and its speakers sound good. The price is reasonable, starting at 930 โ‚ฌ (roughly $1,075) for the 8GB RAM 250GB SSD configuration.

I have no reservations recommending this laptop. You should buy it. Heck, I feel like I should have bought it!

In some ways, this is the machine I should have gotten instead of the ThinkPad X1 Yoga I wound up with–had it been available a few months ago! It’s better than my former HP Spectre x360 laptop in virtually every way, and a straightforward upgrade. Had I not gone with the ThinkPad, I never would have been spoiled by the pleasures of a 4K screen and the amazing ThinkPad keyboard. True, it doesn’t have a touchscreen, but I could have kept my old laptop for testing touch support.

Verdict

The good:

  • Outrageously amazing performance
  • Incredible battery life
  • Runs cool and quiet
  • Keyboard has a sensible layout
  • Speakers are surprisingly good
  • Built-in camera is surprisingly good
  • Case is very thin and light despite large screen size; super portable
  • Includes full-sized HDMI and ethernet ports and WiFi 6
  • Very attractive machine overall
  • Great integration with KDE Plasma

The okay:

  • Screen is fine, but I would prefer at least an option for a brighter glossy 4K screen
  • Keyboard is fine but I would prefer smaller keys and firmer activation force
  • Touchpad is fine but the physical feel and resolution could be improved

The bad:

  • Keyboard keys are silver with dark gray lettering, so text is hard to distinguish in many lighting conditions, and backlighting often makes things worse
  • Function keys’ secondary functionality is annoying to access

But as you can see, those negatives are pretty minor in the scheme of things–mostly just little annoyances, nothing dealbreaking. It is an amazing computer overall. So what are you waiting for?! Go buy one!

Laptop update 3: fixed the audio jack input source

I found a way to get external microphones connected to the audio jack working for my laptop ! KDE contributor Debarpan Debnath pointed me to an Arch wiki page that helped me reach a solution:

  1. Open/create the file /etc/modprobe.d/alsa.conf and add the following on a new line: options snd_hda_intel index=0 model=dell-headset-multi
  2. go to System Settings > Audio > Advanced > and check the checkbox saying “Automatically switch all running streams when a new output becomes available” (this applies to inputs too)
  3. Reboot
  4. Mute the microphone using the keyboard’s microphone mute button

Now the audio jack microphone is detected and will be automatically switched to! This also fixes the issue I was having with the mute button not muting the right microphone; it was in fact the same problem as the external microphone itself not working. I have added this information to the relevant Kernel bug report.

Now my headset’s microphone is working as expected–too late for last week’s virtual Plasma sprint though. Oh well, my colleagues got to hear my kids playing/rioting a lot. ๐Ÿ™‚

There is now one remaining issue with the use of an external microphone: the two audio input sources are represented in the plasma-pa applet as different devices rather than as different ports of the same device, which would make the switch-on-connect module unnecessary and clean up the display in the Plasma audio applet. Apparently this is a PulseAudio issue in that the device’s hardware doesn’t fit cleanly into PulseAudio’s abstraction model! There are some PulseAudio patches to clean things up which I have reviewed. So for now, this is the best we can do:

Slow but consistent progress…

Laptop update 2

Here’s an update on the trials and tribulations encountered with my new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga gen 4.

Audio

I have submitted a merge request to clean up the audio display by filtering out inactive devices, which takes it from this:

… to this:

High DPI Scaling

The issue with plasma shadows not respecting the scale factor has been fixed.

Upstream (i.e. non-KDE) issues

I have filed Kernel and PulseAudio bugs to track the issues with audio and power management:

The saga continues…