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KaOS Linux Brings Order to the Desktop

By Jack M. Germain
Nov 8, 2019 10:29 AM PT
kaos linux offers excellent kde integration

The KaOS distro is an up-and-coming Linux operating system that provides one of the best integrations yet of a refreshed KDE-based computing platform.

Two types of users gravitate to this solidly maintained distribution: those who are frustrated by poor user experiences with Linux distros that are bloated and cumbersome to use; and those who want a better and more controlled KDE desktop environment.

If you already are sold on the efficiency that the KDE desktop offers, you will be pleased with the unique design of this distro. If you are a newcomer to Linux, you will find the revamped Welcome tool is great for tweaking the 15 commonly used user interface settings.

The KaOS team on Oct. 31 released a new "version" of the distribution's rolling desktop operating system. Rolling release distros are updated continuously as new core packages are updated.

The idea behind KaOS is to create a tightly integrated rolling and transparent distribution to maintain a modern desktop with the latest features and software. You never have to do a complete reinstallation to upgrade major new releases.

Independent Nature

KaOS Linux is a bit of a rarity among the majority of big and small Linux distros. KaOS is an independent distribution. It is not based on other Linux families. It is not a direct relative of any other Linux lineage.

KaOS desktop
KaOS is built from scratch with the idea of creating a tightly integrated rolling and transparent distribution for the modern desktop.
- click image to enlarge -

Independence means the KaOS distro does not rely on software repositories developed and maintained by bigger Linux communities like Ubuntu, Red Hat or Arch, for instance. However, KaOS was influenced by Arch Linux.

Arch Linux and its derivatives tend to be challenging to install and configure. That can make Arch-based Linux OSes a bother even for experienced Linux users to tackle.

However, KaOS is not based on Arch Linux. Its developers merely kept some of Arch's better principles in mind when developing KaOS. The developers build their own software packages from scratch and maintain them in community-based software repositories.

The design of KaOS focuses on two things: the use of Qt5 toolkit structure and the KDE desktop. This distro features the latest version of the KDE desktop environment and other popular software applications that use the Qt5t toolkit.

Guiding Principles

Developers of KaOS Linux want to do one thing well: make sure users who prefer the KDE Plasma desktop get the best experience in KaOS.

Building from scratch helps accomplish that goal. It keeps the focus on perfecting one desktop environment (KDE Plasma), building with one toolkit (Qt5), and offering one architecture (x86_64). If you have an older 32-bit computer, you cannot run KaOS on it.

The developers maintain a laser focus on perfecting performance under Qt5 by closely evaluating and selecting the most suitable system tools and applications. So the inventory of best-case software available in KaOS Linux is smaller than most other Linux distributions.

That software issue is one of the traits carried over from the developers' Arch influence.

The developers describe the KaOS distro as a "lean KDE distribution." It is built from scratch with the idea of creating a tightly integrated rolling and transparent distribution for the modern desktop.

Other distros purport to offer the same type of unified integration to provide a best-in-class distro. Usually, this verbiage is mostly marketing hype that falls short.

Not so with the KaOS distro. In KaOS Linux's case, the developer community delivers on what it promises. It has one of the best integrations of KDE and Qt5 that you are likely to find in any Linux distribution.

Look and Feel

I first checked out KaOS when it was a Linux newcomer some four years ago. In general, I had lost interest in the ongoing redesign of the K desktop, but I was impressed with what the developers were doing with KaOS.

The current release has solidified my early impressions. KaOS has a lot of attractive functionality.

For instance, you can put numerous desklets and widgets on any of the virtual desktops. You do not have to deal with guessing and navigating through mazes to access virtual desktops and use them productively.

Also, you can fill one or more panel bars with a variety of applets. You can customize menus and add special effects -- more than is possible with most other Linux desktop environments.

KaOS system menus
KaOS provides multiple ways of accessing system menus.
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However, one jarring adjustment I had to make in adapting my workflow when using KaOS was to the placement of the panel bar. In this release, the design places the panel bar along the right screen edge.

Placement Counts

Until I got used to directing my eyes to flash to the right, the placement felt oddball. It made more sense to me to place the panel at the far left of the screen, much like Ubuntu does.

In Western culture, our eyes are trained to look left first and sweep to the right when reading. Placing components such as the workspace switcher, menus and notifications at the right edge blends with the concept of the slide-out right panel now used in GNOME.

KaOS multipurpose panel bar
KaOS places a multipurpose panel bar on the right edge of the screen.
- click image to enlarge -

KaOS does not limit you to a rigid menu placement though. You can access the standard full-featured menu by clicking the menu icon at the far left edge of the panel bar at the bottom of the screen. It gives you other options, too.

For example, right-click anywhere on the desktop. A single, short, simple menu opens at the mouse point to give you access to widgets, panels and activities controls.

Virtual desktops are plain and simple to set up and use. You configure them in the Workspace section of the System Settings panel from the main menu. You can create keyboard shortcuts for navigating among virtual workspaces to fit your work routine.

The workspace switcher applet is integrated to the panel bar on the right edge of the screen. This is much handier than the procedure in GNOME or other KDE iterations.

Bewildered by Activities

The most confusing features for me in other KDE distributions have been the Activities panels. They impose another layer of complexity to the desktop view.

With KaOS, you will not find the cumbersome hot spot in the upper right corner of the screen to activate the Activities display. Instead, just click on a small icon in the left screen corner. That pops open the Activities panel in the lower portion of the screen.

I never fully grasped the need or the use of the Activities panel on the K desktop. I know that the Activities feature functions as a sort of super workspace extender.

However, Activity screens seem to be competing for the same functionality as the virtual desktop. KaOS does nothing to make the Activity feature any more resourceful.

My suggestion: Provide a quick fix in settings to turn off or remove Activities from KaOS. Keep the button there and let users click a setting to have that button in the upper left corner of the screen launch Activities or serve as a second virtual desktop launcher.

Funky Repository Builds

The default packages are what you might expect for a select KDE environment. They favor software applications that use the Qt5 toolkit and fit the scope of the KDE application design.

In keeping with the best-fit-only policy, the KaOS community deliberately keeps this distro's software stores limited. You also get a feel for the Arch Linux scheme of things. KaOS uses Pacman as the package manager, with Octopi as a graphical front end.

The developers chose Pacman for the package manager because it offers the easiest solution available to build your own packages. They created KaOS Community Packages (KCP) to facilitate sharing of the PKGBUILDs they created or adjusted for KaOS.

Click here to get a sense of how the KCP package building files work.

This approach to software management can be a bit bothersome for inexperienced Linux users. It also can be more work for Linux users coming to KaOS with no familiarity with Arch-inspired software tools.

Out of the Box

KaOS has the latest KDE Plasma as the default desktop in this snapshot release. It uses the Calamares installer for fairly easy installation.

Pay attention to the installation instructions to avoid trouble. Do not ignore the cautions on the Download page. KaOS ISOs do not support Unetbootin or Rufus. Also, DVDs need a burn speed no higher than 4x.

KaOS uses the provided Systemd-boot for UEFI installs. This distro is preloaded with proprietary multimedia codecs.

Plasma now comes with fractional scaling. You can adjust the size of all your desktop elements, windows, fonts and panels to match HiDPI monitors.

The Settings interface is overhauled, and the user interfaces have been improved and updated for the Displays, Energy, Activities, Boot Splash, Desktop Effects, Screen Locking, Screen Edges, Touch Screen and Window Behavior configuration dialogs.

Frameworks is at 5.63.0, Plasma at 5.17.2, and KDE Applications at 19.08.2. All are built on Qt 5.13.1.

Default Applications Limited

I found previous KaOS releases disappointing due to the absence of real productivity office tools. Calligra was provided instead -- but that's not the case anymore.

LibreOffice 6.2 is preinstalled as a pure Qt5/KDE5 application.

The Web browser is a disappointment, however, as KaOS comes with the feature-lacking Falkon Web browser.

My familiarity with Linux software falls largely within the Debian universe. KaOS has a much more limited range of application titles. Many of the KaOS-specific software are packages whose titles I did not recognize.

I'm not saying the applications are unreliable. They mostly worked fine -- but I did have to come up to speed on what they were. Using the KCP conversion tools was not always an easy fix.

Bottom Line

KaOS' integration of the K Desktop extracts power and productivity while reducing distractions. Two things make KaOS an outstanding Linux distro choice: Beginners find it relatively easy to use; and advanced users can customize the environment to their hearts' content.

KaOS targets users who want a Linux distro that puts all of its resources toward working in one environment. You would think that all Linux distros should have that goal, right?

Distros with multiple desktops often suffer from fragmented goals with numerous side concerns. Most of the distros with single or even two desktop options fail to reach the same degree of application selection and performance-tweaking that you find in KaOS Linux.

Want to Suggest a Review?

Is there a Linux software application or distro you'd like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

Please email your ideas to me, and I'll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.

And use the Reader Comments feature below to provide your input!


Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software. Email Jack.


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