The 9 best distros for KDE’s Plasma desktop

Plasma is one of the most advanced desktop environments and these distros offer a great ‘out-of-the-box’ Plasma experience.

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The 9 best distros for KDE’s Plasma desktop

While it's possible to install 'KDE' software and Plasma desktop on most Linux based distributions, I have picked the distros which offer Plasma as their default desktop environment. These 'KDE-based' distros offer a better Plasma experience compared to those where you can 'also' install KDE.

At some point in time I have used each of these distros as my primary OS except for Mageia and Open Mandriva, which I tried but never used due to uncertainty around their future.

See also:

#1 openSUSE

I consider openSUSE to be the best KDE Plasma distribution. KDE and openSUSE complement each other because openSUSE features YaST, a gem of a tool.

YaST brings all the system tools into one place, offering immense control over the system. The way it complements KDE is that KDE also offers complete control over the system.

What makes openSUSE a great Plasma distro is that it does patch a lot of things. OpenSUSE offers a tightly integrated experience, blending the distro and desktop neatly.

They even take pains to heavily patch Mozilla Firefox so it looks and works natively in KDE's Qt environment.

I like their work on Firefox so much that I installed the openSUSE patched version of FF on my Arch Linux box.

#2 Kubuntu

Kubuntu is one of my favorite distributions because it brings the best of two worlds - Ubuntu and KDE - together.  Kubuntu tries to offer as much vanilla KDE experience as possible.

Kubuntu had a reputation of being unstable and cranky and I agree with that reputation. I tried but could not stick to it for long. However everything changed with version 14.04. It's extremely stable and mature. It appears that Jonathan Riddell, the lead developer of Kubuntu is now able to focus more on Kubuntu after quitting Canonical.

At the same time, the KDE codebase itself has improved and stabilized quite a bit after the the KDE software was split into three components: Frameworks, Applications and Workspace. This allowed developers to use what was stable and release when ready instead of pushing unstable packages because the release data of 'KDE' was arriving.

I have been using Kubuntu on my system and found it extremely pleasant to use.

#3 Netrunner

This distro is an interesting experience. There are three versions of Netrunner: an LTS version, a 9-month supported version, and a rolling release version. What makes it interesting is that the LTS and regular versions are directly based on Kubuntu and are released in sync with its release. Rolling release, surprisingly is based on Arch Linux.

So if you are a regular or LTS user of Netrunner, you can't get off the bus and hop onto the rolling release version.

In my opinion, Netrunner is a pet project of the German company Blue Systems. The company is a heavy supporter of the KDE project and is also the sponsor of Kubuntu (it's no longer paid for by Canonical) as well as of Linux Mint KDE.

Blue Systems also funds a lot of KDE developers by directly hiring them to work on KDE projects. Some of the major KDE developers who work for Blue Systems include Jonathan Riddell, Aurélien Gâteau and Martin Grässlin. The company likes to keep a low profile.

Netrunner offers a very polished and vanilla KDE experience and since the goal is to support KDE, using Netrunner is more or less like saying thank you to Blue Systems.

#4 Linux Mint KDE

The Linux Mint teams have done a commendable job of creating the much needed forks of the Gnome project, which took a totally different direction with Gnome 3 Shell.

Interestingly, Linux Mint started off as a KDE distro that was based on Kubuntu back in 2006. Later, responding to demand, they created Linux Mint Debian edition and Linux Mint MATE and Cinnamon Edition.

Linux Mint today is the most popular distro on the coveted DistroWatch site.  Linux Mint KDE offers a great KDE experience, and it clearly reflects the Linux Mint philosophy of providing a pleasant experience to a user. From font rendering to GTK-KDE integration, the overall experience is of openSUSE quality. I would venture to say it's a notch better than Kubuntu. If you are using GTK apps like Evolution Mail or Liferea, some components don't work well in Kubuntu but work fine in Linux Mint.

I think the reason for its success is that Linux Mint builds on top of the great work done by Kubuntu teams and polishes it further.

Linux Mint KDE uses its own Software Manager instead of Muon Discover, and I think that's a problem because they are simply duplicating the work - if all KDE distros (which share the same Ubuntu base) use the same Software Manager they may improve the overall quality. Both Muon and Mint Install look like works in progress.

Linux Mint KDE offers a new vanilla Plasma experience and is very close to the same experience you get with Kubuntu. Both are my favorite. I tend to use Kubuntu because the upgrade path from one version to the next is much smoother than it is on Linux Mint.

#5 Fedora KDE

Fedora is used by Linux creator Linus Torvalds. It’s also the breeding ground for many new Linux technologies as it is sponsored by Red Hat, one of the leading contributors to the Linux kernel, and Red Hat's developers are credited for many new technologies such as systemd or pulseaudio.

Fedora holds a sweet spot in my heart because it was the first Linux distro that I ever used. Back in 2005 when I started my journalism career with a reputed Linux Magazine in India, I found they were using Fedora Core as a thin client on their systems instead of Windows. Though I personally have never been a full time Fedora user due to the rpm-hell back in those days and until version 18, you were in for a hard time if you had non-free GPU drives.

However, the situation has improved since version 20 and rpm-hell is a thing of past. Fedora offers a vanilla KDE experience, which means they don’t seem to patch a lot of things, unlike the equally heavyweight openSUSE.

Unlike Ubuntu based systems, Fedora uses Apper for software management, which may not have all the bells and whistles that Ubuntu Software Center or Muon have but it does the job well and its much faster and responsive (I prefer the trusted CLI, though). All the components work very well together.

If you are looking for an rpm-based distro that offers close to a vanilla Plasma experience then Fedora is the right distro for you.

#6 Slackware

Slackware is among the most popular and oldest GNU/Linux based distributions. The distro is targeted at more advanced and ‘serious’ Linux users. It doesn’t patch much and tries to offer as much upstream experience as possible.

Unlike other distributions it doesn’t offer any graphical installer or automatic dependency resolution, a user has to install everything. As a result only the most advanced Linux users dwell in the warm, dark woods of Slackware.

It’s more or less a one man show run by the founder and maintainer, Patrick Volkerding, aka The Man. There is no formal bug tracking for the public repo of Slackware. The Man gets help from volunteers to keep the project running. The distro is extremely popular with seasoned Linux users and continues to be voted among the top distros on LinuxQuestions’ annual survey.

#7 Chakra Linux

Other distros that are worth mention include Chakra Linux, which is based on Arch Linux and offers KDE Plasma as the default DE. I used Chakra for over six months when Ubuntu switched to Unity. That's what got me interested in Arch Linux.

While Arch Linux itself is DE agnostic and provides a user with the needed base to install any desktop environment of choice, it can't be clubbed in any 'de distro' group. That said, a Plasma user may not get a pleasant experience with GTK based apps like LibreOffice or Firefox, which tend to open a gtk dialog box instead of Qt based. So the 'vanilla' or 'un patched' experience of Arch can be not so pleasant, out of the box. However, users can always do that extra work to install patched versions of software available through AUR.

That's where Chakra, takes a different direction from Arch. They do offer patched packages from repositories instead of asking users to compile from AUR.  You can easily install firefox-kde to get better integration with the KDE desktop.

Chakra maintains its own CCR (Chakra Community Repository) which is a modified version of AUR.

If you are someone looking for a very well integrated KDE experience on Arch Linux, without having to do the extra work of compiling packages, then Chakra Linux is for you. Unlike Arch it also makes the installation process a bit easier, but that also keeps users from learning how the system works.

#8 PCLinuxOS

PCLinuxOS makes me nostalgic. This is one of the first Linux distros that I tried back in 2005 before quitting Windows and migrating to Linux full time. Back in those days all major Linux projects, besides Debian and before Ubuntu came along, were all rmp based. And so was PCLinuxOS.

PCLinuxOS started off as a set of rpm packages for Mandrake Linux (now Mandriva), but later it evolved as an independent OS, a fork of Mandrake. Back in those days it was one of the 'easy' to use projects that predates Ubuntu.

In those days PCLinuxOS and Mandriva were the Ubuntus - they were easy to install and use, compared to Fedora.

Fast forward to 2015, when compared with other Plasma distros, PCLinuxOS is not as polished as it should be since rpm packaging has improved (no more rpm-hell) and creative designers have entered the field to create a more pleasant Linux experience.

I think some sponsorships and funds may breathe new life into this otherwise great distribution. That said PCLinuxOS is a KDE distro that deserves a mention on this list for historical reasons.

#9 Mageia / Open Mandriva

I am clubbing these two projects together as they have an interesting history. Mandriva Free was the very first Linux distro that I installed on my system, ever. Back in 2005, when Ubuntu was still cutting its teeth, Mandriva was the 'Ubuntu' of the Linux world. It was one of the most polished, designed and 'work-out-of-the-box' OSes and was backed by an established company.

Then Ubuntu happened and all such distros got pushed to the margins. Then the company became unstable and it led to the fork of the OS called Mageia. Then Mandriva decided to work closely with the Mageia community as most developers moved to the Mageia project after being laid off. Later, Mandriva become an enterprise OS and they announced a fork called Open Mandriva that was governed by the non-profit organization OpenMandriva.

Both Open Mandriva and Mageia are rpm-based KDE distros that offer a very pleasant and distinct user experience - totally different from what you see in Kubuntu-based distributions.

Mageia and Mandriva both have a neat control center, similar to but not as feature-rich as openSUSE's Yast. They both offer a great KDE experience, but both distros are going through challenging times, and similar to PCLinuxOS they deserve a mention on the list for historical reasons and also due to the fact that Mandriva used to be a great distribution that could have been what Ubuntu has become today.

From among the two, OpenMandriva is a more polished version that uses 'Homerun' for an application launcher instead of the traditional Kicker menu.

Had there been no uncertainty around Open Mandriva and Mageia, considering their polish I would have rated them as the top KDE distro.