Neon: A Wannabe Linux Distro For KDE Lovers

KDE Neon is a bit of an oddball Linux thing. Linuxland has an impressive collection of oddball things.

Neon looks and feels much like a Linux distribution, but its developers assert quite openly on their website that Neon is not a real Linux distro. It just installs and functions like one — sort of.

That can make deciding to use it a little confusing. Neon appears to be a Linux operating system. It boots your computer. It displays a full desktop environment. It runs *some* applications so you can go about your computing tasks much like using any other — ahh — real Linux distribution.

That last part is a clue to what makes KDE Neon different.

Getting somewhat technical for a minute, KDE Neon is more of a specialty offering than a fully endowed operating system. Other distros support a wide range of applications from the same software format type.

For example, Ubuntu runs .Deb formatted packages from the Debian Linux family. All .Deb packages will run on Ubuntu- and other Debian-based distros. Which desktop environment is used does not matter, be it KDE, Xfce, GNOME or whatever.

Ditto for RPM-based Linux distributions, like Fedora and Red Hat. All you need is a package management tool or knowledge of the commands for apt, yum or pacman, depending on the distribution’s Linux family. However, that is a skill set that lots of Linux users never had to learn.

Not so with KDE Neon. Neon runs only a specific category of KDE applications: the latest. Neon’s developers assert that their “pseudo” distro does not support most other software. In fact, non-KDE packages most likely will not even install on Neon.

KDE Neon default desktop view

The default desktop view is rather uninviting. You can spice up the appearance by adding desktop widgets and changing the background images.

So What Is Neon?

KDE Neon is a stable desktop posing as a Linux distro with cutting-edge features, all in an easy-to-use package. It is built on a stable Ubuntu long-term release at its core. It comes with the latest software packages from the KDE Community.

The KDE community on July 11 released the latest update to its Neon offering. It is often mistaken for the KDE Plasma desktop with a new name. Nope. KDE Plasma and KDE Neon are not one and the same. The KDE Neon project provides a rapidly evolving software repository with all the latest KDE software.

KDE and Beyond

“KDE” stands for the “K Desktop Environment.” It is also a reference to the organization sponsoring development of the K desktop and the family of software that runs on the K desktop and other desktops as well.

So KDE is an entire project that includes the K desktop environment, the applications, and the developer community. KDE itself is not a Linux distribution. That is where Neon starts to glow.

Various Linux distros are built around the KDE project. For instance, Kubuntu Linux is a version of the Ubuntu family of OSes. Kubuntu uses the K desktop just like Xubuntu is a version of Ubuntu that uses the Xfce desktop.

KDE Neon is an attempt to package the newest and brightest KDE software in a distro-like environment. Running it is much like running a Neon distro in its own right. However, some expected distribution elements are missing from KDE Neon.

Neon vs. KDE

This is where the terminology gets misleading and downright confusing. The latest version of the K desktop is called “KDE Plasma 5.”

The K desktop’s lineage is tracked by a number trail. From introduction years ago to the current release, the versions grew from K to P, as in KDE, KDE 2, KDE 3, KDE 4 and KDE Plasma 5.

The current K desktop brought radical design and functionality changes. So the KDE community focused on a rebranding the name to mark the major difference between KDE versions 4 and 5.

KDE Plasma 5 conveys the more fluid notion of the latest K desktop release. KDE Neon releases provide users with the newest KDE Plasma tweaks along with the most cutting-edge K applications.

KDE Neon Plasma 5 menu

KDE Neon has the standard configurable Plasma 5 bottom panel. The dropdown action menu is a standard KDE Plasma 5 feature.

The Rolling Distinction

Typically, most Linux distros are refreshed periodically with a relatively rigid timeline for releasing software upgrades. Some Linux distros instead follow a policy of pushing out updates as they are ready in a piecemeal fashion. This process is called “rolling releases.”

Distros such as Kubuntu and others that offer the K desktop are not rolling release communities. But the KDE community often pushes out Plasma updates as rolling releases.

KDE Neon developers strive for the best of both approaches. They make rolling releases of the latest Plasma 5 bug fixes and such. They also do not hold back KDE application packages for a distant release date.

When the KDE community releases a new version of its software, KDE Neon users get those updates immediately rather than having to wait for a new major upgrade release.

All other software included in the distro still updates with the OS releases. On KDE Neon, all the software has Ubuntu support.

The Neon Spotlight

Thus, KDE Neon functions as a suite of KDE apps in what is essentially a special desktop OS environment. It is a rock-solid “distro” with the newest KDE Plasma and K apps.

Neon has three editions. All of them are available as live session ISOs that can be installed from within the live session.

The first Neon version is the User edition. This is designed for Linux users interested in checking out the latest KDE software as it gets released. It is stable and is intended for everyday use.

The second Neon edition is the Testing edition. It is intended as a platform for previewing cutting-edge KDE applications. It features prerelease KDE software built the same day from bugfix branches. Expect some bugs.

The third Neon edition is the Unstable Edition. It features prerelease KDE software built the same day from new feature branches. Expect lots of bugs.

More Inside

Using KDE Neon gives you Plasma and KDE applications that are updated continuously, unlike with other KDE varieties. There is no more waiting for updates.

Neon has its own package archive — but remember, unlike full Linux distributions, it comes only with KDE software. Only the KDE software will be updated continuously.

One attractive point about using KDE Neon is that users get more up-to-date packages of Qt and cutting-edge KDE software. That is an important difference from running other K desktop distros.

Qt (pronounced as “cute”) is now in version 5. It is a cross-platform application and graphical user interface toolkit used for developing software that can be run on different hardware platforms and operating systems.

Another key selling point for using KDE Neon is the KDE community’s use of Ubuntu as a “distro” base. The developers see Ubuntu as the best technology for a stable release and the best third-party support.

Always a Downside

A major drawback, as I noted earlier, is that you get a minimal software system with KDE Neon. The software available by design is KDE only. You will not have the other applications typically found in Kubuntu, for example, despite having an Ubuntu base.

KDE Neon is not otherwise related to the Ubuntu project or Ubuntu Linux’s parent company, Canonical. Also, KDE Neon is not compatible with Kubuntu.

You cannot use both systems at the same time. Installing KDE Neon will simply replace Kubuntu once you venture beyond the live session.

Look and Feel

For all intents and purposes, KDE Neon bears an identical appearance to the Plasma 5 desktop. Use of the menus and system tools is no different than what you experience in a standard KDE Plasma environment.

For example, you update Neon using Plasma Discover’s updater tool. Discover is KDE Neon’s go-to GUI for package management.

KDE Neon Discover software installer

KDE Neon uses the Discover software installer, the same as the standard KDE Plasma 5 desktop.

It appears in the bottom panel as an up-facing arrow in a circle. You also can use the command line via the pkcon command:

& pkcon refresh
& pkcon update

Those two commands install all new packages. Neo also uses the same PackageKit code as Plasma Discover.

Avoid using apt. It does not install new packages on Neon.

Bottom Line

If you are familiar with the KDE environment and tend to favor its approach to software applications, KDE Neon can be a fresh experience. You also can try out KD#E Neon for a quick tour of what the KDE Plasma 5 desktop is all about.

However, be prepared to tinker with settings. KDE is a handy way to control most aspects of your computing experience.

Neon gives you a stark, stock KDE experience. It comes with just a handful of installed software. You need to download most of it after installing your distro.

The bright spot, however, is that you can install only what you need. You will not find many, if any, K applications to uninstall. You will use what you find already there.

Want to Suggest a Review?

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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.