Off and On Again: The story of KDE Plasma's desktop icons; 5.12 improvements

Desktop icons in Plasma 5.12 LTS Beta
Desktop icons in Plasma 5.12 LTS Beta (Click to enlarge)

Recent news in the Linux desktop community recall an interesting time in Plasma's history: Release 4.1 in 2008, Plasma's second release ever, that time we (in)famously abandoned desktop icons (sneak preview: they came back).

Of course we never really abandoned them. Instead, in 4.1 we initially debuted the Folder View technology, which powers most of the ways to browse file locations on a Plasma desktop. Folder View gives you folder widgets on the desktop, folder popups on your panels - and yes, desktop icons, which always remained a supported option. An option we, crucially, did decide to tick default-off at the time. Instead we chose to place a folder widget on the default desktop, in part to reinforce the then-new widget-oriented ways of doing things in Plasma, things older KDE desktops just couldn't do.

The Awkward Years

A telling sign in hindsight, many distributions reneged on our decision and turned icons on for their users anyway. And yet we had decided to throw the switch upstream; what next?

A period of research and experimentation followed. With all that newly freed-up screen real estate and a new modular architecture, we looked into alternatives for what a device homescreen could be. The PC during this time was in a mood to diversify as well, with new form factors popping up in stores. Some of our experiments took off - the Search and Launch interface we debuted alongside the Plasma Netbook spin in 4.5 directly inspired the popular Application Dashboard fullscreen overlay we introduced in Plasma 5.4. Others, like the Newspaper view, failed to find much of an audience.

Application Dashboard in Plasma 5.12 LTS Beta
The Application Dashboard overlay has its origins in the icons-off adventure (Click to enlarge)

Ultimately, though this period was productive in many ways, we didn't hit upon a clearly-better new homescreen. Elsewhere meanwhile, on a parallel track, the icon homescreen UI metaphor unexpectedly bounced back and grew stronger. Touchscreen handsets introduced a whole new generation of computer users to - essentially - desktop icons. In the following years we saw user numbers and familiarity with homescreen icons increase, not decrease.

The Lights are Back on and the Doors are Open

During the Plasma 5.10 dev cycle, we did a lot of polish work on the desktop icons experience. We then decided that it was time to stop hiding desktop icons support behind a config option: All things considered, the previous default was just not serving the majority of our users well. It had to change.

We still don't place any icons on the desktop by default. (Many distributions do - but they always did for all that time.) Those who enjoy the calm and tranquility of an empty desktop or don't want icons to get in the way of widgets were not impacted by this move. But drop a file or add an app to the desktop, and you now get an icon again, with full support for all of the powerful features KDE's desktops have always offered when dealing in files and links. For the many users who rely on desktop icons, this is a welcome reprieve from having to fiddle around post-install.

Icons of the Future

In the upcoming Plasma 5.12 LTS release, desktop icons are getting even better. We've done a truckload of work on improving the experience with multiple monitors, across which icons can be moved freely again, along with gracefully handling monitor hot plug/unplug. Performance and latency improvements, the key theme to 5.12 in general, have continued where 5.10+ left off, with the desktop reflecting file operations now faster than before.

We've worked though many of the most-reported feature requests and pain points for desktop icons throughout 2017, but we're not done yet. Folder View development continues in 2018 with more outstanding user requests on the horizon, so feel free to get in touch.

Check out the beta now and let us know what else you want out of desktop icons after 5.12!


While I can understand that you want to deviate as little as possible from the behavior people are used to, I really liked my empty desktop.
Also your comparison to touchscreen handsets is a bit faulty as on mobile devices the desktop icons are mostly used as a shortcut to the start menu.
Of course it is only a few mouse clicks to get the old behavior back, but I have not yet figured out how to revert it permanently.
Especially when I plug in a projector I do not want to show off my temporary file collection in my home folder.
How can I revert my whole system permanently (including hotplugging of a second screen) back to the old behavior?

And thanks again for working on Plasma,

By Jan at Thu, 01/25/2018 - 00:56

As per the post, nothing changed for folks who like an empty desktop: We show the Desktop folder by default, but don't place anything in it, so the desktop remains empty. We definitely don't show Home anywhere by default! :)

To turn icons off completely: Right-click, Configure Desktop -> Switch "Layout" at the top.

By eike hein at Thu, 01/25/2018 - 10:31

Moving icons across multiple monitors is great, but when is KDE going to be able to span multiple monitors with one wallpaper image? Right now I have to split it into three with Krita and assign each third to a monitor.

By Pie or Cake at Thu, 01/25/2018 - 09:20

Just curious, how would this look like with monitors having different resolution and laid out in a strange way (e.g 3 monitors, 2 near each other, one on top of the first)? I see all kind of possibilities here. Also how would it behave if you unplug one monitor?

By Andras at Thu, 01/25/2018 - 12:49

Do you realize that you are going to break "again" the workflow of most of the KDE user? Activities and virtual desktop does not work on wayland. And after years to have to deal with the activities and their drawback I manage to have something working more or less I will have to change again my workflow? Please don't do it until something is ready for wayland. Before breaking the parity with wayland wait until that one is on parity with X11.

By Albert at Thu, 01/25/2018 - 10:37

Your comment doesn't really seem to be about desktop icons, but in reply: First of, keep in mind the only component of Plasma that's in feature-freeze on X11 now is actually KWin, the window manager. The shell (which in Plasma's architecture is a seperate process) is not impacted by this.

Secondly, most of even KWin's features are actually in code that doesn't have a dependency on any particular windowing system: Implement them once in the neutral code, and they work both on Wayland and X11. This is still possible now. The feature freeze is for adding X11-only new features, which prevents us from reach parity.

Thirdly, we're not dropping X11 support any time soon.

Fourth(ly?), we're not declaring Wayland production-ready until all key workspace features are available. Virtual desktops/activities will be there!

Chill! :-)

By eike hein at Thu, 01/25/2018 - 13:35

Thank you for your answer and sorry if I went a little bit ballistic :)
I really hope that KDE will continue to provide the level of usability and configuration that it's its characteristic.
I tried the plasma-wayland and there are so many things missing (virtual desktop/activities, remote access...) or not working as expected right now (logout without crash...) that I was scared to see this announcement related to X11.

By Albert at Fri, 01/26/2018 - 10:42

First if all, thank you for all your great work! Since you are improving multi monitor support... could you please add sticky cornors, like Microsoft did? On Windows i can fling my mouse to the top right cornor to close a maximized window, and the cursor will be "catched" there (and won't move over to the second screen) . Makes working with a second screen so much easier and comfortable! Pretty much the only thing i miss since switching to Linux / KDE.

By Tommy at Sun, 01/28/2018 - 23:13

First of all - BIG FAT THANK you for your qwork on greatest Linux environment (for me).

Secondly - I am using Kubuntu (now 18.04) with Plasma 5.12 (freshly installed) and I am used to have all icons on all of my desktops / screens. I am Using four screens / lcd monitors.

Now, after update to Plasma 5.12, I have Icons ONLY on my PRIMARY selected screen and onother three screen are without icons.

I wanna my icons on all desktops/screens back. It is there any way to do this ?

Thanks folks.

Petr Miskerik

By Petr M at Thu, 02/08/2018 - 09:24

Yes so irritated. apt upgrade... ding ding ding... GONE... blank desktop.

2 computers.. notebook and a media machine


By DeadlyDud at Thu, 06/07/2018 - 15:58