Plasma Active - a New Approach to Tablet Computing

Why would you spend a few hundred dollars on a device that is little more than a smartphone (with a bigger screen, without the phone)?

Despite the success of Apple's iPad, that is a question that seems to have defeated most hardware and software vendors. MeeGo struggled to define a tablet user interface, never quite managing more than a pre-release. It presented a few simple options, such as watching videos, playing music or browsing the Web—really no more than a modern phone with a larger screen. Even the iPad, an acknowledged success, is little more than an oversize iPhone. Its "wall of apps" approach has been largely copied by the Android-based tablets so far appearing on the market.

What Are Tablets For?

The tablet sitting in your hand (or unused in one of your drawers) is a real computer. Can it do more than browse the Web and play videos? Marco Martin, well-known KDE hacker and basysKom employee, thinks so: "the fact that people download and use thousands of apps shows that there is the desire to do something more". He dislikes the way "most mobile applications feel quite disconnected with each other". Marco believes this is where KDE's new user interface and application set for touchscreen devices, Plasma Active, can shine.

Figure 1. Plasma Active comes with a selection of applications, some more ready for touchscreens than others.

Plasma Active takes a new approach to touchscreen devices and tries to offer more than a set of applications for simple tasks. More than a desktop or even a notebook computer, a touchscreen device is likely to be carried around and used in different contexts, for different purposes. Plasma Active makes use of KDE's Activities, something that has confused desktop users (see the Activities—a Solution Looking for a Problem? sidebar) but, the developers believe, makes sense on tablet devices.

Aaron Seigo, a founding member of the Plasma Active Project and one of the main drivers behind KDE's Plasma family of user interfaces, hails Activities as a great step forward, claiming that "many find the ability to sort their information and applications between different activities greatly increases the value of the device in their lives". He uses a personal example: "while on a recent vacation I relied on Activities to keep track of our itineraries and plans, some work tasks and to keep up with things back home. I have a few Android tablets, and none of them would have been nearly as useful."

Activities—a Solution Looking for a Problem?

Since 2008, KDE has been pushing the concept of Activities, with mixed results. Many users have not been sure of the difference between Activities, designed to allow division of different types of tasks, and virtual desktops, which many people use to divide different types of tasks.

The idea is that although virtual desktops provide extra space and some grouping—for example, you might have different desktops for e-mail, Web, numerical work and graphics work—Activities provide customized interfaces for different tasks at different times.

Imagine you are a student at university. You might use virtual desktops as described above—with e-mail on one and lecture notes on another. But you might use Activities to differentiate between your courses, having one Activity for each set of lectures. So you can have a calculator widget on your desktops for your math lectures Activity, the periodic table for your chemistry lab Activity and quick access to your games in your free-time Activity. With its quick switcher and per-Activity recommendations, Plasma Active takes this concept further, making your tablet change its configuration completely at the scroll of the Activities wheel, so you can have it set up just how you want for every task you experience.

Figure 2. You can customize each Activity with widgets and switch between them easily using the Activities wheel.

First Impressions

When you launch Plasma Active for the first time (see the Try Plasma Active Two sidebar for how to try it), you are presented with what appears to be a fairly standard KDE desktop. The main things out of place are a panel at the top of the screen and the lack of an obvious application menu. Two small tabs halfway up either side of the screen also are not found in other KDE workspaces. Between them, these three items provide your control of Plasma Active. Drag the top panel down a little, and you will see a wide, touch-friendly task bar, with live previews of the running applications and the Home Screen that effectively minimizes all running programs. Drag a bit farther down, and you are presented with a wall of application icons, not unlike those provided on Android or Apple tablets, with a search box you can use to locate the correct application quickly. So far, not so very revolutionary.

Try Plasma Active Two

The latest release of Plasma Active is easy to try out. If you already have a computer running MeeGo or OpenSUSE, you can install the needed packages. However, a safer and more convenient option is to try one of the ready-made live images—you always can install them if you decide you like Plasma Active. Live images on a MeeGo base are provided by basysKom, while open-slx provides an image built on its OpenSUSE-based Balsam Professional distribution.

You even can try Plasma Active on ARM devices (such as an Android tablet) using an image built on Mer, the port of a MeeGo-like system to the ARM architecture.

Details of all the installation and testing options can be found on the KDE Wiki (

The performance of the live images depends on your USB stick and your tablet device. You can install the software to get better performance, but that may, of course, overwrite your existing operating system.

As Plasma Active—and tablet devices—become more widespread, it is likely that many distributions will begin to offer Plasma Active as a user interface or provide special mobile-optimized distributions with Plasma Active.

As Aaron Seigo of KDE notes, "a solution only really matters if people can use it". You also may one day see Plasma Active devices for sale—the Plasma Active team is "working quite hard on making this a reality in the near future".



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We also have MsAccess97

Tyrwhittse's picture

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Usually, neti pot amoeba is

Anonymous's picture

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Plasma Active appears to be a

Flight Enthusiast's picture

Plasma Active appears to be a solution to an issue I've been faced with. I'm currently in flight school. I been looking for a way to use my flight simulator training software on a big screen. This is awesome!

looking forward to it.

Malcolm's picture

I have been looking at tablets for a while now, but I haven't been happy with the offerings from Apple or Android. I am thinking of getting an Archos 101 9G just to load Plasma Active. It looks beautiful and I am now using Activities on my Desktop after reading this.

I have to say, I've been reading a bunch of KDE haters on these Plasma Active sites and I have to say, Where's the Gnome offering?

Installing the GUI

adonai's picture

I have read many articles on various graphic user interfaces used on tablets, but my question is simple - how do you actually install on the tablet. I have tried running ubuntu from an image on an android tablet on top of the android, and vncviewer to access it, but I would like to install a complete arm os on the device. Any help would be appreciated, I keep on drawing at straws and losing.

Kind regards, adonai

there is more for changing

meanpt's picture

I own an hp touchsmart tm2 tblet laptop which has a nice touch screen and did test this thing. Despite the buggy behaviour of the underlining os for which the kde community is not accountable, I found the concept and everything unintuitive and ended with a panefull skin of my pointing finger due to repeatedly have to pull down the applications's screen. Closing our ecpanding windows were a pane too, and I had to use the stylus. Moreover, the very small default character and icon sise seemed to have been chosen by peopel suffering from hypermyopia. By the same time I tested the x86 android 4.x and everything went smoothly, regarding the interface.

Activies Works

Observer's picture

I, like many others, was confused about activities until one day I sat down and figured it out. Now, i can't do without it.

I have an activity for my weather with browser window showing local doppler radar and hurricane tracking site since this is Florida along with the 7 day forcast.

Another activity is for my flightgear flight sim where I have 3 sections of the screen.

One window has fgrun to start the sim and one has blender where I create objects for it and konqueror for copy files after creation and also use as web browser if i need FG related materials.

If i were a programmer, i would have my editor, terminal to compile, file manager etc. that i would need to code.

The good thing is that as you start and stop activities, you don't have to waste time for the applications to start, it is all there ready for you. And you can have a large amount of activites defined.

I can see how this is useful for tablets more so than desktops.

Plasma Active is...

Anonymous's picture

simply disgusting.

I really mean it. I don't like KDE but Plasma Active seriously is repelling in more then just one way. If I'd see someone I know using it... I don't know, it'll be like catching someone pick nose and eat what came out but worse.

Plasma Active

JSTC's picture

Your argument doesn't make sense. What exactly did you not like about it? Or are you someone that hates something you never really use or used?

Full circle

Anonymous's picture

Oh please, when were you born? In the days when people were bigger than their operating systems, they generally chose to organize their work and play in directories. Remember those, in good ole Unix or (gasp) MSDOS? Everything to do with an project (or Activity if you insist) went in one folder. Documents, to-do lists, data, pictures, code, everything in one place where you needed it. It was powerful and simple. As long an application (we called them "programs" then) was on your path, you could invoke it to work on the files right there in your working directory. The minute I saw Windows I knew it was WRONG. Suddenly the focus of activity was no longer the directory. Everything now revolved around the application. The application captures your attention and tries to keep you in its ambit, like shops and malls do. And because the application has no idea where other stuff relevant to the project is, it puts its files in default places, such as folders called "My Documents". I have been endlessly mystified how people could put up for so many years with such a naff idea. It makes no sense to put all data from one application in one folder, ignoring the actual contents of the data. It's like having a dinner party with all chairs in one room, all the tables in another, all the food in the basement, and all the drinks in the atic. Now, with much fanfare, KDE has discovered that it make a lot of sense to organize things around... Activities! Sorry if I'm not quite overwhelmed.

I would like to thank Justin Ryan for sharing his thoughts on th

Jellellsea's picture

When I first heard about it, I did not think about it as software discrimination and am glad I had the opportunity to consider that perspective. But like most of the feedback in the comments here, I disagree with Mr. Ryan.

KDE Plasma Active looks great

Anonymous's picture

I must say that KDE Plasma Active is the only tablet interface that I actually like visually and even more so functionally (at least from what I could see from some videos and descriptions of it). I really hope more tablets with it will be vaialable in future. It would especially be awesome if Linux friendly hardware companies like System76 and ZaReason could help make it a success.

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