How to make the Plasma desktop look like Unity
Updated: September 27, 2019
Over the years, in my production setup, I’ve used only two Linux desktop environments in earnest –
KDE and Unity – well, Xfce to a much, much smaller extent. I’ve started with KDE 3.5 back in the day
(with SUSE 10), ran Unity for as long as Trusty was supported, and I’m now using Plasma 5.12 LTS as
part of Kubuntu 18.04 on my
Slimbook Pro2 laptop. But Unity has a sweet spot in my
Well, I haven’t abandoned the desktop, as it is still installed on the Asus Vivobook machine. I had
the system upgraded from
Trusty to Bionic a few months ago, and installed both
the Unity and Plasma desktops, and then tweaked the latter to look like the former. A small and
incomplete transformation. Then I decided to ratchet this up a notch or three. A full makeover. Proceed
we shall. If you’re impatient, go to the
good results section below right away.
Attempt 1: Not good
This did not work well. At all. On the Vivobook system, during the upgrade, I’ve retained all my
user data from the first Trusty installation, so we’re talking roughly five years worth of stuff,
including configurations. This also means Unity themes and icons (which are used in the
When I tried to apply these in the
Plasma instance, I soon realized that I got broken,
half-complete looks. For example, the Humanity icon theme was there, but I couldn’t really use it. In
the end, I experimented with multiple panels (plus the annoying visual bug on panel resize), but while
I did get somewhat Unity-like looks, overall the results were quite disappointing. Not bad, just not
what I was going for.
Attempt 2: Still not good
For the second attempt, I decided to use the latest Plasma build – 5.16 in the KDE neon instance on
my G50 laptop. I logged into the user I’ve created for the
Mac experience transformation, and continued from there. Having
been impressed with the Latte Dock, I through this could be a good medium for creating the
Latte Dock was stubborn
I found it impossible to make the Latte Dock do what I wanted. Most notably, the alignment. I tried
using both the Dock and Panel modes, and the applet would sometimes switch between them, based on the
location and alignment I decided to use. The justifier spacers were annoying. You can change the size
in percentages, but you must use a slider, so you can never get it quite right. For example, vertical
size of 94% meant the top panel was obscured by a few pixels, but the next increment left a gap of
Two Latte docks
I decided to try using two docks next. You can do this quickly by using the Unity layout in Latte.
Indeed, this created a fairly elegant and promising setup. So this was my baseline. I started adding
widgets and icons, and began tweaking the look and feel of the different elements.
Soon, I realized the problem that was haunting me earlier was still present. The Latte Dock simply
wouldn’t let me have vertical scroll. Adding more icons simply forced the vertical dock to resize and
change the icon size, too. I found this rather crude. But then, if I unticked the advanced setting that
does this, the dock would look very pretty, but about half my icons would be missing. And there was no
way to actually scroll up or down and see them the way Unity actually does.
I have several more icons, but they are truncated and missing; changing alignment
Moreover, I found customization harder than with ordinary panels. For example, the menu. I wanted to
switch from the standard application menu to dashboard, but there was no Alternatives option under the
right click. You actually need to enter the edit mode for the Latte Dock and then right-click on the
application icon there, and then you will be able to switch. Not intuitive at all.
Themes and icons
I also struggled finding the right themes and icons. Purposefully, I decided not to randomly wander
about the Web, and actually use whatever is available through the system interface. At the moment, the
functionality is still split between Discover and the old system addons applet, although most of the
stuff has gone into the package manager. But while this is more cohesive, looks better, and there are
fewer errors, this did not really help me get the themes and icons I needed. For that matter, there was
little difference between Plasma 5.12 in Kubuntu and the latest desktop release.
Trying to install new icons; the action is successful, but these don’t really
show in the system settings.
I tried several different versions of Unity, United, Ambiance, Radiance, Yaru, Suru, and whatnot.
Very few of them yielded any results. Most simply didn’t do anything – and didn’t even show in the
right section, like Look and Feel. Rather confusing and frustrating I must say. Then, some of the stuff
was old – like Ambiance and Radiance are there, but we’re talking versions from Lucid rather than
anything more recent.
Eventually I did find some, but the text contrast was a bit off. However, slowly, I was making
progress, which finally allowed me to achieve what I wanted. Third time lucky as they say. Only five
hours of time invested, no biggie.
Almost there, but not quite:
Attempt 3: Excellent
All right, so here’s everything you need to get this done in a good, smart, elegant manner:
- Top panel with window buttons, window title, global menu, system tray, uswitch
- Left panel with application menu, icons-only task manager, trash widget
- Ubuntu wallpaper
- United desktop theme
- Ambiance workspace theme
- Blender Ambiance window decorations and buttons (and positioned left)
- Ambiance color theme (customized to include black font text)
- Humanity icon theme
- Ubuntu fonts
Top panel tweaks
By default, Plasma comes with a panel set at the bottom. Create a new empty panel. Next, you need
the Window Buttons and Window Title widgets. These are not available by default in the Plasma desktop,
and you will need to compile them yourself. Since this is not a trivial task, I’ve written a
tutorial explaining all
the details you need to get these properly configured. However, by the time you read this article, if
Window Buttons and Windows Title
are indeed available as fully usable widgets through Discover, please
install them that way.
Global menu, system tray and USwitch are available by default as widgets. USwitch is a modified
version of the User Switcher plasmoid. In my artistic opinion, it looks nicer and offers more options
than the original, and it is also closer to what you get in Unity by default.
Left panel tweaks
I added the application menu, changed it to dashboard, changed its icon, and made sure the
invocation is done by the Super key – actually Super + F1, as Plasma can’t handle meta keys only,
but Super is enough to get the menu to show up. I added the icons-only task manager and populated it
with, well, icons. Added a trash for good measure at the bottom.
Please note: this is probably one outstanding bug – I found out that you don’t get icon scroll, no
matter what, either with panels or Latte Dock. I tried resizing the panel, and this would change
the icons and their position, but at no point did I get the Unity-like roll. This is quite annoying,
but easily solvable with a Plasma fix.
There are many. Just grab the one you like.
United desktop theme
You can install this one through Discover. Then, change it under Settings > Appearance > Look
Ambiance workspace theme
You can grab this from the
opendesktop.org (other methods did not work for
me). The extracted theme needs to be placed under ~/.local/share/plasma/desktoptheme. Then, you can
change this in the Settings menu, similar to the above.
Blender Ambiance is one those few decorations that works well and can be obtained through
Discover. Search for it under Plasma Addons, and then install it. Next, in System Settings, Application
Style, change the window decorations to this theme. Do not forget to tweak the Window Buttons settings
Ambiance color theme
Technically, the desktop and the workspace theme should give you the color scheme you need, but you
can also manually
download and install it. Then under Settings >
Appearance > Colors, you can make the change. I found the font contrast to be insufficient, so in a
manner similar to what I do in Breeze quite often, I changed the font color to pure black and made my
own custom scheme.
Humanity icon theme
I had to go about the Web to find the right set. It’s available on
Launchpad, and you can
put the extracted set (both Humanity and Humanity Dark) under ~/.local/share/icons.
These are available by default in Ubuntu and neon. You will need to download them otherwise.
Results, results, results!
Here we have a perfect top menu, with the right theme and icons:
This is the Plasma desktop, I assure you!
Some fine desktop screenshots:
Project Makeover complete. I had never expected this to be such an arduous journey. Thinking back to
my Macbuntu transformation attempts, they were relatively simple in comparison – this whole thing begs
a script or two to put everything together. But we’re done, and successfully so. Plasma is such a
delightful, extensible desktop, and it actually lets you do pretty much everything and anything.
I did struggle with the whole panel, dock thingie, and that was probably the hardest part, but once
I nailed that, the rest was all about finding the right sources with the correct themes, icons and
colors. I am mightily pleased that you can put window buttons and titles into the top panel. That’s
mega-rad. Anyway, we’re done, and hopefully, you will find this article fun and pleasing. If you have
any suggestions or requests on similar artistic endeavors, do send them over. Bye bye now.