Recently there has been a lot of buzz about non-composited fallback modes in various Desktop Shells and of course I have been asked several times about the fallback modes in KDE Plasma workspaces and whether they would be removed, too. Now instead of answering the same question again and again I decided to write a blog post to discuss the situation in more detail.
The first thing to notice is that KDE Plasma workspaces do not have a non-composited fallback mode in the way GNOME Shell or Unity used to have. The main difference is that our window manager (KWin) is able to act as a non-composited, XRender based compositor and OpenGL (ES) based compositor. This means that we do not have to maintain two window managers in order to provide non-composited setups.
The second major difference is that the Desktop Shell (either KDE Plasma Desktop, KDE Plasma Netbook or KDE Plasma Active) is not a plugin to the compositor but a separate application running in an own process. This allows to use a completely different window manager together with the Desktop Shell. Some years ago it was not that uncommon to use Compiz together with Plasma, though we see less and less such usage patterns (mostly caused by Compiz no longer being available in most major distributions except Ubuntu). This is a design decision which served us well and we do not plan to change it. Some time ago I brought up the topic, but more experienced developers (mainly Aaron) illustrated nicely the advantages of our design choices.
Of course we need some code to be able to adapt to non-composited mode inside the Plasma workspaces. But this code would be needed anyway. Why? To answer this question we have to go back in time to when the development of Plasma had started – that is around 2006/2007. Back then OpenGL based compositing had been a rather new topic (I think I first heard about Compiz in 2004 or 2005) and it had only been possible with the binary blobs and hacks such as Xgl. The Intel hardware back then was not powerful enough and drivers were lacking, too. With other words: going an OpenGL-based only path seemed not feasible at that time and consider that the fallback modes in Unity and GNOME Shell got only removed in late 2012/early 2013. This is more than half a decade later – an eternity in IT. Also KWin did not enable compositing support by default till 4.2, so the first releases of KDE Plasma were non-composited by default.
The solution inside Plasma was to make our themes aware of compositing. That is each theme contains an opaque element set which will be used when in non-composited mode. The fact whether compositing is used, is globally available through a standardized X11 manager selection. So whenever the compositing state is changed Plasma is notified and switches the used elements. Simple and elegant. This functionality served us quite well when we introduced the blur effect. Translucency is actually a very difficult topic. If you choose a too strong translucency level the text is no longer readable, if you choose a translucency fitted for text readability the translucency is hardly visible. The solution to this problem is the blur effect. It provides easily readable text even with strong translucency levels. But even today we do not enable the blur effect by default on all hardware as it is an expensive effect and we would not dare to enable it on embedded devices (personally I doubt that Windows 8 removed the blur because the designers disliked it). So we see we need themes with different levels of translucency depending on whether blur is available or not. The design decisions for the Plasma themes provided us the solution directly. As well it means that even if we would drop the non-composited mode we would have to keep our design to support the blur selection.
For most of the applications it hardly matters whether the desktop is composited or not. Only very few applications use the alpha channel in the first place and if they want to use it, everything’s nicely abstracted inside Qt.
Inside the window manager it also doesn’t really matter. Of course our window decorations are aware of whether compositing is used or not and especially Oxygen makes use of it by providing an adjusted look for the non-composited case, so there we have some overhead, but except that there are hardly any adjustments.
This also means that we would not gain anything from requiring compositing. The compositor is a separate module inside the window manager which just gets started by the window manager on start-up. It lives more or less for itself and is just notified when a new window is added to the window manager and so on. Nothing inside the window manager really depends on the compositor. That means it would be more work to get KWin requiring compositing than to keep supporting the non-composited mode. And having the non-composited mode around allows us to do things like turning compositing off when running games or heavy OpenGL based applications such as Blender. So if you want to get some of the now finally available games for Linux, KDE Plasma should be your primary choice to enjoy the game. I have also heard of users switching to KDE Plasma because we still provide non OpenGL based setups.
What remains is the question of what will change with Qt 5? Obviously not much. Plasma will continue to provide a non-composited and a composited theme, but Plasma itself will require OpenGL due to being based on QtQuick 2. I do hope that llvmpipe will be sufficient for Plasma in case of non available drivers. The same is true for KWin: our QtQuick based elements will require OpenGL 2, but that does not mean that we will require OpenGL based compositing. We will still provide non-composited mode and if the XRender based compositor get’s ported to XCB (we have lots of work there to get involved 😉 will continue to provide XRender based compositing as well as OpenGL 1 and OpenGL 2 based. Since the refactoring of the OpenGL based compositor I do not see much difficulties with keeping the OpenGL 1 based compositor around, though if it turns out to not be used anymore, it might be removed.
The last remaining question is what will change with Wayland? Obviously Wayland requires to have a compositor, but it does not require us to stop supporting X11. KWin will continue to be an X11 based window manager allowing you to not use Wayland at all. And even if you choose to use a Wayland based KWin nothing says that it needs to be a compositor on top of OpenGL. Whether we will provide non-OpenGL based compositors for Wayland is a question for the future, though.
A final remark: this blog post describes the situation inside the KDE Plasma workspaces and the design decisions we have done. This is not a critic at the design decisions other projects have done and I am not able to judge whether their decision is right or wrong and it is completely irrelevant what my opinion is on their decisions.