Ubuntu 17.10: Unity is gone and gnome shell is in as the default desktop. But how does it function? What about the Linux software and how does it stack up against competing Linux OS? Will Unity users be happy? In this review, I take a look at Ubuntu 17.10 and try to answer those questions.
Sabayon, which gets its name from the the Italian egg-derived dessert known as zabaione, is a distribution that we don’t hear too much about these days, although the British Linux press gave it some love a few years ago. It was unassuming…with a hint of mystery. I tried it back then, when I was still fairly new to actually using Linux and thought it was a nice effort, but a little too weird. That wasn’t their fault; that was mine. I was still clinging sharply to Ubuntu at the time. Plus, I was a bit more shallow in those days because I was really set on the idea that an operating system had to look good before I would really put some hours into using it. I still am in many respects. I’m just not crazy about boring.
So when I approached Matt with the idea of documenting a revisitation to Sabayon, he greenlighted it immediately. Team Sabayon has been very busy. It still has a hint of mystique that I find very attractive. It’s got a lot of applications at default and offers you a lot of decision-making power as well. More on that later.
There were a couple of relatively minor issues I had with Sabayon in the very beginning. First, it didn’t offer a means of creating a bootable USB in the documentation outside of using a Windows-based utility. Mmmhh. I don’t want to be a mean guy here, but that’s not good. I don’t want to use Windows as a gateway to using Linux. Furthermore, in the year of our Lord 2016 I don’t want to burn a DVD. But that’s what I did. And there was still a minor hiccup following that–nothing traumatizing, however.
Still, being able to create a bootable USB flashdrive is fast becoming the preferred method for installing a Linux distro. I’m truly glad a method exists for Windows; what else is it good for? (Oooooh!) But if you want to hop from distro to distro, it’s really the best method. Reviewers certainly appreciate it. (Oooooh!)
We’re All Clear
Getting over the aforementioned hurdle was great because Sabayon is actually a really good experience, especially if it doesn’t scare off the new people.
So just to it’s known, I’m running Sabayon on an Intel Core i5 with 16 GB RAM, Intel HD Graphics 530 chipset. It also has a Kensington Lock. That last one has absolutely no bearing. On anything. I believe the omission of a Kensington Lock on a system could save the buyer tens of cents.
Also, Sabayon is distributed in two releases, the monthly of course and a daily, for those living on the edge and for developers.
Maybe it’s my unfamiliarity with Gentoo, on which Sabayon is based, but I liked the installation experience proper, which didn’t take long at all despite the precooked 2.2 GB weight. In the meantime, I was able to create the password for the root user as well as create an administrator user for myself. It’s great to have something in which I can be active during installation other than a slideshow letting me know that I can watch videos and get work done. No offense to any Linux marketing person but I kind of already know this. I’m in my forties; time is precious.
I say this particularly in regards to the startup of the desktop graphics services. It may be an issue with X but it took nearly a minute for the desktop to appear in subsequent boots. It’s not really an eternity, but long enough to prompt the impulse of another restart, which from my experience only yields the same result. On the second attempt my patience proved fruitful.
At the desktop, I was treated to what looked like a very foreboding wallpaper–just a farm horizon at night, a gravel road and a giant yellow moon hanging over the setting with the Sabayon “chicken foot” logo shopped inside the circumference. No life outside of the trees was present. It really held my attention but I’m not sure how others would take it; it was kind of creepy. I don’t have a problem with creepy at all. I love spooky stuff! But some might be a bit sensitive to it. Of course, this is something that can be changed rather conveniently.
I’m Seeing an Alignment to the Northwest
First impressions make a difference for a lot of people and I noticed that the four default desktop icons, the trash, Get Live Help, Donate to Sabayon, Rigo Application Browser and the Home folder had somehow converged in the upper lefthand corner of the screen. I was able to pry them apart with the usual amount of effort and line them up. However, this was a bit anomalous.
Gnome 3’s changes are very pleasant, the dated brushed metallics and “3D” objects swept away like the old republic and replaced with clean, flat design, which I hope never goes out of style. It almost felt like I was expected to show up someday, since Sabayon defaults its icons to the Numix Circle theme, my personal favorite–free or not.
I was particularly surprised by Get Live Help so I jumped right in. This launched the Chrome (with the ‘e’ and without the “-ium”!) default browser and I was immediately viewing a live chat window. I’ve never seen this before in any distro. Any. It hit home that this was a very ambitious distro. It’s a page of the Sabayon website, which of course links to the Wiki and the usual appointments. I’m impressed. It’d be good to see something like this in larger distros.
Now Entering the Apps Nebula
And it’s about time, I know. It’s a bit of a deluxe package. You have GIMP along for the ride, always welcome. It’s the only photo editor/graphics design package I’ve ever needed. Sabayon provides a good foundation and a speedy startup for it. Also, LibreOffice 5 is there as per the usual. Yadda-yadda.
I was shocked, however, to see Pitivi video editor. I’d never been much of a fan but I thought I’d download a short clip to see if it’d changed since I last used it, which was a couple of years ago. It works well and seems to render very well despite the system’s initial hiccup with X. Furthermore, I think it’s an interesting notion to include a video editor with an OS default setup. I’m starting to see this more and more, first with Mageia. It seems to make the statement that since more people have the ability to shoot video than ever before with smartphones and tablets, the time has arrived. There’s something about a distribution team’s decision making process in the inclusion of a particular application that I think is pretty fascinating. Does it go beyond, “Well, we use this one and we like it,”? Or is it a partnership of sorts? Whatever the reason, I think it’s extremely thoughtful and it further solidifies such an app as a real productivity tool. Maybe I’m overestimating it, but for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I really don’t think I am.
I think I’ll go even further on this point; the team seems to be really interested in furthering the media capabilities of the operating system in general. The opinion appears to be spoken loudly with the inclusion of some really great applications such as Cheese (always fun), Kodi Media Center for people who love their movies and music on the telly and the ever-popular Rhythmbox. About that last one, I’m still one of those caught in the Google product cage and I still like it. Sorry. It’d be great to join the rest of the Linux hipsters by connecting Google Play Music to Rhythmbox. I believe there used to be a valid way but it’s not working for me. I’ll probably head for greener pastures in terms of Linux-based music players as a result. That’s my first-world struggle, however.
I was intrigued by mpv Video Player. I’d never used it since I’m pretty much sold on VLC, but I really like the interface, especially for newcomers who are and forever will remain in the gui world. It’s compatible with a pretty good range of formats, not as extensive as VLC. But you only have to drag and drop to the interface and sit back. Very simple. BUT…I couldn’t get that method to work, no matter how hard I tried. You have two options here–try the drag ‘n drop or find the file, right-click on it and select mpv as the application in which to view it. The latter worked very well, I’m somewhat happy to say. Still…the drag and drop is kind of a big matzo ball.
VNC Viewer is something I’m happy to see. However, let’s face it, there are better solutions out there for remote connections. Pick your favorite; I won’t judge you. However, it’s good to know that it’s there for your use in the clutch, its slowness notwithstanding.
I did notice an anomaly in the Graphics portion of the menu. Either team Sabayon really likes Shotwell a lot or it’s in there twice for other reasons. No big; just uninstall and reinstall if it bothers you. It just strikes me as odd that a system with this much polish still has a few hangnails such as this one. Also, it would be like to see different icons for the many selections under the Sabayon menu. Once or twice for the chicken foot logo is okay, but a little diversity in the cosmetics would’ve been nice.
Programmers have an interesting choice at default with included Python tools such as PyShell, PyCrust and PyAlaMode, all version 3.0. Glade is right in there at 3.20, as well as XRCed at 3.0. I’d never used any of these tools so I was really intrigued. On the outset, they’re just preset configurations of the same exact tool, each one catering to a Python coder’s specific wants and needs, each one with more obvious features than the previous. But like other apps in Sabayon, it’s thoughtful, especially when combined with Glade.
I’m still trying to make up my mind about Rigo Application Browser, however. It’s not like an “app boutique” by a longshot in that it doesn’t really give you a frame of reference from which you can browse. You kind of have to know what you’re looking for.
For example, if I type in “video editing”, it keyword searches for what’s available in the repository, in this instance it pulled up Kdenlive and the OpenShot file library. Fair enough. However, it’s not really a shopper’s paradise in that Rigo doesn’t provide screenshot options for applications on the outset. (For libraries and files, I completely understand why this is the case.) If the intent in Rigo’s inclusion is to be minimalistic, then that’s good. However, it’s not an excellent tool if you’re relatively new. Perusing the documentation for Rigo would be a good idea if you’re still finding your legs in Linux via Sabayon. Clicking on the “More Info” button does a bit more to help the situation, still sans screenshot. But it does give some easier-to-read insight into the file in question, also offering the option for the user to rate the app or file on a five-star scale. Run-time and build dependencies are also there for your perusal. It’s not sexy but it works.
In a similar vein is Magneto Updates, located in the System Utilities menu. I like it a lot, although its layout seems to be a little stacky and messy on the outset. The way it layers visually is a little annoying, but a quick and patient readthrough of the listed notifications gives decent and informative results, with the friendly admonition from Sabayon that you should always peruse these. This is a good idea and a good show of transparency from the development team. Note that if you have no pending notifications, clicking on the Magneto Updates icon in the menu will do absolutely nothing. That might be a bit confusing at first, however. Maybe a notification of no notifications with that event would be a good idea.
Re-entry and Splashdown
If it sounds at all like I don’t like Sabayon, perish the thought. It’s nicely balanced for a wide variety of users for both production and recreation, especially with Steam included by default. I enjoy its simplicity and good looks, although the contrast between the default wallpaper and the Numix circle icons can be a bit clashy. That’s not necessarily a complaint, so much as it sounds like something I would do for my own system. I’m prone to such eccentricities post-installation.
That said, it kind of poetically reflects the joys and very minor pains in running Sabayon. If I were to compare it to a model of the U.S.S. Enterprise (which I am going to buy, you bet your tribbles) I would say it’s very nicely put together with a small decal defect and some prickly edges that need to be sanded down. It’s fun to use and has a lot to offer for a reasonably wide variety of tasks. It’s not quite there, however. It still feels “put together” in some instances. Honestly, these are some barriers to entry for real competition with the rest of the Linux world. The OS is more than good enough to get them some clicks and a listing on DistroWatch. But these issues seem so minor and highly-highly fixable, possibly over a weekend if they were to go at it like team Solus. Sabayon’s been around for a while now. I’d like to see them take it up a notch. This team has something interesting, useful, easy and visually appealing. Now, I’d like to see some fired-up effort in polishing the rest of it. They can do it. I know it.
If I had to pick one operating system of the year, I would be picking Ubuntu MATE 16.04, if Solus hadn’t come along and stolen the title.
If it was a contest (and let’s admit it; it is.) this would be nothing short of a gripping and dramatic victory for Solus’ lead developer Ikey Doherty and team, especially in this new generation of proven and truly great Linux systems. If it wasn’t for the fact that the Linux community at-large was full of such amazing and cooperative people, I would call it a distro war.
Now, before I get called out for trying to “sensationalize”, let’s get something straight. In recent weeks I have heard the words “competition” and “competitors” used more in the interchange of “fellow developers of other distros” than I have ever heard in my years of involvement with open source.
And I’m proud to say that I welcome it with open arms. Nothing makes you better than someone trying to outdo you. At the moment, no one is trying to outdo you like Team Solus, so you’d better eat your Wheaties.
They’ve Been Win-ning!
If you’ve used Solus at all in the past couple of months you’ve probably noticed a deluge of changes and bug fixes. I feel as though I’ve been watching a day and night construction of the Winchester House; only this time it’s not out of fear of ghosts and the stairs being added actually lead somewhere.
It’s been an amazing (and sometimes startling) experience. Anyone who read my initial Solus review will probably remember my misadventure with Wine, where I was trying to get a Windows MUD client to load. My reaction was genuine. I was writing in real time. One minute I was testing the client in Solus and it wasn’t working. A few minutes later I tried it again, using the same method as before and it worked. I was able to play Aardwolf on Solus and it was like getting a present. Is there a Betty Ford for MUDs, by the way?
Many, many improvements have occurred since those heady days of development by Ikey and the gang. Most recently, with the 126.96.36.199 release, some of the tightening up includes a fix for a slightly annoying battery icon refresh issue and some keyboard region “guess” issues.
They also switched over to Gnome screensaver for screen locking and for better power management. Somewhat infamous installation issues for the Nvidia Maxwell cards as well as the Intel Skylake chip series were addressed. Gnome technology stacks for 3.20 were added as well as Ikey’s favorite PulseAudio 9, Mesa 12, GCC 6.1.0 and glibc 2.2.4.
If you’ve ever been curious but afraid to try installing it yourself, Solus saved you the trouble of installing the latest Linux kernel, 4.7.2. So far my experience has been really terrific and I’ve not run into any issues in these regards.
I’ve Got to Run, Run Like the Wind…
I like an OS that doesn’t mess around and Solus definitely gets to the point and sings in the startup and shutdown departments. Even on my recently modified Acer Chromebook 15 with SeaBIOS it boots up in 13 seconds. You read that right. Even with Numix icons installed and having to select Solus on GRUB. There’s even an optimistic little “Doong-doong-doong!!” chime once the desktop appears Shutdown? Four. That’s applause-worthy.
Apps start up very quickly, with even Google Chrome beating the clock. So even on low-spec systems, you can really sense the drive for a great desktop experience. It’s light, but pretty. It’s fast but doesn’t skimp. It’s easy; even if you’re the laziest desktop user on the planet you can get what you need without having to go spearfishing on the Internet.
Beavis Installs Packages
In the Solus repo, you’ve got a slew of new packages ready to go whenever you want them. In fact, 41 were introduced, however many of those fulfill several software dependencies for installing others. However, those are easy to spot since they use a “brown postal wrapper” icon. Another thoughtful touch is Solus’s way of understanding that you’re pretty busy and don’t have time to look through all your package dependency issues. Amazingly and very faithfully, Solus follows through by letting you know up front to the effect of “This package requires these others so it can work and work well.” So there’s little-to-no chance of me screwing this up. So far, all of these dependencies have been satisfied and I’m running my packages so well they’re impressing the living dead out of my family. Then I told them that it’s the genius of Solus and not me and they all went back to watching whatever was on Hulu at the time.
You Think I’m Playing Games Here?
Actually, I am for a change. And I’m having a great time with the emulators that are ever-so-conveniently contained in the repo. Of course, I’m going to give them a try because they’re there for, you know, development. And I’m going to try the mGBA emulator out with my ro…backups. This is science, for Heaven’s sake!
Even on a 5th-gen Celeron the frames are something to write home about. Of course it’s GBA, so we’re not exactly burning down the house. It is clear that when they chose an emulator for GBA, they chose wisely.
There are several others here, including the amazing snes9x-gtk, which will always have a special place in my heart. If you’re an old-school gamer, it’s a treasure trove.
Solus also comes with the latest possible version of the Steam client, with which I installed my copy of Warhammer Quest. This game has some relatively low spec requirements but the frame rates and rendering were really smooth, even with the settings all the way at 11. I’m having to tear myself away because this is one of my favorite turn-based RPGs.
I guess the point here is that if you want a gaming system, Solus is up to the task. And just because something you want doesn’t work today, that does not mean that it won’t work later. I can tell you from personal experience. These guys will spring the development on you.
Whole Kernel Porn
It may be just “an interesting choice” for many that team Solus chose to use the latest Linux kernel full-time. Way to be reserved because I’ve never been more excited about it. For a long time, I’ve wanted to fearlessly use the latest kernel because…well…all the other big Linux guys were doing it. Plus, I keep reading about the advantages (and potentially broken things) that follow a kernel update. I’ve been burned before. Like when I was dumb enough one time to upgrade the kernel in Mint.
One of the advantages of having the latest kernel is security, having the latest drivers for third-party video card support, speed and stability. Well, that last one can vary from distro-to-distro. But it provides a better foundation from which a developer can work, particularly if they’re really going hard at it.
It’s also a bit of a risky maneuver, since so many things can go wrong. Essential packages can fail to load and you end up with a broken system until you boot into recovery mode and roll the kernel back. The way the Solus team has approached this is that it gives them little-to-no excuses to turn up something that doesn’t work. In short, you can see that these guys are putting their time in. I’ve yet to run into a brick wall with Solus and I’ve tried many, many of these packages. Maybe I just hit it at the right time or maybe they don’t sleep. I don’t know. But the experience is anything but disappointing. If you’re the type of user who spends a lot of time in the gui and doesn’t really like to touch the Terminal, no big–no big at all. We keep going back to the reason Solus exists and that is to give the user the best desktop experience possible.
That’s not to say that the harder of core can’t have fun with the Terminal. No, no, no. This is Linux. And if you want to compile your own packages and do your own development (maybe contribute some stuff to the Solus gang) then get right to it. Development tools are right there in the repo. If you’re a Perl guy, like me, you’ll be welcome with a tip of a hat. You don’t see Perl anymore! Huh!
This much beloved desktop environment was added recently thanks to the expanding use of Gnome via GTK3. It will be provided as an installation option and a Solus MATE edition will also be released, of course MATE being the default.
Interestingly, the team has gauged the possibilities of future desktop environments down the road, some a lot more than others. These are GTK lovin’ guys so it’s not really likely that a KDE Plasma version is in the cards yet–as unbelievably interesting as that would be. But it’s a good idea to keep your scope in check since the development team is still pretty small and ambitions are high. So at the moment, it looks as though development is confined to Budgie and MATE.
I like that, though. Scope creep is a huge enemy of any project. If Solus was a rock band, they’d want to experiment without going full-on pop. They want their appeal to come from the merit of their own efforts and remain as pure to the original product as possible. They want to please everyone who crosses the already established bridges. I believe this is the best approach for something as original as Solus. There just aren’t many independent efforts like this around these days that have this kind of momentum. They way they’re handling development can assure a tight cult following with the potential for mass appeal. Time will tell, but as I wrote in my first Solus review, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Solus derivatives begin to form as the original continues to expand and galvanize.
Time in the Sun
The more I use Solus, the clearer it becomes that it’s a desktop.. It’s cutting-edge but highly accessible. It’s elegant and in a class by itself, but not hostile to varying desktop environments. It’s slick, but not slippery. It’s polished and fun but still has seriously powerful elements. It’s for work and play. While it’s true that there are no perfect distros, this team has done a masterful job at creating something so close to that.
I now have Solus installed on both of my main systems. I’m getting the same feeling I got when I found Ubuntu. I can work with it because it allows me to do so with speed, low system overhead and enough complexity on the back–end for when I’m in full-on geek mode.
I can say that the only people who need to use Solus are those who value their happiness in computing. When I’m trying to work on something important, I don’t want to be bogged down feeling like I’m finishing the developer’s job. I don’t always have time to go searching through websites to do something as simple as trying to remote into another system or to do something as simple as install an icon pack. Maybe I’ve just not run into the situation yet. But again, there are no perfect distros.
Maybe that places me on the more creative end of the spectrum than the scientific end. Fine. But it’s great to be there with Solus around. Dare I say..? Dare I? We finally have the power and ease-of-use of a Mac in a Linux distribution.
Between 1999 and 2006 I worked for a little company called Electronics Boutique. It was a great place for a college kid to work because you had access to all the latest games all the time. Software came in boxes and some of it was still on 3.5″ floppy. Great game studios like TalonSoft and Looking Glass were still putting out the best stuff you ever played. And, if I could’ve directed you to the far shelf facing the cash wrap, just right of the center, about two-thirds of the way down, you’d have seen something I had a regular laugh about–Something called Mandrake Linux.
It sold for about $35, had a trade paperback novel-sized manual and in a sturdy box with a cute little picture of Tux the Penguin on the front. And that’s exactly what I thought of it at the time; It was cute. The screenshots were laughable. It actually looked a bit like the later versions of DOS. It was totally unappealing. It looked like such a trainwreck that I became obsessed with it.
We actually carried MS Office and other productivity packages there at the time. It wouldn’t run those. It wouldn’t run my favorite FPS, Quake. I was being a major ‘A’-hole.
Long story short, it stayed with me like a creeping virus. I began to see some versions of my favorite games from some company called Loki and for the love of God one of those was Quake! Linux officially had my attention. I bought that lonely copy of Mandrake and decided that maybe it was time to give this thing its day in court.
Since then, that venerable distro has seen good days and bad, getting its teeth kicked in by King Features Syndicate over the name and changing it to Mandriva. “Ooh! You’d better watch out! Prince Valiant is our IP litigator!”
Mandriva was humming along for a few years but in 2015 the development effort dissolved. Pity. But from there, the community forked and three new distros have come to carry on the Mandriva tradition–Open Mandriva, PC LinuxOS and the subject of today’s experience, Mageia.
The Mageia project’s focus, per their official website is “to build great tools for people.” Aside from that, their mission is to collaborate with other organizations and help drive innovation. They utilize an “elected governance” within their organization to build collaborative relationships and oversee the project and are open to all kinds of contributors, from financial to artwork to technical. They place added emphasis on the aesthetics. A stab in the dark on my part, but I think they want it to look as good as it performs. Nothing wrong with that.
The Failed Magician
It goes against my grain to use a virtual machine for reviewing an operating system. I really do want to get a feel for the system and as it stands I’m having to resort to the 32-bit version of Mageia to get things done and to produce a responsible review.
I began by attempting to install Mageia 5 on an old dual-core Celeron system at 1.6 GHz, 4 GB of DDR 3 RAM and a 128 GB SSD.
Installation, once everything got underway, was smooth and speedy, clocking in at around 13 minutes, which is not bad. Right out of the box, you get a choice between several, not one or two, desktop environments, a lot like the old days! Initially I chose Gnome, since I’m starting to get muscle memory accustomed to it on my Fedora setup. More on that in a bit.
The installation procedure is interesting and I can say that Mageia might be one of those environments for people who want to just get things out of the way and get to work; things like keyboard and mouse configuration, time zone, network setup and even network backups. It places it all on one page and allows the user to just go down the list and take care of business. I like that. The business guy in me, who doesn’t have time for the pretty presentation, is impressed.
As I mentioned, you can set up your online file backup during system setup. I like this a lot because it keeps people like me from procrastinating on that and it’s a second backup factor right out of the gate. Smart stuff. So far, Mageia isn’t messing around at all.
Then…I experienced a crash at the welcome screen, which is failing to render text or anything at all in the window. That does it. We’re going to have to get out the new SSD and start this up on my primary system with a Core i5 and 16 GB RAM.
A second installation on a more powerful system later, we’re situated and we have Mageia 5 installed on a more powerful laptop. Let’s get a look at some of the things that stand out most obviously.
I’m Not Happy and That Makes Me Sad
I’m not going to bore you with the yarn about my Gnome experience with Mageia 5. It was just bad from the letterboxed and limited resolution options to networking. It would constantly slip off my wireless network. It would crash and freeze constantly. Let me just say that I highly advise using one of the third group of desktop environments included, namely LXDE, Xfce, Enlightenment, or MATE.
I will also not waste your time and mine about not being able to get the 64-bit version to work. I will tell you that I’m a bit annoyed that with all the great packages that Mageia has to offer natively that it would be great to be able to take advantage of greater system resources that 64-bit affords.
My system has an Intel wireless adapter and it still seems to have some issues with it. I’m just as surprised as you but I have also heard with my own ears that this is not unusual as another well-known Linux developer has had a few issues with Intel wireless. Rather than monkey with this, I decided to use my Realtek USB wireless adapter. My connection was rock solid at that point. But I’m disappointed. After all, what if I didn’t have it? I’m sure this is something the Mageia community is working on. But that kind of thing is a dealbreaker for some and I recently dumped a beautiful Arch-derivative installation due to this fact. I don’t believe myself to be overly sensitive to this issue. From my personal perspective, I want it to perform its basic functions at the beginning. I don’t mind fixing most issues myself after the fact.
Then the Clouds Part…
MATE is one of my favorite lightweight desktop environments and it proved to be the breakthrough I needed for a good Mageia experience. It proved to be an amazing desktop environment for Mageia; and maybe some of that is coming from my previous hardship, not to keep bringing it up. But the experience of having fun with my OS is welcome. Exploration into the packages included in Mageia is like Christmas morning.
But waiting for startup and shutdown is not like waiting for the holidays at all. It’s lightning fast, with startup on my system taking roughly 20 seconds. Shutdown was even quicker. The native experience of Mageia is designed to cater to a variety of different people. LibreOffice 5 is comprehensive, containing the ancillary apps such as LibreOffice Math and Draw, not just the core components of Writer, Calc and Impress. Under the Sound and Video menu I was stunned to find OpenShot Video Editor. Wow! I don’t recall seeing that as a native of any distribution I’ve tested. (I need to explore more; I know.) Dia Diagram Editor is included in the Graphics menu, as is GIMP, one of my personal favorites.
The Internet menu is also full of goodness with Filezilla, Firefox and Remote Desktop Viewer. I’m surprised to see Ekiga Softphone, a telephony package that, of course, allows you to make phone calls from your system as well as video conferencing.
Mageia 5 also includes a handy Startup Applications Preferences utility, allowing you to cherry-pick the apps you want to be present from the get-go. This includes the ability to add and remove applications, utilities and processes that aren’t native to the default list. So you can configure your ideal initial startup for convenience and clarity. Sometimes anyone can have those days when stress levels are high. Rather than scrambling to find the app you need to do your job, it’s right there. Amazingly, this didn’t have a huge impact on startup, although there was a noticeable difference upon adding applications such as OpenShot to the list.
Sorcerers’ Apprentices Welcome
The urpmi command line tool is an interesting one to study. It’s a bit terse compared to other, more popular distributions. However, it’s highly functional and methodical. Fore example, there is the immense Mageia Wiki (which is a reason to check out Mageia in-and-of itself). Say, for example, you want to add a software repository. The command requires the parameter of the full URL of the repository; a little more work on your part. But I can’t help but think this takes the responsibility of researching repositories out of the hands of Mageia and gently encourages the user to research these repositories to determine whether or not they’re trustworthy. Honestly, being a guy who loves hard truth, I can’t help but feel humbled and corrected by this. Here’s an example:
How many other distributions offer a good measure of caution before adding any package (termed media on planet Mageia) or package repository into the house? It may seem like it’s pushing you around. But evidently, the Mageia community believes this is good for you. I can’t argue with that. Therefore, I strongly encourage anyone who decides to spend time in or commit to Mageia to peruse the wiki. It is exceedingly easy to read and I’m positive that it rivals others in the amount of content. The community has made a great effort to treat Mageia as though it’s the last Linux distribution on earth. That’s not only diligent, but it’s how it should be done.
The Return of the King?
Well, let’s not get carried away. I’m still aggravated that I had to go through so much of what should have worked in order to get to what actually worked. I confess that I’m not the most intrepid of tinkerers when it comes to configuring an OS and making it work no matter what. I’ve done that with CentOS on one of my personal servers. It was fun but, for what it’s worth, it’s an overrated experience. My experience with Mageia 5 was intended to be a workstation experience. That’s something that should, for the most part, work right out of the box.
I felt a bit blindsided by the difficulties I had with Gnome, one of the most common and workable desktop environments in all of Linuxdom. What perhaps saved this experience was my turning to MATE for help and I’m grateful as it works. Therefore, I believe it should be one of the more prominent and recommended choices during the system setup process.
However, once my networking and desktop hurdles were cleared, I felt like things had come full circle between my earliest Linux experience with Mandrake to today with Mageia 5. I’m a little upset with it because, well, I guess it reminds me of myself in some ways; it’s smart, eager and full of potential and can deliver once it gets going. But there are some stumbling blocks out of the gate at times. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world of reviewers. An OS is for users. The difference between the two is that a reviewer will often give second and even third chances. A user will often cut bait after the first bad experience.
That said, I am very confident, given my later experience with Mageia 5 that we are in for one treat after another as its community keeps making efforts to making it better. That’s an encouraging thought for everyone.
As many of my readers have probably figured out, I am a fan of the stuff that’s “out there.” You don’t even have to use it. It doesn’t need to be something that will necessarily set the world on fire. If there’s passion in its development and design, I’m pretty much on board. And I can’t wait to try it.
To understand the philosophy behind Haiku, it’s a good idea to examine the word. Of course, it is the Japanese word referring to a short poem in which you have two philosophical, often conflicting, elements. It is also defined as the essence of the act of cutting, which is translated as the Japanese word “kiru”. No, I don’t speak Japanese but I really, really like sushi; and that has nothing to do with anything.
And Haiku (current version being alpha 4.1) is so far away from the norm that I don’t know where to begin describing it other than by giving a brief history. Its roots are in BeOS, a simple, yet highly functional operating system development effort headed by Jean-Luise Gassee in 1990. At the time, the company Be Inc. was designing the OS to run on a personal computer they dubbed BeBox.
Gassee was a former Apple Computer executive who was “run outta the building” by then-CEO John Sculley. Undeterred, Gassee decided to take a lot of the design aesthetics of the classic MacIntosh design philosophy into a C++ coded operating system. It was pretty (for the time) and it worked well. It began to gain a following, and even though the BeBox wasn’t a commercial success, it was being incorporated into hardware from Sony and the like.
In 1996, Apple came a-knocking and hoping to find a new system to replace the aging Mac OS. At the time, BeOS and NeXTSTEP, the OS from Apple-ousted Steve Jobs’ company NeXT PC, were vying to be the next Apple crown jewel. Of course, NeXTSTEP was purchased and ripped apart for the following iterations of Mac, eventually evolving to the OS X brand.
BeOS was still alive. Kinda. But things weren’t the same afterward. Eventually, they were purchased by Palm, Inc., makers of the legendary Palm Pilot handheld organizers. Elements from the BeOS aesthetic were showing up in Palm OS, with their “cartoony” icons and pillar-y window frames. Palm eventually gave the public some of the first incarnations of the smartphone, with resistive touchscreen functionality and hard keys that were like baby corncob kernels. My thumbs still hurt thinking about it.
Now the legend of BeOS lives on with Haiku. And yes, I realize I just went several paragraphs only mentioning Haiku twice.
Now, to understand this OS, you need an appreciation of its history. Let’s start visually; Here’s a screenshot of a typical BeOS desktop screen:
Now, here’s a screenshot of the Haiku desktop:
It’s pretty easy to spot the influence in the aesthetic. But it’s in the actual functionality where Haiku aims to carry the BeOS philosophy and make the improvements the user needs.For one thing, Haiku’s file system is structured like a small database, each function performing a query for an event. With the system being as low-overhead and efficient as it is, this is easily accomplished.
It also doesn’t have a lot of the luxury appointments as many of today’s operating systems. You won’t find window transparency or crazy, wobbly animations that we all enjoy. (Come on. You like them.) It truly is like the “essence” of today’s operating systems.
That doesn’t mean it’s “boring” or “ugly”. On the contrary, looking at the Haiku desktop is a “feel good”moment and I’m one who loves his dark theme. It’s colorful and breezy, but without being obnoxious about it. It’s as though the overhead appointments aren’t really sacrifices for speed alone. It seems to leave room for the user to think. And develop. More on that in a bit.
This is not Linux
While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s also a very different thing that may make some of the less adventurous Linux users shy away from the experience. And that’s too bad because different can be fun. For starters, you’re not going to see icons like these anywhere else. It’s a real headtrip back into the 90’s. You’ve got exaggerated curvatures and subtle gradients. Pieces of paper look like they’re in motion. Pencils and mailboxes that look like they were used by the America Online “You’ve got mail!” guy. It’s a bit of grade school bulletin board art meeting classic advertising style. This was an era when things were still being called high-tech and made no apologies for trying to show us what they thought the future was going to look like. Haiku incorporates this with a loving hand. Its classic simplicity yet it maintains a style that’s classically its own. Even the pointer looks like the severed, floating hand of Mickey Mouse (minus the gore, of course).
Haiku, like a few Linux distros we know, is extremely lightweight. The decompressed .iso weighs in at a mere 615 MB, small enough to fit on a CD-ROM. Remember those?
Installing it on a modern processor with 4 GB RAM and an SSD shouldn’t take you more than a couple of minutes. Don’t wait for a punchline. I had this up and running in Boxes faster than I could think of a password. Of course, this tells me that on older, slower devices, Haiku is something to at least be considered. Well…it could be. I’ll get to that in a bit.
What really made me happy was that it worked with my hardware, all of it, at the crack of the bat. I’ve been known to throw an OS right out the window when some things don’t work. I’m not kidding. If I have to spend hours trying to connect to my wireless network, it’s back to metal. It’s times like these when you can really appreciate the simplicity of an OS.
Apps? Is there an echo in here?
Actually…no! Haiku comes with a surprising number of apps. However, I have to get the bad out of the way first; there’s no productivity suite. And that made me really sad. I was really hoping to be able to write this piece natively in Haiku on an actual word processor. Although there are a few threads I’ve found where contributions and development for such a suite have been discussed, nothing is final. There.
Let’s start with web browsing, WebPositive. Thematically, WebPositive is fun and is consistent with Haiku’s cool and vibrant aesthetic. It delivers a considerable amount of rendering power. Going to some of the websites I tend to frequent, like Blizzard.com or Newsarama was surprisingly nice trip, which means it’s good at rendering some sites that are relatively heavy on content and plug-ins. YouTube, however, was a different story as it was unable to play anything. Not a dealbreaker. But if going to a favorite news site is what you really want, where you can, you know, read the news, it does the job really well.
I can’t live without music. I have a strong preference to very, very old Black Sabbath. So I was pleased to see that I only had to drag my Snowblind mp3 file directly over to the player interface and it was ready to play instantly. Building playlists is also very easy. You can also randomize and delete files with ease. If you’re in the unenviable position of having to conserve CPU cycles (!) you can switch over to a hardware mode and cut some overhead.
Playing video files has pretty much the same functionality. It natively covers mp4 and .avi. Fullscreen and subtitling are also supported. Framerates are smooth and the low overhead on an overkill system will do the job with nary a sweat broken.
What surprised me was the inclusion of a video converter in which a range of video filetypes can be compiled into a more palatable format of your choosing.
System tools are plentiful, including a CPU monitor, boot manager, debugger, calculator, can opener (no, not really). It has a truly decent e-mail client, as well and it’s packed with features you’d expect from some of the most well-known out there. You can even run many native BeOS apps.
So app-wise…eh. BUT there’s no better time to become a developer. There’s always a silver lining. I hope I don’t sound too much like Larry David when I say that.
If you’re feeling nostalgic, there are some really cool surprises inside Haiku. Perhaps the most well known was the OpenGL graphics demo that came with BeOS. In the demo a 3D-rendered, flatshaded teapot will rotate and spin inside a window. A meter at the bottom left of the window displays the frames per second in old-school digital readout fashion. When at default start up, I was getting about…oh…500 or so FPS. However, this was a very reduced window. So I maximized the window and was still getting nearly 80 FPS. In a VM.
It also comes with an analog-style clock that you can move about the desktop by clicking on the lower right-hand corner of the tiny little guy. Clicking elsewhere on the clock window will change the design at random. I, of course, left it at the old “Be” logo selection.
Package management and software repository are works in-progress. Currently, native packages are designated with the .hpkg extension will eventually be downloadable from the HaikuDepot, to which features are currently being added. In the meantime, when an .hpkg is downloaded, they can be moved manually into the ~/config/packages. Full apps should be moved to ~/config/apps. Still, at best, these means are little more than rudimentary, a fact of which the Haiku community is well aware. It will be very interesting to see where the efforts toward a polished repository will lead. I do intend to follow-up on it.
The Essence Suggests Opportunity
Haiku is an environment that is NOT for everybody. It’s NOT for your grandma. It’s for people who really want to get involved in building something with a proven heritage and with an aesthetic and payload where simplicity is law. While I’ve had to suppress my “practical” side a bit when I say that this OS is highly functional and very, very, very fast. It’s not what you want when you want to get in a session of World of Warcraft. It’s a solid base for what could be a contender in the slowly growing pantheon of operating systems. This, I think, is what makes it an alpha, yet not an alpha. It would be better to think of it as what is possibly the most fertile ground you’ll find for development for anyone wants to pitch in. It has two great things going for it in this respect; it has a proven and faithful heritage in an operating system that could’ve been the choice for powering Apple’s systems and it has a growing community of dedicated developers. They really want this to be an alternative that anyone can turn to for work and play. I, for one, believe they can do it. Furthermore, I think it merits a more consistent regard from the community, considering that it’s a true survivor and a very capable effort.
There are so many reasons why you might want to try a new distribution. For all intents and purposes, the desktop has very few jobs when it comes to the “average” user. You need a desktop that:
Runs a web browser; and if you’re a Google Docs user, you can skip the next item!
Runs a productivity suite.
(Optional) Can run a casual game or two.
Can do these few jobs reliably and securely.
That’s it! And it doesn’t hurt that it looks nice and runs fast. It’s not that you’re less demanding. You just want something that works. I know. We’re all sick of hearing that expression.
This week I chose to immerse myself in Solus, a Linux operating system that doesn’t rely on another Linux OS as a base. Rather, it’s engineered from the kernel out and geared toward a safe, reliable desktop experience.
Living inside an unfamiliar operating system is a little like being in another country. You know you’re not the first one there so you’re not going to die. Most likely. But you also know that it’s not always going to be hospitable. You’re going to stumble over things that you’ve yet to try. You’re going to see exotic places and experience some strange situations. And the natives in the forums aren’t always nice. Sometimes, they can be downright hostile and not at all charitable to those who don’t yet know the culture or the language.
If you’re one of those who’ve been reluctant to travel the Linux galaxy, Solus is your kind of place. This time that’s for real.
A Brief History of the Solus System
Solus is not really new. It began life as a Debian-based distribution. It had a Gnome 2 desktop environment and was aimed at squeezing more life from aging systems.
In 2014, it was reintroduced to the world as Evolve OS, but later was changed to Solus because GOOD LORD! Someone had a legal issue with the name and it went back to Solus.
But ambitions change and Solus’ chief developer, Ikey Doherty began work on Solus as we know it today and derivative-only on a Linux kernel level. It is its own animal. I believe it has what it takes to break from the rest of the pack and have a significant impact on the “just make it work” crowd.
Am I the Right Guy for This?
I tried to approach Solus from the perspective of someone who hasn’t used Linux before. Unfortunately, after a few years, my life has changed a bit. So not to be melodramatic but this is different. Solus is important. In fact, I’d call it one of the most important developments in recent Linux memory; again, not to be melodramatic.
Solus may not be the most well-known place on planet Linux. It is not one of the most vastly-developed emerging distributions. Day by day work is being done. And Ikey is exerting a lot of effort to make this operating system a simple, fluid experience for the user.
I remember the day that I announced that I was going to be installing it on one of my SSDs in my growing collection. I tell you Ikey was there and was determined to not let me screw this up.
If you get stuck, give me a holler. 🙂 And this is your friend:
sudo eopkg up
Now, I’m not suggesting Ikey will be there for everybody on such a personal level. This was after I announced that I was going to be writing about it. But you gotta love that.
And Ikey was right. As it stands right now, this is the way you get your updates from the terminal. A lot of us who are familiar with various flavors and distributions are very familiar with this concept.
But Solus, at least not right now, is not just for people who like spending a lot of time in the terminal—if any! And let’s be fair. If you want to convert the average user to Linux, you’re not going to start them on Arch or openSUSE. You might not even start them with Fedora. You might try and steer them in the direction of Ubuntu or one of its derivatives. But there are a LOT of those! And if you mention a command line interface of any kind and you run the risk of ending the conversation badly. Simple enough, right?
Users of a visual desktop want a straightforward experience and Solus delivers that with easy setup. A fast installation is probably not necessarily the first thing anyone necessarily looks for, but Solus nailed it. On my Intel Core i5 with SSD and 16 overkill GB of RAM, I was up and running at the desktop in five minutes. Predictably, this is not Ikey’s focus, but he gave me a big fist bump over Google+ for the bonus.
You Got Your Chrome OS in My Solus
No, not really. You can breathe now. But come on. You can’t get much simpler than Google’s infamous Chromebook interface. It’s extremely light and unobtrusive. It’s the perfect example of staying out of the user’s way.
It’s no coincidence that Solus’ Budgie desktop interface is so close at default to that of Chrome OS. It’s pretty much WYSIWYG. However, it’s top-mounted, similar to Gnome 2. To the left corner you’ll see the menu button, which drops down the categories in the usual fashion. Nothing unusual there. By default you’ll have, from left to right, the Software Center icon, Firefox, X-Chat, (GASP!) VLC video player and RhythmBox (admittedly not my first choice). Other apps you open will also be displayed next to these for quick switching between them. I’ve been doing a lot of that. It’s extremely snappy and responsive. It’s designed to be that way for systems with less robust specs, as well.
The search feature in the initial menu is pretty quick as well. No surprises here either. Just type in what you’re looking for and it will look for it in short order. This is especially handy when you start adding to your collection of apps and files. Since this baby is here to work, you’ll be doing just that in no time.
The clock in the center is just that. A clock. But the magic happens when you right-click on it and you’re presented with a simple dropdown of clock settings and calendar. In this instance, it’s Gnome Calendar, which I love. It very easily can be syncs with your favorite, such as Google Calendar. As I look right now, each and every mind-numbing obligation I have this month is staring me in the face. But at least I’ll be able to plan ahead. Wonder what Matt Hartley wants for his birthday.
Turning our attention to the upper-right corner of the panel, we will see the usual system tray-like features we’ve come to rely on. From left-to-right your network connection indicator begins the array, followed by a notifications indicator, one of my favorite features, battery level indicator, sound, Bluetooth on and off and power on and off options. A little further to the right there’s another clock, which seems a bit redundant.
When you click on that you’ll see the Budgie notifications panel slide out ever-so-slyly from the right side of the screen. It’s laid out pretty neatly. At the top you have two buttons, one for applets and the other for notifications. It defaults to notifications and you’ll most likely find your network connection confirmations there immediately. The bell in the system tray will turn from white to red when you have notifications waiting. You can easily delete these when you’re done reading them.
Just a little further to the right on the slide-out panel is a handy settings button, from which you can change system theming, color scheme and fonts as well as font styles. You can also change your pointer styling. This is one of my favorite features. If you get bored with the overall look of the system, this is a great way to make some changes on-the-fly.
Click on the applets button and you’ll have access to an at-a-glance calendar. The only bad part is there doesn’t appear to be a way to integrate it with an online calendar, but it’s good for at least knowing what the date is and flipping through. There’s also a volume slider as well as on/off toggles for speakers and microphone.
It’s nice and simple, but not without a slight level of badassery. Budgie may be simple, but it’s probably one of the reasons why it has the potential to gain a lot of users.
Let’s Go Shopping!
Compared to a short, short time ago, Solus has been racking up some apps in its Software Center repository. While the selection still isn’t necessarily on the Mall of America level, it’s certainly better than the Glenview Plaza Shopping Center. (Sometimes it sucks being in Kentucky).
Theres a decent selection of developer tools, including guake and Lua. I know I’m just naming a couple, but that’s in the Development Tools section alone. A pretty nice collection of Perl modules also exists if you’re into the Camel. Plus there’s a lot of programming files you can look through to see if any of them fit your needs or (I’m assuming big time here) if you’d like to lend Ikey a hand. The poor man is busy!
The games selection is light, which is pretty much what you’d expect on a desktop default. But rather than field questions all day about it, they took the liberty of installing the Steam client. God bless them. It’s completely configured. Just type in your username and password and get the big warning about how your account is being accessed from another computer and you’re set!
I tried the Space Hulk remake from my collection since it’s pretty hefty on the 3D requirements. I’m running this on my trusty System76 Gazelle Pro with Intel Core i5, 16 GB RAM and one of my many SSDs. It ran very smoothly and I suck just as much as I ever did at this game. But the point is Solus did a great job at getting me what I wanted—my game to run and run well and give me a sound thrashing.
If keeping it simple is the name of the game, Solus is winning. Where Canonical is busy conquering the package space and its mobile platform version of Ubuntu, Ikey’s in little danger of scope creep.
Sure, Solus may not have literally everything you need right out of the box. It may not be geared toward a certain anticipated kind of user. It’s clear the developers didn’t want to paste a label on anyone in terms of how they use their system. But Solus has a place for everything. It’s like a home with all the essentials and hookups you need. What you place in there and where you place it is up to you.
For example, it doesn’t come with LibreOffice 5. Under the Office menu, you’ll find a calendar. That’s it. Everybody needs a calendar. I certainly do. It’s not necessarily the one I’ll end up using, but it’s certainly worth a try. Also, I’ve read a lot about people not listing LibreOffice as their first choice. Some people like OpenOffice.org, for example. Some people want to just go to the cloud and use the MS Office cloud-based suite (yuck!) or Google Docs (not as yuck!). There’s a lot to be said for “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” That’s empowering.
Your Mom’s a Package Manager
Ikey says that Solus is not a distro that will be defined by its package manager. Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of tech journalists and talking heads seem to place 90% of their attention these days. There’s a lot going on in that particular area in the community what with (it rhymes with “pap snackages”) and other “competing” technologies under the lens, it’s hard to not talk about it. And I won’t—not talk about it. Because it’s good.
Currently Solus uses the eopkg system, something I’ve never encountered before. Recently I only ventured into the zypper realm after years of apt-get. On and on it goes. Again, Ikey’s intention is for the user to never have to worry about that thing when it comes to installing software, updating the system and keeping things fresh. And that’s key in getting people away from Windows and into Linux. If the system is going to scare them to death, they’re not going to want to use it. This is a huge goal.
I think Ikey and team can pull it off. In just the last few days since I began writing this piece they’ve made strides toward eliminating unnecessary layers from their build server configuration, allowing for less…well…build time and increasing their productivity. What this means to you is that we could be getting more new packages in their Software Center—always a good thing.
While I’m having a good time with Solus, I’ve experienced some issues with certain packages that are near and dear to my heart. Take WINE for instance. At the time I tried installing certain Windows apps, such as the Aardwolf MUD’s specialized MUSHClient and Notepad++, I’ve failed miserably every time. As it turns out, they’re in the process of rebuilding the WINE package. So we may be able to get back to our necromancing in Aardwolf…now! WHOA! It works! I was even able to get the MUSHClient update. I’m even happier now. Apparently scraping away the cruft off the build stack helped a lot. So no more whining. I’m not sure how it will react to other Windows apps I throw its way. But based on my less-than-demanding demands, it looks as though it’ll be a much better experience now.
Honestly, it’s amazing how much progress these guys have made since I began my research. Hat all-the-way off.
On the Coming Away
It’s fascinating watching things come together for Solus. With that in mind, in many ways this experience has felt sort of like a beta test. I assure everyone that I don’t mean that in a condescending way. It’s been like an extended stay backstage.
It’s a courageous move, creating something completely new and avoiding the status of “derivative”. Not that being a derivative is a bad thing either. But the approach with Solus seems to be that it’s easier to just build it than tear it down and rebuild it in order to keep your vision intact.
That’s pretty special. After all, how many times can we stare at Gnome or KDE and not wonder what else is out there? Linux has really been on the move over the course of the last decade. Lots and lots of polish and refinement have been applied. When since Unity have we really seen something unique? And what have these operating systems really offered in terms of getting people to switch to Linux from a mainstream OS?
While it may sound presumptuous to say that Solus would give the larger distributions pause to think about those questions for even a second, it might be worth their time to give it more than a passing glance. Because it is unique. It’s original. And it’s something that, with just a few more months at the rate they’re going, can and will be refined to the extent that the distributions of the future will be relying upon as a basis for the new derivatives.
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