2012-08-06

Review: Stella 6.3

Main Screen
A couple weeks ago on an unrelated review, I remember a commenter asking if I could review a Linux distribution called Stella. It seemed interesting, but I didn't think much of it until the last few days when its release of version 6.3 made news on several major Linux news sites. At that point I knew I should check it out, so here it is. (Also, if Tennessee Williams were alive today, I think that "A Linux Distribution Named 'Stella'" would have made a great title for one of his plays. Yes, I really did have to make that pun, and it won't be the last time either.)

A lot of distributions that I come across that aim like Stella to be more user-friendly than their respective parent distributions are based on Ubuntu. There are quite a few based straight on Debian. There are also a handful based on Slackware, Arch, or Gentoo, which are all generally not very easy for new Linux users to use. And there are a few based on Fedora, though I feel like the only big-name one that's still around is Kororaa (and even that was originally based on Gentoo, so it hasn't been based on Fedora for that long — plus, Fuduntu forked from Fedora a while ago, while I haven't heard anything about Fusion recently). But until now, I don't think I've ever heard of a distribution that aims to make straight-up RHEL/CentOS more user-friendly, and that is exactly what Stella aims to do, so I think it may be unique in that regard. This is a great thing, because while I don't think CentOS is particularly unfriendly to general consumers, I do think it is generally geared more towards enterprise desktop and server settings. But CentOS has a reputation of being absolutely rock-solid, and this is made better by the fact that every CentOS release is supported for 7 years (and RHEL provides an additional 3 years of support to paying customers on top of that, if I remember correctly). So that seems like an ideal starting point upon which to build a user-friendly desktop.

I tested Stella 6.3 as a live USB system made with UnetBootin. (I tested the 32-bit edition because I happily have a new installed system, so I'm not looking for anything anymore so I don't really need the 64-bit edition. This also means that as before, from now on all reviews are of the 32-bit edition unless I specify otherwise.) Follow the jump to see how Stanley reacts. (Yes, I did that pun again.)

After the boot sequence came a few error messages, which concerned me. Those error messages stayed there for a few seconds without giving way to any sort of boot splash, so I thought the system got hung up there in the boot process, which concerned me even more. Thankfully, these concerns didn't pan out in the end because a few seconds later, I came upon the GDM login screen (which in time automatically logged me in). Right away, I saw that Stella doesn't shy away from its CentOS roots, because the computer hostname is something like "livecd.centoslive". After that came the desktop.

Mozilla Firefox + LibreOffice
Writer + Desktop Cube
The desktop is pretty much standard GNOME 2, which is to be expected of something that comes from CentOS. There are two panels; the top panel has, from left to right, the standard 3-pane GNOME 2 application menu, shortcuts to a few applications, and a system tray, while the bottom panel has, from left to right, a window switcher, a workspace switcher, and a shortcut to the trash directory. The wallpaper looks like the one from RHEL/CentOS but has the Stella branding; interestingly, just below the logo is the website of the distribution written in the same font as the logo. The "Mist" icon theme and "Slider" GTK+ theme are the same as in CentOS, but while CentOS uses the "Slider" Metacity theme as well, Stella uses the "Bluecurve" Metacity theme which is the precursor to the ubiquitous "Clearlooks" theme. I have to say that "Slider" has a nice understated elegance, while "Clearlooks" is functional but looks soft and pleasing, but "Bluecurve", which is the default in Stella and which used to be the default in RHEL/CentOS long ago, just looks ugly. The herringbone pattern in the titlebar looks cheap, and even that is thrown off by the window buttons which contrast with the titlebar color instead of blending in nicely. I guess the Stella developers wanted a different Metacity theme to differentiate Stella slightly from its parent, but they really could have picked a nicer theme, because this is just utterly awful and could potentially turn off the new users that Stella may be courting. Also, I've noticed that I've gotten so used to the benefit of maximizing vertical screen space by having only one panel that the effect of two panels on vertical screen space is now quite noticeable. Those are minor fixes, though, and otherwise, the desktop works quite well.

Mozilla Firefox is the default browser and is at version 10. I wonder if Stella uses a repository that has the ESR (extended support release) version of Mozilla Firefox, because I feel like it and its parent could benefit from not having to update Mozilla Firefox more than once every 9.5 months while still keeping a release that is generally up-to-date. Anyway, that aside, Stella lives up to its promise by providing proprietary codecs, as YouTube and Hulu worked just fine, along with my laptop's volume keyboard shortcuts.
LibreOffice is included as well, which is good. The other applications, like Shutter for screenshots, GIMP, Gthumb for image viewing, Mozilla Thunderbird for email, Pidgin for instant messaging, FileZilla for file transfers, and Cheese Webcam Booth all befit the idea that Stella is meant to be more user-friendly.

Nautilus
Nautilus is the default file browser as usual. One quirk of RHEL/CentOS is that if a directory is opened from the desktop or if Nautilus is opened from the "Applications" menu, Nautilus appears in full form and displays new directories in the same window while displaying breadcrumbs for the location. However, if a directory or drive is opened from the "Places" menu, what appears is a stripped-down Nautilus that shows nothing but the titlebar and the contents of the directory and opens other directories in new windows (akin to older versions of Microsoft Windows Explorer). This has always seemed a bit annoying to me, so I'm thankful that Stella not only removes this inconsistency but makes sure that the full version of Nautilus opens in both cases (as opposed to the alternative, being that the stripped-down version of Nautilus could open in both cases).

The package manager is PackageKit, which is typical of RHEL/CentOS and Fedora. I was actually able to use it to install Skype, meaning that Stella uses custom repositories as well or that Stella has its own repositories [or both]. The installation of Skype had a small hiccup when PackageKit asked for root authentication, but there was no text box for the password to be typed in, yet the two buttons in the window didn't work or do anything. The only way to proceed was to close the window; strangely, after that the installation went fine, and I was able to use Skype just fine.
Google Talk wasn't available in the repositories, but I was able to download and install the standalone RPM file just fine. Thankfully, there were no hiccups like with Skype, and after that, I was able to use it fine.

Compiz is available for use, but as has been the case with RHEL/CentOS and older versions of Fedora with GNOME 2, only two effects can be configured through a simple GUI: the desktop cube and wobbly windows. I don't really care for wobbly windows but I do like the ability of windows to snap to one another and to snap to the edges of the desktop, so it would be nice to be able to configure that and other effects with something like the CompizConfig Settings Manager. Plus, Stella has configured the top-right corner to show all the open (even minimized) windows through the "Expo" effect, but I don't particularly like that hot corner, so it would be nice to have a GUI program to configure that or turn it off.
Stella used about 290 MB of RAM at idle with Compiz running as the WM in the background. I think this is fairly typical of a GNOME 2 desktop with Compiz, so that's good.

That's where my time with Stella 6.3 ended. It doesn't have all the features I personally want, so I wouldn't use it for my personal laptop, but I could definitely see myself using it on my UROP desktop for its rock-solid stability combined with its other niceties; in fact, I might just do that after I finish any other long-term reviews. For an average user who may not only use a web browser but uses a fairly small number of popular applications, this seems like a great choice for its stability and support, and I would highly recommend it (but please, developers of Stella, pick a different Metacity theme already).
You can get it here. (Also, the third instance of the pun is in one of the screenshots.)

9 comments:

  1. I know what you mean about Tennessee Williams, I been perfecting my Marlin Brando Stanley Kowalski impression since I first heard the name. I know there's a pun headline there somewhere, but I just can't seem to capture my "Stel-la!" impression in text.

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  2. This one sounded interesting until you mentioned it has 2 panels. That just killed any interest I had right there.

    Still waiting for a look at Voyager too hehe ^_^

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  3. Thanks for trying out Stella. Glad you liked the name, at least. :-)

    The remix is intentionally kept simple, I didn't want to create the new **insert random ubuntu remix here**, I just wanted Centos (EL) fans a hassle free installation, hence just a few small modifications here and there as you noticed:
    - nautilus uses the browser mode by default
    - the default fonts differ
    - totem should load subs automatically and also resume playing files (a la smplayer)

    - Bluecurve: this theme was one of the graphical landmarks of RedHat linux, old redhatters know. Using it was my own way to give credit, if you like, to this great distro.
    I also happen to think it's one of the most beautiful themes, but that's just me. :-)

    * And a tip for those who have it installed: add yourself to the "wheel" group and you will be able to use sudo and install/update software (via gui or pkcon) without the root password.

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  4. I actually like the bluecurve theme a lot and hope you will continue to atleast have that as one of the optional themes even if you decide to change the main theme.

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  5. @Anonymous 1: I'm glad you appreciated the puns too!

    @crabbos: I may get to Voyager eventually. Regarding the panels, it's easy enough to remove a panel and customize the remaining one, given that this is still GNOME 2.

    @Nux: I think you may have read too much into my criticisms, because I actually really like this distribution quite a bit. Plus, I think you did a great job of keeping the essence of CentOS intact while adding on some really useful niceties without going overboard. Bravo!

    @Anonymous 2: Well, I'm glad that you like it, even if I don't!

    Thanks for the comments!

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  6. I cant even review it myself cuz i keep getting Kernel Panic and i dont know what to do about the issue, it works perfectly fine via Virtualbox though...
    I am on a Gateway DX4200-09 using either Unetbootin or DD commandline or any windows USB disk creator and nothing works:/

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    1. @wataki2: Can anyone else help out with this? I'm not really sure what the issue is beyond some esoteric hardware problem. Anyway, thanks for the comment!

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  7. Very good distro, hope you keep it alive long time!

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    1. @Ema Ema: I too hope that this distribution sticks around for a while. Thankfully, it appears to get updated ISO files not too long after RHEL/CentOS, though these announcements are not published on DistroWatch. Thanks for the comment!

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