2016-01-18

Review: Solus 1.0 "Shannon"

The semester has finally ended, and with that, I am officially done with all of my technical classes forever! (I still need to take an ethics class next semester, but that shouldn't be a big deal.) I've had a free weekend, so I've taken advantage of it by reviewing the recently-released Solus 1.0 "Shannon".

Raven + Budgie Menu
If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you may be wondering why I'm reviewing Solus with a version number of 1.0, if I already reviewed SolusOS 1 "Eveline" over 3.5 years ago. The reason is that this Solus is different from the SolusOS of a few years ago. The deal (as far as I can tell, so if I get parts of the story wrong, please let me know in the comments) is that for the previous SolusOS, version 2 was to be released with all sorts of cool things like an independent base, a fork of GNOME 2 supporting Compiz (separate from MATE), and so on, but then the development team ran out of funds to continue development, so SolusOS died at that point. More recently (around a year ago), the lead developer of the former SolusOS project, Ikey Doherty (along with presumably other people involved with the old SolusOS project, but I'm not too clear on that point), started working on a new lightweight DE called Budgie, built from GNOME 3 technologies to maintain compatibility with the upstream code base (in direct contrast to the forking that Cinnamon and MATE had done). He put it into an independent distribution called Evolve OS, but then a trademark dispute briefly ensued; this was quickly resolved by dropping the Evolve OS name and resurrecting the Solus name, and that is the distribution that I am reviewing today.

I tried Solus (which is only usable on 64-bit systems) on a live USB written with the "dd" command, as this is the recommended method; the Solus wiki explicitly advises against using UnetBootin, and I figured that MultiSystem may not be able to handle a new independent distribution like Solus. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

After getting past the boot screen, I was greeted by a scrolling wall of text. This very quickly (under 10 seconds, which is quite fast) gave way to the desktop.

As Budgie is a new DE to most people, I figured it might be worth spending some time describing how it works. The layout is quite traditional. There are no desktop icons by default, but this can be changed using the GNOME Tweak Tool. There is a single, rather thick panel at the top of the screen, containing by default, from left to right, a menu button (with no label), a blue arrow icon, an icon-only taskbar, and an integrated system containing icons for notifications, battery life (on a laptop), volume, and a logout button, as well as a clock.

The panel itself works reasonably well. I do have a couple of complaints with its default setup though. One is that it is not possible to bring the mouse to the very top of the screen and lazily click next to a task icon to open that window; I have to precisely aim the mouse at a very specific part of the icon to hover over it and see its label (as only icons are visible in general), and I have to aim the mouse only slightly less precisely to be able to click on it to open its window, which disregards Fitt's law (linked from Wikipedia). The other is that there is a default icon present on the panel just to the right of the menu (as part of the icon-only taskbar) that looks like a white arrow on a blue square background. Again, it is very hard to exactly distinguish its label because of the precision required for hovering to bring up the label, so while I suspected that it might be either the software manager or the distribution installer (more likely the latter as this was a live USB), I had to actually click on it to see what it was. Indeed, it was the distribution installer, so I closed that; it is also worth pointing out that the distribution installer and the software manager use the same icon, so one could see how newbies would be even more confused by this at first glance.

Although it may seem weird for me to bring up the system tray in further detail, the system tray is not just a standard collection of indicator applet icons. Clicking on it brings up a side pane called Raven, which contains tabs to look at the applets or notifications. The notification tab of course will only contain notification information. The applet tab contains the calendar, the volume control slider, sound options, and three buttons at the bottom to respectively, from left to right, open the GNOME System Settings tool, lock the screen, or log out. Also, next to the applets and notifications tabs is a button to customize the desktop theme, the GTK+ theme, and the icon theme, as well as a separate tab to customize the panel position, the panel size, the panel applets, and even to add other panels. Overall, Raven works reasonably well, but I have a couple of issues with it. The first is that although it looks like the clock is integrated with the other system tray icons, clicking on it actually brings up a different menu for configuring the time and date settings, which seems odd considering those settings could easily be integrated into Raven (perhaps just below the calendar). I will discuss the second issue shortly.

Mozilla Firefox + GNOME Files
Given that Budgie uses GNOME 3 technologies, it is also uses the workspace switching technology that GNOME 3 uses, which isn't the most intuitive or the most workable. In particular, especially without a workspace switcher (pager) on the panel by default, I couldn't tell which virtual desktop I was on at any given time; although switching desktops made a nice sliding animation for the windows, there was no graphic to show me where I was before or where I was going, which is odd as even GNOME 3 has this. (There is supposedly a keyboard shortcut to give an overview of the workspaces, but it didn't work when I looked it up tried it.) With this and some of the other issues I had, I decided to change the panel a bit by moving it to the bottom, making it thinner, replacing the icon-only taskbar with a standard taskbar (replete with labels next to the window icons on the panel itself), and adding a button to show the desktop as well as a workspace switching applet. This made me feel a bit more comfortable, though three issues remained. One was that Fitt's law still wasn't being considered for the labeled taskbar buttons, though thankfully I had a larger area over which I could aim the cursor. Another was that the workspace switcher would highlight windows on the current desktop in its icon preview, but if no windows were visible (which also applied to windows that are open but minimized), there would be no indication of which desktop I was on. The third was actually the second issue that I had with Raven. Specifically, Raven seems tailored to panels that are on the top, because even after moving the panel to the bottom, there was a gap between the top of Raven and the top of the screen, exactly accounting for where the panel used to be; additionally, the bottom of Raven would cover the system tray in the panel, so I would have to aim for a very specific part of the system tray to click it in order to close Raven, though this of course was not an issue when the panel was on top.

Regarding the rest of the panel, the menu works reasonably well, and although it is relatively intuitive that the white circle on the left side of the panel brings up some sort of menu and although it is possible to change this setting relatively easily, it would be nice to make the menu label visible on the panel by default. The menu itself is fairly easy to use, although it requires a click to be able to view the applications within a category; interestingly enough, the "All" category is not sorted alphabetically but is sorted by frequency of use, with the category of the application listed above it as well. That said, it is very easy to search for menu items simply by typing; it is not necessary to click anywhere to start searching, and this is in fact something that I see a lot in this distribution and DE.

In terms of appearance, the GTK+ and window themes are "Arc-Darker" and the icon theme is "Faba-Mono"; both of these look very slick and work well, presenting no significant usability issues, and a lot of the notification dialog boxes look very polished too. The only issue that I had was that when clicking on an empty spot in the side scrollbar in an application, instead of moving the scrollbar one notch up, the application would move the scrollbar all the way to where I clicked; this meant that if I was reading a long article and clicked on an empty part of the scrollbar near the bottom just to go one notch down from the beginning, the scrollbar would instead go all the way down near the end (where I clicked). I don't know if this is the fault of the theme, of Budgie, of Solus, or of GNOME, but while it may make some logical sense from a more abstract standpoint, this is contrary to how I and most other people (I imagine) have experienced scrollbar clicking behavior, so it would be nice if this could change. Overall, I think the desktop is off to a decent start, but could use some more work.

Mozilla Firefox is the default browser, and it works reasonably well. That said, it doesn't include many codecs by default, and while some like Adobe Flash are available from the repositories, others aren't available at all. Additionally, although the desktop did recognize my "FN" keyboard shortcuts, there was no obvious graphical indication of things like the volume or brightness levels when those were changed (although there were audible pinging sounds, but if the volume is muted then that doesn't work either).
The default software selection in Solus is fairly minimal. Mozilla Thunderbird is present for people who like to work with email offline, Rhythmbox and VLC are present for handling audio and video files, and a few other standard GNOME utilities are present (text editor, image viewer, document viewer, file manager, and a few others), but, for example, there was no productivity software installed. The GNOME utilities of course are minimalistic in design, which some people like but I find a bit off-putting because I like to have a little more control over my workflow and over certain options; for example, it is hard to find the extensions for Gedit to handle things like automatic bracket completion (though matching bracket highlighting is easier to find), and it is harder to log into a remote server through SSH on GNOME Files (formerly Nautilus). At least when it came to searching for things, though, it was very easy to find the search button or to even just start typing, again continuing the theme of having things easily searchable by just typing.

For all of that other stuff, I had to use the Solus Software Center, which is a fairly minimalistic, easy-to-use GUI software installer (and update manager). That said, it is a bit finicky when put into practice; if I wanted to look at packages by category, some categories would load the packages present, but other categories would not show any packages because they were taking so long to load (and would ultimately fail). Thankfully, I was again able to search for things just by starting to type, and this was actually the most efficient way to look for software.
Skype and Google Talk aren't available in the Solus repositories, and as Solus is an independent distribution, I decided not to pursue those issues further. Interestingly, both Mupen64Plus (without a GUI wrapper, though) and Redshift were available, so I was able to easily install and use those; both of those worked quite well.
Oddly, the Solus Software Center couldn't find the non-free Adobe Flash plugin even with the search term "flash", but the EOPKG CLI package manager could find and install it (and even more weirdly, the Solus Software Center did later display the non-free Adobe Flash plugin as installed when I searched for "flash" again). That worked reasonably well (and I was able to watch sites like Hulu following that), but this seems to confirm that the Solus Software Center has some issues with reliability or consistency.

Solus 1.0 "Shannon" used about 350 MB of RAM at idle according to the GNOME System Monitor, but only 210 MB of RAM according to the command "free -m" run from the GNOME Terminal; the GNOME System Monitor definitely was not using 140 MB of RAM more than the GNOME Terminal, so I'm not sure what accounts for the inconsistency there. The desktop effects like the window minimization animation and windows sliding upon switching workspaces worked smoothly too.

To wrap up, the fact that I can't use some key applications, in conjunction with the somewhat crippled nature of certain GNOME utilities nowadays, means that I probably won't be able to use Solus on a regular basis, though I am sure there are users out there who would not need some of the applications that I find essential and who would work just fine with the standard current GNOME utilities. More broadly, though, given that (I think) Budgie might start making it to other distributions as well, then for a first official release, I think it's doing decently, but I think there are too many small usability issues that are perhaps individually forgivable but together make it tough for me to use the DE regularly. Although this distribution and its DE aim to be easy to use and built for the desktop (according to the home page, with the latter point written perhaps in opposition to standard GNOME 3 or Unity), I think it may take another major release or two in order for me to seriously consider it again. In the meantime, I think it might be good not for total newbies but for Linux users who have gotten a bit more comfortable with Linux and may be willing to expand their horizons; in any case, I do intend to keep an eye on both Solus and Budgie in the future.
You can get it here; again, note that it is only usable on 64-bit systems.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks very much for a thorough review of Solus. I've been paying attention to Ikey Dougherty's work ever since Linux Mint Debian Edition, and I've read quite a few reviews of Solus - yours is more thorough than many others, and the first one I've seen that mentions all the problems you found.

    At this point I'm relying on reviews of Solus because I can't even get it to finish booting on either of my 64-bit machines. It starts to boot, but hangs up before even getting to the logon screen. Not ready for prime time.

    I'm actually writing because you are the first review I've ever seen who has complained about scroll bars that jump all the way to where you click rather than just going one "page down" the way they ordinarily do. I have strange problems with that behavior. On my Dell OptiPlex desktop running Linux Lite with XFCE, most of the scroll bars work normally, but in Synaptic they jump down (or up) as you describe. On my Dell Inspiron laptop running Xubuntu, it seems as though the scrollbars in all applications have this stupid jump-down behavior. I would blame that on Ubuntu (particularly since it has a history of messing with scrollbars, giving us that dopey long, skinny place marker rather than the usual squarish one), but Linux Lite is also based on Ubuntu. In fact what I'm running is Xubuntu 14.04 and Linux Lite based on Ubuntu 14.04, so the fact that they have different forms of scrollbar misbehavior is really odd.

    Thanks again for the review.

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    1. @whs001: I'm glad you enjoyed the thoroughness of the review, given that it has been a while since I have had the time and the need to do such a thorough review. Out of curiosity, what boot medium are you using for Solus? Anyway, thanks for the comment!

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    2. I wrote Solus onto two different USB sticks with dd, and neither one of them would finish booting on either machine.

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    3. @whs001: Interestingly, it is only recently that I have found "dd" to be reliable. A couple years ago, I too found that it almost never worked, and I wonder if the underlying issues are the same. Thanks for the comment!

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    4. I've been checking out Solus just because, and I'm no computer hardware/software guru, but I was able to install, boot, update, use, shutdown, reboot, etc, etc, using the provided ISO within VirtualBox on Win7...zero issues. No idea what the differences would be between a VM, Live USB, and so on.

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    5. @keithbluhm: It has been a while since I've done tests in a VM, but generally I've found that because ISO files can be loaded directly, they boot more reliably in a VM, though some features become harder to use or unavailable because of limited RAM taken from the actual hardware. Thanks for the comment!

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    6. @whs001: Sounds like an issue with uefi. Check your bios settings and ensure that uefi is first or enabled. Perhaps you need to make sure that your drive is selected as the boot device as well.

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    7. @Jake: Thanks for the tip!

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