2016-03-21

Review: Black Lab Linux 7.0.2 Xfce

Main Screen + Whisker Menu
This is a review that I've been wanting to do for a while now, so I'm glad I can finally do it. Of course, after this, I'll have to buckle down again and prepare for my general exams again, so another review may not come for another month or more.

Black Lab Linux is supposed to be a distribution that focuses on being easy to use and having a consistent user interface, with the hope of attracting users new to Linux. Unlike many other distributions, it offers professional support (for a fee), and also offers computers for sale that have Black Lab Linux preinstalled. As is typical, the distribution by itself is offered as a free downloadable ISO file, so that's what I tested here. I tested the 64-bit version using a live USB system made with UnetBootin; follow the jump to see what it's like.

After getting past the boot menu, I was greeted by a dark, slightly blurry progress bar. After a few seconds, I was taken to the desktop.

Iceweasel + LibreOffice Writer
The desktop is a slight modification of the standard Xfce setup. There are still two panels. The top panel contains, from left to right, a Whisker Menu (labeled "Computer") and a menu called "Places" which has entries for common folders, both on the left, and various indicator applets, a clock, and a single-icon window list, all on the right. In contrast to the solid-color top panel, the bottom panel is transparent except for the workspace switcher on the right; otherwise, it only contains a window switcher at the left, and the rest of the panel between the window buttons and workspace switcher is transparent. I feel like the labeling of the Whisker menu as "Computer" and the presence of the single-icon window applet may be confusing for new users; additionally, I was a little thrown off by the transparent bottom panel, because while it might be aesthetically pleasing, it could be better from a usability perspective, and the opaque workspace switcher clashes with that design choice anyway. The icon theme, called "Vibrancy", and the GTK+ theme ("Greybird", which is standard on Xubuntu) both work well. However, the window titlebar theme "Unix Modern" looks like the exact opposite of something modern, and frankly looks quite ugly; for a distribution that advertises being modern and easy to use, the default window titlebar theme choice, by looking like something from the 1980s, does a lot to hinder those goals. Other than that, though, the desktop looks and feels pretty nice.

Before I go further, though, I'd like to go a little bit into the issue of consistency, as this is one of Black Lab Linux's self-proclaimed selling points. I found a few examples that seem to go against that. For example, the desktop icon in the live session for installing the distribution uses the Ubuntu logo, and lists the current distribution version as "Black Lab Linux 14.04" (as opposed to "Black Lab Linux 7.0.2"). There are a few other places where this occurs too, including the App Grid (where the name "Ubuntu" is again used). With these and other issues, I think there are a few inconsistencies that the developers need to iron out.

Iceweasel is the default browser; although I know that it is just a rebranding of Mozilla Firefox, I feel like new users might get a little bit confused. To make matters worse, in the "Favorites" category of the Whisker Menu, not only is Iceweasel listed as such, but also listed is an icon for the "Web Browser"; I expected it (based on the name as well as the associated icon) to be an alternative browser such as GNOME Web (formerly Epiphany), but it turned out to be a duplicate shortcut to Iceweasel. Besides that, though, Iceweasel seems to have most proprietary plugins and codecs included, as YouTube and Hulu worked along with my laptop's volume keyboard shortcuts. Given that this distribution doesn't seem to have any qualms about including this or other (to be elaborated further) proprietary software out-of-the-box, I'm not sure why they couldn't have just gone with the more recognizable Mozilla Firefox.
Thunar + Ristretto Image Viewer
LibreOffice is included as the default productivity suite, and it works well too. There are a bunch of multimedia packages installed as well, and even Steam is included too. That said, there are a couple of package inclusions that I find questionable. Specifically, I wonder why the simpler Xarchiver archive tool is included along with the more fully-featured GNOME Archive Manager (formerly File Roller). More than that, I wonder why the apparently NCURSES-based (read: looks like they're from the 1980s, just like the default window title bar theme) Worker file manager and Xosview system monitor are included, given the default inclusion of the nicer-looking Thunar and Xfce Task Manager. It seems like the inclusion of such visually stripped-down applications would only serve to further confuse new users.

Although the App Grid (successor to the Ubuntu Software Center) is available, it, like its predecessor, is a bit too basic for my tastes; also, given that this is not an official Ubuntu variant, pictures and other information are missing for certain applications. Given this, I used the Synaptic Package Manager, which is thankfully also included out-of-the-box (though I wonder if it might be better, based on what I've said so far, to hide this from new users), to install packages. In particular, I was able to install Mupen64Plus, Redshift, and Nemo; the latter two worked fine, but while the former installed, it didn't work, though this is not a deal-breaker for me anymore given that I don't really play emulated Nintendo 64 games in my free time anymore.
Neither Skype nor Google Talk were available in the repositories, so I had to download them both from their respective websites. Oddly, when I used GDebi to install the Skype DEB package, after it installed, the available button in GDebi remained at "Install Package" instead of changing to "Reinstall Package"; this did not happen with Google Talk. Otherwise, both of those things worked fine, although Skype looked rather ugly without the nice Qt theming.

According to the command "free -m", this distribution used 575 MB of RAM at idle; this is a bit on the heavy side for an Xfce setup without Compiz (even my Xfce setup with Compiz on Linux Mint 13 LTS "Maya" Xfce as installed on my laptop uses less than 450 MB of RAM at idle). That said, there were some basic compositing effects enabled, which looked nice. Beyond that, the desktop was always stable and never actually posed any serious issues for me.

That is where my time with Black Lab Linux 7.0.2 Xfce ended. Overall, the distribution works quite well, and I'd be fine with using it myself, though I'd make quite a few changes to the application set and to the appearance of the desktop. However, given that this is meant for new users and emphasizes consistency, I feel like although this distribution has no show-stopping problems, it has a bunch of minor questionable design decisions that could easily add up to an unappealing experience for a new user. I'd be fine with recommending this to Linux users who have a small amount of experience and are willing to experiment a bit, but for truly new users, I'd only be comfortable walking them through the distribution in person and helping them make their desktop easier and more appealing to use.
You can get it here.

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