2016-12-12

Review: MX Linux MX-15

Originally, this review was going to be of Bodhi Linux, based on a suggestion from a comment in a recent review. However, when I tried it, while it was able to connect to the Internet, it could not connect to its package repositories for me to install any packages, and I figured that there wouldn't be much point in writing a review given that. Then, I thought of trying the latest version openSUSE on the recommendation of a friend of mine, especially given that I haven't tried openSUSE in quite a while; that turned out to only be available in the form of an installation DVD, as no live image is available yet (though I hope to try it when that does become available). After that, I saw some reviews of MX Linux, and thought it might be interesting to try. (Spoiler alert: this review exists because there's enough material for me to write about it.)

Main Screen + Xfce Whisker Menu
MX Linux is an effective merger between the former MEPIS and antiX Linux distributions. It aims to provide a desktop experience that is easy and efficient, with an emphasis on reliability. Its focus is on the Xfce desktop environment, and it uses Debian as its base, along with a lot of the code from the erstwhile antiX and MEPIS. I tried it as a live USB made with UnetBootin, which appears to be the recommended method; in fact, MX Linux discusses many different options for different levels of data persistence from one boot to another in a live USB (though that may also refer to live USB systems made with different tools). Follow the jump to see what it's like.

When I got to the boot menu, there was an issue, with UnetBootin/MX Linux claiming that there were no proper boot options. I tried typing commands like "help" and "exit", thinking the review might have to end there, but even those didn't work, so I pressed the TAB key to reveal what command options were available to me. One of them was "live", so I typed that, and that resumed the boot process as normal. That led to a scrolling wall of text, which after a little while led to just a background (which I think is the login screen, though the login was automatic), and then the full desktop itself.

The desktop is a rather customized interpretation of Xfce. In particular, by default, there is one thick vertical panel on the side, and it contains, from top to bottom, a clock, an icon-only window list, a couple of application shortcuts, a vertical notification area, a workspace switcher, and the Xfce Whisker menu. While this layout isn't too difficult for me to figure out, I feel like there are some usability issues that would detract from the experience for a Linux newbie. For one, the clock has a dark red background on top of a dark bluish-gray panel background, with the clock text itself in light gray; this makes the clock harder to read than it should be. Additionally, the icon-only window list looks too similar to the shortcuts just below it, especially when applications from those shortcuts are also open (and without textual labels, it is very difficult to distinguish open windows of the same application). Moreover, the icons in the notification area don't look so similar to the icon theme for the rest of the desktop, and the placement of the Xfce Whisker menu button below the notification area would, in my eyes, tend to add to the confusion. At this point, I should note that there is an application called MX Panel Configuration which simply (among other similarly simple options) replaces the vertical panel by a much more intuitive horizontal panel at the top of the screen, featuring, from left to right, the Xfce Whisker menu button, the workspace switcher, the same shortcuts, a window switcher with text, the notification area, and the same clock; it would be much nicer though to use the horizontal panel as the default, instead of the vertical panel.

Mozilla Firefox is the default browser. It includes Adobe Flash and other proprietary codecs by default, as YouTube and Hulu worked fine, as did my laptop's volume keyboard shortcuts (though there was no notification to monitor the volume level, and the volume icon in the panel notification area is a bit hard to discern). Although there are programs included called MX Codecs Installer and MX Flash Manager (whose purposes should be clarified by their respective names), I did not find any need to use them.
Mozilla Firefox + LibreOffice Writer
LibreOffice is the default productivity suite, though it was a little slow to load when I started it the first time. MX Linux includes a whole host of other applications beyond the standard Xfce utilities too. Some include configuration tools specific to MX Linux, including the ones I have just listed, as well as MX Boot Repair, MX Find Shares, MX Select Sound, MX Tools, and many others (which I did not really try, aside from one that I will mention soon). Others include a couple games like LBreakout2, graphics tools like GIMP, and other utilities.

One of the MX applications I tried was the MX Package Installer. It is a nice front-end to installing several common applications, and one of those is Skype. Unfortunately, while it was able to install Skype, that fact weirdly wasn't clear, because it appeared to get hung up over some dependency. I had to close that application and then find in the menu that Skype had actually been installed properly, and running it (and testing my webcam and mic) worked just fine. With that issue, I turned to the Synaptic Package Manger, which is also present, to install Mupen64Plus and Redshift; both of those worked just fine. I then had to install the DEB file for the Google Talk plugin using GDebi, which was automatically picked, and the installation worked fine. However, as was the case in my recent review of Manjaro Linux, I could not actually verify whether my webcam and mic were getting recognized. While this may now seem more like an issue with Google Talk than with either of these distributions, I'd still rather wait to see it crop up in distributions like Ubuntu or Linux Mint, which I have more experience with and consequently trust more, to make that conclusion for myself; for now, this is still a problem for me to use MX Linux.

MX Package Installer
MX Linux used about 285 MB of RAM at idle, which is quite reasonable, and I'd say that matches the distribution's goal of being medium-weight (though what I'm talking about is live session RAM usage, whereas they may be quoting figures for installed session hard drive and RAM usage). The distribution doesn't come with fancy effects (as the effects available in Xfwm are fairly limited anyway), but it certainly satisfies the distribution's advertised reliability and stability.

That's where my time with MX Linux MX-15 ended. While the Google Talk issue is a personal dealbreaker (again), I feel that there are broader issues too: this distribution really seems to be making an effort to reach out to newer users of Linux with its specialized tools to make things simple, yet there are too many other usability issues when booting and when actually interacting with the desktop (in which the issues in the latter case are each smaller, but are more numerous on the whole) that would seem to detract from the experience. I think the distribution's focus is in the right place, but it needs a fair bit more work and polish to get there, though I'll certainly be keeping an eye on it in the meantime.
You can get it here.

4 comments:

  1. It's simply preposterous that a distro for newer Linux users stops booting at an obscure command-line prompt and that an inexperienced user is required to know or guess or somehow find out that pressing Tab will reveal a list of commands that will enable the boot to continue one way or another (although my guess is that the less-experienced users may also need to guess or somehow find out what those commands actually do). People who are enamored of the command line shouldn't try to produce a graphical OS for newer users.

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  2. that particular problem at boot of the liveUSB is with unetbootin and syslinux. the newer syslinux boot system that mx uses is not installed on all other linux platforms, and as such unetbootin doesn't always work right when using the linux version, depending on the actual host linux system. interestingly, the windows version of unetbootin works just fine. as does dd (command provided on the download site), which doesn't give you the persistence options off the live-usb but will get you a proper live environment to install it.

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  3. Late to the party here, since this OS is now a year old and MX-16 is being released today. For whatever reason, this diverges from all other reviews we have seen: https://www.mxlinux.org/reviews

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  4. @Anonymous: I do agree with you, though given that this is still a relatively new distribution which is supported only by the community, I tried to be more charitable in my review (without overtly downplaying the seriousness of this issue).

    @Unknown: I appreciate the tip. It does seem weird though that MX Linux would continue to recommend UnetBootin for installing via USB, given this issue.

    @Jerry3904: I also find such a discrepancy odd, but do note that my issues revolved mostly around usability (as opposed to things not working).

    Thanks for the comments!

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