Review: Cinnarch 2012.10.01

I haven't gotten the chance to do a review in a while. It's a long weekend, so I finally do have some more free time now, and I need to take a break from the otherwise endless stream of work, so I'm taking a look at Cinnarch now.

Cinnarch is a relatively new distribution on the scene. True to its name, it is based on Arch Linux and uses GNOME 3/Cinnamon as its primary DE. At first I figured that the packaging would be fairly stock, but as it turns out (and as you will see later in this post), there are a few other mild customizations present as well.

I tried this on a live USB using MultiSystem; I did not try the installation. To be honest, this is going to be more of a look at GNOME 3/Cinnamon in general rather than Cinnarch specifically as a distribution, though there may be certain things in the distribution affecting the experience of the DE. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

After the boot menu came a scrolling wall of text typical of a distribution derived from Arch Linux. After that came the desktop. One cool thing about the loading of the desktop was that a screen showed up asking if I wanted to try the live session or use the text installer; there is also an inactive option for a GUI installer as there is no GUI installer yet. That window is formatted in much the same way as in recent versions of Ubuntu and its derivatives, which is quite nice.

The desktop is GNOME 3/Cinnamon that has been lightly customized. The panel is on the top rather than the bottom. The button to show the desktop has been removed, and instead of a button to show the list of open windows (separate from the window switcher), there is a Bluetooth panel applet. The GNOME 3 and GTK+ themes are the standard Adwaita, while the icon theme is Faenza. Overall, the desktop works quite well at first glance.

That said, there were a number of issues that popped up. For instance, I wanted to replace the normal Cinnamon menu with the classic Linux Mint-style menu. There is an officially-unofficial third-party applet for this, so I went to the website for applets, downloaded it, and followed the instructions to install it. While it installed fine and I was able to add it to the panel, clicking on the applet button wouldn't actually display anything. When I saw that, I tried removing the applet, but to no avail. After each attempt, I pressed 'ALT'+'F2' and entered "r" to restart the GNOME 3/Cinnamon desktop, but nothing happened after the first two times, and after the third time when I also asked Cinnamon to restore the default settings, an error message came requiring me to log out. I did so, and only after pressing 'CTRL'+'ALT'+'F6' was I able to see in the CLI login screen what the password was; I then pressed 'CTRL'+'ALT'+'F7' to go back to the GUI LightDM screen, typed in the password ("live"), and got back in. After that, I was greeted by the default settings for the panel, including a button to hide open windows and the replacement of the Bluetooth applet with a window list applet. That last bit wasn't a huge deal, but overall, I am not too happy with the way that GNOME 3/Cinnamon handles third-party applets. I don't know how KDE manages to get so many third-party additions to install and work so consistently, but I would prefer an integrated solution like that.

Another issue came with the effect to show the virtual workspaces in a grid. The bottom-right corner causes that effect to activate if the cursor is there. When it activates, any overlapping windows separate within the given workspace in the preview of all workspaces. Unfortunately, this means that switching back to the original workspace is finicky because there is no guarantee that the window that was active and visible before the workspace previewing will continue to be active when the user switches back to that workspace. This sort of inconsistent behavior is quite annoying, if you ask me.

Pantheon Files
In addition, I saw in many screenshots of Cinnarch that the window switcher has previews that display if the cursor hovers over the window buttons. That effect is not actually activated by default. I went through the applet settings and disabled the normal window switcher while activating the window switcher with effects; unfortunately this seemed to leave me with no window switcher at all anymore. I then enabled both and found myself with two separate window switchers. Only after I did the 'ALT'+'F2' combination followed by the "r" command, followed by disabling both and then enabling only the one with effects was I able to get what I wanted. Again, this inconsistency rather bothered me.

One last gripe I have with GNOME 3/Cinnamon in general is that when adding applets, there is no telling where the new applet will go. I can't figure out a way to predict where on the panel the new applet will actually be positioned. Even when I try to move the applet afterwards, sometimes it moves to the correct position, other times it moves to a different position altogether, and still other times it doesn't move at all. That again is rather unpredictable behavior.

Moving on from the desktop, Chromium is the default browser, and it appears to include many proprietary codecs and other plugins as well. YouTube and Hulu played fine, and my laptop's volume keyboard shortcuts were recognized.
Speaking of keyboard shortcuts, when I first logged in, the system had turned on the number lock on my keyboard as is the case when I press 'FN'+'INSERT'. This meant that every time I tried to type 'l', it would come out as '3'; it took me a few seconds to realize what was going on and correct for this. I don't think I have ever seen this behavior anywhere else, which is odd.
There aren't many other useful end-user applications available. There is an installer for LibreOffice, but that is more meant for an installed session. I guess it makes sense as the compressed ISO file system size is less than 650 MB.

Virtual Workspaces
Despite this being a GNOME 3/Cinnamon desktop, Pantheon Files (the official successor to Marlin in the upcoming version of Elementary OS), rather than Nautilus, is the default file browser. It feels quite fast compared to Nautilus, and it also seems a bit less buggy in terms of its operation. That said, there are two minor issues, one very much so and one slightly less so. The very minor issue is that it doesn't seem to integrate very well with the default theme; along with that, I'm not a huge fan of the arrangement of the buttons in the toolbar, but both of those issues can easily be fixed. The less minor issue is that for some reason, it seems to be unable to render the names of some of the favorite places (folders and drives) in the sidebar; these are instead rendered as hieroglyphic boxes, as is the case when I try to view a Wikipedia article that contains text from another writing system that is not installed on my computer. Beyond that, I'm a little confused as to why neither Gloobus-Preview nor GNOME Sushi is available for quick file previewing. I guess it isn't a huge deal considering that the default GNOME applications for file viewing like Eye Of GNOME and Evince feel quite fast in a native GNOME 3 environment; that said, somewhere along the line when I was using this distribution, the default image viewer changed from Eye Of GNOME to Shotwell, yet I did not do anything to make that happen, which was annoying.

As this is based on Arch Linux, the default package manager is Pacman. Interestingly, a GUI version called PacmanXG4 is included as well; that has an interface that looks quite a bit like a simpler version of the Synaptic Package Manager. Unfortunately, a lot of the packages I expected should be there weren't available even as I tried refreshing the package list; I had to close that window, issue the command "sudo pacman -Syy", and then reopen it to see the new packages available. I used it to successfully install Skype; that also worked well, as my laptop's webcam and mic were recognized fine. Furthermore, Skype didn't crash despite being at version 4.0, as I have found that Skype 4.0 on other live systems does not fare so well in terms of stability.

Installing Google Talk was not quite as successful. For some reason, the archive manager File Roller didn't work on this AUR-downloaded archive, while it worked fine on others, which is another inconsistency. It just refused to extract the folder I wanted into the location I wanted, yet it claimed to be successful. I finally had to use the CLI "tar" tool to do the job. After that, I tried issuing the commands on the AUR page for the Google Talk plugin, yet it gave me some rather cryptic errors. After some searching for possible solutions, I decided not to bother with it anymore.

As mentioned before, desktop effects worked well. Also, Cinnarch used about 300 MB of RAM at idle, which is not too bad I guess.

That is where my time with this distribution ended. I would say that the key word of this whole article is "unpredictability". That basically defined the whole experience. Partly because of the distribution, but mostly because of the DE, the experience felt very visibly like a work-in-progress; it's important to note that apart from the issues with GNOME 3/Cinnamon, Cinnarch as a distribution worked pretty well, although the Google Talk issue means that I probably wouldn't use it anyway on a regular basis. I think it's cool that someone has created a live distribution based on Arch Linux with GNOME 3/Cinnamon, but the upstream DE still needs a lot more work before I could use it or recommend it to anyone.
You can get it here.