MX Linux 17MX Linux is a desktop Linux distribution based on Debian's Stable branch which uses Xfce as the operating system's default desktop environment. MX grew out of a cooperative venture between the antiX and former MEPIS Linux communities. The latest release of MX Linux is version 17 and it is based on Debian 9 "Stretch". Unlike Debian, MX does not use systemd as the system's init software, instead using SysV init.
MX Linux 17 is available in 32-bit and 64-bit builds and the installation media we can download is about 1.2GB in size. Booting from the live media brings up a menu asking if we would like to boot normally or boot MX with VirtualBox support. The VirtualBox option enables MX to integrate with a VirtualBox virtual machine environment and use the host system's maximum screen resolution.
Whichever option we select brings up the Xfce desktop environment. On the left side of the screen we find a panel which holds the application menu (at the bottom), some quick-launch icons and a clock is placed at the top of the panel. The application menu is powered by the Whisker menu, a two-panel menu with a search box for finding specific items. On the desktop we find an icon for launching the distribution's system installer.
MX Linux 17 -- The welcome window (full image size: 766kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
While exploring the live desktop environment, I found the system had two key user accounts, root (for administrative tasks) and demo for normal user access. Both accounts are password protected ("root" is the password for the root user and "demo" for the demo user).
MX uses a graphical system installer which features several steps and takes a bit longer to get through than Ubuntu's Ubiquity or the Calamares installer popular among Arch-based projects. However, the steps MX's installer puts us through offer a great deal of customization. The installer begins by asking us to select on which disk we will install the distribution. We then have the option of launching the GParted disk utility to set up partitions. When we return to the installer we are asked which partitions will be used for our root file system, swap and /home directories. MX supports formatting our partitions with a range of Linux file systems, including Btrfs, ext2/3/4, XFS, JFS and Reiserfs. The installer then copies its files to our hard drive.
Once packages have been placed on our hard disk, we are then given the option of installing the GRUB boot loader and we can select where GRUB is placed. We are also given the chance to give our computer a hostname and enable Samba file sharing. We are then asked to select our language preference, time zone and our keyboard's layout from drop-down lists. We can even choose whether we prefer our desktop's clock to display in 12 or 24 hour format. The installer has a screen dedicated to enabling services where we can check boxes next to items such as OpenSSH, scanning, CUPS printing, cron and sudo. The final page of the installer gets us to create passwords for our root and regular user account. We can optionally enable home directory encryption and automatic logins from this page. With all these steps completed, the installer exits, returning us to the live Xfce desktop.
While MX's installer is not as streamlined and requires a bit more understanding of the system than some beginner friendly installers, it also provides us with a good deal of flexibility. In essence, a lot of the system configuration is handled up front at install time rather than after the system is up and running.
Booting a fresh copy of MX 17 brings up a graphical login screen where we can sign into the account we enabled at install time. Logging in brings up the Xfce desktop again. In the upper-right corner of the desktop a Conky status panel is displayed. In the middle of the desktop a welcome window opens. The welcome window provides us with a link to the project's user manual in a PDF reader. The welcome window also gives us quick access to the distribution's forum, a desktop tweak tool, the project's wiki, a simple package manager for installing popular applications and the MX Tools panel. I will talk about the MX Tools settings panel later. Once we dismiss the welcome screen we can display it again later by launching MX Welcome from the application menu.
The simple application installer available from the welcome window is a desktop program which displays a list of categories of software. Clicking on a category opens a list of popular programs in that category. For example, Firefox and Chrome are in the Browser category, gFTP is in the FTP category and Steam can be found under the Games category. We can check boxes next to each package we want and click a button to install these extras.
MX Linux 17 -- Adding popular packages (full image size: 612kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Earlier I mentioned the Conky status panel in the upper-right corner of the screen. I'm not a fan of status panels in general as I find them distracting. I was happy to note that while some projects make it difficult to turn off Conky, MX has a toggle button to display/hide Conky in the Favourites section of the application menu. If we hide the status panel, Conky will come back the next time we login.
I explored running MX in three test environments. When run in a VirtualBox virtual machine, on a desktop computer or on a laptop, the distribution consistently performed well. The Xfce desktop is very responsive and the system boots quickly. Suspend & resume worked as expected, my network cards were detected automatically and I was able to use my host computer's full screen resolution when running MX in VirtualBox. The distribution tended to use between 280MB and 290MB of memory when signed into Xfce and used approximately 4.5GB of hard drive space.
MX ships with a fairly typical collection of open source software. The distribution offers us the Firefox web browser, the Thunderbird e-mail client and the Transmission bittorrent software. Network Manager and GNOME PPP are available to get us on-line over either high-speed or dial-up networks. MX provides us with LibreOffice, the FBReader e-book reader, a dictionary, the qpdfview PDF viewer and the Orage Calendar app. The distribution covers multimedia playing with the Clementine audio player, SMTube for finding and playing YouTube videos and the VLC media player. I didn't have trouble playing media files, but if we run into a situation where a codec is missing, there is a tool for installing additional media codecs in the MX Tools panel. Xfburn and Asunder are present to help us burn and rip CDs, respectively.
MX Linux 17 -- Running the Firefox web browser (full image size: 377kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The distribution further provides us with the GNU Image Manipulation Program, a desktop application for connecting to printers, a few arcade games and luckyBackup, which I will talk about later. We are given an archive manager, text editor, calculator and hardware sensor viewer. In the background we can find the GNU Compiler collection and Java. MX uses SysV init as the default init software. By default the distribution runs on version 4.13 of the Linux kernel, but other versions are available in the project's software repositories.
Earlier I mentioned the distribution ships with a program called MX Tools. This application acts as a configuration panel from which we can launch other, small applications to adjust the operating system. Some of the MX utilities include a snapshot tool for making bootable ISO images of our system, installing all available media codecs and managing user accounts. The account manager, I discovered, can also be used to clean up old temporary files to free up drive space. There is a tool for enabling/disabling Xfce sound effects and another for working with network drivers. I like that the networking tool not only lets us use Windows wireless drivers, but also lets us enable or blacklist drivers which might cause us trouble.
MX Linux 17 -- The MX Tools panel (full image size: 616kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
There are a handful of other tools for adjusting the look of the desktop and the panel. Plus we can tweak the window manager, enable compositing and adjust a range of window behaviours. I like that most extra features, like desktop sound effects, are disabled by default.
I don't think the MX Tools panel has the same pretty and user friendly approach as, for example, the OpenMandriva settings panel, but the MX panel covers a wide range of functionality. The tools are fairly well arranged and, if we get lost, we can search for a specific settings module through the distribution's Whisker application menu.
MX Linux 17 -- Using the account manager to clean up old files (full image size: 341kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
MX offers several approaches to package management. The flagship package manager for the distribution is Synaptic, a flexible package manager that allows us to install, upgrade and remove packages by checking boxes next to package names. Synaptic does not make it particularly easy to find types of applications we might want to install, it's more of a low level package manager. If we want to browse categories of software and select popular desktop applications then MX provides the MX Package Installer which can be launched from the distribution's welcome window or from the MX Tools panel. I touched on the Package Installer before and I think it's a pleasantly simple tool to use and it gives us quick access to many popular applications.
MX Linux 17 -- Enabling new software repositories (full image size: 440kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
When software updates are available a small notification is displayed along with a green box icon in our system tray. Clicking the green icon opens a window where we are shown the command line output from the APT command and asked if we would like to proceed with downloading the available software upgrades. The update utility can work in two modes, the first is a plain "upgrade" which will just update installed software. The second option is to perform a "dist-upgrade" which attempts to intelligently upgrade, install or remove packages as necessary to keep our system up to date. Either approach should be relatively safe since MX is based on Debian's Stable branch which does not see much change during its lifetime. My only concern with the update utility is it is basically just a window for running the APT command line tools, which is effective, but not at all visually appealing and may scare off new Linux users.
MX Linux 17 -- The update manager (full image size: 676kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Being based on Debian, some of MX's packages are a bit old, and some were around a year old by the time MX 17 launched. The QupZilla web browser, which is available through the MX Package Installer, is already over two years old. I looked at some portable package options, to see if that would help me get more up to date desktop software. Flatpak and Snap are available in the repositories if we want to try them. I did attempt to use Snap, but found I was unable to download Snap packages. When I asked about this problem on the MX forums, I was told Snap relies on systemd, which is not enabled by default on MX.
Backups and bugs
Earlier I mentioned MX ships with luckyBackup. The luckyBackup tool is a desktop application for creating backup jobs. The utility allows us to set up multiple backup jobs and then run them manually or schedule the jobs to run later. The luckyBackup tool is not as streamlined as some other backup tools, like Deja Dup, but it offers a great deal of flexibility along with the option to test "dry runs" to confirm a backup job will complete successfully.
Like many of the tools MX ships with, I don't think the backup utility is the most user friendly option available, but I do think it is one of the more flexible options available in the open source world.
MX Linux 17 -- Backing up files with luckyBackup (full image size: 482kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
While I was using MX, I didn't run into many bugs. The distribution was surprisingly responsive and stable. One of the few issues I ran into was about one in five times I would try to logout (or reboot the computer) a message would appear on my desktop saying the requested task could only be completed when the session manager is idle. If I tried to logout again immediately, the same message would reappear. If I simply left the computer alone for about 30 seconds, my account would be logged out successfully.
Having used MX for a week now, I think it is fair to say the developers have done a lot of things well and I believe a lot of their success stems from finding good compromises. MX is based on Debian's Stable branch which gives a good, solid core and a huge collection of packages. While Debian's packages tend to be older, MX updates some key components, such as the kernel and Firefox, to give users the benefit of newer technology. We can downgrade items, like the kernel, if we wish.
MX also finds middle ground in the size and performance of the distribution. MX certainly is not the lightest distribution I have used lately, in terms of memory and hard drive space consumed, but it on the lighter end of the spectrum. MX is smaller and faster than many of the mainstream distributions, such as Ubuntu, openSUSE and Fedora while offering most of the same features.
One of the few areas where I think MX loses out to the big, mainstream Linux distributions is in beginner friendliness. The installer, configuration tools and package management are all (in my opinion) geared toward people who have used Linux a time or two before. MX appears to be aimed at people who already know what packages, window managers and media codecs are. The graphical tools provided are powerful and flexible, but there isn't much hand holding. The installer expects you to know what CUPS is and the desktop configuration tool expects users to be familiar with virtual desktops, APT and compositing. If you understand those concepts and like the idea of a distribution which offers good performance with a little eye candy, then MX Linux is probably a good match for you.
Personally, I was very happy with MX, more so than I have been with most operating systems I have experimented with in the past six months. Not necessarily because MX is an objectively better distribution, but because I think the developers have similar tastes to my own. This shows up in little details. For example, I like my system to be quiet and not distracting. MX features very few notifications and sound effects are disabled. The theme is slightly dark, but not so dark as to make the contrast jarring. There is just one desktop panel, aligned vertically down the left side of the display, just the way I like it. The developers walk a middle road I like on performance, features and visuals. In short, there was very little I had to do to get MX looking and acting exactly the way I wanted and this meant I spent very little time adjusting settings or turning off features I didn't want and more time getting things done.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications:
Processor: Dual-core 2.8GHz AMD A4-3420 APU
Storage: 500GB Hitachi hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Networking: Realtek RTL8111 wired network card
Display: AMD Radeon HD 6410D video card
I also ran MX Linux on a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast