Mabox Linux 20.10The Mabox Linux distribution is a rolling release project based on Manjaro Linux. The Mabox website describes itself as follows:
Mabox Linux is based on Manjaro, featuring [a] customized Openbox window manager preconfigured to be ready to use. It was inspired by CrunchBang, and [uses] some BunsenLabs utilities adapted for Manjaro. Mabox Linux uses some of Xfce and LXDE components.
The Mabox project publishes semi-regular snapshots, the latest one at the time of writing is version 20.10. The distribution is available in a single edition featuring a customized Openbox graphical environment. The ISO we can download is 1.9GB in size and runs on 64-bit (x86_64) machines only.
Before I talk about running the distribution I want to make one comment about the Mabox website. For the most part the website is clear, to the point, and easy to navigate. However, any time I visited the project's news page an access password prompt would appear telling me I was accessing the "Danger Zone". The prompt appeared every time I accessed the news page or any blog post. Cancelling the password prompt had no impact on my being able to read the news posts. This is an odd quirk or oversight for the website to have and makes it seem like something has been misconfigured.
The live media
The Mabox Linux live media presents us with a boot menu where we can start the operating system with either all open source drivers or with some proprietary drivers. Starting the distribution loads the Openbox window manager. There is a lot going on in the Openbox environment. A list of desktop shortcuts appears to the left of the screen. A Conky status panel appears to the right, showing us CPU, memory, and disk usage statistics. Across the top of the screen is a transparent panel that features two shortcut menus, an application menu, quick-launch buttons, a task switcher, and the system tray. There is also a widget for switching between virtual workspaces.
The theme is mostly black and white, with title bars and folder icons displayed in green. I found there were networking and battery icons in the system tray, though no volume control. There is a PulseAudio volume mixer in the application menu.
Mabox Linux 20.10 -- The application menu and Openbox with status panels removed (full image size: 1.2MB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
Mabox places a button for launching the Calamares graphical system installer in its line of quick-launch icons. Calamares is a great installer that quickly walks us through selecting our keyboard layout, time zone, and setting up a user account. The installer offers both guided and manual partitioning. The manual options are quite easy to navigate and Calamares displays a graphical chart of the disk we are working on. The guided partitioning option will take over available space with a single ext4 filesystem. It does not set up a swap partition and the system does not create a swap file either. The initial installation went smoothly and I encountered no problem with Calamares.
My new copy of Mabox Linux booted to a graphical login screen. From there we can sign into the Openbox session and we are greeted by a welcome screen. The welcome window presents us with three groups of buttons. One group accesses software management tools to help us install updates, new kernels, and new applications. The second group offers access to on-line resources such as the Mabox website, documentation, and user forums. The third group connects us to options for contributing to the project such as developer resources and donation options.
Mabox Linux 20.10 -- The welcome window (full image size: 619kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
I will come back to the software management options a little later. For now I merely want to acknowledge the welcome window buttons work and launch utilities which also functioned properly.
Once I was finished with the welcome window my next impression of Mabox was that the desktop is very busy, even crowded. There are panels and status updates, and bars of icons all around the screen. There are two quick-access panels to the left and right sides of the display. I kept accidentally opening these when moving my mouse to click on other items because things are packed together. Some people like a lot of options and features to be front-and-centre and it's certainly a valid preference, but I prefer my desktop to be more quiet and empty.
Also on the topic of the interface, I ran into an issue when resizing application windows. The window borders are very thin and I found them difficult to drag or move. There are ways around this, but it's a little inconvenience that adds up over time.
One curious design choice I ran into was with the lock screen. When Openbox locks, instead of presenting the user with a password prompt and box in which to type, we are shown a mostly empty screen with the instructions to simply type our password. There doesn't seem to be any visible feedback to typing, but typing the correct password does cause Openbox to unlock. I don't believe I've ever encountered a lock screen like this one before. It works, but feels strange.
I began by experimenting with Mabox in a VirtualBox environment. The distribution booted quickly and ran smoothly. The Openbox window manager was unusually light and responsive in the virtual machine. The graphical environment did not dynamically resize with the VirtualBox window, however I could adjust the desktop resolution using a tool in the application menu. Unfortunately Mabox did not remember screen resolution changes so this adjustment had to be repeated each time the distribution booted in the virtual machine.
When I ran Mabox on my laptop the distribution performed well. It again booted quickly, was fast to launch programs and the desktop was responsive. Audio volume was set unusually low, but this can be adjusted with the PulseAudio mixer utility.
A fresh install of Mabox used about 6.5GB of disk space. Signing into the Openbox session used 245MB of RAM. This amount rose slightly to 260MB when the welcome window was open.
Mabox ships with a few popular applications, but mostly uses less common programs and small utilities. The Firefox web browser is one of the few mainstream applications available out of the box. There is a Mail Reader launcher, but no e-mail client is installed for us.
Mabox Linux 20.10 -- Running Firefox and the file manager (full image size: 282kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
Mabox also ships with the Geany editor, a PDF viewer (qpdfview), the DeaDBeeF audio player, mpv for playing videos, and a full range of media codecs. There is a tool called CPU-X installed for looking up information on the CPU, hardware, and memory statistics. The GParted and Htop tools are included along with a small image viewer. The PCManFM file manager is included for us.
We are also given a useful settings panel called the Mabox Linux Control Center which I found fairly easy to navigate and quite useful when it came to customizing the distribution. There are also a lot of smaller, stand-alone configuration tools for adjusting Openbox and the desktop panels. In the background Mabox ships with the systemd init software and version 5.4 of the Linux kernel.
Some command line programs (such as free, cp, and more) in Mabox are aliased, sometimes in ways which make them conflict with parameters we might use or which can change their expected behaviour. We can work around this by unaliasing the commands or prefixing them with a backslash character.
Another configuration choice which is harder to work around is that the shortcut for switching tabs in Firefox (Ctrl+Tab) is also hardwired to open one of the desktop's side panels. This means any time the user wants to switch tabs in Firefox, they instead open a desktop panel that steals focus from the browser. There are some configuration tools which will confirm the Ctrl+Tab shortcut opens the panel, but none of them would allow me to change this setting. I'm sure there must be a way to change this shortcut conflict, but it was not immediately clear how.
Speaking of configuration changes, configuration is done through several different tools and text files. It can be difficult to find which one addresses which issue. For example, right-clicking the clock widget opens a tool to adjust date & time and time zones, but does not provide a way to change the layout or format of the clock. That setting is not even in the same control panel. It requires going through three layers into panel configuration settings, opening the Tint settings, then selecting Clock options. The time format needs to be typed manually using a format (like %H:%m) without any guide on which letters to use. I occasionally ran into the same issue with other customizations where settings were difficult to find or buried multiple levels down.
Mabox Linux 20.10 -- The Mabox Control Center (full image size: 921kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
These issues I ran into are not bugs, but they are inconvenient. I had a similar minor issue with the screenshot utility which saves images with multiple ":" characters in the filenames. This makes it harder to transfer multiple files because common transfer utilities treat the ":" symbol as an indication of a hostname rather than a filename. Again, this is not a bug, but it is a poor default that will conflict with common tools or scripts and make the distribution just a little harder to use.
There are a few tools included in Mabox for managing software packages. Pamac is the main software manager. Choosing to install updates from the welcome window opens Pamac and we can also access the tool through the application menu. Pamac features three tabs, called Browse, Installed, and Updates. The Updates tab lists available updated packages and we can choose which ones we wish to download. The first day I was running Mabox there were 758MB of updates available, nearly half the size of the original ISO I downloaded. This makes me think the distribution is due for another install media refresh. Despite the large download, Pamac successfully grabbed and applied the waiting updates.
Mabox Linux 20.10 -- The Pamac software manager (full image size: 604kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
The Browse tab of Pamac allows us to browse available software using a few different views. The view I used most arranged items into software categories. We can select which category we wish to browse from a drop-down menu. Then clicking on a package's entry brings up a page with a short description, licensing information, and the name of the repository which holds the package. We can queue multiple items to install and apply them all at once. Pamac will pause and show us a list of dependencies before it proceeds with installing new applications.
The third tab, Installed, shows application we already have on the system. Each of the three tabs of Pamac worked fairly well. Sometimes I felt like the list of software groups, featured on the Browse tab, was too long (and too fine-grained) as it makes finding some types of software harder. For example, there are seven groups of just Kodi add-ons to browse through. This is another case of the default behaviour not being a bug, just inconvenient.
There is another tool we can use to install software and it is accessible from the welcome window. This second tool is called the Manjaro Application Utility. It begins with a list of software categories. We can click a category to expand it and see a handful of popular utilities. Clicking a box next to a desired application will queue it for installation.
The Application Utility works and, though it is simple in its style, it makes finding and installing a handful of popular applications straight forward. I like that this utility is featured on the welcome window as it helps gets us up and running with some good open source applications right from the start.
For me, running Mabox was a curious experience. The reason being that the distribution never seemed to do anything objectively wrong or buggy. Everything worked properly, the system was fast, stable, and often offered multiple approaches to accomplishing tasks. Mabox inherits Arch Linux's large repositories of software and the cutting-edge packages which make its grandparent famous. The lightweight Openbox window manager is flexible and fast. Plus I like that Mabox doesn't ship a lot of applications, just some good basics, and gives us multiple tools to add more items we might want. However, Mabox never felt like a good fit for me.
It's hard to put my finger on why exactly this was because the distribution, objectively, does a lot of things well. However, the style of the distribution isn't at all to my taste. The Openbox session is very busy and I like quiet interfaces. Mabox is a cutting-edge rolling release and I like static and boring. Mabox has a tonne of status panels, shortcuts, and an elegant welcome screen. I want my operating system to stay out of the way and not distract me. Mabox has many configuration tools and they all seem to work, but the number of them (and the lack of a central organization for them) can make it harder to find the options I want to adjust.
I guess what made the experience feel odd is Mabox uses a really minimal window manager, but with all the bells and whistles enabled. It ships with very few desktop applications, yet the menu is crowded with options. The system looks really sleek and modern, but a lot of options require we tweak text-based configuration files by hand. It makes for an odd series of juxtapositions.
Objectively, I think Mabox is quite good. The only real bug I ran into was Firefox and the desktop panel using the same shortcut, but otherwise the system was fast, smooth, and capable. It just has an unusual approach to several aspects of it. Which makes me feel the distribution is objectively good, but subjectively not to my taste.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was 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