Zorin 15.1 "Lite"Zorin OS is an Ubuntu-based operating system that aims to make Linux easy for Windows and macOS users. In the words of Zorin, it is "the alternative to Windows and macOS designed to make your computer faster, more powerful, secure and privacy respecting". Zorin's main product is the paid-for "Ultimate" edition, which will set you back €39 and comes with macOS, Windows, Linux and "Touch" layouts (i.e. themes) as well as a relatively large collection of software and "installation support". Other editions of Zorin are free but come with less pre-installed software and fewer desktop layouts.
For this review I dusted off a MacBook that dates from late 2009 and installed the "Lite" edition which, as the name suggests, is designed to breathe new life into older hardware. The laptop is one of the plastic, white MacBooks. It has an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and 4GB of RAM - I doubled the amount of RAM a few months ago. The laptop has mostly been running Fedora with the MATE desktop and the i3 window manager as an alternative environment, both of which ran fine. Zorin's Lite edition uses Xfce as the desktop environment.
First impressions and installation
Zorin's website is either modern and clean or yet another bootstrap site, depending on your view. There are just three links in the navigation menu: Download, Computers and Help (the Computers section links to vendors that sell laptops with Zorin pre-installed). The Download section lists Zorin's Ultimate edition first, followed by the Core, Lite and Education editions.
Clicking any of the Download links for the free versions triggers a "Sign up to our newsletter & Download" pop-up window featuring a huge "Sign up & Download" button and a very small "Skip to download" link. I am not a fan of this type of marketing. I don't mind that they ask if I maybe want to sign up to their mailing list, but I take issue with the fact that the dialogue window has been designed to make the "No thanks" option easy to miss. Such marketing techniques assume that users need to be tricked into signing up to receiving marketing materials, which reflects poorly on the project as a whole.
Zorin OS 15.1 -- The newsletter subscription form that pops-up when trying to download Zorin (full image size: 283kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
Speaking of dubious marketing practices, Zorin's home page claims that installing the operating system will make your computer "virus resistant". The word "resistant" is open to interpretation, but I reckon it is fair to say that most people use "resistant" and "immune" interchangeably. Zorin's claim is obviously false, and I really wish Zorin would reign in its marketing department. So much for my rant about marketing – let's get back to the review...
The Lite edition is available for 32- and 64-bit architectures and the download page helpfully explains that PCs with less than 2GB of RAM should use the 32-bit version. When you select the version you want to download the website provides a link to the installation instructions in the Help section. The articles in the Help section are quite minimal but well written. One thing I found interesting is that Zorin recommends creating a bootable USB drive using an application called balenaEtcher. The application is available for Windows, macOS and, as an AppImage, for Linux. I couldn't get balenaEtcher to work on Fedora 31, so I did what I usually do: dd the ISO image to a USB stick like a greybeard.
Zorin boots to a live environment and I was pleased that almost everything worked out of the box, including the Fn keys. The only issue I noticed early-on was that right-clicking on the laptop's trackpad often registered a left-click.
Zorin OS 15.1 -- The live environment (full image size: 430kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
Zorin uses Ubiquity for the installer. Ubiquity is very user-friendly but I did manage to get myself into a bit of muddle at the partitioning stage. The issue appeared to be related to the fact that the existing partitions on the laptop were encrypted. I decided to cancel the installation and do the partitioning using fdisk before running the installer again, which did the trick.
Zorin OS 15.1 -- Testing the keyboard layout in the Ubiquity installer (full image size: 274kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
Zorin 15 and 15.1 features
Zorin 15 Lite was released in November and only a few weeks later all Zorin editions were updated to version 15.1. Both versions are based on Ubuntu 18.04 and users of Zorin 15 are automatically upgraded to version 15.1 when they update their system.
The release notes for Zorin 15 highlighted a few changes: the desktop theme has been "refreshed and refined"; the theme can be now configured to automatically switch from the default light theme to a dark theme in the evening; Flatpak support has been added and there is a new "Do not disturb" mode for notifications. The blog post about Zorin 15.1 mentions improvements to Zorin Connect (a clone of GSConnect); a new "GameMode" which makes games run faster by allocating more system resources to games being played and improvements to the above-mentioned theme switcher.
The main change in Zorin 15.1 isn't mentioned in the release notes: in the installer you can now opt-out of the "Zorin census". By default, Zorin contacts a server every hour and once a day via cron jobs in the /etc/cron.hourly and /etc/cron.daily directories. Until recently nobody seemed to be aware of Zorin's telemetry, and when it was discovered there was a bit of an outcry.
The zorin-os-census Bash script was first introduced in November 2016, when Zorin 12 was released. In Zorin 15.1 the script posts various bits of data to census.zorinos.com/submit:
The number of user accounts on the system (by counting the number of users on the system with an ID equal to or greater than 1000).
The Zorin OS version number (i.e. 15 or 15.1).
The OEM ID, if present (that is, an ID assigned to a laptop that came pre-installed with Zorin).
A unique identifier stored in /var/lib/zorin-os-census/uuid.
Of course, to send this data your IP is collected by the mothership as well. Zorin's CEO insisted in an interview with It's FOSS that the user's IP address isn't logged by Zorin and he promised that version 15.1 would have an opt-out box in the installer. The opt-out box has indeed been added: on the page where you can choose to download updates during the install and include third-party software you can now tick a box if you don't want to participate in the census. The checkbox is accompanied by a link for more information.
Personally, I am fine with operating systems collecting basic, anonymised information. It is quite obvious that having data is useful for projects and that it will help with the development of the software. However, I think Zorin showed poor judgment by introducing the telemetry without informing users (it should have been mentioned in the release notes for Zorin 12) and with given users an option to opt-out. When the telemetry was discovered it didn't take long for people with objections to creep out of the woodwork and the fact that Zorin was collecting data in secret will hurt the project's reputation for a long time.
One other thing to note is that the description of the zorin-os-census package changed from version 1.2 (installed on version 15) and 1.2.1 (installed on 15.1). The description for version 1.2 states that the package transmits "the operating system version, the number of user accounts and the city & country the user is in". As the diff for version 1.2.1 shows, the mention of geolocation data was removed in version 1.2.1. That raises several questions. The It's FOSS interview was published in November, and at that time the package description stated that the user's city and country were being collected (presumably by linking a user's IP address to the data submitted via census script). Does that mean that the package description was factually incorrect, or have they stopped collecting geolocation data?
Zorin OS 15.1 -- The zorin-os-census script and the diff for version 1.2.1 (full image size: 240kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
Again, I don't mind distros collecting a small amount of anonymised data, but it seems to me that Zorin has done this wrong. In any case, you can opt-out by removing the zorin-os-census package by running "sudo apt purge zorin-os-census".
Applications and software management
Zorin Lite includes a fairly large collection of pre-installed software. Leaving aside Firefox, Thunderbird and the LibreOffice suite the applications are mostly a mix of well-known Xfce and GNOME apps. The file manager, terminal emulator, media player and image viewer are all Xfce applications, and the GNOME applications include Gedit, Software, Evince, Simple Scan and various smaller applications, such as games and a calculator.
Zorin uses the Ubuntu repos and its own PPAs. The PPAs includes various packages that are also in the Ubuntu repos, including LibreOffice, the Thunar file manager and WINE. I think these packages are mainly included in the PPAs to give users more up to date software. As a result I got version 6.3 of LibreOffice, which features a "tabbed" menu toolbar and full-page background fills.
Zorin OS 15.1 -- LibreOffice and GNOME Mines. The unusual approach to playing mines is because right-clicks are often registered as left-clicks (full image size: 228kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
Interestingly, the Zorin themes are shipped as Flatpak packages. However, contrary to what the release notes for Zorin 15 suggest, it is not possible to add Flatpak repositories via GNOME Software (which, like the other GNOME applications, is at version 3.28). To add the Flathub repository I needed to add a PPA via the command line. I encountered a few issues with Flatpaks I installed. There is currently a bug that prevents the openh264 Flatpak from being installed and GNOME Music threw the error "Your system Tracker version seems to be outdated". The Tracker package was not installed, and the only version available in the repos was too old.
I didn't run into any issues with software I installed from the Ubuntu repos and Zorin's PPAs. That is to be expected for a distro is based on Ubuntu's long-term support releases but it is worth noting that the system was stable.
Theming and usability
One of Zorin's main selling points are the desktop themes, and that is precisely the point where Zorin fell down for me. Roughly half of the pre-installed applications are GNOME applications, and they have a very different look and feel than the other applications. Worse, in Zorin 15 various GNOME applications were missing options. Most GNOME applications in Zorin don't have the hamburger menu and instead display one or two items from the menu as large buttons. To illustrate the point, the below image shows the Baobab disk usage analyser in Zorin 15 and 15.1. In Zorin 15 Boabab had just one option: Scan Folder. In Zorin 15.1 an application icon was added, which also acts as a menu.
Zorin OS 15.1 -- GNOME menus in Zorin Lite 15 (top) and 15.1 (below). (full image size: 33kB, resolution: 1024x378 pixels)
What remains is the issue that GNOME and Xfce applications look and behave differently. GNOME applications don't show the application name in the title bar and instead use a combination of a drop-down menu and large buttons in the toolbar. Towards the end of my trial I turned Zorin Lite into a GNOME Lite desktop by changing the theme to Adwaita and replacing most Xfce applications with their GNOME equivalents. The experiment was fairly successful, although there is no way to get round the fact the GNOME applications don't integrate well in a non-GNOME environment.
Zorin OS 15.1 -- Zorin Lite with the Adwaita them and two GNOME apps (Podcasts and Web) (full image size: 290kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
There are two applications that can tweak the theme: Zorin Appearance and Xfce's Appearance utility. The Zorin Appearance application in the Lite edition doesn't let you drastically change the desktop layout. There are only two layouts to choose from, and the only difference between them is the size of the application launchers in the taskbar.
Zorin Appearance's Theme tab lets you define the accent colour (by default elements such as buttons are blue); select the light or dark theme (and set up auto-switching the themes) and define the theme used by applications, the icon set and the window manager. The latter three items use drop-down menus and by default no option is selected. That is a usability bug, as there is nothing to indicate the default desktop theme, icon set and window manager. In other words, there is no easy way to revert any changes. If you select, say, an icon set that you don't like there is no quick way to go back to the default icons.
Zorin OS 15.1 -- Zorin Appearance and Xfce's Appearance application (full image size: 265kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
Xfce's Appearance application is much more functional when it comes to changing the desktop theme and icons. I suspect that Zorin Appearance was simply ported from the GNOME-based Zorin editions to Zorin Lite, without much thought about whether or not it makes sense to duplicate various theming options.
Performance, bugs and oddities
I rarely mention CPU and memory usage in distro reviews, as just about any distro I install runs fine. Zorin Lite was an exception. I regularly found myself looking into why the laptop's fan was going crazy. It was mostly the xfwm4 process that was responsible for the high CPU usage, though on a few occasions xiccd was the culprit. I wasn't able to find out what triggered the issue but I suspect it may be Zorin-specific, as the xfwm4 package is provided by one of the Zorin PPAs. Whatever caused the issue, it was annoying. No matter what I tried, at times the laptop's fan just kept spinning like mad and the only solution was to reboot the laptop.
There were a few other issues I encountered. At one point I rebooted the laptop after applying some updates. During the boot process the GRUB screen was suddenly displayed and had a time-out of 30 seconds. After I had logged in the screen saver kicked in after two minutes, which is not the default time-out setting. And after twenty minutes or so I got a notification telling me that new updates were available, even though GNOME Software told me that the system was fully up to date. For the most part the system was stable and pleasant to use, but there were a few occasions when it seemed to have a life of its own.
Something I found curious is that Zorin displays asterisk characters when you enter your sudo password in a terminal window. I was taught that doing so is bad practice, as it reveals the length of your password to anyone who might be looking over your shoulders while you enter your password. I didn't know this behaviour could be changed but it turns out to be quite easy – you can add (or remove) the pwfeedback option in either the sudoers file or by adding a file to /etc/sudoers.d/.
Another unusual default setting is that the application menu includes command line utilities. For instance, when you search for "desktop" you will see an option named "run top". That option is supposed to open a terminal window and run the top command, but that didn't work for me. I also don't quite see the benefit of including options such as "run dd" and "run rsync" in the menu.
There are a few other minor issues with the applications menu. For instance, a search for the string "terminal" returns both "Terminal Emulator" and "Xfce Terminal". The first launches the Xfce Terminal while the latter launched the preferences for the application.
Zorin OS 15.1 -- Searching for a terminal and unusual sudo behaviour (full image size: 308kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
Another minor annoyance are Zorin's default keyboard shortcuts. You can open the menu by hitting the super key, which is a bit awkward as the key is also used for a dozen or so other shortcuts. If, for instance, you launch the default web browser using Super+W the application menu opens first and after a few seconds Firefox will launch. The menu is still sitting in the foreground, and the search field in the menu still has focus.
Zorin OS 15.1 -- Opening Firefox using the Super-F keyboard shortcut. (full image size: 46kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
After a bit of digging I found that the menu is launched by xfce4-popup-zorinmenulite and that the default keyboard shortcut is "Super L" (which is just the Super key on its own and different from Super+L). To change the shortcut you have to remove it and then add it again. I mapped it to Super+Spacebar.
Finally, I should note that I haven't really touched on the new features mentioned in the release notes. The dark theme looks good and the auto-theme switcher works as advertised. The "Do Not Disturb" feature, which can be enabled via the Notifications icon in the system tray, is also quite nice. I did find it odd that enabling the option also suppresses the visual cues you normally get when you change the screen brightness or volume. To my mind, those are not really notifications as the visual feedback is only triggered when you interact with the desktop environment.
My gaming activities are limited to classics such as Mines and Solitaire, so I can't really say anything meaningful about the new "GameMode". As for Zorin Connect, the package is not compatible with Zorin Lite as it depends on GNOME. I did try installing the zorin-connect package, just to see what would happen. It installed GNOME, and on the login screen I got two new desktop environment options: Ubuntu and Ubuntu on Wayland. As expected, Zorin Connect refused to launch on the Lite desktop.
Zorin OS 15.1 -- The Ubuntu GNOME session (full image size: 562kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
Zorin Lite is a relatively young project and quite different from Zorin's other versions - if only because it uses Xfce rather than GNOME as the desktop environment. The distro aims to provide a lightweight operating system that looks modern, and in many respects Zorin Lite achieves that goal. Things like the login screen, task bar and application menu have plenty of polish and work well. It is nice that applications such as LibreOffice are more up to date than they are in Ubuntu, and Zorin's dark theme is quite well done.
Zorin OS 15.1 -- Zorin's dark theme (full image size: 246kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
That said, Zorin Lite didn't strike me as a finished product. Compared with other distros I have tried on my MacBook the performance wasn't great. And although I noticed some improvement when I moved from version 15 to 15.1, there are some basic usability issues that I don't expect to see in a project that is over two years old. In particular, I don't see the benefit of including command line utilities in the menu's search results and the pre-defined keyboard shortcuts don't make much sense. Also, having two separate - but overlapping - applications to tweak the appearance of the desktop is confusing.
Another thing I disliked was the mix of Xfce and GNOME applications. My experiment to turn Zorin Lite into a GNOME Lite desktop worked fairly well, though I personally feel it would make more sense for Zorin Lite to stay much closer to Xfce. Zorin Lite is aimed at Windows refugees and Xfce applications behave much more like Windows applications than their GNOME counterparts. As things stand I am not sure why I would recommend Zorin Lite over distros like Xubuntu or Ubuntu MATE.