BunsenLabs Linux LithiumBunsenLabs Linux is a distribution offering a lightweight and easily customizable Openbox desktop. The BunsenLabs distribution is based on Debian's Stable branch which gives the project access to a vast collection of software packages.
Bunsen's latest release is called Lithium (the project uses element names in place of version numbers) and is based on Debian 10 "Buster". Lithium now automatically updates the application menu when new software is installed and includes a range of Broadcom wireless drivers to help users get on-line. The distribution now ships with a dark theme by default and the project's welcome window script has been streamlined to get the system up and running faster. Bunsen should now work with Secure Boot systems.
BunsenLabs is available in two builds. One is a 1.2GB ISO file for 64-bit (x86_64) computers while the other is a 651MB ISO for 32-bit systems. The second ISO is quite a bit smaller in order to allow it to fit on a CD. Booting from the project's install media brings up a menu asking if we would like to boot into a live desktop environment or launch the system installer. The live mode is available in three flavours (normal, failsafe, and running from RAM) while the installer can be launched in graphical or text mode.
Taking the live option brings up a graphical desktop, powered by the Openbox window manager. Once we arrive at the desktop a welcome window appears. This window gives us a few quick tips on using desktop shortcut keys, provides us with the live environment's password, and tells us how to use the command line to change our keyboard's layout. We are also told we can quickly access the application menu by right-clicking on the desktop. Finally, we are told that to run the system installer we need to restart the computer and select an install option from the boot menu; the installer is not available through the live session.
Exploring the Openbox interface we find a Conky status panel to the right of the screen. This panel shows us some system statistics such as our CPU usage, memory consumption, and uptime. A list of desktop shortcuts is also shown toward the bottom of the panel and these provide us with quick access to popular applications and actions. Another panel, placed along the bottom of the screen, hosts the application menu, task switcher, and system tray. The desktop is mostly dark and uses blue or white text on a black background in most situations.
After playing around with Bunsen's live mode a bit to confirm it was generally working as expected, I restarted the computer and launched the graphical installer. BunsenLabs uses Debian's installer and, as far as I can tell, there is no practical difference between what Bunsen uses and what Debian ships. I covered Debian's install process last year. The installer walks us through the usual steps of picking our preferred language, our location, creating a user account, confirming our time zone, and partitioning the disk. We can use manual or guided partitioning from within the installer. The manual option is quite flexible, if a bit cumbersome. The guided option will set up an ext4 root filesystem and a swap partition. Once the installer finishes copying its files to our hard drive it automatically reboots the computer.
When BunsenLabs boots it brings up a graphical login screen. Signing into our account launches Openbox and brings up a second welcome window. This new window beings with a greeting and then offers to walk us through customising the operating system. Our first step is to provide our password for sudo/administrative access. Then we are asked if we want to download package upgrades. In my case there were 36 updates, totalling about 136MB in size. We are then given the chance to enable backports repositories in order to gain access to newer versions of applications.
BunsenLabs Lithium -- Customising the operating system through the welcome window (full image size: 117kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The welcome window then offers to enable Bluetooth support, install Java, install Flash plugins, and install Dropbox. We are also given the chance to install optional development tools. The welcome window concludes by showing us links to on-line assistance and shows us the command we can use to run the welcome script again.
The welcome window does not take particularly long to get through and offers some useful options. I think, perhaps, it would have been nice if the script had collected all my answers first and then performed its tasks at the end, that way I would not need to wait while new packages were fetched. However, other than that, the script does its job well. Each step is explained clearly and provides a simple yes/no prompt.
I tested BunsenLabs in a virtual machine first, trying it out in VirtualBox. The distribution performed well, operating smoothly and quickly in the virtual environment. My only issue was the Openbox interface would not resize dynamically with the VirtualBox window and the display configuration tools did not seem to be able to work with higher resolutions.
When I switched to running Bunsen on my workstation the system performed well. My screen's full resolution was used, the distribution ran quickly, and the interface was responsive. Media keys worked on my keyboard, which was nice. There were a few times when the distribution paused while starting up or shutting down, but it always worked itself out eventually.
BunsenLabs Lithium -- Running the Firefox web browser (full image size: 135kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Bunsen was relatively light on resources. The distribution consumed 375MB of RAM when logged into Openbox, and took up 3.8GB of disk space. The distribution generally did not use much of my CPU, making it pleasantly lean.
Digging through Bunsen's application menu we find a large, sprawling tree of options. There are a lot of sub-menus and then sub-sub-menus. Some applications are listed under their name while other entries describe a task. For instance, there are entries for a Web Browser and File Manager, while other programs are listed as LibreOffice or HexChat. There are several menu entries listed as simply "File Manager". A few of these open the Thunar manager while one opens the program's settings panel. Another quirk of the menu is a number of items are listed with a BunsenLabs (BL) prefix. These are not BunsenLabs-specific applications, so I'm unsure why they get the special prefix. For example, "BL Media Player" is the popular VLC player while "BL Text Editor" is the Geany editor.
BunsenLabs Lithium -- The application menu listing multiple File Manager entries (full image size: 101kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
There are a surprisingly large number of entries, though a fairly small number of applications. I found the Firefox web browser, the Transmission bittorrent client, the HexChat IRC client, and the Xfburn disc burning software. LibreOffice and the Evince document viewer are installed for us, along with the VLC media player. Geany is available to edit text files and Htop is present to monitor system resources. There is a menu entry called Mail Reader, though no e-mail client is installed. In the background Bunsen uses the systemd init software and runs on version 4.19 of the Linux kernel.
Bunsen ships with a lot of little configuration tools. These items help tweak the look of the desktop, change themes, adjust the number of virtual desktops (the default is two), and adjust the panel. The configuration tools sometimes have short, cryptic launcher names, such as "Tint2" and "gmrun". This can make it difficult for people unfamiliar with the names of specific desktop components to find what they want to adjust.
BunsenLabs Lithium -- Two of the distribution's settings modules (full image size: 109kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The application menu also contains a bunch of shortcuts that just install extra applications. For instance, there are launchers which will download additional pieces of the LibreOffice suite, the GNU Image Manipulation Program, and the Chromium web browser, among others. These one-off launchers can be useful shortcuts, I suppose, though they seem like an awkward alternative to a software manager.
Speaking of managing software, Bunsen ships with the Synaptic package manager. This classic package manager helps us download, remove, and upgrade packages. It can also enable remote repositories and filter search results. Synaptic is quite powerful and works quickly. It is not particularly streamlined or modern, but it gets the job done. For those of us who like working from the command line, Bunsen provides the APT command line tools.
After playing with BunsenLabs a bit I arrived at a couple of thoughts. The first is that the distribution generally does what it sets out to do. It's basically Debian with the Openbox interface and some nice customization scripts. As far as missions go, it may not be particularly glorious, but I always like it when a distribution does what it advertises, whether its goals are big or small. Bunsen is probably ideally suited for low-resource environments, particularly where CD install media or 32-bit processors are being used.
While Bunsen does accomplish its goals, I am not certain that I can pinpoint a good audience for the distribution. As I mentioned above, Bunsen probably most appeals to low-resource environments or people running older hardware. However, the same could be said of Debian, or other low-resource derivatives. I'm not sure if there is anything specific to BunsenLabs which really sets it apart.
Don't get me wrong, I like Bunsen's welcome script and I like Openbox, and I like the stable Debian base. However, there are other distributions, even other Debian-based distributions, which use about the same amount of resources and have more modern or more beginner friendly interfaces. Just about any Debian-based project with, for example, the LXDE or Xfce desktops will use about the same amount of RAM, CPU, and disk space while offering a less cluttered menu and more friendly configuration tools.
I'm not suggesting Bunsen is bad - it's doesn't really do poorly at anything it sets out to do. However, I do think there are other distributions which accomplish similar goals with friendlier interfaces. So what I'm suggesting is that Bunsen probably really appeals, almost exclusively, to people who like minimal window managers and who like Debian. It can be useful in other situations, but this seems to be the project's niche.
* * * * *
Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: