Chakra GNU/Linux 2017.10Chakra GNU/Linux is a 64-bit, desktop operating system which originally grew out of Arch Linux, but is now maintained as an independent fork. Chakra places a focus on running KDE/Qt software and its sole edition runs the KDE Plasma desktop environment. Chakra bills itself as a semi-rolling or "half-rolling" release distribution. This means that desktop software tends to be updated right away while core system components are held back for additional testing before being released to end users. In theory, this allows Chakra to remain stable while also keeping users up to date so that the operating system never needs to be reinstalled. This semi-rolling approach also means we can install from older media and then bring our system up to date once it is on-line, which is what I intended to do this week.
I downloaded the most recent (as of the time of writing) snapshot of Chakra's ISO which was published back in October of 2017. The ISO was 1.9GB in size. Originally I tried to download the ISO through its torrent, but there were no seeders and I had to download a copy of the distribution from one of its mirrors.
Booting from the ISO brings up the Plasma 5.10 desktop environment. At the bottom of the screen is a panel containing the application menu and system tray. On the desktop a welcome screen is displayed. This welcome screen provides links to the distribution's website, beginner's guide and system installer. There is a tab in the welcome window which will display the latest news and developments coming out of the Chakra project.
Chakra uses the Calamares system installer. Calamares is a graphical installer which has been adopted by several distributions due to its streamlined nature and easy partitioning options. The installer quickly walked me through selecting my language, time zone and keyboard layout. When it came to disk partitioning, Calamares offered to let me manually divide up the disk or wipe my drive and place Chakra on one partition with another partition set aside for swap space. Then we are asked to create a username and password. The installer worked quickly and without fault, soon announcing it was finished all its tasks and offering to reboot the computer. I like the Calamares installer, its interface is easy to navigate and it provides a consistent, cross-distro approach to setting up Linux-based systems.
Chakra boots to a graphical login screen and signing into our account brings up the Plasma desktop. Plasma is presented with a dark theme which I find pleasant to look at. There are folder icons on the desktop which open the Dolphin file manager. At first, one of the icons overlapped with the Plasma action/widget menu and it was a toss-up which one I would activate if I clicked on that part of the screen. I was able to pull these widgets apart by dragging them with the mouse.
The default Plasma application menu uses a single-pane layout, which I find awkward to use because of the extra clicks required to browse into categories and back out. The menu can be swapped out for alternative menu layouts by right-clicking on the menu's button.
Chakra GNU/Linux 2017.10 -- The application menu and settings panel (full image size: 412kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Initially I found Chakra's default fonts to be smaller than I liked. A quick trip into the distribution's settings panel allowed me to set the size and style of the fonts. I do want to give the developers credit though for the high contrast in the default desktop theme. Some distributions like to display text in low-contrast shades of grey or use transparent backgrounds which make it difficult to read what is on the screen. Chakra was more forgiving in its use of solid colours and white-on-black (or black-on-white) text.
After a while I realized Chakra was not going to let me know if there were software updates available, and I was pretty sure there would be since the installation media was over five months old. I located the Octopi package manager in the application menu and launched it. Octopi presents a simple list of software packages available in Chakra's repositories and can perform searches for package names. Octopi's upgrade feature let me know there were 532 new packages available, totalling 986MB in size. For comparison's sake, there are 900 packages installed by default, meaning over half the packages on my system needed to be replaced. Despite the massive queue of new packages, Octopi (and its underlying Pacman package manager) downloaded and installed all of the new items successfully. After the upgrade was completed there were very few new updates presented during the rest of the week, with new packages trickling in at a rate of about one per day.
Octopi proved to be a handy and fast tool for tracking down and installing new applications too. The package manager has a fairly simple approach and does not really have recognizable categories the way most modern software managers do, but it worked without running into issues.
Chakra GNU/Linux 2017.10 -- The Octopi package manager (full image size: 433kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Chakra places a strong emphasis on using KDE software and most of the applications included are either related to KDE or are built using the Qt development toolkit. The distribution ships with the QupZilla web browser, KMail, the Konversation IRC client, the Akregator RSS feed reader and the KGet download manager. The Calligra productivity suite is featured rather than the more commonly used LibreOffice. Karbon is available to work with scalable graphics and the KolourPaint simple drawing tool is included. We also have access to the K3b disc burning software, the Okular document viewer and the Dolphin file manager.
Chakra features a handful of multimedia applications, including the bomi video player, the Kdenlive video editor and the Clementine music player. The distribution includes media codecs by default. Rounding out the application menu there is a category dedicated to providing links to Chakra's on-line resources such as the source code repository, bug reports, documentation and the community forums.
Chakra GNU/Linux 2017.10 -- Running Falkon and Calligra Sheets (full image size: 394kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The first wave of package upgrades I installed bumped several key packages up a version or two. The Linux kernel jumped from version 4.12 to 4.14 and the Plasma desktop leaped from 5.10 to 5.12. Following the upgrade the Plasma desktop took a lot longer to login (over 30 seconds) and the desktop performed slower after its upgrade. I was hoping Plasma 5.12 would offer me access to the Plasma Vaults encrypted volumes feature. However, I could not find any way to access Vaults following the upgrade. Some other key packages had their version numbers jump, for example systemd went from version 231 to 235 and the GNU compiler was bumped from 6.3 to 7.3.
Chakra worked well in both of my test environments. When running on my laptop computer, Chakra worked smoothly and detected my hardware, including the wireless card. The distribution's performance was middle range, neither notably fast or slow on the laptop. When running in VirtualBox, Chakra was a little on the slow side, especially after installing the first large wave of updates. Plasma always lagged a bit, even after I disabled file indexing and most visual effects.
In either environment, a fresh install of Chakra used about 5.5GB of disk space and 390MB of RAM. I noticed after a while that my cache of downloaded packages was getting large, using over 1GB of disk space. I tried using the Octopi Cache Cleaner tool to remove old packages, but it was unable to identify any cached software. I was able to manually remove old packages from under the /var directory.
Chakra is an unusual distribution for a few reasons. It is a rare semi-rolling project, which tries to maintain a fairly stable base system while providing up to date applications. This is an interesting compromise between full rolling and static operating systems. The semi-rolling concept is an idea I like and I was curious to see how well the approach would work dealing with around six months of updates. I was pleased to find Chakra handled the massive upgrade well.
Chakra was once also considered unusual for being very KDE-focused. There are more KDE distribution these days (KaOS, Kubuntu and KDE neon come readily to mind) and I think Chakra may have lost some of its appeal as more competition has established itself in the KDE-centric arena.
Chakra GNU/Linux 2017.10 -- Running Calligra Words (full image size: 316kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I found the distribution to be easy to set up and pretty straight forward to use, but there were a few characteristics which bothered me during my trial with Chakra. One was that while updates installed cleanly, once Plasma 5.12 was installed, I experienced slow login times and reduced performance on the desktop. It could be argued that this is a Plasma problem, not a Chakra problem, but the distribution's rolling release nature means any regressions in new versions of software end up in the user's lap.
Something that tends to bother me about distributions which focus on one desktop toolkit or another is that this approach to selecting software means we are sometimes using less capable tools in the name of toolkit purity. This is not a trade-off I like as I'd rather be using more polished applications over ones which a particular affiliation.
Finally, Chakra includes a number of command line aliases which got in my way. This seems to be a problem I have been running into more often recently. Developers are trying to be helpful by aliasing common commands, but it means that for some tasks I need to change my habits or undefine the provided aliases and the feature ends up being a nuisance instead of a convenience.
Chakra seems to be a capable and useful distribution and I am sure there are people who will appreciate the rolling release nature. Many people will likely also like having lots of KDE applications, and I can see the appeal of this combination. However, one thing which makes me hesitate to recommend Chakra is that the distribution does not appear to bring any special features to the ecosystem. It's a useful operating system and, to be completely fair, users can install non-KDE alternatives if they want to use LibreOffice instead of Calligra or GIMP instead of KolourPaint. But I'm not sure Chakra brings anything unique which makes it stand apart from openSUSE's Tumbleweed or KaOS's polished Plasma offering. Chakra used to be special in its semi-rolling, KDE-focused niche, but these days the distribution has a more competition and I'm not sure the project has any special sauce to set it apart from the crowd.
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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