deepin 15.11deepin is a Debian-based distribution developed in China. The distro ships with its own desktop environment, also called Deepin, and a dozen or so applications that are developed in-house. To avoid confusion, the distribution is called "deepin" (in all lower case) while the desktop environment's name is "Deepin" (with a capital "D").
The latest version of deepin was released in July and mainly features bug fixes. The most notable new feature is "Cloud Sync", which is an option to store various system settings (everything from the wallpaper to the power settings) in the "cloud". This is an interesting option but it is currently only available for users in mainland China. In other words, there aren't a whole lot of new and exciting features in deepin 15.11. However, as deepin is one of those distros about which there is a lot to say, it is worth having a look at the latest release.
deepin 15.11 -- The Deepin Desktop Environment, with the new Cloud Sync feature (full image size: 1.5MB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
The deepin website gives you half a dozen options for downloading an ISO image. The option that is listed first uses the mirror cdimage.deepin.com. That mirror is hosted in China and turned out to be painfully slow. The ISO is about 2.3GB in size but after 20 minutes only 64MB of data had been downloaded, so I decided it was best to try a different mirror. The second link, to Baidu Cloud, greeted me with the message in Chinese that translated as: "Ah, you are late, the files you have shared have been deleted." Among the other available options is Google Drive, which I had not seen used as a mirror before but which worked just fine.
The ISO does not include a live environment. There is a separate image for a live environment but that appears to only be available from the cdimage.deepin.com mirror. I tried downloading it a few times but I didn't have the patience - the estimated download time was measured in days rather than minutes.
The installer is one of the applications that is developed in-house and it certainly lives up to deepin's aim to make a "beautiful" and "easy-to-use" operating system. The installer uses the full size of the screen and looks gorgeous. Power users may miss some advanced options, in particular when it comes to partitioning, but for the average user the installer will do the job.
While the system is being installed deepin displays the text 'You can experience the incredible pleasure of deepin after the time for just a cup of coffee [sic]" above a series of slides with equally overblown advertising slogans. Apparently, the Deepin Movie player provides a 'visual and auditory feast" while the Screenshot tool lets you 'share and deliver happiness to more people". If you write code, rest assured that deepin's terminal emulator enables you to 'let each string of code present your mind".
I usually start a review by giving my first impressions, and in the case of deepin that was quite an impression indeed. When you first log in to the desktop environment you are presented with a video that gives you an overview of the Deepin desktop, complete with what I can only describe as "doof doof" music sprinkled with lots of sound effects. The video is quite useful though; it covers everything from launching applications and changing system settings to customising Deepin's look and feel.
deepin 15.11 -- The introduction video (full image size: 1.4kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
The Deepin desktop uses a dock for access to commonly used applications and a system tray. Thanks to the introduction video I learned that you can right-click on the dock to switch between the default OSX-style "fashion mode" and a Windows-style "efficiency mode" (the latter uses a traditional application menu rather than a full-screen applications overview). If you use the default dock then you can also switch to "efficiency mode" by clicking on a button in the top-right corner of the applications overview. A second button, in the top-left corner, sorts applications in the overview by category.
There are many other small touches that demonstrate that deepin has put a quite a bit of thought in to how users interact with a desktop environment. To give another example, the first thing I wanted to do is change the wallpaper, which to my mind looks like a landscape painting that has been rotated 90 degrees clock-wise. You can select a different wallpaper from a panel that appears at the bottom of the screen, and when you select a wallpaper the thumbnail is replaced with buttons that give you the option to only use the wallpaper on the desktop or the lock screen. Displaying available wallpapers in a panel makes sense as you can clearly see wallpapers you select (they are not hidden behind a large window in the centre of the display) and revealing more options after you select an image is a smart way of keeping the interface clean and intuitive.
In general, the desktop environment feels like a mix of KDE, GNOME and Budgie. deepin uses the Qt framework and dde-kwin as the window manager (which I think is a fork of KWin) but the interface is pleasantly simple and uncluttered. For instance, native applications typically feature a title bar with a search field, hamburger menu and window controls, just like they do in GNOME. The default applications overview has been inspired by GNOME as well. However, the settings menu, which appears on the right-hand side of the screen, has been borrowed from Budgie.
Also, there are quite a few GTK applications pre-installed, including GParted, Simple Scan and GNOME's Archive Manager. I like how deepin simply uses whatever it feels is the best tool for the job, even though the mix-n-match approach does mean that different types of applications have a slightly different look and feel.
deepin 15.11 -- Google Chrome, the GNOME Archive Manager and the Deepin Calculator (full image size: 648kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
The only real issue I noticed early on was that the 'Templates' directory in my home directory had a Chinese name (and the six template files inside the directory had Chinese names as well). Fortunately, I didn't encounter any other localisation issues during my trial.
Settings, the user manual and user management
The settings panel, or the Control Center, features the current date and time, a notifications icon, update notifications and 14 settings menus. Although there is no option to search for specific settings I was able to quickly find whatever option I was looking for. For instance, if you don't want the system to play sounds during the boot and shutdown process (which is the default) then you can disable those sounds via the Sound menu, and you can change the time after which the screen locks via the Power Manager section.
I like that all the settings are in one place and, as with other elements of the Deepin desktop, I found the settings panel delightfully intuitive. There was one exception: although deepin uses NetworkManager I was unable to import VPN configuration files. I was simply overwhelmed by the amount of information that needed to be entered manually. My work-around was to instead use an application provided by my VPN provider but this made using a VPN unnecessarily complicated.
The issue with VPNs was also one of only a few times that I didn't find any relevant information in deepin's manual. The manual includes basic information about using the desktop environment and the most common deepin applications. By and large the manual is really useful to get an idea of what different applications are capable of and to quickly learn what keyboard shortcuts are available.
The manual does contain a fair bit of marketing lingo - even a fairly basic application such as Deepin Screenshot is described as 'exquisite" and 'wonderful". Also, the English translations aren't that great. The following sentence, for instance, is a little unfortunate: "The screensaver was used to protect the monitor before, now it is mainly for protecting personal privacy from peeing."
To be fair, though, in many reviews I have commented on the lack of documentation provided by distros. The deepin team has made a huge effort when it comes to documentation and they have translated it to English fairly well. I would have preferred for the manual to be a little more dry but deepin deserves kudos for including proper documentation.
That said, deepin's relentless use of marketing terms did get on my nerves. That is partly because advertising is one of my pet hates and partly because it illustrates that deepin is not aiming to please freedom-loving greybeards. Instead, deepin makes using a Linux operating system as hassle-free as possible. That is particularly true for things like user accounts. Users are automatically added to the sudo group, which means that every user on the system has administrator privileges. There is no option in the control panel to disable this behaviour; if you don't like this set-up you will need to use the deluser utility to remove users that shouldn't have administrative privileges from the sudo group (run "sudo deluser [user-name] sudo").
Applications and software management
deepin is based on Debian Stretch (you can compare the packages) but ships with its own kernel (version 4.15). Interestingly, nothing is downloaded from Debian's mirrors: deepin uses its own "deepin lion" repository. In addition, there are a handful of proprietary applications in the /opt directory. Patent-encumbered multimedia codecs are installed by default, including the Flash plugin for Chrome.
Debian Stretch is of course an old version of Debian - the project released Buster two weeks before deepin 15.11 came out. As a result, applications you install from the repository may be a little dated. Most of the graphical applications that are pre-installed, however, are developed by deepin - at the time of writing there are 208 repositories in deepin's Github account. Everything from the installer and the desktop environment to the file manager and terminal emulator are made by deepin.
The software centre, called the Deepin Store, is also developed by deepin. The application looks much like GNOME Software but there are a few differences. One of the smaller differences is that each application has its own custom thumbnail image and a custom description. The descriptions are often cut off (because there is not enough room underneath the thumbnail) and range from being helpful to outright marketing nonsense. For instance, GIMP is described as "I'm your free Photoshop" while Shotwell's description is "Share photos, enjoy happiness".
deepin 15.11 -- The Deepin Store (full image size: 610kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
A more annoying difference is that the search functionality is broken. Whatever search term I used, I would always get a "No results found" page. I was also missing an option to uninstall software. I learned that it is possible to uninstall software without using a terminal window but the process is counter-intuitive: you need to right-click on an application's icon in the application menu and then select "Uninstall". This made it difficult to for instance uninstall Flash - the Flash plugin for Chrome is listed in the software center but as it is not showing in the applications menu it can't be removed via a graphical interface ("sudo apt purge libflashplugin-pepper" did the trick).
Another feature - some might say bug - is that you are not prompted for your user password when you install or uninstall an application. That might be convenient but, as with adding all users to the sudo group, it also has security implications. I personally have concerns about deepin's tendency to prioritise convenience over security but at the same time I realise that for many people convenience is the top priority.
The application I was most impressed with is deepin's terminal emulator. The default colour scheme (green text on a dark, semi-transparent background) is very pretty and the application has some nice features, including splitting terminal windows horizontally and vertically. Similarly, although the above-mentioned Screenshot application didn't have any noticeable effect on my well-being, it is a very capable tool. It is not as advanced as Shutter but it does have options that I am missing in GNOME's screenshot tool.
The only application I didn't get on with is Deepin Music. The application is fairly minimal; it finds music files in directories you specify and then displays all the files in a (very long) list. For each song the title, artist, album and song duration is listed. As I mostly listen to classical music I would have liked to also list the composer, but the default columns can't be changed.
A more annoying issue was that the Music application also refused to play Ogg files (VLC could handle them) and that it struggled to keep track of files in my Music directory. At some point the application seemed to have noticed files I had added but a few days later it showed only the files I had synced to my laptop after installing deepin. The manual for Music mentions a "scan" option but it seems this option is only available when you first launch the application.
There are two other applications that are worth mentioning. The default web browser is Google Chrome and for your office needs you get WPS Office 2019. Both are proprietary applications for which there are libre alternatives, which makes the choices a little curious. I guess the applications are shipped by default because they are considered to be superiour. In the case of Chrome I can understand that choice; the browser has an overwhelmingly large market share and new users might be surprised to get, say, Firefox as the default browser.
I feel that the choice for WPS Office is more questionable. The office suite comes with a word processor, spreadsheet application, presentation maker and a PDF viewer. I had hoped to give WPS Office a fair try, if only to get with the times and try to embrace the ribbon. However, I quickly found that I would not be able to use the office suite: WPS doesn't handle OpenDocument Format files at all, which means that it is completely incompatible with LibreOffice. I don't mind trying a proprietary office suite but to not support an open ISO standard is rather aggressively anti-open source.
LibreOffice is of course available in the deepin repository. This was, however, the one application that looked like a Windows 95 application.
deepin 15.11 -- WPS Office and LibreOffice displaying the same ODT file (full image size: 332kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
There were a few other minor issue I noticed while using deepin. To give some random examples, when I first launched LibreOffice (via the software centre) it opened the database application. The file manager always showed my /boot partition as a mounted drive, in the same way it would show an external USB drive. And it is not possible to adjust the volume and screen brightness on the lock screen, which is rather awkward when, say, you are listening to some music with the screen brightness set to zero. None of these are major issues but I do feel the desktop environment needs a little more polish.
Finally, I got only about five updates during my trial. I didn't get any notifications when updates were available but new updates are prominently shown in the Control Center. The updates were downloaded and installed quickly, and the system would tell me when a reboot was required.
Using deepin slowly turned me into a grumpy greybeard. deepin pre-installs proprietary software and codecs but there was no obvious way to uninstall Flash and the default applications struggled with ODF and Ogg files. New users are automatically granted administrative privileges and software can be installed or removed without authorisation. Security tools such as AppArmor and SELinux are nowhere to be seen. And then there was the constant talk about how "exciting" it is to "explore" all those "wonderful" tools that will bring "incredible pleasure". After using deepin for nearly two weeks I should have been beyond ecstatic but quite the opposite was true.
At the same time I do appreciate what deepin is trying to achieve. A lot of thought has gone into the user experience and deepin develops an impressive amount of free software applications. Plus, it is one of very few distros that ship with a proper manual. I do feel that the desktop is not quite as mature as the likes of GNOME - there were too many minor bugs - but it has the potential to deliver a superb user experience.
deepin 15.11 -- The Deepin System Monitor (full image size: 796kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
My main conclusion is that I am glad we have got a distro like deepin. It brings many new ideas to the table which other projects can benefit from. The "Cloud Sync" feature (which is spelled "Could Sync" in the release notes) is a good example. Personally, I would very much like to see that feature in other distros; being able to easily sync settings between multiple devices would be rather nice. I am not quite sure why the settings would need to be stored on a third-party server but hopefully other distros would simply provide a text file that can be stored anywhere. In short, although deepin isn't for me, I do like the project's innovation.
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Hardware used for this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a Lenovo Z570 laptop with the following specifications: