deepin 15.5 - A different desktopdeepin is a Debian-based Linux distribution which features the custom Deepin Desktop Environment along with several in-house desktop applications. The deepin project develops its own file manager, media players, software centre and settings panel, along with other desktop applications. Clearly, the deepin team is very busy working on a desktop solution, one which is easy to navigate.
deepin is available as a 3.2GB download for 64-bit x86 computers. Booting from the project's media gives us the option of starting the installation process, booting the operating system in failsafe mode or checking the media's integrity. In both of my test environments, deepin would boot and launch the installer (the first option), but was unable to boot in failsafe mode, whether run in UEFI or Legacy BIOS mode.
Taking the install option brings up a graphical environment where we are asked to select our preferred language from a list. In the upper-right corner of the screen there is an "X" which, when clicked, lets us abort the installation. Quitting the installer immediately powers off the computer. Once we have selected our language we are asked to create a username and password for ourselves. We can then select our time zone from a map of the world.
Partitioning comes next and here I encountered several options. We are asked whether we want Simple or Advanced partitioning. The Simple option takes over the entire hard drive, creating an ext4 file system. A 4GB swap file is set up on the root partition for us. This is the easy way forward, but it wipes out any other installed systems or partitions.
The Advanced option lets us select where to install the system's boot loader and presents us with a list of available partitions and free space. At first I wasn't able to find any way to add new partitions, but eventually found the button for adding and editing partitions is a grey icon on a grey background, making it difficult to spot. Once the button was found, setting up new partitions was fairly straight forward. The deepin installer will not proceed if the root partition is 16GB or smaller in size when we take the Advanced partitioning option. However, I found I could create a root partition smaller than 16GB if I used the Simple partitioning option. Once our partitions are assigned mount points, the installer copies its files to the computer and reboots the system.
Our fresh copy of deepin boots to a graphical login screen where we are shown our username and an empty, unmarked box where we should type in our password. When we sign into our account on a desktop machine with all the appropriate video drivers we are simply brought to the Deepin desktop. However, when running deepin in a virtual machine, deepin detects it is running in an unusual environment and displays a message which reads: "System has detected that you are using a virtual machine, which will affect the system performance and operation experience, for a smooth experience, it is recommend to" This is followed by two buttons, one for Effect Mode and one for Common Mode. The former offers a desktop with nice visual effects, but takes a lot more processing power, causing the desktop to lag badly in the virtual environment. The Common Mode offers good desktop performance with minimal eye candy.
The deepin desktop is presented with a launch panel at the bottom of the screen. Apart from the panel, there are no icons on the desktop. The wallpaper is a pleasant view of mountains. The left-most icon on the desktop panel brings up a full screen grid of applications. One feature of deepin's application menu I like is we can shrink the large grid of launchers down to a smaller size, approximately the dimensions of a traditional tree-style application menu. This is a time saver on desktop computers where we generally want less mouse movement.
We can right-click on icons on the panel to remove them and, in a similar fashion, we can right-click on icons in the application menu to un-install their programs. I will come back to managing software later, but for now I want to point out the consistency offered. With deepin, we can right-click items on the desktop to remove them and we can click-n-drag icons to reorder them.
deepin's settings panel deserves special mention as it is presented in an unusual style. When we click on the settings icon on the desktop panel, a grey panel appears on the right side of the screen. At first the panel shows us twelve icons for specific settings modules and presents buttons for switching from the settings menu to seeing the local weather or a list of recent notifications. When we click on a settings module we are shown the options in that module, but rather than going back to the module overview when we want to switch to another module, we can scroll up or down through the rest of the settings. The modules are effectively stacked on top of each other and we can browse through them a few at a time. For the most part the settings modules present us with a few basic, top-level options. If we want to dig deeper we can click a button to bring up more specific information or settings.
The settings panel remembers where we were last, which can be helpful. For example, early on I wanted to disable desktop sound effects. I right-clicked on the volume control, selected Settings and the settings panel opened to the sound options. Disabling sound effects took a single click. Returning to my work then automatically closed the settings panel. Had I then wanted to turn sound effects back on, I could simply tap the settings icon and the panel would re-open, showing the sound options page again.
This combination of panel memory with the way settings modules blend together in one long page and the organization of the panel makes adjusting settings on deepin a quick and easy experience.
I tried running deepin on a desktop computer and in a VirtualBox virtual machine. On physical hardware, deepin worked well. The distribution detected my hardware, set my screen to its full resolution and generally offered good performance. The desktop was a little slow to load from the login screen, but once the sign-in process was complete, deepin responded quickly.
When running in VirtualBox, deepin worked well, so long as I ran my desktop with visual effects disabled. Enabling effects would quickly bring my desktop to a crawl, but the desktop was responsive when effects were turned off. deepin did not automatically integrate with VirtualBox, but I was able to install VirtualBox's guest modules from the distribution's software repositories and this allowed me to access my host computer's full screen resolution.
The deepin distribution was light in memory, using about 350MB of RAM. The operating system is relatively large on the disk though, using 9GB of space. If we opt to use a swap file (the default when allowing deepin's installer to take over the hard drive), an additional 4GB of space is used for swap, bringing our total to 13GB.
deepin ships with an unusual collection of applications. Many of the programs included are either closed source or custom applications developed by the deepin project. The Chrome web browser is featured with Flash support, the WPS office suite is available for working on documents and the Foxit Reader gives us a tool for reading PDF documents. The distribution also ships with Skype, a Spotify client, the Steam gaming client and CrossOver for installing and running Windows applications. Custom applications include the Deepin Image Viewer, Deepin File Manager, Deepin Music, Deepin Movie and Deepin Screenshot. We also find Deepin Screen Recorder, Deepin Voice Recorder and a launcher called Deepin Feedback which opens Chrome and takes us to a web form where we can leave feedback on the distribution. Rounding out the custom applications we find Deepin Calendar, Deepin Clone for making and restoring backups of partitions and Deepin System Monitor. I like that the Deepin tools are given clear names stating their function as it makes it easier to find what I am looking for, even on a platform I usually do not use.
The deepin distribution also includes some familiar open source programs, including the Thunderbird e-mail client, the CUPS printing software, the gedit text editor, a document scanner and ChmSee document viewer. deepin features the GParted partition manager, the GNU Compiler Collection and Network Manager is available to connect us to the Internet. deepin uses the systemd init software and ships with Linux kernel version 4.9.
Working with WPS, media files, snapshots and CrossOver
Since deepin ships with an unusual collection of software, I would like to quickly cover some of the items in the distribution's application menu. One of the big differences between deepin and most mainstream Linux distributions is the inclusion of the WPS productivity suite instead of LibreOffice. WPS tries to look and act more like Microsoft Office. The WPS interfaces uses a ribbon-style set of menus and offers good support for MS-Office's document formats. WPS appears to trying to be a MS-Office replacement rather than the everything-in-one-place solution LibreOffice provides.
deepin 15.5 -- Using WPS and Deepin Music (full image size: 172kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
When I first started working with deepin I found I could play audio files, including MP3 files, through Deepin Music. However, I was unable to play video files using Deepin Movie. I installed the Totem video player and found Totem could play my video files. This would seem to point to an issue with Deepin Movie rather than the codecs available on the system.
One tool I was intrigued by is Deepin Snapshot. This program makes it possible backup the computer's hard drive, or a single partition, and save it as an image file. The tool also performs the reverse action, taking an image of a drive or partition and restoring it. I did not explore using Deepin Snapshot much, but I do think it is an odd choice. Usually snapshots are not performed on running systems and deepin does not feature a live desktop on its installation media. A full partition snapshot is also not ideal for backups and deepin does not appear to include an application for normal file archive backups. In short, Deepin Snapshot appears to be a user friendly way to make disk images, but I think it would make more sense for most users to use a backup tool like Deja Dup or a dedicated clone tool such as Clonezilla.
CrossOver is included to help users install and run Windows programs. CrossOver ships with many recipes for downloading and installing Windows software. This means we can generally install Windows programs with a few clicks. I tested a few of the provided recipes and they worked well, when the Windows installers could be downloaded successfully (some links are old and broken). If someone needs to run Windows applications on their Linux machine, CrossOver is probably the easiest and most reliable way to get those programs working, short of using a virtual machine.
During my time with deepin I did not see any notifications for software updates. One of the modules on the settings panel handles checking for updates and when I used this, throughout my trial, the update tool only once reported an update was available. When this happens a banner letting us know about the new update is displayed at the top of the settings panel. We can install all updates with the click of a button. At one point I also checked for updates using the APT command line tools and found there was one update available, for Spotify. However, the Spotify package could not be verified due to a missing or incorrect verification key and so the update was being held back.
Most software management is handled by an application called Deepin Store. By default, Deepin Store shows us a selection of features or popular titles. Down the left side of the window are software categories we can click on to browse through. There is also a search box that allows us to find applications by name. Items in a category or search result are displayed with their name and an icon. Hovering the mouse over an icon gives us the option of clicking an Install button or bringing up a full page summary of the package, complete with description and screen shot. Once we have clicked the Install button, a spinning circle appears in the upper-right corner of the window and we can click this circle to see progress information on queued items.
deepin 15.5 -- The Deepin Store software manager (full image size: 1.3MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I could not find a way to remove items through Deepin Store. I did find that right-clicking on launchers in the application menu brings up a menu that allows us to remove the package from our system. Both the install and remove actions can be performed without entering a password or other authorization. I found I could install or remove applications using any user account, even when that account did not have sudo access.
There is a second desktop application for working with packages. The package manager application allows us to select .deb packages we have downloaded. The package manager then attempts to install any dependencies required by the .deb archive and installs the program. Unlike Deepin Store, the package manager does prompt for our sudo password when installing a new package.
There were some other items I noticed when using deepin, small quirks or features which showed up after a few days. One feature I found odd was the prompts deepin displays for passwords almost never indicate what they are asking for. The user almost never sees the word "password" in a prompt. When we sign into our account or are prompted to provide our sudo password there is almost never any indication of what is being asked for, we just see a blank text input box in the middle of the screen. People familiar with Linux will recognize what is being asked for, but newcomers may not recognize the task they are performing is what is triggering the appearance of the empty text field.
I found almost all applications could be easily resized by dragging the corner or side of a window. The exception was the default terminal application. The deepin terminal can be set up as a small box or a full-screen window, but does not have drag-able borders.
When creating new user accounts, each new user is automatically added to the sudo group. This effectively makes all users system administrators. As I mentioned before, even if we take away sudo access, all users can install or remove applications without being prompted for a password.
deepin is one of the few distributions I have encountered which makes it easy to have decimal (rather than full integer) display scaling. Scaling is easily found in the settings panel under the display options.
I like that it is possible to change the size of the application menu, toggling between a classic, tree-style sized menu and a full screen menu. This should make it easy to use deepin's menu whether we are using a mouse or a touch screen. I also like that we can move the desktop panel to any side of the display without warping the look of the panel or its icons.
Playing with deepin this week was an unusual experience in many aspects. The distribution uses familiar technology under the hood (the Linux kernel, APT package manager and GNU userland tools), but deepin ships with its own highly customized desktop environment and many custom applications. deepin further has its own software manager and a nearly unique approach to working with settings. Using deepin is a little like visiting a different country where everyone speaks the same language, but drives on the opposite side of the road.
On the positive side of things, I think deepin and its desktop are very well designed. I like the consistency of the desktop, the way right-clicking and dragging always work the same way, for example. I love the settings panel as it makes browsing settings very straight forward and it is unusually easy to find the settings I want to change.
deepin 15.5 -- Sending feedback to the developers (full image size: 523kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
At first I thought having a collection of custom default applications, "the Deepin apps" as I came to think of them, would introduce a learning curve, but these applications were mostly designed in familiar ways. The file manager, music player and other tools should all feel familiar to people accustomed to using the equivalent GNOME or KDE applications. I also like that the deepin utilities are named clearly. A new user on another distribution might wonder what "Caja" or "Totem" does, but "Deepin System Monitor" and "Deepin Music" are pretty obvious.
I was disappointed there was no live desktop option. I like to test distributions live before installing them to make sure my hardware is compatible. Hopefully future versions of deepin provide a live environment for testing and showing off the Deepin Desktop Environment.
In the past I have run into performance trouble with Deepin Desktop, but this time performance was smooth. I appreciate that it is easy to toggle visual effects on and off, depending on whether we favour eye candy or performance.
Personally, I am wary of deepin including many non-free software options, such as Chrome. This is an unusual approach for a Linux distribution to take. It may be convenient for many users, but I would have preferred if the distribution had favoured open source solutions.
In the end, I think what deepin is doing is very user friendly. The way all the desktop components fit together and the clearly named applications make me think deepin is doing a great job appealing to newcomers. The installer, if we avoid the advanced partitioning screen, is probably one of the easiest to use in the Linux community.
Sometimes I think deepin favours ease of use over security, for example by giving all users sudo access or allowing all users to install new applications. I wouldn't want to use deepin on a shared computer for these reasons, but for a personal laptop, I don't think I could find an easier, more user friendly solution.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: