Emmabuntüs DE3-1.00It was recently pointed out to me that I have never written a review of the Emmabuntüs distribution and I was asked to address this oversight. With that in mind, I downloaded the latest version of this Debian-based, desktop distribution. Emmabuntüs features the Xfce desktop and runs on packages provided by Debian 10 "Buster". The project, which is designed to be run on older or used computers in order to extended their usefulness, is available in 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x86_64) builds.
The distribution strives to lower the bar for trying Linux by providing support for multiple languages and using the friendly Calamares installer to set up the operating system. I downloaded the 64-bit version of Emmabuntüs which is a hefty 3.1GB.
Booting from the Emmabuntüs media brings up a boot menu asking us to pick our preferred language from a list. Then we are asked if we want to try the distribution's live desktop or launch either a text-based or graphical installer. The installer options launch Debian's text and graphical installers, respectively. The Try option launches a live desktop environment running the Xfce 4.12 desktop. I decided to use the live desktop to test the distribution before installing it.
When the Xfce desktop first loads we are shown a series of welcome windows. The first one just displays a short greeting. The next one invites us to change our keyboard's layout (the default mapping is US). Another pop-up asks if we want to turn on a number of features. These include enabling a dock, activating the taskbar, activating the workspace, and enabling a dark theme. To be frank, I'm not sure what the utility means by activating the workspace and none of the options are explained. Enabling the dock gives us a macOS style launcher at the bottom of the screen and the other two options did not appear to have any significant effect whether turned on or not.
The next window offers to install Flash and media codecs. It will then try to download and install these packages while we wait. When it is done, another welcome window appears. This one displays a grid of buttons that provide short-cuts to on-line documentation and a forum, a local PDF with tips on using Debian, and quick access to the software manager, settings panel, and some convenience tools. I will talk about these features later.
A panel at the top of the Xfce desktop holds the application menu, task switcher, and the system tray. In the upper-right corner is a menu we can use to logout or shutdown the computer. Icons on the desktop offer to run the Calamares installer, run an uninstaller, launch the Disks utility to partition the hard drive, and open a tool to change the keyboard layout. There is also an icon for opening a tool to repair the boot loader. The concept of an uninstaller intrigued me since usually people do not remove operating systems so much as remove their partition or install over them. I tested this tool and found the uninstaller will search for partitions with an operating system installed and then offer to format the selected partition with either the NTFS or ext3 filesystem.
The live environment, once we navigate through the welcome windows, worked well for me. Xfce was responsive and straight forward to use. My hardware was working well with the distribution and I was happy to move ahead with running the installer.
Emmabuntüs DE3-1.00 -- The Xfce desktop and Classic menu (full image size: 540kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
While taking the installer option from Emmabuntüs's boot menu launches the Debian system installer, launching the installer from the live desktop opens Calamares. The graphical Calamares installer begins by offering to show us the release notes and put us in touch with on-line support. Clicking either of these buttons produces a pop-up error indicating the web browser cannot be launched. (Manually opening the Firefox web browser works, meaning the issue is with the installer's configuration rather than the browser.) The following screens walk us through the usual steps of selecting our time zone, keyboard layout, and making up a username & password. The partitioning section allows us to use a smooth, manual partitioning tool or take an automated partitioning option. The automated choice uses available space to create a single ext4 filesystem and no swap space. Apart from its first page with the broken links, Calamares worked well for me and offered to restart the computer after it finished setting up the operating system.
The freshly installed copy of Emmabuntüs boots to a graphical login screen. From there we can sign into the Xfce 4.12 desktop. Once again we are greeted by a series of welcome screens, though this time with a few differences. After the initial greeting we are asked if we would like to use the Classic application menu or the Whisker menu. Examples of these are not displayed so the user needs to guess which one will suit them better. I kept the Classic menu to start. We also also asked to "Please select the most appropriate image version for your needs." We are shown an image, but not told what it will decorate. At first I assumed it was a wallpaper selection, but the next choice we make is to pick our wallpaper from a drop-down menu. Even after picking the first image, I do not know where it was used.
Emmabuntüs DE3-1.00 -- Customizing the distribution through the welcome windows (full image size: 479kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
We are also asked if we would like to enable text-to-speech and auto-login, two valuable convenience functions. The window asking if we want to activate a dock, taskbar, and workspace appears next. Then a new window offers to install extras like Flash and codecs, but with additional options available. Now we can also install Microsoft fonts, TeamViewer, and Skype. The following window offers to remove any language packages we do not need. Then the welcome window with links to documentation, tools, and settings is shown.
This is a lot of upfront configuration to get through - twice. Sometimes I don't mind performing customizations up front, it can help newcomers take control of their operating system right away. However, several of the options are not clearly explained and some more descriptions of the options would be beneficial. New users are unlikely to know whether they need a task switcher, or TeamViewer, for instance.
When new software updates become available a notification appears in the upper-right corner of the screen. There is an update icon in the system tray. Something I found curious was that while I was using the live desktop session (on the install media) clicking the update icon would open the update manager which would let me select which updates I wanted to install. When Emmabuntüs was running from my hard drive clicking the update icon would not do anything. Right-clicking the icon would let me select how often the system should check for new package updates.
Something else I noticed early on is the application menu is very full. I started off using the Classic application menu, which uses a traditional tree-style menu. The Classic menu lists programs by name, without a description. Because the menu is packed with many launchers (some categories have more than a full page of entries) and there is no search box, this makes finding some programs difficult. For instance, when I was trying to find the update manager, I first located GNOME Software, the repository manager, the Packages and the Synaptic package managers, and a launcher for accessing Flatpaks. All of these were encountered before I finally found the update manager.
Since browsing the many entries in the Classic menu was not an efficient use of my time, I switched over to the Whisker menu. This menu uses a two-pane layout, which is still very full, but it includes a search box that helps us find programs quickly by typing their name or description.
Emmabuntüs DE3-1.00 -- The Whisker application menu (full image size: 631kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Emmabuntüs ships with multiple tools for managing software packages on the system. GNOME Software is included, along with the Synaptic package manager, and the Packages graphical front-end. On the command line we have access to the APT package manager and the Flatpak command line tools. This gives the user a range of utilities to use and, depending on our preference and what we are looking for, each of them can be helpful. GNOME Software is handy for when we wish to find desktop applications, organized into familiar categories. The Packages utility helps us find specific programs, also divided into familiar categories. While Synaptic helps us work with lower level packages and can be used to apply all sorts of filters. Each seems to work well, leaving the user to pick whichever tool suits their needs.
There is a Flatpak launcher in the application menu, and in the Tools panel (which I will discuss later). Clicking the Flatpak launcher merely opened the Firefox browser and took me to the Flathub website. I found it odd that, once I had reached the website, none of the bundle's description pages would open for me. Even with Firefox's extensions disabled the browser always locked up trying to load information about the available software bundles.
Emmabuntüs ships with a surprisingly large collection of software. There are so many applications in the menu, I was tempted to simply say Emmabuntüs includes all the possible software, but that would be a slight exaggeration. The distribution does tend to ship two or more applications for each category of task though. The usual flagship applications, such as Firefox, Thunderbird, Transmission, and LibreOffice are included. The Thunar file manager and VLC media player are provided too. We also have AbiWord and Gnumeric for office work, multiple image viewers, multiple media editing tools, lots of educational programs and games. There are a couple of chat programs, a few file transfer programs, like FileZilla, and a couple of e-book readers/managers, like Calibre.
We are also given copies of WINE and PlayOnLinux to run Windows software. Media codecs are easy to install during the initial configuration and there are launchers in the menu to fetch codecs and non-free programs. Emmabuntüs ships with Java and the GNU Compiler Collection. I found systemd is used as the init software and the distribution runs on version 4.19 of the Linux kernel.
Something I found interesting is the application menu includes a launcher that opens a window and offers to install the LXDE desktop. I don't think I have ever before encountered a distribution which made installing an alternative desktop a two-click process.
When working from the command line I discovered making a typo would result in a Python crash report appearing. This report indicates the command-not-found software has crashed while trying to find programs matching the typo. Seeing this message each time a mistake is made becomes frustrating quickly as the long crash report pushes most of the terminal's content up off the screen.
I began by testing Emmabuntüs in a virtual machine. While running in VirtualBox the distribution performed well, integrating with the virtual environment and working smoothly. The Xfce desktop was responsive and I encountered no hardware-related issues. When trying the distribution on a physical workstation, Emmabuntüs worked well again. All my hardware was detected, the distribution ran quickly, and both the Xfce and LXDE desktops were highly responsive.
The distribution requires about 330MB of RAM when signed into the Xfce desktop, which is pleasantly light. However, the distribution requires 8.5GB of disk space, just for the root filesystem. That does not include swap space or user files.
In the project's release announcement Emmabuntüs claims to install and run in Secure Boot mode. However, when I tried running Emmabuntüs on my workstation, the distribution was only able to boot in Legacy BIOS mode, not in UEFI mode, with or without Secure Boot enabled.
Earlier I mentioned Emmabuntüs provides access to extra tools. These can be accessed through the welcome screen or the application menu. The special Tools application displays a panel where we are shown categories of launchers that perform common administration tasks. For instance, there are a few tools for writing disk images to USB thumb drives. There are a couple of tools for managing or setting up printers. There is a tool for handling local disk partitions, and another button that launches Firefox and opens the Flathub website.
These extra utilities are mostly small, single-purpose configuration modules which worked for me. I'm not sure why they have their own, separate panel when we can access them through other ways. Perhaps it is just to keep things organized. However, this means that Emmabuntüs not only doubles down on most types of applications, but also settings panels. There is a separate control panel filled with modules for adjusting the look and behaviour of the Xfce desktop, the window manager, sound settings, drivers, and other aspects of the underlying operating system. There are a lot of these modules and the ones I used functioned smoothly.
The word which kept coming to mind while I was using Emmabuntüs was "overwhelming". The distribution includes so many options, applications, tools, settings, and welcome windows that I often felt like I was not only spoiled for choice, but flooded under a torrent of options. This is a distribution which has at least six tools for managing packages, three system installers, two office suites, four tools for setting up printers (or printer drivers), a long series of first-run tools, and launchers for adding all sorts of extras, including codecs, Flash, and an entire alternative desktop environment.
The use of the Whisker menu certainly helps the situation as it makes it easier to find and filter programs we may wish to use. However, even then it can take a surprising amount of looking around and scrolling through options to find what we are hoping to use.
Usually, I'm not one to complain about too much choice. I do, after all, celebrate the range of hundreds of Linux distributions available. I'm never one to say "Option B should not exist because we already have Opinion A." However, the caveat to my philosophy of "The more the merrier" is I don't want all the options all at once. To put it another way, I love that my local corner store has 32 different flavours of ice cream. I don't want to try to eat all 32 at once in one bowl. Emmabuntüs, for better or worse, puts all of the options in one bowl.
To be fair, to some people this may be appealing. If you are running a computer that has a slow (or non-existent) Internet connection, I can see why having a lot of software installed locally would be appealing. Emmabuntüs is targeting lower-end hardware and it is not always convenient to stop what you are doing and download AbiWord because LibreOffice is too big. I can see why having a very full bowl, with all the available options, would appeal in a situation where trying new options is difficult.
Perhaps the bigger concern I had was the welcome screen, while it allows for a lot of customization up front, does not do a great job of explaining the available options. What does it mean to activate a workspace? Why does the user need to decide up front whether to have a dock and whether that dock should use OpenGL? Should the user really need to know whether they need extra fonts before they even start using the distribution? Again, I see how having these options is a good idea, however the lack of on-screen documentation explaining these options may leave users confused.
Having spent a while complaining about the distribution's design choices, I think it is important to also highlight what Emmabuntüs does well. Apart from offering the user lots of choice, the distribution uses a lean and stable base (Debian 10). The project enjoys several years of support as a result, along with predictable behaviour, and a huge collection of additional software in case the user wants more. Emmabuntüs ran very quickly during my tests, the default applications (the ones I got around to using anyway) all worked. Emmabuntüs, once we get through the initial configuration steps, provides a very smooth, responsive experience.
It takes some getting used to all the options, and I tend to prefer to build up from the ground rather than trim down, but for people on slower connections I think this distribution would offer a welcome array of functionality.
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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: