helloSystem 0.5.0This week I decided to browse the DistroWatch waiting list for some young projects I have not had a chance to try previously. The first project that caught my eye was helloSystem (sometimes referred to as simply "hello"). The helloSystem project sets out to create a FreeBSD-based operating system which will feel pleasantly familiar to macOS users. The project's website describes the team's efforts as follows:
Based on FreeBSD. Less, but better! For mere mortals. Welcoming to switchers from macOS. Not just a theme. Not a clone of anything, but something with which the long-time Mac user should feel instantly comfortable. The latest technologies, without the complexities of Linux distributions. Without lock down. Without Big Brother. The user in full control.
The operating system ships with FreeBSD 12 as its base with a preconfigured desktop which bears a resemblance to macOS. The project offers one edition, a 1.8GB download for 64-bit (x86_64) machines.
Unfortunately the operating system's live media failed to boot on my test systems, systems which can run FreeBSD, and so I put it aside to try another project.
* * * * *
Peux OS 21.01The next operating system to catch my attention was Peux OS. Peux is an Arch-based distribution which provides a graphical installer (Calamares) and multiple desktop editions.
Peux OS uses customized Xfce as its default-version. It uses Polybar as its default panel and is tied with apps that will help you secure your data and privacy. Btrfs is the default filesystem with autosnap enabled. As any Arch Linux distributions, Peux OS comes with pacman as default CLI package manager along with yay and Pamac as alternatives. For GUI, use Pamac-Manager, with Flatpak and AUR support options in its settings. It comes with four different desktop flavours: GNOME, KDE, LXQt and Xfce. Xfce is the flagship.
I decided to try the Xfce flagship edition, which is 2GB download for x86_64 machines. Peux OS is unusual in that it does not appear to provide direct download links or mirrors for any of its live media options. Instead we are given torrent links to download. When I was downloading the Xfce edition there was only one seed for the ISO which topped out at 500kB/s which is relatively slow compared to the speeds provided by most free, open source mirrors.
Peux OS's live media boots to the Xfce desktop. A panel at the top of the display holds a search icon in the left corner which, when clicked, opens the application menu. There are some quick launch buttons also on the left side of the panel. Over on the right side we find the system tray and an icon which provides logout options.
There is a large Conky panel in the middle of the desktop which displays the current date. At the bottom of the desktop there is a task switcher which lists the names of open windows. On the desktop we find icons for opening the file manager, a README file, and the Calamares system installer. The README file contains a list of desktop shortcuts and links for contributing to the Peux OS project.
Something which immediately stood out as unusual about Peux is that there are no tool tips for quick-launch and system tray icons. The icons feature simple designs which are small and monochrome. This makes it difficult to tell what an icon does without clicking it. Sometimes even clicking an icon doesn't clear up the mystery. For instance, clicking one icon opens a terminal window and prompts for the user's sudo password, but gives no indication as to why this is happening. I gave it a try and discovered the terminal window runs the pacman package manager to check for software updates and download them if any are available.
The application menu offers a similar challenge. The menu is divided into pages with 30 icons on a page. The icons are packed close together and the text under the icons is often truncated, making it impossible to know what an application is before opening it. Even then sometimes there is some confusion. For instance, when I launched an icon called Butter it prompted for my password, but again gave no indication as to why or what action would be accomplished with the elevated access.
Peux OS 21.01 -- The custom application menu (full image size: 1.8MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
When trying to launch the Calamares installer a warning appears on the desktop saying the program is not marked as executable and is stored in an insecure location. We are asked if we wish to proceed. With a warning like this it seems like a bad idea, which is made worse when, after the warning appears, a second pop-up appears saying that launching the program has failed due to a timeout. Despite these warnings, choosing to proceed opens the Calamares installer.
On the first page of the installer are two buttons marked Donate and Support. Clicking either of these buttons produces an error saying "Failed to execute default WebBrowser." Launching Firefox manually works without any problems so this appears to be a configuration issue with Calamares.
The second page of the installer asks us to select one or more office suits to install. The options include LibreOffice, OnlyOffice, WPS, and Ghostwriter. These options have a description field, but no useful descriptions. I opted to install LibreOffice. We are then asked to confirm our time zone and keyboard layout.
When it comes to partitioning we can use a friendly, manual partitioning tool which is fairly straight forward. Alternatively we can take a guided option which will automatically set up a Btrfs volume using available disk space. The guided approach also allows us to pick one of three options for swap space: no swap, a swap file, or a swap partition. I chose to use a swap partition since Btrfs has some known issues with swap files. The last page of the installer asks us to make up a username and password for ourselves. Calamares then copies its packages to the hard drive and offers to restart the computer.
My pristine copy of Peux booted to a graphical login screen with an image of swirling clouds of coloured smoke in the background. Available usernames are displayed on this page and we can click one to bring up the password prompt. Signing in brings up the Xfce desktop.
Earlier I mentioned the application menu is unusual in that it displays 30 tightly packed launchers which don't always have enough room to display the name of the corresponding program under them. Another unusual aspect is we need to double-click icons to launch a program. Alternatively we can click a launcher once, then press Enter to launch the desired item. To switch between pages in the menu (there are three pages of icons on a fresh install), we need to scroll through the icons and, getting to the end of the page moves us to the next page of 30 icons.
This is unusually cumbersome as it means either using the mouse wheel to scroll through 30 icons per page or selecting the last icon on the page and then moving down to the next page. Luckily we also have the option of typing the name of the program we want to run and this will filter down the list of displayed launchers. However we approach things, this is an inefficient way to access applications.
While I'm talking about the appearance of the distribution, I found the theme to be difficult on the eyes at times. I didn't mind the relatively bright theme with purple icons most of the time. However, buttons often display grey text on a white background making them difficult to read. Not all buttons are like this, some are more brightly lit with better contrast, bringing to mind the classic Windows XP Start button, but enough were low-contrast that I soon wanted to adjust the theme.
Peux OS 21.01 -- Using a terminal with the default colours and transparency (full image size: 1.6MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I found the wallpaper would change occasionally. I think about once every five minutes or so we are treated to a new background.
When I began testing Peux it was in a VirtualBox environment. I had a few problems with the distribution in the virtual machine. The Xfce desktop did not resize to fit the VirtualBox window. Fixing the resolution situation was made harder because the application menu does not scale well and it proved difficult to find the Display module to adjust the dimensions of the desktop.
The distribution launched applications somewhat slowly and Xfce was unusually sluggish in VirtualBox. Typically Xfce is quite snappy, even in virtual machines, but this time windows stuttered and flickered when moved. There was typically a notable pause when opening menus.
When I switched over to running Peux on my workstation things were much better. There were no delays when loading applications and the Xfce desktop was responsive. All of my workstation's hardware was detected and used properly.
I did run into a speed bump when trying to get on-line. While my wireless card was detected, clicking the Network Manager icon in the system tray did nothing. I had to right-click the icon, choose to create a new network connection, and then manually input the network name, security type, and password. Usually, with distributions which use Network Manager, one can simply click the icon, click the name of the network we want to join, and type the password. Peux forces the user through a roundabout approach which is likely to throw off less experienced users.
Peux consumed about 514MB of memory when signed into the Xfce desktop. This puts the distribution around the middle-weight category for Linux distributions. However, Peux consumes a surprisingly large amount (11GB) of disk space for a fresh install, not including swap space.
Peux ships with a collection of software which is mostly made up of standard items. Firefox, LibreOffice, the MPV media player, the Leafpad text editor, and the GNU Compiler Collection are all present. There are some tools though which are much less common. BlueMail and Discord are installed for us, along with Electron and Lplayer. The distribution supplies codecs for popular media formats.
Peux OS 21.01 -- Running the Tor Browser and LibreOffice (full image size: 382kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
There are some security tools included such as the Firejail sandboxing software and Firetools, which is used to make shortcuts for applications we wish to run inside a sandbox. The Tor web browser is present for anonymous web surfing. We are also given a copy of the Clam anti-virus software and a graphical front-end to manage it.
In the background Peux ships with the systemd init software and version 5.10 of the Linux kernel.
At first it seemed as though there was no screenshot utility installed. I couldn't find one in the application menu and pressing the Print Screen button did not appear to do anything. I found out later than pressing Print Screen caused a screenshot to be taken and silently saved in my home directory with the timestamp conveniently placed in the filename. Usually screenshot tools tend to place new items in the Pictures directory, but once I found out where the images were being saved, I was able to sort them into new locations.
I tried using the Clam anti-virus software. Performing scans, even on directories with very few (or zero) files took over a minute. I discovered that performing scans of directories does not include sub-directories or hidden files, making it important to remember to scan each sub-directory separately.
Peux OS 21.01 -- Clam's scanning results for the home directory (full image size: 864kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I do like that Firejail is installed by default. It is a useful way to isolate software, especially network-facing applications. I'm hoping future releases integrate Firejail more completely, perhaps launching applications inside sandboxes by default.
While we can use command line tools such as pacman and yay to manage software on Peux OS, the Pamac software centre is readily available in the application menu. Pamac is split into three tabs: Browse, Installed, and Updates.
Sometimes while I was using Peux, a notification would appear next to the system tray telling me new software updates were available. Clicking the provided button would open Pamac and display the Updates tab. It looks as through Pamac lists new packages from both the official Arch Linux repositories and from the Arch User Repository (AUR). Some of the items available to upgrade are listed as needing to be built and are not available through the pacman command line tool which leads me to believe they are third-party community contributions from the AUR.
The Installed tab lists packages already on our system with the option of removing them. Both the Installed tab and the Updates tab functioned smoothly. When I tried to use the Browse tab to discover new applications I ran into a problem. The Browse tab always showed me a message which said "No package found." I tried changing the filter for types of software shown, I tried switching between Group and Category views, I tried to refresh the package database. In each case Pamac failed to find any software to show me. Meanwhile the pacman command line tool not only successfully performed searches, it also installed new packages and updates without any issues.
Peux OS 21.01 -- The Pamac software centre (full image size: 570kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
While Pamac was unable to find or install new applications for me, it was able to fetch new software updates. The first time I used Pamac for this purpose it prompted me to import and trust the Tor Browser security key. This probably should have been enabled ahead of time, but accepting the key allowed all updates to proceed cleanly.
Right-clicking window names on the task switcher panel causes the window to close without confirmation. Other task switchers usually bring up a window control menu in response to right-clicks so this may surprise people and result in data loss.
A few days into my trial, a new dock appeared at bottom of the desktop. I had not added any new programs or services so it was a surprise when it just showed up one day when I signed in.
It appears as though Peux OS is still in its early stages so it is reasonable to expect the distribution to have some rough edges. Which is good, because there are a lot of rough edges. Just during the first hour setting up the distribution I ran into several issues. The project doesn't appear to offer (at the time of writing) direct download links, the live media warns us against running the Calamares installer, and the Support button in the system installer doesn't work.
To make matters worse, Peux does not function well in a virtual machine, which is unusual for a distribution running the Xfce desktop. Plus the graphical front-end for package management seems to be broken and unable to install new applications.
My biggest concerns with this distribution though are in the little day-to-day tasks. The application menu is unusual in many ways (it doesn't scale well, it requires double-clicks to launch applications, and it is horribly tedious to navigate). I also found the lack of tool tips when hovering the mouse over quick-launch and system tray icons, combined with the tiny, minimal icon designs, meant I constantly had to take my best guess at what any given button would do.
I sometimes encounter distributions which try something different. A new launcher, a new desktop layout, a different style of managing packages or organizing windows. Sometimes these unusual approaches take some time to adjust to before they make sense. Sometimes the design is good and the problem is me and my habits - my muscle memory. I can see the benefit of the alternative approach, even if it takes me all week to relearn how to use it efficiently. I cannot find any benefit to Peux's unusual application menu layout, mystery icons, or the way programs instantly close instead of displaying a menu when I right-click on their window button. All of this seems to add extra steps and guess work without any perceived benefit.
When I add to this the launcher dock magically showing up on the third day of my trial and the problems I ran into setting up networking and installing software, I'm hard pressed to find a benefit to using Peux over any of the other dozen Arch-based distributions which use Calamares to set them up and run Xfce as their flagship desktop.
* * * * *
Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: