MX Linux 21There is no reason why MX Linux 21, the newest version of yet another of Linux's seemingly infinite number of community-based operating systems, should be this well done. This is, after all, a mostly volunteer operation, just like all the other of Linux's seemingly infinite number of community-based operating systems.
But it is that well done.
That MX 21, codenamed Wildflower, is such a joy to use speaks volumes about Linux and its potential on the desktop, the dedication of its users, and why so many of us never want to boot a Big Tech operating system ever again. It's not so much that MX 21 just works, but that its developers have made a serious effort to identify what would make it work even better.
That means terrific documentation, a surprisingly effective installer, and the much-ballyhooed MX-Tools. In this, it tries to be self-contained; that is, you won't have to search for a Deb package file on the Internet to add something that you need because MX already has software for almost every contingency. Plus, MX is so tweakable that you'll probably get tired of tweaking it. How does 25 installed themes sound?
MX has its roots in users of the discontinued MEPIS Linux distro, as well as antiX, a top-notch, low-end hardware distro that is similar to Puppy Linux, but can be installed on a hard drive without making your brain hurt. The two groups found common ground and released the first MX, MX-14, in 2014. It has always been based on the Debian Stable branch and has always featured the Xfce desktop. MX-21 uses Debian Bullseye, Xfce 4.16, and the 5.10 kernel, in both 32- and 64-bit versions. There are also 32- and 64-bit Fluxbox versions (which were added for the first time for this release) as well as a 64-bit KDE version. MX-21 is supported until June 2024.
I purposely used a 7-year-old laptop - a Dell Inspiron 11 3147 with a touchscreen - to test the 64-bit Xfce desktop. That's because MX describes itself as a mid-weight operating system, so it's not as frugal as antiX but should still be able to work on less modern hardware than Ubuntu or Fedora. As such, the system specs call for at least 1GB of RAM (2GB recommended), 6GB of hard drive space (20GB recommended), and a "modern" Intel i686 or AMD processor.
In this trial everything worked out of the box, including the touchscreen. Which, frankly, was surprising, given Linux's consistent inconsistency with touchscreens. The older processor slowed down boot times, as well as how long some software took to load, including Firefox. But it was still quicker with Firefox by three of four seconds than on my Windows 10 box with its Intel Core 2 Duo processor from 2008.
MX Linux 21 -- The Xfce desktop (full image size: 1.7MB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
There also wasn't too much trouble running MX-21 in VirtualBox, save for Firefox. The system loaded quickly, I was able to resize the windows and run through a variety of tasks, including testing LibreOffice, with ease. Then I loaded the browser. The CPU monitor showed 100% and the virtual instance crashed. Similarly, the live boot works as it should - a little laggy at times, but nothing to cause you to bang the keyboard in frustration. And it remembered my Wi-Fi settings after installation.
MX-21 uses its own installer, so you'll need to pay more attention than if you're used to something like Ubuntu's click-and-forget Ubiquity. That means several things: First, read the instructions on the left side of the installer, which explain what to do if you need to deal with UEFI. Second, there's an option to set up a user and as well as a root password, which might confuse those who just want to set up a one-person system, and which could lead to locking themselves out of root. Finally, the installer asks how to deal with the home and root partitions; stick with the default choice and you'll be OK.
MX Linux 21 -- The MX installer (full image size: 1.1MB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
On the desktop
The MX-21 experience is its great strength, both in its design and in its vast assortment of system utilities. It's simple and straightforward and, as noted, there seems to be a specific tool for almost anything anyone could want to do. Yes, the look and feel of most of the MX-designed apps is nothing more than basic, without any of the glitz and polish so many others deliver. But all of it works, and what more can we ask for?
The highlight is MX Tools, which expands Xfce's system settings to include bunches of mini-apps, including boot repair, installing NVIDIA drivers, a codec installer, disk cleaner, and my favorite - a USB formatter. Would that Xubuntu had this, so I would never have to deal with GParted ever again. And there is also MX Tweaks, which offers a variety of simple changes, including disabling single click on the desktop and in the file manager.
Also terrific: Copying error information to the clipboard automatically formats to the proper style for the MX forums.
MX Linux 21 -- Copying system information (full image size: 1.4MB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
And none of this includes the Midnight Commander file manager, the Timeshift system restore app, and luckyBackup, which seems to be the most simple and straightforward backup and sync utility I've seen. Plus, no digging in the repositories for dconf and gdebi, both of which are installed by default. You'll still have run gdebi from the command line, though. But even there MX has been able to fix the GUI problem, where gdebi will launch but won't install the Deb file.
The most obvious design difference - for Xfce, anyway - is the panel and taskbar on the left hand side. It's not quite as obtrusive as the GNOME left-hand panel; plus, it can be changed, modified, and edited without any trouble. The half dozen or so icons and indicators on top of the menu button at the bottom of the panel offer quick access to printers, the clipboard, Bluetooth, mounted volumes, and even Nextcloud and Zoom. The menu button accesses an even more complete version of the Xfce Whisker menu.
MX Linux 21 -- The application menu (full image size: 1.5MB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
Conky - the system monitor that was desktop bling a decade ago - makes a most welcome appearance. I've never really thought about using it on Xubuntu, but it fits nicely here and, thanks to MX Conky, you can conk to your heart's delight. That even means the option of adding accurate weather information, which has long been an Xfce weakness.
The software collection is most of the usual - Firefox 93, Thunderbird 78.13, LibreOffice 18.104.22.168, and VLC for music and videos. gThumb is the image viewer, Clementine is the music player, and qpdfview is the PDF reader. There is also the Foliate e-book reader and webcamiod to take pictures and videos with a webcam. If it's not as streamlined as Cheese, I didn't find it glitching or hanging up the way Cheese can.
Does it all work?
Yes, it does. My music played. The system found my Canon MX- 922 printer and scanner and it printed and scanned. The network manager did what it was supposed to do, something else that Xfce can have trouble with. I was able to add Nextcloud without any problems and access my home network files easily. Nothing crashed and nothing happened that I didn't expect to happen. That's about as good as Linux - or any OS - gets, yes?
A word here about systemd, which MX uses - sort of. Technically, it ships with systemd present but disabled by default. So you can enable it if you want to replace SysV init, which is the default init. This strikes me as a suitable compromise to the entire systemd controversy. And it's worth noting that I didn't experience any appreciable differences between the MX version of Xfce, without systemd, and the Xubuntu version, which uses it.
In other words, MX-21 can serve as a production machine without any trouble, and something I've done with earlier versions. That I don't use it today is not so much about MX (save for the less polished look of the home-grown apps) as it is about how much effort I want to put in to get my machine just the way I want it. As noted again, there is almost too much tweaking possible with MX. How's that for the biggest drawback in an operating system?
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Hardware used for this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a Dell Inspiron 11 3147 laptop with the following specifications: