Netrunner 20.01Netrunner is a Debian-based distribution featuring a customized KDE Plasma desktop with some extra applications and conveniences. The Netrunner project has had several different editions over the years which seem to come and go fairly quickly. For example, there was a rolling edition that was based on Manjaro Linux, which has appeared and been abandoned a few times. There have also been editions for ARM-powered devices over the years, but those seem to no longer be included in new releases. In the past there was a Core edition which offers a more minimal approach than the distribution's main Desktop edition and it seems as though the developers plan to continue the Core line, but at the time of writing only the Desktop edition is available for version 20.01. [Note: After this review was written, but before publication, the Core edition was published.]
All of that is to say that, in the past, Netrunner had many editions and supported multiple architectures. However, as I write this Netrunner 20.01 is only available in a Desktop edition for 64-bit (x86_64) computers and this offering is a 2.4GB download.
Booting from the provided media brings up the KDE Plasma desktop environment. The desktop features a panel at the bottom of the display with an application menu and system tray. The system tray includes the usual array of status icons along with two uncommon items: one icon for opening a drop-down virtual terminal and another for creating screenshots. There are icons on the desktop for launching the project's system installer, opening a Read Me document, launching the Dolphin file manager and opening a window which displays hardware-related information. The default wallpaper looks like a rainbow that has been broken up and used as pieces in a game of pick-up-sticks.
Clicking the Read Me launcher opens the Firefox browser and displays an on-line document which contains tips on using Netrunner. These are mostly random tips concerning the live media's login credentials, working with the Steam gaming portal and customizing the desktop.
While exploring the live environment I soon noticed the application menu has an unusual layout. The application menu covers the entire desktop and is divided into three panes. On the left side is a Favourites area along with options for logging out and powering off the computer. On the far right side are categories of software we can explore. Specific launchers in the selected category are displayed in the middle of the menu. This full-screen approach wastes a lot of space and requires a lot more mouse movement than other menus as the mouse needs to travel from the bottom-left corner to the far right and then back to the middle to launch any program. Swapping this menu out for an alternative (which can be done by right-clicking the menu's button) was the first thing I did once Netrunner was installed.
Netrunner 20.01 -- The default application menu (full image size: 1.1MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Netrunner makes use of the Calamares system installer, a graphical application that quickly guides us through the usual options to get the operating system configured. Calamares provides a nice interface for selecting our language, time zone and keyboard layout. Calamares helps us create a username and password for ourselves. When it comes to disk partitioning we can take the guided option, which takes over available free space, or manually manage partitions. I tried the manual option first and, while setting up a second partition, Calamares crashed without providing any error. I relaunched the installer, took exactly the same options and, this time, Calamares completed its work successfully.
A newly installed copy of Netrunner boots to a mostly black graphical login page. Signing into our account loads the KDE Plasma desktop. I saw no pop-ups, welcome windows, or other notifications when I first signed into the desktop.
One thing I did notice though is the default mouse pointer is reddish-orange. I'm not sure if this unusual choice was done to make the mouse easier to see, or perhaps as a personal choice by a developer. Should we wish to have a more commonly coloured pointer the cursor theme can be changed in the System Settings panel.
When I first started using Netrunner the desktop mostly ran well, but lagged when opening menus, launching programs, or highlighting elements with the mouse. I was able to improve performance by adjusting (or disabling) the compositor, which can be managed in the System Settings panel. This improved the desktop's responsiveness and resulted in good performance when I was running the distribution on a workstation. Though desktop performance was improved in my VirtualBox test environment, Plasma never reached a point where the system felt properly snappy to respond in the virtual machine.
Netrunner ships with KDE Plasma 5.14.5, which is now several versions behind upstream, which is at 5.18. Most of the time this does not have a practical impact, but I think it may account for some of the performance issues I ran into. I also noticed that Plasma Vaults was missing, a feature which makes it easy to access encrypted volumes. Vaults is older than Plasma 5.14 and I expected to see it, but it appears to have been omitted from Netrunner. I found the Vaults functionality could be added to Plasma by installing the plasma-vault package and its dependencies.
Netrunner 20.01 -- Using LibreOffice and playing a game (full image size: 165kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Apart from the KDE Plasma desktop itself, Netrunner ships with quite a lot of software, including the Firefox browser, the Marble virtual globe and Thunderbird for checking e-mail. The Pidgin messaging software, Transmission bittorrent client and LibreOffice are available too. There is a native Skype application, the GNU Image Manipulation Program, Inkscape and the Krita drawing application.
There are a handful of games and Steam. The first time I tried to open Steam nothing appeared to happen for a few minutes, at least on the desktop - my hard drive was working hard. Eventually a window appeared saying Steam was being updated and then the game portal launched a few minutes later.
Netrunner 20.01 -- Running Steam and using an alternative application menu (full image size: 204kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Netrunner offers users a remote desktop viewer, the KDE Help documentation, the Dolphin file manager and Okular document reader. We are also treated to the Cheese webcam utility, the Audacious and SMPlayer media players, the HandBrake media conversion utility and Kdenlive video editor. The distribution supplies a full range of media codecs for audio and video formats.
One interesting additional to the application menu is a category of web applications. In theory these give us access to some on-line services such as Telegram, Whatsapp and Skype. Unfortunately these web applications do not always work as well as one might hope. For example, the Whatapp web client requires we have the native Whatsapp client already installed and set up on another device. The Skype web-based client seems redundant since we already have a native implementation, plus trying to open the Skype web app just displays a message saying it is not compatible with Firefox (Netrunner's default browser) and that we need to use either the Edge or Chrome proprietary browsers to access the Skype service.
Digging further into the Netrunner distribution I found Java is installed for us, along with the GNU Compiler Collection. The distribution uses the systemd init software and runs on Linux 4.19.
The distribution provides a few different methods for handling software. The primary one appears to be Discover, a graphical front-end that divides available packages into applications and KDE plugins. It then further organizes applications into categories and, in some cases, sub-categories. This can make for some drilling down through the options to find what we want. However, Discover worked well for me. We can also search or software by name and check for updates through Discover.
Netrunner 20.01 -- The Discover software centre (full image size: 523kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I found Discover's interface to be slow to respond and sometimes the way it was organized made navigating between elements slower, due to lots of sub-categories and the lack of an Install button on applications' information screens. Otherwise Discover provides a pretty solid, familiar software centre experience.
While using Discover the software centre let me know there were 8 new updates available totalling 18MB in size. These were all downloaded and installed without any problems.
Another utility we can use for handling updates is the Update Manager tool (also known as mintUpdate). This tool provides an easy way to review and download new packages. Unfortunately it is not accompanied by any update notification in the system tray to let us know when to use it, we need to check for updates manually. One minor issue I ran into with mintUpdate was when I went to check its About information, the window that popped up gave an error message about a missing library file (version.py) instead of any information about mintUpdate.
For people who like more fine-grained package management, Netrunner provides the Synaptic package manager and the command line APT tools. As with the previously mentioned software management tools, these both worked well.
Netrunner 20.01 -- Running the Dolphin file manager and Synaptic package manager (full image size: 360kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I explored Netrunner in two test environments. When I was running the distribution in VirtualBox the operating system was stable and functioned fairly well, though it was a bit slow to respond and load applications. Otherwise the experience was fine and, with some tweaks, I was able to coax more performance out of the Plasma desktop.
When running on my workstation, Netrunner detected all of my computer's hardware and the performance was noticeably better. One or two programs, such as the Discover software centre, were still sluggish at times, but the operating system in general worked smoothly.
Netrunner is a medium-weight distribution in memory, using about 470MB. However, it is quite large on disk, requiring 7.6GB of storage space for a fresh install, not including swap space.
This may sound odd, but after using Netrunner for a while I struggled to come up with much to say about it, good or bad. The distribution essentially takes Debian and adds a polished KDE Plasma desktop to the experience. The result works, runs well and did not present me with any serious problems. I did end up tweaking Plasma to get better performance and I had to add a few tools, like Vaults, but otherwise the experience was not lacking anything.
On the other hand, I don't feel as though Netrunner brings anything particularly new or special to the experience. It feels much the same as other Debian-based distributions featuring KDE Plasma, such as Neptune or SolydXK. There is nothing wrong with this, but it means the distribution did not do anything to set itself apart from the competition in my mind, nothing to make me choose it over one of the alternatives.
In short, Netrunner offers a good, solid experience. The included software is a little older, but not so old as to interfere with functionality and, if needed, there are backports repositories we can use. I don't think Netrunner has any special gifts or surprises that make it stand out, but I do think it offers a pleasantly uneventful experience.
One of the few concerns I had with Netrunner was not technical; it was the project's shifting focus. While Netrunner has been around in one form or another for quite a while, the project keeps spinning off new editions, new concepts and new architecture support. These tend to fade away after a number of months or years. Netrunner as a whole continues, but I would not want to become too attached to any one flavour of the distribution.
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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: