Nitrux 2020.09.05Nitrux is an Ubuntu-based Linux distribution suitable for laptops and desktop computers. Its main desktop environment is NX Desktop, a KDE Plasma desktop enhanced with "plasmoids" to create a special blend of aesthetics and functionality.
The distribution's website mentions a handful of key features including NX Firewall, a tool for simplifying firewall management. There is also a backup utility for automating and scheduling backups called Kup which is built into the distribution's settings panel. The Nitrux website also promotes using AppImage portable applications and suggests using AppImageHub, a central repository of portable packages, similar to how Flathub provides a repository of distribution-neutral Flatpaks.
I downloaded the ISO for Nitrux which is about 3GB in size. The distribution is available for 64-bit (x86_64) machines exclusively. Booting from the provided media brought up a menu offering to start the distribution in either live desktop or failsafe modes. Taking the live desktop entry loads the Plasma desktop - or a login screen, it varied during my trial. When the system brought up a login prompt I could sign in using "nitrux" as both the account username and password.
Once the Plasma desktop loads we find a panel placed across the top of the screen. The application menu is located to the left of this panel and the system tray to the right. There is a dock with some application launchers at the bottom of the desktop. One icon that launches the project's system installer is placed in the upper-left corner of the desktop. The Plasma environment uses a fairly dark, minimal theme. Once I had explored the live environment a little I turned my attention to the installer.
Nitrux's system installer is a graphical application which takes a pretty standard approach to configuring the operating system. We are walked through picking our time zone, confirming our keyboard's layout, and setting up a username and password for a new account. When it comes to disk partitioning our choices are limited. I could find no option to manually partition the disk. Instead we have a single guided partitioning option which offers to take over the entire disk with a Btrfs volume. The installer does not set up a swap partition or swap file. Once we have made our choices we are shown a confirmation screen which curiously displays a summary of our settings in white text on a white background. Then the installer sets up Nitrux on the local drive and restarts the computer when it is finished.
Nitrux boots to a graphical login screen. We are offered two session options. The default is to sign into KDE Plasma running on X.Org while the alternative is to run Plasma on a Wayland session. Upon signing into my account a notification immediately popped up to report new software updates were available. Clicking on the corresponding icon in the system tray launches the Discover software centre. Discover lists available updates which we can choose to install all at once or individually.
The first day I was using Nitrux Discover failed to apply the available updates, reporting it could not connect to Devuan's package servers. (Nitrux connects to its own package repositories along with Ubuntu and Devuan servers.) Attempting to refresh the package database likewise reported connections to Devuan servers had timed out.
The second day I was using Nitrux the connection to all repository servers worked and I was able to download the waiting 50 updates which totalled 173MB in size.
The Nitrux application menu at first looks to be blank. This is because, by default, the first pane of the menu shows favourite launchers and no favourites have been set for us. This means we need to switch over to the second page of the menu to location applications. Programs are grouped strangely on Nitrux with the category names being: Bundled Apps, KDE apps, Maui Apps, Qt Apps, and Utilities. None of these tell us what the included applications do and causes some confusion. I showed the groupings to a non-techie and asked which category might hold an image viewer and their response was, "No idea, they're all called some form of 'Apps'." What about the settings panel? They replied: "On my phone and tablet settings are with low-level stuff under Utilities so I'd guess there." Unfortunately for them, the System Settings panel is kept under KDE apps.
Nitrux 2020.09.05 -- The application menu and program groupings (full image size: 129kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
They would probably also be surprised to learn the software manager, calculator, and partition manager are kept under the KDE Apps category. The Qt group includes a document viewer and process manager. The Maui group holds a note taking tool, picture viewer, file manager, and terminal. The Bundled group includes just one entry for the Itch.io gaming portal. The Utilities group does not include any low-level tools, but rather the Firefox browser, GNU Image Manipulation Program, LMMS, MPV media player, and Inkscape.
When exploring the command line I found Nitrux ships with the zsh shell and the GNU Compiler Collection. No manual pages are included and trying to run man tells us we need to run the unminimize command and install the man-db package in order to see manual pages. Nitrux does not appear to be trying to be particularly lightweight so I was surprised the manual pages have been excluded from the distribution. Digging further I found Nitrux ships with the OpenRC init software and service manager. In the background I found version 5.6 of the Linux kernel.
Something I occasionally ran into while running Nitrux was some application windows were very small when opened. Their dimensions made it difficult to see anything in the window and I typically had to resize new windows before I could use the applications. This happened in both test environments and did not change when adjusting screen resolution or the number of open windows on the desktop.
Nitrux 2020.09.05 -- Some windows open with small dimensions (full image size: 159kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
I began my trial by running Nitrux in a VirtualBox environment, later switching to running the distribution on my laptop. When running in VirtualBox the Plasma desktop has limited resolution (800x600 pixels) and did not dynamically resize with the VirtualBox window. I could adjust Plasma's resolution through the System Settings panel. The distribution ran smoothly, if a bit slowly in VirtualBox. The Plasma menus and effects were slow to draw with the default settings.
Nitrux 2020.09.05 -- The Systems Settings panel (full image size: 80kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
When running on the laptop, the distribution detected all of my hardware. Again, Plasma was a little slow to respond. However, performance picked up once I disabled many of the visual effects in the settings panel. Some of the effects were intriguing. For example, when switching between windows the applications would be shuffled like papers and there were some nice animations for minimizing and restoring windows. However, ultimately, I opted for speed over eye candy.
Nitrux is a mid-weight distribution, consuming about 540MB of RAM and taking up 6.2GB of disk space. Though this accounting does not include any swap file we may wish to add later.
Earlier I mentioned Nitrux uses the Discover software centre to handle package updates. Discover also allows us to install packages and we can browse through available software using categories or by searching for items by name. When browsing categories of packages Discover sorts items by rating, though this can be changed to arranging programs by other criteria such as name or release date.
Nitrux 2020.09.05 -- The Discover software centre (full image size: 124kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
I feel like Discover was a software centre that got off to a rough beginning as I typically ran into severe performance problems and stability issues when using it in previous years. Now though Discover appears to be improving and offering a solid experience. I like that it is pretty easy to search for new applications and we can queue items for installation with the click of a button. In fact we can mark entries for installation and continue to browse for additional software while packages are fetched in the background.
The one issue I ran into with Discover was I often could not find programs I wanted to remove. Searching for software that was already installed, including desktop applications, returned no results. For example, trying to find programs like Pix and qps returned no search results in Discover, but did show up when using the APT command line tools.
NX desktop, NX Firewall, and Kup
Apart from the Itch.io gaming portal and the promotion of AppImage packages, which are effectively distribution-neutral, Nitrux lists three key features on its website that I feel are worth mentioning. The first is NX Desktop, which is basically KDE Plasma with some alternative components. Nitrux swaps out some elements, adds some of its own applications, throws in the Latte dock, and enables several effects. It does provide a slightly different look and feel for Plasma, so I suppose the goal has been accomplished. However, the changes are not ones I like. The menu feels empty and mostly a waste of space, I'm not a fan of the dock, and the enabled effects slow Plasma down noticeably. Desktop environments are always a matter of taste and, personally, I wasn't a fan of the alternations done to Plasma.
The Kup tool is promoted as a backup utility with a friendly interface. Kup can be accessed through the application menu or through the System Settings panel. Kup works by setting up backup jobs. When we create a new job, Kup guides us through picking which directories we want to save, how often backups should be created, and where to store the resulting archives. We can also filter out files from being included in our backups. The interface is quite nice and easy to navigate.
Nitrux 2020.09.05 -- The Kup backup tool (full image size: 74kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
Kup reportedly can create backups at a set interval or we are told jobs can be triggered manually through the utility's system tray icon. I tried clicking on the system tray icon and it did indeed share information on when the last backup ran, if it has ever run. However, I could find no option to trigger a new backup job. Even when backups were set to be entirely manual I could not find a way to initiate them. I also found that scheduled backups did not work. I once created some files and set the backup on the parent folder to run at an interval of one minute. No new archives were created, even after several minutes had gone by. This makes me wonder if Kup can be considered a reliable archiving solution as it created no backups and produced no error messages.
Finally, the Nitrux website promotes NX Firewall, a tool for configuring the firewall. NX Firewall appears to offer very few options. We can turn the firewall on/off and we can allow or deny both incoming and outgoing traffic. As far as I can tell, allowing or denying traffic, in either direction, is an all or nothing scenario. There doesn't appear to be any option to open specific ports while blocking all others. The firewall is disabled by default, but can be turned on with a click.
Something I found odd was that once I had accessed the NX Firewall tool, made a change, and closed it then I could not launch NX Firewall again. I also found that after opening the firewall utility I could not launch the System Settings panel. Rebooting the computer allowed me to open the settings panel again and the firewall tool. As a test, I opened NX Firewall and immediately closed it without making any changes. Then tried to open it again. This action failed, as did trying to open System Settings. This seems to be a consistent problem with just opening NX Firewall disabling the settings panel until a reboot occurs. This was a unique and unpleasant experience for me in the realm of firewall configuration tools.
Nitrux is an unusual project in a number of ways. In some ways it feels like the developers are regularly trying to find or create an identity for their distribution. They've promoted AppImages, talked about alternative update methods, temporarily turned the distribution into an exclusively commercial offering, then shifted back to free downloads. Their current offering feels like a strange mixture of Ubuntu, a modified Plasma desktop, and OpenRC init software in place of systemd. Oddly enough I'm not sure what to make of Nitrux in part because I have trouble figuring out who it is targeting. There seems to be a slight focus on gaming and AppImages, but without many features geared towards either. I wouldn't say Nitrux feels like a general purpose operating system either as it has a strange menu structure, a limited range of default applications, and a curious mixture of repositories and default programs.
I always appreciate it when projects try to add value or custom software or new ideas to their distribution. Stuff like NX Desktop and NX Firewall, for example, are at least doing something different. These, along with Kup and the customized installer give Nitrux a distinct feel. Unfortunately the items which Nitrux uses as substitutes for more popular applications do not work as well as the tools offered by other distributions. NX Firewall has very limited options, even next to relatively simple tools like Gufw, and it causes the System Settings panel to stop working. The note taking and terminal applications open in tiny windows and always need to be resized. The note taking tool doesn't even seem to recognize documents it has saved before. The backup tool's interval backup option did not work for me, leaving me without archives of my files.
All this is to say that while Nitrux is trying something different from the mainstream, there is a reason some applications and environments become mainstream: they typically work better. Being different is interesting, but I don't think (in this case) there is value added by the alternative tools Nitrux is promoting.
* * * * *
Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast