Obarun 2019.11.02This week I decided to test drive a distribution I have not reviewed before and, after looking through a handful of projects, my gaze landed on Obarun. The Obarun distribution is based on Arch Linux and features the s6 init software instead of the more commonly used systemd. The projects website describes Obarun as follows:
The goal of Obarun is to provide an alternative for people looking for more simplicity and transparency in maintaining their systems. Obarun is not designed with beginners to Linux in mind.
Obarun, like its parent, is a rolling release operating system which uses pacman as its package manager. The distribution is available in two editions: Minimal (589MB) and JWM (974MB). The former offers a command line interface while the latter provides a lightweight window manager. I decided to download the JWM edition. The project's website provides the default usernames and passwords for the live media. We are also given a summary of the installation steps which let us know we will need to set up an Internet connection and a partition for the operating system prior to launching Obarun's text-based installer.Obarun's media boots to a console interface and prompts us to login. If we login using the root account we are presented with a command line interface. However, if we sign in as the user oblive then the system loads the JWM graphical interface with a panel placed across the bottom of the screen. The network settings window then opens to make sure we know to enable an Internet connection.
The live media does not ship with a lot of software, but there are some utilities to help us get the operating set up, including the cfdisk disk partitioning tool. I like cfdisk because it can run in a terminal and is fairly easy to navigate. Using cfdisk and mkfs I created a fresh ext4 partition and mounted it prior to launching the system installer, obarun-install.
The obarun-install program runs in a text console and presents us with a menu of options we can adjust. We navigate the menu by typing the number of the item we want to change. The installer begins by asking if we would like to update it. The first time I ran the installer, as root, the update failed with a report that the makepkg command could not be run as the root user. This was followed by another message saying the installer had been successfully updated. The installer then exits.
Running the installer again brings up the options menu where we can pick our preferred language, select the directory where we have mounted a blank partition, and choose which desktop to install. The defaults are to use English, /mnt, and JWN, respectively. We are then asked if we want to perform a Quick Install or Install the operating system. The script is not clear on what the difference between these two options is. We are told the latter option can perform an install or resume a previous install attempt. The Quick Install option is described as: "Copy the ISO as it and update packages from [jwm] Desktop environment)" [sic]. There is a also sub-menu of Expert options. Exploring the Expert menu gives us a chance to fine-tune the installation, changing the default text editor, customizing AUR repository settings and making a few other adjustments.
The first time I ran the installer, I entered the Expert menu and, upon leaving it, the install script entered an endless loop, displaying the error message: "Password do not match, please retry. passwd: Cannot determine your user name." I had to terminate the script and start over.
The next time through I took the default settings and tried the Quick Install options. The process of copying packages to my hard drive took a suspiciously short amount of time, but the installer reported it was successful. However, the installer also reported a fatal error, saying it could not delete the oblive user. This, along with the earlier warning about not running a helper program as root made me suspect that we should run the install script as the oblive user through sudo rather than run it as root, though the project's website indicates running the installer as root is okay.
When I restarted the computer, it refused to boot and this appeared to be due to a lack of a boot loader. I did some further reading the of the project's wiki and found a page in the documentation which shows Quick install does not set up GRUB or a valid /etc/fstab file; these need to be done manually, unless we take the full install option. Now properly educated, I used the live media again and ran the installer (this time as the oblive user). This time the installer successfully updated itself and I opted for the full install option. The installer soon ran into another endless loop, reporting its password did not match and that install.sh was crashing due to a segfault. I was forced to terminated the installer again.
I tried the installer a third time, using the same method - full install running from the oblive account. This time the installer seemed to get through its work without any problems. It copied its packages, installed GRUB, and asked me to make up a password for the root account. When I restarted the computer GRUB loaded and started the operating system. Almost immediately Obarun's start-up process reported: "unable to initiate earlier service of tree: boot".
I tried one more time, again wiping the partition and running the full install process. Once again the installed system failed to boot. So, after four install attempts, I finally gave up and moved onto another project I had not reviewed.
* * * * *
Bluestar Linux 5.3.6The next project I decided to try this week was Bluestar Linux, another Arch-based project. The Bluestar website shares the following description:
Bluestar Linux is an Arch Linux-based distribution, built with an understanding that people want and need a solid operating system that provides a breadth of functionality and ease of use without sacrificing aesthetics. Bluestar is offered in three editions - desktop, deskpro and developer - each tailored to address the needs of a variety of Linux users. Bluestar can be installed permanently as a robust and fully configurable operating system on a laptop or desktop system, or it can be run effectively as a live installer and supports the addition of persistent storage for those who choose not to perform a permanent installation.
Though the description mentions three editions, there is only one edition on the download page. This confused me at first, but I later discovered we select which edition we want at install time; the live media can install each of the available editions.
The live media is about 3GB in size and boots to a graphical environment. The desktop on the live disc is KDE Plasma 5.17. On the desktop we find a collection of icons on the left side of the screen. These all open various folders in the Dolphin file manager. A single icon over on the right side of the screen launches the system installer. Further down the desktop we find two widgets, one for displaying the temperature (in the city of Bonn) and another shows available drive storage space. At the bottom of the screen is a dock that doubles as an application launcher and task switcher.
Bluestar Linux 5.3.6 -- Exploring available themes (full image size: 704kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Bluestar uses the Calamares graphical installer. Calamares begins by offering to let us pick our preferred language from a list. We are also given a chance to select our install type (the edition mentioned earlier). While the Bluestar website refers to three editions, there are four listed in the installer: Basic, Desktop, DesktopPro, and Developer. These options, as far as I can tell, are not summarized anywhere in the installer or on the distribution's website. I decided to try the Desktop edition as I wanted something more than a command line interface, but only a lightweight desktop. I did not want to start off with a bunch of professional tools or developer utilities.
On the first screen of the Calamares window there are buttons that offer to open a web browser to display the project's release notes, a list of known issues, and open the distribution's support page. None of these buttons work, which each one reporting Calamares cannot create a socket to start the new program. The installer also refuses to proceed if it is unable to find 20GB of free disk space - something to consider if we are dual booting.
Calamares then walks us through the usual steps of picking our time zone from a map, creating a username and password, and partitioning the hard drive. The manual partitioning screen is easy to navigate and works well. The guided partitioning option takes over the available free space for one large ext4 system partition. The final screen of the installer asks us to pick a desktop theme from a list. While the screen does include previews, the snapshots are too small to make out details and they mostly look the same apart from the desktop wallpaper. I decided to stick with the defaults.
Installing Bluestar took an unusually long time, over an hour. When the process finally completed, Calamares offered to reboot my computer.
My new copy of Bluestar Linux booted to a graphical login screen. Signing into the Plasma desktop took an unusually long time, over a minute the first time I signed in. Something I noticed early on that hadn't been obvious while using the live disc was a hidden panel at the top of the screen. This panel holds the application menu and the system tray. The panel is inconsistent about when it comes out of hiding, sometimes it appears if the mouse is near the top of the display and sometimes I had to wave the mouse back and forth a few times before the panel would appear.
While I'm thinking about the application menu, something that bothered me early on is the menu is transparent. This makes it nearly impossible to read the names of the launchers if any windows are open on the desktop. The transparency can be removed through the System Settings panel. Also on the topic of the appearance of the text, the default theme uses yellow text and blue icons on a greenish background. This makes it difficult to read text and almost impossible to see the icons on buttons. Alternative themes can be enabled through the settings panel.
Bluestar Linux 5.3.6 -- Running the Dolphin file manager and checking for updates (full image size: 1.1MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
When I tried running Bluestar in a VirtualBox environment I ran into a few issues. The first was KDE Plasma, with the default settings, ran too slowly to be practical. Windows responded to input slowly, programs were slow to launch, and animations were jerky. Disabling a lot of the visual effects, transparency and compositing helped, but the desktop never became properly responsive. Also, any time the VirtualBox window resized the desktop would resize too (which was expected) but Bluestar then pops up a dialog asking if the desktop should be rescaled. Confirming the desire to rescale basically blanks and then reloads the desktop. Cancelling the rescaling causes Plasma to resize just as it does on every other distribution. This is the only distribution I have used that shows a pop-up every time the VirtualBox window changes size, which tends to be often.
When running on a workstation, the distribution performed a lot better. The desktop loaded faster, was more responsive (about average, neither notably fast or slow), and there were no annoying pop-ups. All of my workstation's hardware was detected and used smoothly.
Bluestar is one of the largest on-disk distributions I have used with the Desktop edition taking up a surprising 16GB of space. That's almost triple the size of most mainstream Linux distributions. Memory usage is also high, for a distribution running KDE Plasma, using 620MB when logged into the desktop.
One of the reasons Bluestar uses so much disk space is the distribution ships two or three applications for each task. I won't list all the software that is available in Bluestar's application menu because the collection is massive. I will point out some of the duplication though. For example, there are at least three web browsers (Firefox with Flash support, Chromium, and Konqueror). There are a couple of e-mail clients (Kmail and Thunderbird). There are at leas three disc burning applications (Brasero, K3b, and Xfburn). There are multiple video players (SMTube, SMPlayer, mpv, and VLC), multiple virtual terminals including Konsole and LXTerminal. The distribution even ships with multiple compilers (the GNU Compiler Collection and Clang).
Bluestar Linux 5.3.6 -- Running Firefox and FileZilla (full image size: 378kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
There are also some common, and less duplicated, items such as the FBReader e-book reader, the Calibre e-book manager, and the Okular document viewer. The GNU Image Manipulation Program is included, and the Amarok audio player is installed for us. The distribution also ships with a wide range of media codecs and Java. In the background we find the systemd init software and version 5.3 of the Linux kernel.
One surprise was the inclusion of OpenOffice. It is so rare to see OpenOffice installed by default that, at first, I thought the launcher might be mislabelled. However, OpenOffice 4.1.7 is installed by default. I don't think there is anything wrong with using OpenOffice, it is just unusual to see it when virtually every other distribution uses LibreOffice.
Bluestar uses the Octopi software manager to manipulate packages. Octopi presents the user with a low-level look at available packages. New applications can be downloaded by adding packages to a batch of items to install. Octopi can also upgrade existing packages when new versions become available. While Octopi works quickly and I encountered no problems with it, the interface is not ideal for browsing categories of programs or discovering new items. The interface is best suited for situations where we know the names of programs we want up front.
With Bluestar we also have the option of using the pacman command line package manager. The pacman utility is terse and uses some unusual syntax, but it works very quickly.
Bluestar Linux 5.3.6 -- The application menu and software manager (full image size: 972kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
One aspect of Bluestar which frustrated me was desktop widgets, after they had been removed, they sometimes came back. After I removed the desktop widgets showing weather and disk usage, they returned the next time I logged in. However, after I removed them a second time, they did not appear the next two times I logged into my account. They did return the next day though, and again the next time I logged in. This made the desktop randomly cluttered with features I did not want.
In a similar fashion, the dock at the bottom of the screen would sometimes disappear for a while, then reappear. I'm not sure if it was hiding or crashing, but it always came back after a few seconds.
I really like Plasma's System Settings panel. It provides a great deal of flexibility in the look and behaviour of the desktop. However, it would sometimes crash, even when just browsing available settings.
Bluestar Linux 5.3.6 -- The settings panel (full image size: 850kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
On the whole, I did not enjoy my time with Bluestar. Part of this was the lack of documentation and what information was available tended to be out of date. The links in the installer did not work and the available editions were not well defined.
My larger issue though was Bluestar feels like a situation where many programs and features have been included and enabled because they are available rather than because it makes sense to use them. Transparency is enabled on menus making them hard to read; there are lots of visual effects enabled that slow down the desktop; the panel auto-hides making it difficult to access the application menu or see the status information in the system tray. Many tasks have duplicate (or triplicate) application entries, which means a lot of disk space is used with very little increase in functionality.
The result is Bluestar is huge, tends to be slow, and is more difficult to navigate than most other distributions. I suppose there is something to be said for a distribution that shows off many features of its chosen desktop, but it feels as though Plasma's features are enabled just because they can be, not because it provides the user with a better experience.
* * * * *
Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: