It has been about a year since I last explored the PCLinuxOS distribution. At that time I was experimenting with the project's MATE edition. Since I have not taken the chance to try PCLinuxOS since the distribution launched an edition with the KDE Plasma 5 desktop environment, I thought it would be fun to revisit this project. PCLinuxOS currently ships with version 5.8 of the Plasma desktop which is a long term support release of Plasma. The ISO file I downloaded for PCLinuxOS was 1.3GB in size.
Booting from the distribution's live media brings up a menu asking how we would like to launch the operating system. We can choose to launch PCLinuxOS with a graphical desktop with the default settings, load the desktop with safe mode graphics settings, boot to a text console or launch the project's system installer. Taking one of the live desktop options soon brings up a window asking us to select our keyboard's layout from a list. Then the Plasma desktop loads. PCLinuxOS has a varied and colourful wallpaper. There are icons on the desktop which open the Dolphin file manager and launch the system installer. At the bottom of the screen we find a panel which houses the application menu, a few quick-launch buttons, a task switcher and the system tray.
After confirming that the distribution could run in my test environments, I opened the system installer. PCLinuxOS uses a graphical installer which gently guides us through the steps required to get the distribution on our hard drive. We begin with disk partitioning and PCLinuxOS offers to automatically partition our hard drive for us or let us manually divide up our disk. The distribution supports working with ext2/3/4, Btrfs, XFS and JFS file systems as well as LVM and RAID configurations. I found the partition manager to be fairly flexible and easy to navigate. There are a lot of options in the installer, but many of the installer's features are tucked away and only shown if we specifically request Expert or Advanced options.
The installer next offers to remove unneeded software packages from the system. For example, I do not have an NVIDIA video card and the PCLinuxOS installer offers to remove NVIDIA driver packages to free up space. The installer then copies its files to the hard drive. A few minutes later the installer asks which boot loader (LILO, GRUB Legacy or GRUB2) we would like to install and what, if any, special options we would like the operating system to use when it boots. At this point we are finished with the installer and can reboot to start using our brand new copy of PCLinuxOS.
The first time our pristine operating system boots a graphical wizard appears and walks us through a few final configuration steps. We are asked to select our time zone list from a list and we have the option of using network time synchronization or manually setting our computer's clock. We are then asked to make up a password for our system administrator's account and create a regular user account for ourselves. Once these steps have been completed we are presented with a graphical login screen.
Signing into our account brings up the Plasma 5.8 desktop environment. Though Plasma took a while to launch on my systems, once the desktop environment had finished loading the environment was responsive and I experienced no lag or delays. The default desktop theme is fairly bright and offers a variety colours. I found the theme allowed for a good deal of contrast without being visually distracting.
PCLinuxOS 2017.03 -- The Plasma application menu (full image size: 334kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
For people who do not enjoy the default look and feel of the Plasma desktop, we can adjust most aspects of the desktop environment through the KDE System Settings panel. This configuration panel provides modules for adjusting the desktop's theme, notifications and media support as well as features like file indexing and pairing the desktop with Android phones via KDE Connect. The settings panel is fairly easy to navigate and offers users a search function to help us find the specific option we want to change.
I tried running PCLinuxOS in two test environments, experimenting with the distribution in VirtualBox and on a desktop computer. I found PCLinuxOS was unable to integrate with the VirtualBox environment and therefore I could not make full use of my computer's screen resolution. The distribution does not provide guest modules for VirtualBox environments in its software repositories and the generic VirtualBox modules failed to install on the distribution. I tried installing VirtualBox using a script supplied by the distribution. While this successfully installed the VirtualBox software, it did not provide me with a working guest module. Apart from the poor desktop resolution, PCLinuxOS worked well in VirtualBox. The operating system was responsive, connected to the network and was able to play sound out of the box.
When I started playing with PCLinuxOS on a desktop computer, I ran into a few problems while using the live disc. One issue was that applications could not play sound. My audio volumes (both the PulseAudio and ALSA volumes) were turned up their maximum settings, but I could not get applications to produce sound. I eventually found I could get sound from my speakers by muting and then un-muting the PulseAudio controls. I ran into another problem with the system clock. When NTP time synchronization was enabled and my correct time zone set, PCLinuxOS's clock displayed a time that was off by six hours. Disabling network time synchronization and manually setting the correct time worked around the issue. Both of these problems only appeared when working from the live disc, once the distribution was installed these problems disappeared.
PCLinuxOS 2017.03 -- Adding a printer to the system (full image size: 141kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
PCLinuxOS was slow to boot in both test environments compared to other mainstream distributions and the Plasma desktop was slow to load. However, I got good performance out of the distribution once the Plasma desktop had finished loading. The desktop and applications were quick to respond. I was pleased to find the distribution properly detected my network printer. During my trial PCLinuxOS and its applications were stable and I encountered no crashes. In either test environment PCLinuxOS required about 420MB of RAM to sign into the Plasma desktop.
The Plasma edition of PCLinuxOS ships with a lot of software. While many of the default applications are Qt/KDE programs, many others are not and I like that the distribution places more focus on providing good tools than providing a pure Qt environment. The distribution ships with Firefox (with Flash support), LibreOffice 5, the Thunderbird e-mail client, the KeePassX password manager and the Pidgin chat client. There are remote desktop viewers, the Choqok micro-blogger, a couple of text editors and a DropBox client. PCLinuxOS ships with an application called Master PDF Editor which makes it easy to edit PDF documents. The Master PDF Editor is free to use for non-commercial purposes, but is provided under a proprietary license. The distribution also ships with the qBittorrent application for downloading and uploading torrents, the Krita drawing program and the BleachBit software for cleaning up temporary files. PCLinuxOS ships with the Dolphin file manager, a process monitor and a live radio streaming client. The distribution also supplies us with the VLC media player, the Kdenlive video editor and the Vokoscreen Recorder. To compliment these multimedia applications the distribution ships with a collection of media codecs so we can play most media files. In the background we find Java, the GNU Compiler Collection, version 4.9.2, and the SysV init software. At the time of writing the distribution runs on version 4.9 of the Linux kernel.
PCLinuxOS 2017.03 -- Cleaning up old files with BleachBit (full image size: 308kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Several of the items in the application menu have names which may seem cryptic. In particular I noticed some names like zuluCrypt, MKVToolNix and DeadBeeF scattered through the menu and these are harder to intuit than something like LibreOffice Writer. For people who would like hints as to what these applications do, we can right-click on the application menu and enable program descriptions in the menu's settings. For those of you who are interested, zuluCrypt is a desktop application for encrypting and decrypting files as well as working with encrypted volumes. The zuluCrypt interface is fairly friendly, even for people new to working with encrypted files. DeadBeeF is a simple audio player for listening to music files. MKVToolNix website's contains a blurb which says MKVToolNix can "create, alter and inspect Matroska media files" but I was able to find little else to explain the practical workings of the utility.
I noticed a few applications included with PCLinuxOS do not include documentation. Launching MyLiveGTK or DeadBeeF and selecting items from their Help menus results in an error being displayed that reports the documentation is not available. When running the Click Radio audio streaming application I found clicking the application's About button caused the application to drop the audio stream while it looked for the requested information.
One last application I would like to highlight is MyLiveUSB. This program, and its friendly front-end MyLiveGTK, assist us in making a copy of our live operating system and transferring it to a USB thumb drive. I think this is a handy tool as it makes it easier to take an operating system with us or backup our configuration.
The distribution does not tell us when new software updates are available, we are left to check for new updates ourselves using the Synaptic graphical package manager. Alternatively we can use the apt-get command line package manager. Synaptic is a tried and true package manager which simply presents us with a list of available software and provides us with a search function to find programs based on a name or description. We can check a box next to any packages we wish to install or remove. There is also a handy button which will queue any available upgrades for installation. PCLinuxOS is a rolling release distribution which means we can expect a fairly steady stream of new package versions. During the week I was running the distribution I upgraded 34 packages, requiring about 33MB of downloads. Something I found interesting about Synaptic was the package manager did not, by default, check packages' signatures to guard against corrupted downloads. It is a feature we can enable though if we want the added security.
One of the best features I think PCLinuxOS has to offer is the distribution's Control Centre. This control panel, which is shared by other distributions in the Mandriva/Mageia family of operating systems, provides the administrator with many useful configuration tools. The Control Centre divides its tools into categories such as Software, Security and Boot. Each category contains modules we can launch which provide us with friendly graphical interfaces for changing settings. The Control Centre makes it easy to do anything from simply launching the Synaptic package manager to setting up a web server to configuring network services such as DHCP, NTP and OpenSSH. We can also browse hardware information, configure the display server, set up printers and share our files over NFS and Samba shares. The Control Centre contains modules for configuring the distribution's firewall, managing user accounts, setting the system time and enabling automatic logins.
PCLinuxOS 2017.03 -- The Control Centre and KDE System Settings panels (full image size: 294kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I like the Control Centre as it makes a lot of administrative tasks straight forward and the modules generally provide clear explanations and options. Though I did run into one minor issue when using the OpenSSH module. The first time I went through the module to enable the secure shell service I took the defaults and was unable to connect to the service. I confirmed, using the Control Centre services module, that OpenSSH was running, but it was not accepting connections. I later found the OpenSSH module had incorrectly detected my IP address and caused the OpenSSH service to ignore incoming connections to my real address. Walking through the OpenSSH module and manually specifying my computer's proper IP address fixed the issue.
PCLinuxOS is fairly easy to set up, offers good performance and includes a wide range of software. I generally enjoyed using the Plasma 5.8 desktop and the System Settings panel makes it easy to customize the Plasma environment. I very much enjoyed working with the Control Centre as it makes tasks like setting up network shares or working with the firewall easy. In short, there is a lot about PCLinuxOS that I enjoyed.
However, I did run into several minor problems. Nothing show stopping, but a handful of "papercut" style issues that bothered me. For example, PCLinuxOS makes it easy to install VirtualBox, but not to get working VirtualBox guest modules. When running the live environment on my desktop computer I had trouble with sound and network time synchronization. A few programs were missing their documentation files and I ran into an error while setting up secure shell access. None of these items are big issues in themselves, but when combined they suggest to me that not enough people are testing the distribution and reporting issues to the developers.
In general though what stood out about PCLinuxOS was the distribution provides a rolling release platform that receives regular updates, while also providing a relatively conservative environment. Most distributions either stick with a static, point release system or offer a rolling release with cutting edge packages. PCLinuxOS seems to be finding a pleasant middle ground where core components and the layout of the desktop are conservative while the desktop applications are the latest and greatest. I like the balance that is achieved between providing a traditional environment and newer applications.
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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: