PCLinuxOS 2019.02PCLinuxOS is a distribution I like to check in on every few years. The project maintains a curious combination of styles and technology which make it both unusual and, curiously enough, pleasantly familiar at the same time. PCLinuxOS was originally forked from Mandriva and has since become an independent distribution that mixes RPM packages with the APT package manager, which is typically paired with Deb packages. The distribution is also unusual in that it is a rolling release that generally keeps up with the latest available software while maintaining a conservative style. The distribution ships with a modern release of KDE Plasma, for example, but uses a classic menu tree for its application menu.
I will get deeper into PCLinuxOS's approach later. For now, I think it is worth noting the project is available in KDE Plasma and MATE editions. There are also community editions in Xfce, LXDE, LXQt, and Trinity flavours. The official releases are available for 64-bit (x86_64) machines only and the ISO for the KDE Plasma edition is a 1GB download.
Booting from the live media brings up a graphical interface and a window appears, asking us to select our keyboard's layout from a list. The window then disappears and the Plasma desktop loads. The Plasma panel is placed at the bottom of the screen and populated with an application menu, the system tray, and quick-launch buttons for some key system utilities. Icons on the desktop open the Dolphin file manager and the distribution's system installer.
PCLinuxOS 2019.02 -- The application menu (full image size: 547kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
PCLinuxOS uses a graphical system installer that begins by asking how we would like to partition our hard drive. The installer can use available free space, replace an existing install or give us a chance to try manual partitioning. The manual partitioning screen has a pleasantly simple layout that displays a chart showing our current disk layout. It then allows us to make new partitions and format them with Btrfs, ext3, ext4, JFS or XFS file systems. LVM volumes are also an option. I did a couple of installs, which used either Btrfs or ext4, both of which worked well.
The installer then offers to remove any packages containing unneeded hardware support, in my case dropping NVIDIA video drivers from my system. We are asked where to install the boot loader and which boot loader to use (options are GRUB2 with a text menu or GRUB2 with a graphical menu). The installer finishes its work and returns us to the Plasma desktop.
This install process may seem short and simple, because it is. Some of the configuration work is saved for the first time we boot the computer. A graphical wizard pops up before we reach a login screen and asks us for our time zone, whether to enable time synchronization with network time servers and to set a root password. We can then make up a username and password for ourselves. With these steps completed, we are turned over to a graphical login screen decorated with blue and purple wallpaper.
Early on I discovered that PCLinuxOS was not built with running in VirtualBox in mind. In my virtual test environment, I found that the distribution would not resize its desktop to match my host machine. Resizing the VirtualBox window or using either of PCLinuxOS's display configuration tools did not improve my screen resolution. There are no VirtualBox guest modules in the project's repositories. There is a installer script which will install the VirtualBox host software, but this gives us the ability to run virtual machines, not integrate with a host machine. My next step was to install VirtualBox's generic guest modules manually. These appeared to install correctly, but upon rebooting the virtual machine I discovered PCLinuxOS's graphical display no longer worked and X.Org refused to start.
PCLinuxOS 2019.02 -- Exploring the Control Centre (full image size: 432kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Apart from the screen resolution issue, PCLinuxOS worked well in the virtual environment. The desktop was responsive, sound worked, and I could play videos. I just had to deal with a limited desktop size. The distribution performed very well on my workstation. PCLinuxOS handled sound, work with both wired and wireless networking, and set my display to its maximum resolution automatically. Desktop performance was above average and Plasma was unusually responsive. The distribution was light in its resource consumption, compared to many mainstream distributions, using up just 4GB of disk space and 410MB of RAM.
The distribution uses less disk space than average, but that comes as a result of having fewer applications installed. PCLinuxOS ships with version 5.15.1 of the Plasma desktop (and the desktop gets updated over time). The Falkon web browser is included and we also get copies of the Dolphin file manager, the KWrite text editor, a task monitor and a tool for setting up printers. There are two settings panels I will get to shortly, and the distribution uses the SysV init software. In the background we find version 4.20 of the Linux kernel, which can also be updated over time.
PCLinuxOS 2019.02 -- Running the Falkon web browser (full image size: 477kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I think it's worth noting that PCLinuxOS does not ship with manual pages for its command line utilities. It also does not ship with sudo for performing administrative actions by default. The distribution expects we will make use of the root account or provide the root password when we want to perform system changes. On a related note, I found any user on the system can run the su command to become the root user without a password. This seems like a serious misconfiguration that should be patched. The distribution does not ship with LibreOffice and the productivity suite is not in the project's repositories, though LibreOffice can be installed using a script and I will talk more about that later in this review.
There are some other interesting choices made with regards to the software selection in this distribution. For instance, Falkon is the default web browser. On one hand this makes sense as Falkon is a part of the KDE family, plus it is a lightweight browser and looks good in the Plasma environment. However, Falkon's last version update was about a year ago which makes me wary of running it as it does not appear to be getting security updates.
Desktop and system configuration
PCLinuxOS ships with two configuration panels. The system's settings are managed through Control Centre while desktop settings are handled through the System Settings panel. (This is one of those unfortunate naming situations which feel completely normal once a person has been using Linux for a while, but is confusing to newcomers.) The System Systems panel worked well for me. It uses the classic grid of icons layout as opposed to the newer two-pane layout used by many distributions running the Plasma desktop. I found the Plasma settings were generally easy to navigate and there is a search function to help us locate specific modules. I like that PCLinuxOS enables a minimum amount of visual effects and features and that file indexing is turned off. This might explain why the distribution was so responsive during my trial.
The Control Centre offers a friendly, point-n-click approach to managing the underlying operating system. Through the Control Centre we can launch the Synaptic package manager, set up network shares, set up printers and scanners, change the system clock and configure network connections. We can also manage background services, set up a firewall, manage user accounts and enable automatic logins. There are a lot of modules in the Control Centre and I did not have cause to use them all. However, for the most part, the ones I did use worked beautifully. The Control Centre is wonderfully easy to navigate and provides a beginner friendly approach to system configuration.
I only ran into one problem while changing settings. Some modules need to install extra packages before they can be used. Sometimes this worked and sometimes the extra packages could not be installed. When I enabled the OpenSSH service, for example, the extra packages installed to set up the secure shell service without any problems. But when I wanted to enable a DNS service, the package failed to download. I feel at this point it is worth mentioning that the DNS server our computer uses is set in the Network Centre module, not the Configure DNS module, which helps us set up our own DNS server for other people to use - it's another one of those curious naming conventions.
After using PCLinuxOS for a while I realized I had not received any notification of new software updates. We can manually check for updates by launching the Synaptic package manager. Synaptic is a flexible and powerful package manager for installing, removing and upgrading packages. It allows us to queue multiple actions and then process all of these actions in one big batch. Synaptic worked well during my trial and I had no complaints while using it. Through Synaptic we can add all sorts of popular packages, including Firefox, VLC and Thunderbird.
At the start of my trial there were 52 new updates available, totalling 56MB in size. These all downloaded and installed without any issues.
PCLinuxOS 2019.02 -- Locating software in the Synaptic package manager (full image size: 137kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Earlier I mentioned LibreOffice is not included in the distribution's repositories. However, there is a launcher in the application menu that runs a script that will automate installing LibreOffice with our preferred language. I ran the script and got LibreOffice running. It was a fairly smooth experience, only somewhat marred by the script's window disappearing for a few minutes during the download, but it returned when the installation process had completed successfully. Later, if we want to update or remove LibreOffice, the same script will handle deleting or updating our copy of LibreOffice. This is an unusual approach to working with software on a Linux distribution. It works, but it means the user needs to be aware LibreOffice is handled separately from all the other software on the operating system.
Earlier I mentioned that PCLinuxOS has a distinct approach. Its modern software and conservative layout and style make it appealing to me as it provides modern software working in ways that feel familiar. I like that I can run the latest web browsers and LibreOffice while navigating menu layouts and themes that I have been using for years. The mixture of RPM packages with the APT command line tools and Synaptic is also unusual, but it works well and I did not run into an issues with this strange combination.
Sometimes the unusual approach of PCLinuxOS did trip me up, mentally speaking. For example, on the login screen the keyboard's arrow keys do not work to select our user from the list of available accounts. But I found I could Tab between users. Using separate scripts to install VirtualBox and LibreOffice was also not what I am used to on a Linux distribution, but again it works. It is just a different approach from what I am used to.
There were a few issues, such as having trouble getting PCLinuxOS to play well in the VirtualBox environment, but the distribution ran beautifully on my physical hardware. Another problem I ran into is the su command allows any user to run commands as the root user without a password. This seems like a big security hole as it means any user or guest can perform any administrative action on the system. This, combined with the year old default web browser give me some concerns when it comes to security. However, I very much like the style and performance of the distribution and think many people will find it an easy operating system to use.
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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: