Q4OS 3.8Q4OS is a curious project which has done a few things that set it apart from most other Linux distributions. The first thing which stands out about Q4OS is it runs the Trinity desktop. Trinity is the continuation of KDE 3, a flexible desktop environment that was replaced by KDE Plasma on most Linux distributions. Q4OS is one of just two projects in the DistroWatch database still using Trinity as a first tier desktop.
The other feature which immediately stands out is Q4OS is designed to look like classic versions of Microsoft Windows. The Trinity desktop has been themed to have a distinctly Windows XP appearance, complete with desktop icons and a two-pane application menu.
Q4OS 3.8 is based on Debian 10 and is available in 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x86_64) builds. The project ships two editions. The first edition now uses KDE Plasma by default, but still ships with Trinity as a secondary desktop on the install media. The second edition ships with Trinity only. The KDE Plasma media is 869MB in size while the pure Trinity edition is a 638MB download. I decided to download the combined Plasma and Trinity edition.
The disc boots to a graphical environment. A pop-up appears and asks us to select our language from a drop-down list. When wireless networks are detected we are also given the chance to connect over wi-fi. The Plasma desktop (version 5.14.5) then loads. The desktop features a single icon for launching the distribution's installer. A panel at the bottom of the display holds the application menu, task switcher and system tray. A welcome window then appears and offers us six buttons that launch configuration modules or tools to help us install packages. I will come back to the welcome window later as it is not particularly useful when running from the live media.
Q4OS 3.8 -- Trinity using the Classic menu (full image size: 162kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
I feel it is worth noting that we can sign out of the Plasma desktop and sign into the Trinity desktop while running from the live media. There probably isn't a good reason to do this if we downloaded the main edition of Q4OS (if we wanted to run Trinity we could have downloaded the smaller edition). However, I wanted to see if Trinity would work on the live media and it does.
Q4OS uses the Calamares system installer, a cross-distro, graphical tool that makes installing Linux distributions straight forward. With a few clicks we can pick our preferred language, time zone and keyboard layout. We are then asked to either manually partition the hard drive or let Calamares set up partitions for us. Calamares suggests a two-partition layout using ext4 for the root filesystem alongside a swap partition. We then make up a username and password for ourselves and the installer copies its packages to the disk. Calamares is, in my opinion, a very friendly installer and its whole process is both quick and easy to navigate.
Q4OS boots to a graphical login screen where we can sign into either Trinity or Plasma. When we first sign in a window pops up and asks which of three bundles of software we want to install. We can install the Full bundle which includes several commonly used applications; the Basic desktop bundle which includes just a few applications; or we can leave things as they are, relatively bare bones. Not many details are given as to the specifics of what each bundle includes. I went with the Full option, which is recommended for new users. We are then shown progress information as several new packages are downloaded and installed. The packages mostly appear to come from Debian repositories, but the information scrolled by too quickly for me to see exactly which applications were being installed. Once the download is complete we are asked to reboot the computer.
The next time we sign into our account the welcome window appears with its six options. One button launches the desktop profiler, which turns out to be the program that installs Full or Basic bundles of software. Another button gives us the option of turning on visual desktop effects. A third button lets us switch application menu styles between Classic (a tree-style menu), Kickoff (the Plasma default), and Bourbon which appears to be the Trinity two-pane style menu that resembles the Windows XP menu.
The welcome window also includes a button to enable automatic logins, a button for installing third-party media codecs, and one for launching a custom software centre. The software centre lists 19 popular applications (including Chrome, Firefox, LibreOffice, WINE, and Skype). We can select one application to install at a time. There is no indication of which packages have already been installed which I believe may confuse people. When we select an application to install, a Windows-style wizard appears and guides us through installing the package. In the background APT is still doing the work, but the user experience resembles the Windows approach of clicking Next, Next, Done when installing new software.
The Plasma and Trinity desktops are set up with similar layouts and styles. One of the few significant differences I noticed was Trinity displays icons on the desktop for launching popular applications. There are icons for opening the Chrome browser, VLC, Thunderbird, and LibreOffice. Plasma does not display icons on the desktop by default. Another minor difference is Trinity's screensaver turns on after six minutes while Plasma's is set to launch after five. The default Trinity application menu contains many sub-categories of software, and some of those contain their own sub-categories. A few launchers are as deep as five layers down. Plasma's menu offers fewer levels of categories making its menu slightly faster to navigate.
Memory usage is another area where Trinity and Plasma differ. Running the KDE Plasma desktop on Q4OS requires 420MB of memory when logged in while Trinity uses a mere 245MB. Both desktops are responsive and worked quickly during my trial, though Trinity is noticeably snappier. Menus open quicker and Trinity has an overall lighter feel to it. Q4OS, with the Full bundle of applications installed, takes up about 5.6GB of disk space. This is a little leaner than the average mainstream distribution running just one desktop environment.
I tried running Q4OS on a laptop computer and in a VirtualBox machine. In both test environments Q4OS worked well. The operating system booted quickly, ran smoothly, and detected all of my hardware. When run in a virtual machine, Q4OS integrated with VirtualBox and was able to use my host computer's maximum screen resolution.
With the Full software bundle installed, Q4OS ships with the Chrome and Konqueror web browsers, LibreOffice, and the Thunderbird e-mail client. The distribution also features the Okular document viewer, the K3b and Brasero disc burners, and the VLC multimedia player. Media codecs can be downloaded through the welcome window and work as expected. The Krusader and Dolphin file managers are installed and Network Manager is present to help us connect to networks. Java is present on the system. Like its parent distribution, Q4OS uses the systemd init software and ships with version 4.19 of the Linux kernel.
Q4OS 3.8 -- Running the Chrome web browser (full image size: 251kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
The software included with Q4OS was all stable and worked properly. The default selection of applications is likely to supply the functionality most people need. I would have appreciated a dedicated music player, but those are easy enough to install as needed.
Q4OS provided me with two software managers: Discover and Synaptic. Synaptic is a classic, graphical package manager, suitable for working with low-level packages. Synaptic offers users many package filters, quick search results and it processes install, upgrade and removal actions in batches.
Discover has a more modern look and focuses on desktop applications. Discover can also install, remove and upgrade packages. It processes actions immediately instead of in batches and its interface is noticeably slower. Discover, I was sorry to find, tended to crash frequently. In fact, almost any time a search for a package name was performed, Discover would terminate.
Q4OS pulls in many of its packages from Debian's servers, but the project also maintains some of its own package repositories. Plus we are connected with Google's Chrome repository in order to get browser updates.
During my time running Q4OS's Trinity desktop I did not notice any notifications of new software updates, though I tended to use Trinity more frequently than Plasma. When I did run Plasma, an icon in the system tray would let me know when new software updates were available. Clicking the icon would offer me the option of launching Discover to review and install new updates. There were not many updates, probably less than a dozen, totaling less than 100MB during my week with the distribution.
Though Q4OS does not appear to advertise portable package support, the distribution ships with both the Snap and Flatpak frameworks installed. Both of these are integrated with the Discover software manager. I wasn't able to successfully search for and install portable packages through Discover as it would crash before completing its actions, but the command line Snap and Flatpak tools worked.
Each desktop environment ships with its own settings panel. The KDE Plasma panel uses the newer, two-pane layout. There are many groups of settings and many sub-groups within them. Luckily there is a search feature to help users find the settings they want to adjust. Trinity's settings panel features far fewer modules and is presented more like a file manager showing folders. Both settings panels worked well for me.
I made a few other observations while playing with Q4OS. For instance, the distribution ships with sudo, allowing the first user to perform administrative tasks.
More importantly, this may be the first distribution I have used that ran Trinity and Plasma (effectively KDE 3 and KDE 5) side-by-side. The experience is seamless and I encountered no problems as a result of having these two desktops installed together. Each appears to be entirely isolated from the other, with their own settings and features.
Q4OS is one of the better performing distributions I have used this year. The performance, especially when running the Trinity desktop, is top-notch and the resource footprint is small.
I had wondered going into this trial if Trinity would be available on the Plasma install media and, if so, if Trinity would offer a usable experience. Trinity was created as a continuation of KDE 3 about eleven years ago, after KDE 4.0 was launched, and I did not expect a particularly modern or polished experience. However, Trinity worked well and, with a little adjustment, looked quite good in my opinion. In a few places, like the settings panel, it shows its age, but Trinity provided a solid performance and I found I enjoyed it better than Plasma.
For the most part, Q4OS works well. I like its installer, I like that it offers five years of support (thanks to its Debian base), and the distribution is particularly light and fast. I think newcomers to Linux will appreciate the Windows-like theme Trinity offers, especially if they recently used Windows XP, Vista, or 7.
The one weak point in the experience for me was Discover. The software manager offers several features and I like that it can integrate with both Flatpak and Snap, but trying to do almost anything with Discover (apart from installing updates) caused the centre to crash.
Otherwise, I greatly enjoyed Q4OS. I like the small, yet capable collection of default software. The welcome screen is easy to navigate, and I did not encounter any serious problems with the distribution as a whole. I also like that Q4OS is targeting lower-spec hardware and should run equally well on 32-bit or 64-bit machines. In short: it's friendly, fast, and offers all the packages available on Debian which I think makes it an attractive desktop distribution.
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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