rlxos 2106rlxos is an independent Linux distribution which currently provides a single desktop edition with the GNOME desktop for 64-bit (x86_64) computers. The project has an interesting approach to working with software packages and different versions of the operating system. "System boots from a single system image file just like a live boot and save unique cache on hard disk. Multiple version of system images reside together on same partition and you can select which version to use from boot menu."
rlxos also offers a digital assistant and an immutable filesystem. This means the base filesystem remains the same while changes the user makes are stored in a separate layer. This, in theory, means we can revert to a working system at any time by simply not loading the layer with our changes or upgrades. The distribution appears to have a focus on portable packages and its website mentions being able to work with Flatpak, Snap, and AppImage bundles.
Version 2106 is available as a 1.2GB download. Before getting started with rlxos, I think it's worth reading the documentation which covers installing the operating system, some key post-install instructions, and offers suggestions regarding how to find additional applications.
Booting from the project's install media loads a graphical environment. The distribution's graphical system installer immediately launches. The installer suggests we set up a single partition for the OS and offers a button which launches the GParted partition manager. Once we close GParted the next screen of the installer lists partitions it can detect and asks which one should be used for the root filesystem. We are then asked to select a boot disk, I believe so rlxos knows where to install a boot loader. Then we confirm we wish to install the operating system and the installer copies its files to the hard drive.
During the install process the screen locked. We need a password to access the desktop and installer again. I didn't find any mention of the default password in the project's documentation or on its website, but discovered the password is "liveuser". Once the installer finished its work, it terminated and turned me over to a GNOME desktop with a panel placed along the bottom of the screen. To logout or shutdown the computer we can click the system tray and select a shutdown option from the menu which appears.
The first time rlxos boots it launches a graphical environment and presents us with a first-run wizard. The wizard asks us to select our language from a list, confirm our keyboard's layout, and asks if we wish to enable location services. We are asked to confirm our time zone and then given the option to connect with on-line account services such as Nextcloud. The wizard concludes by getting us to make up a username and password for ourselves.
After the wizard is finished we are turned over to the GNOME desktop. A short time later another wizard pops up and gives us a tour of some of the distribution's features. We are told about customizing the desktop and the option of running portable AppImage packages. We are told that instead of installing updates in the usual fashion we can upgrade our system by downloading a new OS image from the project and saving this image in the /run/initramfs/rlxos/system directory, then updating GRUB. The tour window then closes, returning us to the GNOME desktop.
In the future, when we launch rlxos, it boots to a graphical login screen. We can then sign into our account and no welcome or tour window will greet us.
While GNOME Shell has typically placed its panel across the top of the screen with the Activities menu in the upper-left corner, rlxos takes a different approach. The GNOME panel is placed at the bottom. The Activities menu is still placed to the left. Then there is a gap, followed by the application menu, some quick-launch icons, and the system tray. If a lot of icons are placed on the panel, rather than expanding the space icons take, the panel makes it possible to scroll through the icons to the left and right by hovering the mouse over the first or last icon in the list.
The application menu opens a full screen grid of launchers. The icons are somewhat on the small side and the text descriptions under them are truncated if they get longer than a handful of letters. This means the "Clocks" label is always visible, but programs with names longer than Evolution tend to be cut short.
rlxos 2106 -- The application menu (full image size: 722kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
The rlxos documentation tells us that following a fresh install we should perform a system update and then update our GRUB boot loader. The command to perform an update is "sudo appctl update". Running this command resulted in the system telling me it was already up to date.
rlxos 2106 -- Running the GNOME Web web browser (full image size: 34kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
The default theme for GNOME uses a lot of white. Text is often grey on a white background and icons are often minimal and flat. This makes the screen bright and text and icons difficult to see, especially in the web browser. Curiously, some programs use a dark theme and are almost entirely black. This can make for a jarring transitioning moving between, for instance, the file manager or terminal (which are mostly white) and the Totem video player (which is almost entirely black).
rlxos 2106 -- White terminal and black video player (full image size: 30kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
I started my trial with rlxos running in VirtualBox. The distribution ran smoothly and everything worked well. The GNOME desktop resized dynamically to fit the VirtualBox window and I encountered no stability issues. GNOME was uncharacteristically responsive running on rlxos. Often I find GNOME Shell runs slowly and consumes a lot of memory, but the desktop performed well and used less memory than usual on rlxos.
When I tried the distribution on physical hardware I had poor results. rlxos was not able to boot at all in UEFI mode. When I tried Legacy BIOS mode the operating system would start to boot, but then fail early on and drop to a rescue shell.
Earlier I mentioned rlxos is faster and lighter than most systems running the GNOME desktop I have used in the past. Typically I expect Linux distributions running GNOME to consume between 700MB and 1,000MB of memory. When initially logging in rlxos consumed 650MB. After a minute it would drop to 550MB. Sometimes the system would reduce its footprint to 490MB, about half what I usually see on other distributions (such as Fedora and Ubuntu) running GNOME. A fresh install of the distribution takes up about 1.3GB of disk space, well below average for most desktop distributions.
rlxos ships with a small collection of applications, virtually all of them from the GNOME family. The GNOME Web web browser, contacts manager, and system monitor are included. The Evolution e-mail client is installed for us along with the GParted disk manager. The Shotwell photo manager and the Totem video player are included. There is also a simple music player. rlxos does not include media codecs for playing audio or video files, though media support can be installed later.
The distribution uses systemd for its init software and runs version 5.8 of the Linux kernel. The distribution does include command GNU command line utilities, but doesn't include manual pages or a compiler.
While most administrative tasks require using sudo access, there are some tasks the first user can perform without sudo or a credentials prompt. For instance, my regular user could create and destroy user accounts and change the system clock without a password prompt or other form of elevating access. This appears to be a side effect of the user being part of the adm group.
The rlxos website talks about using portable package formats, such as AppImage, Flatpak, and Snap. Because of this I was expecting to find a software manager with support for one or more of these technologies included. However, the Flatpak and Snap frameworks are not installed by default and there is no graphical software manager.
The documentation says we can use the appctl command to handle software packages. The appctl software manager is similar to DNF or APT in its style and syntax. We can search for specific software packages, list all available packages, install and remove software all using appctl and some plain English syntax. We can only install one package at a time, specifying multiple packages on the command line with the install keyword causes just the first item to be downloaded.
rlxos 2106 -- Searching for packages with appctl (full image size: 259kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
There is a limited amount of software in the rlxos repository. There are about 600 packages available at the time of writing. Flatpak and Snap are two of the available packages.
I tried Snap first and, while it did install, the Snap command line tool failed to work. Trying to find or install packages or list available items just caused the command line Snap utility to lock up. I suspect part of the backend for Snap is either missing or not enabled, though the documentation implies we should be able to simply install and start using Snap.
Flatpak worked much better. The Flatpak package automatically sets up the Flathub repository and makes it immediately possible to search for, download, and run Flatpak packages. The syntax of Flatpak is still cumbersome, but it gives us access to a wide range of software. Flatpak packages could be run right away from the command line, but would not be added to the GNOME application menu until I had signed out of my account and signed back in.
The rlxos documentation mentions AppImage and appears to link to two AppImage repositories. One repository turned out to be a catalogue of software which had been packaged as AppImages elsewhere without links to download the listed items. The other repository contained a single AppImage for Firefox. In short, neither of the linked repositories was useful.
I also tried installing the man command and the manual database package from the appctl repository. These installed, but failed to find any manual pages.
I tend to be wary of distributions which reportedly place their focus on one style or type of technology. Whether it's a toolkit, package format, coding language, or philosophy I tend to see distributions with a singular focus as preferring idealism over practicality. There is nothing wrong with idealism, right up to the point where it makes my work more difficult.
For the most part, considering how young rlxos is (its release file says this is version 0.1.0), the distribution feels like it is off to a good start. It's relatively light, has a working package manager (though a sparse repository), and its implementation of GNOME is one of the best performing and least annoying I've encountered. There are certainly points in the distribution's favour and some of the theme issues or security quirks are probably items which will get polished over time.
Where I feel the distribution lacks somewhat is in the areas where, oddly enough, it claims to focus. Its focus is on portable packages and single-file upgrades. As far as I can tell there have been no system-wide upgrades yet for the theory to be tested and there is no portable package support installed by default. Once installed, Flatpak works fairly well, though could be better configured to add application launchers to the menu right away. I never did get Snap running.
The project's website also mentions providing a digital assistant, but this does not appear to be implemented yet. I never found evidence of a digital assistant and the tour wizard suggests it is a feature which is coming later.
There were a few false starts to begin with, but this is a very early release. To the project's credit, what I appreciated about rlxos the most was the documentation. A lot of developers add documentation as an afterthought, but rlxos seems to take documenting key features seriously. Setting up portable packages, installing system upgrades, and installing the operating system are all covered. It was nice to be able to try some of the proposed features without resorting to guesswork.
This project doesn't feel quite ready for daily use yet, but there is some promise in its style, documentation and easy installation process. I'm hoping that, in another year or two, this distribution will be worth visiting again.
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As I was finishing this review the developer of rlxos e-mailed to say new install media has been published. The new media, called version 2107, reportedly fixed issues some people had with the boot process. I had hoped this new media would correct the issues I had trying to get rlxos to boot on my laptop. However, the operating system was still unable to boot on physical hardware. At a glance appears to have the same strengths and weaknesses as version 2106.
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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