Sabayon 19.03Sabayon is an Italian Linux operating system based on Gentoo. According to its home page, Sabayon is a "beginner-friendly" distro in which "everything should just work". What's more, Sabayon describes itself as "a bleeding edge operating system that is both stable and reliable".
There are three flavours to choose from. Apart from the Desktop edition, which I will review in this article, there are also Server and Cloud images. For the Desktop edition you can download a 64-bit ISO for five different desktop environments: GNOME, KDE, Xfce, MATE and Fluxbox. I mainly looked at the GNOME edition but also gave Fluxbox a quick spin.
Live environment and first impressions
The GNOME image is a 2.4GB download and the default option is to run Sabayon as a live environment. You are logged into the GNOME desktop automatically and presented with a "Welcome" window with an install button and links to various online resources. The wallpaper is a colourful, Cubist twirl and features the Sabayon logo with the slogan "simplicity is sophistication".
Sabayon has made a few tweaks to the GNOME desktop; by default applications use a dark theme and there is an applications menu in the top bar. The menu is quite handy as GNOME's default applications overview has a limited amount of space for application names (11 characters, to be precise). That works fine for GNOME applications, as their names tend to be delightfully short and descriptive ("Files", "Contacts", "Web", etc.). The overview doesn't work so great for applications with longer names. For instance, when I launched the overview I saw names like "Avahi SSH S ...", "Avahi VNC S ..." and "Avahi Zeroc ...". These three applications also use the same icon, making it difficult to quickly see which is which.
Another thing I noticed while exploring the live environment is that Sabayon isn't as "bleeding edge" as you might expect. Most software was fairly up to date but there were two major exceptions: systemd was at version 239 and the GNOME desktop was at version 3.26.2. When I did the install systemd was at version 241 and GNOME had just released version 3.32.
The last time we reviewed Sabayon, in March 2018, the distro failed to install. For about an hour or so I feared that the 19.03 release suffered from a similar issue. The latest version of Sabayon uses the Calamares installer, which has never caused me any issues. This time, however, the installer would invariably fail to create partitions. Simply relaunching the installer would cause it to hang when trying to get information about existing partitions.
Sabayon 19.03 -- One of the many failed attempts to install Sabayon (full image size: 720kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
To cut a long story short, the installation failed whenever I selected the option to encrypt my laptop's hard drive, and before I could relaunch the installer I had to wipe (and optionally recreate) existing partitions using GParted or a similar tool. This was disappointing, as "full disk encryption support" was one of the few items in the release notes that had caught my eye.
The GNOME experience
The GNOME edition ships with a fairly standard set of applications. You get everything from Firefox and the Evolution e-mail client to HexChat and Transmission. Among the more unusual applications are the above-mentioned Avahi local networking tools and various applications for writing Python code. There is also a "Sabayon" section in the applications menu, which provides links to online documentation and help.
All applications, with the exception of Firefox, use a dark theme. Oddly, the theme shown as being in use in GNOME Tweaks (which comes pre-installed) is the default, non-dark Arc theme. I am not sure why Tweaks is showing the wrong theme but switching to a lighter theme was easy enough.
Sabayon 19.03 -- LibreOffice and the GNOME calculator (full image size: 645kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
I also don't quite understand why Sabayon lists five session options on the login page. The options in the drop-down menu are XSession, GNOME, GNOME (again), GNOME Classic and Custom. When I selected XSession I was simply thrown back to the login screen, while the two GNOME options and Custom all logged me into Sabayon's customised GNOME desktop. Sabayon doesn't appear to have support for Wayland.
Those minor issues aside, the GNOME desktop performed very well. The desktop environment was responsive, all applications worked as expected and I could play any type of multimedia file out of the box (Flash is not installed by default but, given the state of Flash, I see that as a bonus).
Another item mentioned in the release notes for Sabayon 19.03 is "work on progress for the new wiki". The new wiki is being developed on GitHub, though at the time of this review it is almost completely empty. The old wiki does indeed need a bit of an overhaul - all the pages I looked at hadn't been updated for several years. As far as I can tell the information is mostly still relevant and I did find the wiki useful.
Unless you are a seasoned Gentoo user you should definitely read the wiki entry about Entropy, which is Sabayon's binary package management system. Sabayon is based on Gentoo and you can use Gentoo's Portage package manager, but most users will probably want to install binary packages rather than compile everything from source. As an aside, using both Entropy and Portage is possible but not recommended.
Entropy's command line package manager is Equo. The basic commands for searching, installing, removing and upgrading packages are intuitive: "equo search <package>" will perform a search, "equo install <package> will install a package and so forth. However, towards the bottom of the Entropy wiki entry are instructions for upgrading a freshly installed copy of Sabayon, which are a lot more involved. It includes information about optimising mirrors (i.e. making sure that you are downloading packages from a fast source), updating and upgrading the system and checking if there are any missing dependencies.
Sabayon 19.03 -- Updating the system using Equo (full image size: 232kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
Software updates were applied rather slowly - updating a handful of packages could easily take 15 minutes - and I found Equo's output difficult to read because of the use of purple and red text on a black background. Another oddity was that Equo would regularly ask me to read and accept an individual package's license when updating or installing software. This comes across as the command line equivalent of websites forcing you to accept lengthy privacy notices written in Legalese (i.e. it is a nuisance). I couldn't find an option to always accept licenses and therefore had to keep an eye on Equo's output.
Major kernel upgrades and Rigo
The documentation section about upgrading a fresh Sabayon install mentions that Equo is unable to automatically upgrade the kernel to a new major version. Upgrading the kernel appears to be quite a manual process. If you prefer to avoid manually upgrading the kernel by copying and pasting commands from a somewhat out of date wiki, an easy work around is to do a fresh install whenever a new ISO is published (which seems to happen roughly once a year).
Alternatively, you can try upgrading the kernel via Sabayon's graphical application manager, called Rigo Application Browser. You can use Rigo to search for packages, install and remove individual applications, update the system and perform various advanced tasks, such as managing software repositories. Rigo is easy to use and does the job, although it does have a few rough edges. The application didn't prompt me for the root password when I applied updates; buttons were not always clickable and "extremely important" notices Rigo wanted me to review could not always be viewed. I found Rigo pleasant to use though, and toward the end of my trial I even managed to use it to install version 5.0.x of the Linux Sabayon kernel (which, according to Rigo, has already been installed more than half a million times).
As an aside, one thing I like about Rigo is the informal language used in the application. The "extremely" important notices I just mentioned can be dismissed by clicking on a "Stop annoying me" button and when you start updates via Rigo the application will tell you to "go make some coffee" (acknowledging the fact that package upgrades are rather slow).
Sabayon 19.03 -- Extremely important notices from the repositories (full image size: 113kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
I ran Sabayon for about three weeks and during this time I got about 100 updates. In the first week there were just a handful of minor updates and about ten days later there was a much larger batch of 70 updates. Among the latter updates was GNOME Shell itself - it jumped two major versions, to 3.30.2. The only issue I noticed after the second batch of updates was that I got a notification about the VirtualBox kernel service not running every time I logged into the GNOME desktop. I'm not sure if the VirtualBox kernel service ought to be running and the system remained fully functional.
The Fluxbox experience
There really isn't much I can write about using Sabayon's GNOME desktop for everyday tasks. Both the 3.26 and 3.30 versions were almost vanilla GNOME installs and everything worked as it should. As the GNOME versions aren't new and shiny either there also isn't much point in talking about the desktop environment's features. I therefore decided to instead explore Sabayon's Fluxbox edition.
The Fluxbox ISO is 1.6GB in size and described on Sabayon's download page as "Minimal, for hackers". As with the GNOME edition, the default option is to launch a live environment but alas, that didn't work - the boot process stalled after the Sabayon logo appeared on the screen. I could view the boot messages by hitting the Esc key, which revealed that the system was waiting for jobs to finish. I let the system try to sort itself out for about seven minutes before I rebooted the laptop, only to get the same result again. The ISO's MD5 checksum checked out and the issue wasn't a dodgy USB pen - I got the same result when I booted the ISO image in GNOME Boxes.
Luckily, the option to install Sabayon from the boot menu did work. Against my better judgment I did select the option to encrypt the hard drive, just to check if the install would again fail. I indeed encountered exactly the same error as before and this time I had to use fdisk to remove my partitions before I could run the installer again. Fluxbox installed correctly when I opted to not encrypt the hard drive.
The duplicate login sessions I had noticed in the GNOME edition were also present in Fluxbox. On the login screen I got the choice of four sessions: Default, Fluxbox, XSession and Fluxbox (again). Fluxbox itself is, as minimal window managers go, rather sparse. You get the same Cubist wallpaper, a single task bar that stretches two thirds of the bottom of the screen and you can launch an application menu by right-clicking on the desktop.
The Fluxbox edition comes with hardly any pre-installed software. The applications menu lists xterm and Firefox as the only graphical applications and, of the two, Firefox isn't actually installed. Of course, Fluxbox users tend to prefer it that way; the window manager is highly configurable and can be customised to your heart's content.
Sabayon 19.03 -- Installing Firefox (and having to accept another license) (full image size: 838kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
Fluxbox worked fine when I could get to the login screen. Unfortunately, every other time I booted my laptop I would only get to a blinking cursor on a black screen. The boot error may be related to a dependency issue: when I did the check for missing dependencies Equo reported that sysvinit-2.86-r6 was needed by openrc-0.38.3 but that it couldn't install the former package. Whatever the cause of the issue was, it made using Fluxbox infeasible.
Sabayon's claim that it is a "beginner-friendly" distro that is "bleeding edge" and "stable and reliable" is a bit of a stretch. I doubt "beginners" will comprehend the instructions for what to do after installing Sabayon - and that is assuming inexperienced users will find the information in the first place. Similarly, the systemd and GNOME versions are rather old for a distro that claims to be "bleeding edge". That said, I did find Sabayon's GNOME edition to be stable and reliable, bar a few minor issues (such as the notification about the VirtualBox kernel service not running).
I don't think it is entirely fair to ask if Sabayon lives up to the bold marketing slogans on its home page. Personally, I see Sabayon as a friendly and interesting distro for tinkerers and distro-hoppers, and a very good one at that. I should also mention that, in general, Sabayon's use of language is refreshingly informal; both the graphical Rigo package manager and the wiki put a smile on my face more than once. Even Equo has some jokes built in - the command equo moo prints an ASCII cow that says "Entromoooo!".
Sabayon does still has some way to go to become the sophisticated operating system it wants to be. With 19.03 the distro switched from the Anaconda to the Calamares installer which, to my mind at least, is a good decision. However, contrary to what is claimed in the release notes, the disk encryption issue has not been resolved yet and the wiki still talks about how to find your way through the Anaconda installer. Work on the new wiki announced in the release notes seems to be at a very early stage.
I also couldn't fail to notice that Sabayon's forums are rather quiet. Lively forums don't necessarily equate to a thriving community, but the overall feeling I got is that Sabayon could do with a bit more momentum. That shouldn't discourage you from giving Sabayon a try though. On the contrary, if you are a Linux-loving tinkerer then Sabayon might be the distro for you.
* * * * *
Hardware used for this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a Lenovo Thinkpad X220 with the following specifications: