Sabayon "MATE"Sabayon is a Gentoo-based distribution which is available in many desktop editions as well as a server edition. Sabayon strives to provide a working system out-of-the-box, saving the user a lot of time when it comes to configuring the operating system. Sabayon provides several categories of installation media. The project uses a rolling release model and the distribution's many editions are provided in Stable, Monthly and Daily snapshots. It has been about a year since the last Stable set of installation media was produced and so I decided to explore one of the monthly snapshots.
I began with the MATE edition of Sabayon's Monthly snapshot, a 2GB download which I confirmed downloaded properly using the distribution's checksums. Booting from the live media brought up a menu asking if we would like to start a live desktop environment, launch a text-based installer, start in safe mode or launch a live text console. I was surprised when taking the live desktop option booted the distribution to a text console and showed me a login prompt.
From the login prompt I was able to sign in as the root user without a password (I was unable to find another login username). I then tried running the startx command to launch a live copy of the MATE desktop, but this action did not go as planned. I ended up with a minimal graphical environment and a virtual terminal, but no desktop. This surprised me as past versions of Sabayon I have used did supply a working desktop environment on the installation media and the project's documentation suggests this should still be the case.
I then tried booting the Sabayon MATE media into a safe graphics mode and tried the text installation option. Both boot options brought me back to the text console and a login prompt. There was no clear way to get from there to running the installer.
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Sabayon "LXQt"I next downloaded the LXQt edition of Sabayon's Monthly snapshot. The download for the LXQt flavour is 1.8GB in size. After verifying the media's checksum, I tried booting into the live desktop mode, the safe graphics mode and the text installer. All three options brought me to the same text console with a login prompt, just as the MATE edition had. This prevented me from exploring the live desktop and the system installer. It appears this inability to launch the live desktop affected all editions of the Sabayon Monthly snapshot.
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AntergosGiving up on Sabayon for the moment, I next turned my attention to Antergos, a rolling release, Arch-based distribution. Antergos takes a different approach to providing desktop flavours than Sabayon. Where Sabayon has many different installation images, one for each desktop flavour, Antergos offers just Minimal and Full install discs. The Antergos installer then provides us with an install time choice of which desktop to use.
I first tried downloading the Antergos torrent file, but the speed was quite slow, well under 100kB/s and I switched over to the direct download which provided me with speeds over 2MB/s. The full sized ISO is 1.9GB in size and booting from the provided media asks us if we'd like to boot from the local hard drive, start a live desktop environment or boot to a text console. Taking the desktop option loads the GNOME desktop.
The live GNOME desktop has a panel placed at the top of the screen which holds the GNOME Activities menu, a clock and the system tray. There is a dock down the left side of the screen. The dock features launchers for commonly used applications and the system installer. The bottom icon on the dock opens a full screen grid of application launchers. I did not spend much time with the GNOME desktop, deciding to jump right into the installer.
Antergos uses a custom graphical installer called Cnchi. This installer updates itself when the live desktop first launches, insuring we always have the latest version of Cnchi. The installer, for the most part, is a lot like Ubuntu's Ubiquity installer or the distro-neutral Calamares installer. We are walked through selecting our preferred language, region of the world and time zone. We are asked to select which desktop environment we want to use with options including Cinnamon, Deepin, GNOME, KDE Plasma, MATE and Xfce. We can also go with the Openbox window manager or a text console with no graphical interface. Unfortunately we cannot select multiple desktops at install time in order to try out different environments. I decided to try the Deepin desktop.
The next screen of the installer asks us to customize which applications and features are added to Antergos. On this page we can choose to install such optional packages as the Chromium and Firefox web browsers, the OpenSSH service, Steam, PlayOnLinux, printing support, Bluetooth and accessibility packages. I kept things pretty light, installing Firefox, LibreOffice and a firewall manager. The installer then asks if we would like to sort the priority of package mirrors or let the system do it for us.
One of the last screens of the installer deals with disk partitioning. The installer offers us guided options where we can have LVM or ZFS volumes set up for us and choose whether our /home directory should be kept on its own volume. Alternatively we can use the manual partitioning approach which offers a very easy, streamlined approach to creating file systems. I found it worth noting that while the guided partitioning options include a ZFS option, the manual partitioning screen does not. Most other file systems can be accessed manually, including Btrfs, ext4, f2fs and XFS.
The first time I tried to set up Antergos, I went with the automated ZFS partitioning option as I am a big fan of ZFS snapshots. Unfortunately, halfway through the install process, Cnchi crashed and was unable to recover. I then went through the installer's steps again, taking the same desktop and package options, but using the ext4 file system. The second time through the installer completed successfully.
When I got Antergos installed, the system booted to a graphical login screen where a pop-up greeted me saying: "An error was detected in the current theme that could interfere with the system login process." We are then asked to select an action: load the default theme, load a fallback theme or cancel. Trying to take the fallback theme just caused the same error to appear over and over again. Taking the default theme made my screen go blank for a few seconds and then I was shown a clock I could click on to start the login process. The theme error returned each time I booted the system, so apparently the default theme does not stick across reboots.
Antergos 18.2 -- Running Deepin Music and the Deepin File Manager (full image size: 398kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The first time I logged into my account a full screen message appeared which announced: "Welcome, system updated successfully. Current edition: rolling." Clicking an Enter button under the text completed the login process and brought me to the Deepin desktop. The update message did not return during later logins.
Once signed in, the Deepin desktop appeared with a dock at the bottom of the screen. The desktop is otherwise empty most of the time. One button on the dock opens a full screen display of application icons. Another button opens the Deepin settings and notification panel which is displayed down the right side of the screen. The desktop was responsive, stable and worked well in my test environments. For readers interested in the Deepin desktop's special features, I covered it in more detail in another review earlier this year.
Antergos 18.2 -- The Deepin application menu (full image size: 226kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
While playing with Antergos, I ran the distribution on two test systems. When run in a VirtualBox environment Antergos worked well and automatically integrated with the virtual environment. This allowed the distribution to make full use of my host computer's screen resolution. The distribution also performed well on my desktop computer, running quickly and smoothly. Antergos running Deepin without extra background services (such as Bluetooth or OpenSSH) used about 500MB of memory. My relatively minimal collection of add-on packages (Firefox, LibreOffice and GUFW) took up about 6.5GB of disk space.
Unless we choose to include a lot of add-on packages during the install process, Antergos offers a pretty small collection of applications. Deepin applications, such as Deepin Movie, Deepin Music, Deepin file Manager and the Deepin Terminal, are included. We also have access to a text editor, system monitor, calendar and image viewer. Network Manager is present to help us get on-line and the GNU Compiler Collection is present to help us build software. Antergos uses the systemd init implementation and runs on Linux 4.15, though newer kernels will become available through the distribution's rolling release model.
Antergos 18.2 -- Using LibreOffice and configuring the firewall (full image size: 182kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Of course we have the option of installing additional applications and here I ran into an unusual quirk of the distribution. In the application menu there are three entries for managing software: Software Update (which launches Pamac), Software (which opens GNOME Software), and Add/Remove Software (which again opens Pamac). Either Pamac launcher would work, opening the package manager and giving us easy access to new packages, categories of software we can browse and new updates.
The GNOME Software application would launch, but it was unable to work with the Antergos repositories and all categories displayed in GNOME Software (and all searches) showed only blank screens. I am uncertain why GNOME Software was included, but it was useless on this system. As an alternative to both GNOME Software and Pamac we can use the Pacman command line package manager which is well known for its speed and short command line parameters.
Antergos 18.2 -- Pamac (foreground) and GNOME Software (in the background) (full image size: 639kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
For the most part, using Antergos went smoothly. I have been finding the Pamac package manager increasingly pleasant to use lately. I like its speed and the organization of files strikes a pretty good balance between making things easy to find and giving the user direct access to low-level packages.
I very much like the Deepin settings panel. The way it makes the settings options one big, long page where we can jump to a specific section is great. Especially early on this layout is excellent because I do not need to jump into a series of modules. I can simply scroll through everything and tweak any settings I want to adjust in one, quick browse through the settings. This makes customizing Deepin faster than customizing GNOME or KDE's Plasma.
My time with Antergos was not all great. I did run into situations where the window manager would lock up. This meant applications continued to work, but I could not move windows, click on anything or open new desktop programs. Killing the runaway window manager process from a terminal would fix the issue.
This was a rough week for me testing distributions and a reminder that while rolling release distributions can be useful and convenient for those who want to stay up to date with the latest software, periodic snapshots is not an ideal way to maintain quality control. The user ends up getting whatever packages are in the repository at the time the installation media is created, for better or worse. And, in this case, I ended up facing some serious bugs.
The two Sabayon Monthly images I tried were pretty much useless, failing to provide access to an installer or live desktop environment. The Antergos image was better, but still featured a number of issues, such as crashing when trying to use ZFS, displaying theme errors on the login screen and I ran into instability issues with the window manager. The inclusion of a non-functional copy of GNOME Software in the distribution may be a simple oversight, the result of the Deepin desktop package pulling in an extra software manager. However, that would suggest to me that the current version of the Deepin desktop hasn't been thoroughly tested by the Antergos community.
Both of these distributions have a lot to offer - lots of convenient desktops, up to date packages and, in theory at least, Antergos offers ZFS support out of the box. I especially like that Antergos lets us customize so much of our software up front. However, in practise, the monthly snapshots of both distributions had some flaws I think will turn away casually curious users.
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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: