Solus 3 and the Budgie desktopSolus is an independent, rolling release distribution. Solus's design is mostly aimed at home users who want a friendly desktop operating system. The distribution is available in three editions (Budgie, GNOME and MATE) and runs on 64-bit x86 computers exclusively. Each edition's installation media is approximately 1.2GB in size.
The project's latest release is Solus 3 which features support for Snap packages as well as more traditional packages managed by Solus's eopkg package manager, which is a fork of the PiSi package manager. There were many tweaks in this release with a number of improvements made to the application menu and searches. The Budgie edition also includes the ability to place the desktop panel on any of the four sides of the screen. There are more changes and tweaks listed, with accompanying screen shots, in the project's release announcement.
One of the reasons I wanted to try out Solus 3 and do it now is because I typically test rolling release distributions immediately after a new snapshot has been released. Solus 3 was made available back in August of 2017 and I was curious to see how well the distribution would handle being rolled forward several months and what changes might be visible between the August snapshot and Solus's current packages.
I decided to try out the Budgie edition of Solus. Booting from the Solus live media brings up the Budgie desktop with a panel placed along the bottom of the screen. The panel houses an application menu, task switcher and system tray. On the desktop we find a single icon for launching the project's system installer. I did not see any welcome screen or encounter any immediate issues so I jumped straight into the installer.
Solus features a graphical system installer which I think is custom-made for the distribution. The installer resembles Calamares or Ubuntu's Ubiquity in its style and steps, with a few minor differences. The steps to select our preferred language, keyboard and time zone from map are about the same. However, Solus's installer does not handle manipulating disk partitions. For managing the disk's layout we need to turn to the GParted partition manager which is included on the live disc. The installer won't launch GParted for us, we need to quit the installer, run GParted and then re-launch the installer to set up partitions on our drive. Once we have partitioned the hard drive, the installer will show us a list of partitions and let us click on them to assign mount points for the root file system, home directories and swap.
Solus 3 -- The system installer (full image size: 1.0MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
A second characteristic Solus's installer has that I quite like is we can set up multiple user accounts during the install process. This lets us create accounts for the entire family all at once, marking each account as a regular user or an administrator. The installer pauses before it gets to work, showing us a list of changes it will make to our computer and asking for confirmation before it proceeds. I like Solus's installer as it is easy to navigate and keeps the configuration process streamlined.
One of the first, and rare, issues I ran into with Solus was when I rebooted my system following the install process, the live disc started up and showed me the boot menu. The menu offers just two options: start the live desktop or boot from the computer's hard drive. I took the hard drive option and the system reported that booting had failed. I then removed the live disc and restarted the system, which booted from the hard drive as expected. I ran into this inability of the live media to hand over booting to the hard drive in both my test environments.
Solus boots to a graphical login screen where the available user accounts are listed vertically. We can click on an account and sign in to get back to the Budgie desktop. Budgie manages to be feature rich, but also stays out of our way. The panel is small, there are no icons on the desktop and no welcome window greets us. When notifications are presented they don't take up much space and then disappear, simply changing the notification icon in the system tray to let us know something has changed.
Solus 3 -- The application menu (full image size: 917kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The distribution's notification panel features two tabs. One tab shows the latest notifications, such as when software updates are available. The second tab displays some applets, including a calendar, a volume control and media player controls. This dual-purpose panel built into the system tray gives us access to several controls and bits of information in one compact space and I found it quite useful. My only complaint was clicking on notifications for software updates did not open the software manager to get us started installing security fixes.
Managing software is handled by Solus's Software Centre. The Software Centre is divided into six screens. One lets us browse through categories of available software, another shows a list of installed packages. A third page lets us search for packages by name and another displays a list of available upgrades. The final two pages display available third-party applications and the Centre's settings. I was a little surprised to find third-party programs entirely separated from the packages in Solus's repositories, but I can see the reasoning in play. The third-party items tend to be closed source applications such as Chrome or Skype and the user should be aware they cannot expect fixes or support for these items from the Solus team.
Solus 3 -- Software Centre (full image size: 802kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The updates page of Software Centre is further divided into three parts with sections for required updates, security updates and miscellaneous updates. We can expand these three sections and decide which items we want to download. When I first started using the distribution there were 339 updates available, totalling 696MB. Throughout the rest of the week I rarely saw additional updates. 696MB is an accumulation of several months of updates and about half the size of the installation ISO, which makes me think the ISO may be due for a refresh.
There were a few features of Software Centre I appreciated. One was we can locate both desktop applications and background packages (libraries and command line tools) through Software Centre without switching to the distribution's command line package manager, eopkg. I also like that most package pages include links to the software's upstream website and bug tracker that will open in Firefox. This makes it easier to get issues reported to the original developers.
On the other hand, I could only perform one action (installing or removing a package) at a time. The Software Centre would not let me queue new actions while it was already working on installing a package.
One odd thing I noticed while using Software Centre concerned not the package manager, but a handful of packages. When I was testing Solus in VirtualBox I discovered the guest add-on modules are packaged as "virtualbox" rather than "virtualbox-guest-additions". This leads to an odd situation where installing the "virtualbox" package gives us guest virtual machine features, but not the VirtualBox application.
Earlier I mentioned Solus includes a command line package manager called eopkg. This tool has a fairly straight forward syntax, similar to APT or DNF, and will show useful hints when we type "eopkg help". While eopkg works, I found Software Centre was both fast and convenient enough I did not want to use the command line option.
Solus features two settings panels. One panel is specifically for dealing with the Budgie desktop, its window manager and panel. The Budgie settings panel can also help us select applications which should be started when we login and adjust fonts. The second settings panel deals with just about all other aspects of the desktop environment and operating system. The second panel handles our wallpaper, privacy settings, user accounts, printer management and display resolution.
Solus 3 -- The settings panels before an upgrade (full image size: 701kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Earlier I mentioned I wanted to see what, if anything, would change when I installed multiple months of software updates. The general settings panel was the only area where I saw a significant change when over 300 updates were installed. The settings panel went from displaying a grid of modules I could click on and back out of to a two-pane layout. I talked about this switch in panel styles back when I reviewed Ubuntu 17.10. Personally, I like the two-pane layout as I find it takes fewer steps to switch between pages of settings.
Both settings panels (and both versions of the general settings panel) worked well for me and I encountered no issues while using either. I especially found the Budgie window manager settings convenient. I liked being able to quickly switch the location of window control buttons, toggle a dark theme and tweak the panel's size and location.
Solus 3 -- The settings panels following an upgrade (full image size: 393kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Solus ships with a fairly standard collection of popular open source applications. Firefox is available along with the Thunderbird e-mail client, LibreOffice and the HexChat IRC software. GNOME Calendar is included along with the Transmission bittorrent software. Solus provides us with the MPV media player and the Rhythmbox audio player, both of which have access to a full range of media codecs. The distribution uses the Nautilus file manager and Network Manager is present to help us connect to the Internet. The system includes a password manager, text editor, archive manager and image viewer. The GNOME Help documentation is present, though some desktop features of Budgie may not work exactly the same way as GNOME's documentation suggests. Solus ships with the systemd init software and the installation media installs version 4.12 of the Linux kernel. Following the first large batch of updates, I found version 4.14 of the kernel was installed.
Solus 3 -- Working with the calendar and Firefox (full image size: 336kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I experimented with Solus on a desktop computer and in a VirtualBox environment. When running on the desktop computer, Solus ran beautifully. The Budgie desktop was responsive, the visual effects were both minimal and attractive. All my desktop's hardware was automatically detected and worked well. When running in VirtualBox Solus did not automatically integrate with the virtual environment. However, once I had installed VirtualBox's guest modules through Software Centre, I was able to use my host computer's full screen resolution. Budgie gave fairly good performance in VirtualBox, and was neither remarkably snappy or sluggish. I found Solus used about 4GB of disk space on a fresh install and logging into Budgie used about 490MB of my computer's memory.
While playing with Solus I made a few general observations, mostly about the Budgie desktop. For instance, I like how flexible Budgie is with placing window buttons as well as the size and position of the desktop panel. I was less enthusiastic about the way moving dialog boxes also moved the dialog's application window, making it so I could not uncover a window hidden by a dialog box. This feature is easily disabled in the window manager settings.
I found the icons in the system tray to be small and close together. This sometimes caused me to click the wrong button, or click the right one only to have a different panel open when my mouse slid slightly left or right. I would have liked to have the system tray icons further apart. Also on the topic of the system tray, I found it odd there are two separate buttons to open the Applets/Notifications panel. The two icons only differ by which tab is activated when the panel opens. Personally, I found this feature offered more clutter than convenience, but I could see the appeal of these two short-cuts if I were using Solus for longer than a week.
On a similar note, I found having two separate settings panels with matching icons a little confusing, especially since both include desktop-related settings. After a day or two I got into the groove of choosing the right panel, but I think two similarly designed settings panels with the same icon is going to cause me tech-support headaches if I install Solus on other people's computers.
Solus 3 -- Working with user accounts (full image size: 524kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Finally, I'd like to say that I like Budgie's default set of effects. They tended to be minimal and more attractive than distracting. I like the somewhat toned down colours present in window decorations and in the default terminal colours. The desktop does a nice job of offering a visually appealing environment while not drawing this user's attention away from work.
While I was using Solus's live disc I ran into a few minor inconveniences, such as the disc's boot menu not being able to initiate booting from my hard drive and the installer's requirement that I find and launch GParted to partition my disk. Otherwise getting the distribution up and running was a fairly easy experience. Once Solus was installed it performed very well for me. Budgie was responsive, even when run in VirtualBox, the distribution was stable during my trial and memory usage was comfortably in the mid-range. All my hardware was detected and the distribution ran well in both test environments.
I very much liked Budgie's settings panel with window manager tweaks. I found it easy to customize my desktop to have the layout and style I wanted. I also think the developers have done a great job with the distribution's Software Centre. It's well organized, responsive and doesn't hide non-desktop applications.
One of my only complaints while using Solus was that Budgie tends to duplicate some things. I mentioned the two settings panels earlier. I also found some software categories in the application menu felt redundant. The menu includes the categories "Other" and "Sundry", which mean approximately the same thing and both of which are practically empty. There are also "Accessories" and "Utilities" categories, leading me to second-guess myself as to whether text editors and screen shot apps are accessories or utilities. The only other issue I ran into was I found desktop elements tended to be grouped closely together, such as menu entries or icons in the system tray. I clicked on the wrong icons semi-frequently this week due to small shifts in the mouse.
Honestly though, those issues were pretty minor. I took some time to think about potential "cons" to balance out Solus's many "pros" and couldn't come up with anything more severe than small icons. Solus provided an unusually polished, attractive and easy to use experience. Even with the massive influx of new packages near the start of my trial, the distribution didn't cause me any headaches. I definitely recommend giving Solus a try. It has been one of the more user friendly distributions I have used lately and I like how the desktop lets me focus on getting work done with minimal customization and distractions.
* * * * *
Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: