Solus 4.0Solus is an independently developed, rolling release, desktop distribution for 64-bit (x86_64) computers. The distribution is available in three desktop flavours: Budgie, GNOME, and MATE. There is also a KDE Plasma edition being tested at the time of writing, but it was not released along with the other editions of Solus 4.0.
Looking through the release announcement we can see several changes have been introduced in Solus 4.0. Many packages have been updated, search results have been improved in the software centre and the WPS productivity suite has been removed from the repositories due to licensing issues. The distribution now ships with version 10.5 of the Budgie desktop which itself offers several improvements, including volume controls that go up to 150% and a feature called Caffeine Mode:
Budgie 10.5 introduces a new applet called Caffeine Mode. Caffeine Mode is designed to ensure your system does not automatically suspend, lock, or dim when you're hard at work. Caffeine Mode supports:
Notifications when it is turned on or off
Setting a timer to automatically turn off Caffeine Mode
Turning up your display brightness to max or a designated brightness level
The Budgie edition also makes it easier to deal with notifications: "Budgie 10.5 introduces improved notification management. With this release, notification management is no longer a 'clear all or nothing' scenario."
Solus 4.0 -- The Budgie desktop and application menu (full image size: 779kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I decided to download the Budgie edition of Solus, which was 1.4GB in size. Booting from the live media brought up the Budgie desktop with its panel placed at the bottom of the screen. The desktop's application menu and quick-launch buttons are placed to the left of the panel while the system tray and user menu are placed on the right. There are no icons on the desktop. The panel and menus use a dark theme, which I found was consistent across the distribution. One of the quick-launch buttons on the panel opens the distribution's installer.
Solus uses a custom graphical installer which begins by asking us to select our preferred language from a list. Then the installer offers to automatically determine our location so that it can guess our time zone and keyboard layout. (The installer correctly guessed my time zone, but not my keyboard.) We can override the installer's choices for these settings if need be.
Next we are asked if we would like the installer to automatically partition our hard drive or manually assign mount points to existing partitions. The installer does not offer manual partitioning and will not launch a separate partition manager for us. Instead, should we want to repartition the disk, we need to close the installer, launch a partition manager (such as GParted) and then re-launch the installer once we have arranged our partitions. The installer lets us assign mount points for a root partition, swap space and (optionally) a /home directory.
The installer then gives us the option of installing a boot loader and we can create one or more user accounts, the first of which will be given administrator privileges. The installer shows a list of actions it plans to take, then gets to work. When it has finished copying packages to our hard drive, it offers to restart the computer.
The whole process is fairly straight forward. Partitioning is a little awkward since we need to use a third-party tool to divide up the disk, but otherwise I found the installer to be quite friendly and easy to use. I particularly like that we can create multiple user accounts up front.
My new copy of Solus booted to a graphical login screen where we can choose which user account to log into using the mouse or arrow keys. When I first signed in there were no pop-ups, no welcome screens and no waiting notifications. The Budgie desktop stays out of the way and assumes we know what we are doing.
Solus 4.0 -- Applets and notifications (full image size: 765kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The application menu is presented with two panes, the one on the left holds categories of software and the one on the right presents launchers. We select categories by clicking on them, unlike many other desktops where categories do not change when the mouse simply hovers over them. This means it takes more mouse clicks to navigate the menu, but it largely avoids the problem of accidentally switching between categories. The menu offers a search box for finding programs by name or by category. Searching for "password", for instance, turns up both the Passwords & Keys manager as well as the Users account manager.
Something I noticed early on in my trial was the screen would automatically turn off and lock after five minutes. We can adjust the delay or disable this power saving feature in the main settings panel.
The Budgie edition of Solus features two settings panels. One settings panel is inherited from GNOME and features a two-pane layout. The GNOME panel offers a wide range of options for working with networks, enabling location services, getting information on the host system, working with user accounts and changing power saving settings. The second settings panel is specific to Budgie and offers options for working with fonts, button placement in application windows, the location and contents of the panel, and which programs to start when the user logs in.
Solus 4.0 -- The GNOME and Budgie settings panels (full image size: 384kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
In either panel I did not find a tool for working with background services. While the GNOME panel offers more options and deals with the operating system as much as the desktop, the Budgie panel just deals with the user interface. Both panels worked well and provided a good deal of customization options. The only issue I ran into was with the GNOME panel which crashed once while switching between two screens.
Something I like a lot about the Budgie panel is the options are generally accompanied by an explanation. The GNOME panel tends to just show an option, often with an on/off toggle and no description. The Budgie panel tends to describe what a feature does, for example the modal dialog toggle reads: "Modal dialogs will become attached to the parent window and move together when dragged." I suspect this will make navigating the Budgie settings easier for newcomers.
I began by running Solus in a VirtualBox instance. The distribution ran smoothly inside VirtualBox and correctly resized the desktop to match the size of the VirtualBox window. The desktop ran smoothly and was fairly quick to respond; neither overly snappy or slow. My one concern with running Solus in VirtualBox was the distribution used more of my host system's CPU. Typically, a Linux distribution sitting idle at the desktop uses around 4% of my host's CPU (according to top). Solus used three times this, idling at 12%. This did not have a significant impact on either the host or the guest system.
Solus 4.0 -- Moving the Budgie panel to the left (full image size: 325kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Solus performed well on my workstation. The distribution ran quickly, the Budgie desktop was responsive and I did not find the operating system consumed more (or less) CPU than would be typical for other Linux distributions. Solus required about 6GB of disk space, though I used up about another 2GB installing additional programs I wanted. When sitting idle in the Budgie desktop, the distribution consumed about 420MB of RAM.
The distribution ships with a fairly standard collection of popular open source applications, including the Firefox web browser, Thunderbird for checking e-mail, Transmission for downloading torrents and the HexChat IRC client. LibreOffice is installed for us, along with the GNOME Calendar program, MPV for watching videos and Rhythmbox for listening to music. Media codecs are included, allowing us to play audio and video files.
GNOME Photos, the gedit text editor and GNOME's Files file manager are included too. The Evince document viewer is installed for us, along with a system monitor, image viewer and an on-screen keyboard. Network Manager is available to help us get on-line and there is a printer manager to connect us with local and network printers. I also found a tool for installing third-party drivers and an account manager for setting up new users. Solus does not ship with a compiler, but developer tools can be installed from the repositories.
The distribution uses systemd for its init implementation and runs on version 4.20.16 of the Linux kernel. Newer versions of these tools will become available over time as Solus is a rolling release distribution.
Solus 4.0 -- Running LibreOffice and Files (full image size: 101kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
One item I found in the menu that seemed out of place was the Help program. Clicking the Help icon opens the GNOME documentation, which is sometimes helpful for dealing with a few GNOME components installed on the system, but it feels out of place (and even misleading) on the Budgie desktop since the two desktops do not share the same layout or controls.
Something else that bothered me while using the GNOME applications included in Solus is that their menus are inconsistent in their placement. If I was looking for the About or Preferences menu entries, sometimes they were placed under the program's icon to the left of the window. Other times they were under the triple-dot menu on the right. There seems to be approximately an even split between the two styles of menu among the GNOME applications and I found not being able to settle into a pattern while using them frustrating. This isn't a fault with Solus, just a general complaint about the way GNOME applications are designed at the moment.
Solus 4.0 -- Different approaches in menu placement (full image size: 288kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Solus features one graphical software manager that handles a variety of tasks. Using the project's software centre we can check for, and install, software updates. We can browse categories of programs available to be downloaded, perform one-click installs, and browse a list of third-party items which are not included in the main repositories (usually for licensing reasons). There is also a separate screen for performing searches for specific items.
Solus 4.0 -- The software centre (full image size: 576kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
While the software centre does not show command line and low-level tools by default on the categories page, we can search for specific packages. This strikes a nice balance, keeping the interface uncluttered while letting the user find everything they need in one software manager.
The software centre was responsive on my test systems, worked well and I encountered no problems while using it. My only complaint while using it was the software centre would not queue actions, meaning we can only install one package at a time. Early on this slowed down my process of getting the programs I wanted, but otherwise the software centre offered a very clean, pleasant experience.
Solus includes support for Snap packages out of the box. It appears as though the software centre does not integrate with snaps, or at least none of the third-party items I downloaded through the graphical software manager were snaps. We can use the command line snap tool to locate and install snaps. I found the snaps I did install were automatically added to the application menu, making them easy to find and launch. Flatpak support is not included by default, but can be installed from the Solus repositories.
I made some other observations during my time running Solus. One of them is that non-admin users cannot install software packages, perform updates or run commands through sudo. This may seem obvious, but I have run a couple of operating systems so far this year where non-privileged users could do just about anything on a system and it was refreshing to see Solus enforces users' roles.
The default dark theme looks good, in my opinion. I like the high contrast white text on black backgrounds. I like the colourful icons. Generally speaking, I found Budgie easy on the eyes. There were some side-effects of the dark theme though. Sometimes I had trouble telling where one window stopped and another began since the windows were all dark and did not have distinct borders. I also found the icons in some programs looked faded, as if they were disabled, though they could be clicked.
On the subject of icons, Budgie tends to use icons instead of words on its controls and buttons. For example, we click a star icon to pin open programs to the panel rather than clicking a word such a "pin" or "lock". This cuts down on the need for translations, but it results in more trial and error when exploring what controls do.
When I first started using Solus, temperatures and other units were displayed in imperial units, for example the calendar uses Fahrenheit for temperatures. It took me a while, looking through the calendar's settings, Budgie's settings, and the GNOME location settings before I found the option I needed to switch to metric under the Region & Language module.
One of my favourite Budgie features is fine-grained font scaling. We can set font style and base size, which is pretty typical across most desktops. Budgie then takes things a step further by allowing the user to adjust font scaling by a percentage, in real time. This was a very welcome feature and it felt so much smoother and more natural than trying to adjust font sizes on other desktops.
Solus 4.0 -- Adjusting font scaling (full image size: 211kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The natural feel of font scaling, combined with the detailed descriptions of options in the Budgie settings panel made me an instant fan of the way Budgie is configured. I think a lot of time and effort was put into making it easy to customize Budgie and I appreciated that a lot.
I very much enjoyed my time with Solus. The project offered an unusually polished experience and presents a breath of fresh air that is all the more impressive considering it is an independent distribution which cannot rely on a parent project to do the heavy lifting. Early on I ran into some minor issues. For instance, the installer cannot handling manual partitioning and will not launch GParted for us. When I tried using the automatic location check, I ended up with the wrong keyboard layout and measurement units.
After these initial hurdles though, and some minor frustration dealing with the inconsistent menus in GNOME applications, I rapidly grew to appreciate the care that has gone into both Budgie and Solus. The theme is unusually consistent, the desktop both well crafted and flexible enough for people like me who want to customize their environment. The default applications are generally some of the best in their categories and worked beautifully.
I really like the software centre and found it pleasantly easy to navigate and uncomplicated. I like that Solus has managed to make one streamlined package manager instead of shipping three different software managers to handle different situations.
Ideally I would have preferred one settings panel instead of two. The GNOME panel offers many more options and deals with operating system configuration while the Budgie panel deals specifically with the user interface. However, there is some overlap between the two and that sometimes meant it took longer for me to find settings I wanted to tweak. That being said, the Budgie settings panel is beautiful in its explanations and simplicity; other desktops could learn from Budgie's example.
In short, all the issues I ran into were minor, more inconveniences than problems. Meanwhile the polish, flexibility, default applications, stability and performance were all top notch. I was happy with my experiences with Solus 4.0 and think it will definitely appeal to new Linux users and more experienced users who want to install their system and just have it work.
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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: