Solus 4.2Solus is an independently developed, rolling release distribution. The project uses the eopkg package manager, which has its roots in the PiSi package manager. The distribution is available in four editions, one of which runs the Budgie desktop which was created by the Solus team. The other three flavours feature the GNOME, KDE Plasma, and MATE desktops. These four editions all run on 64-bit (x86_64) machines and range from 1.7GB to 2.0GB in size.
I decided to focus on the Budgie edition as it seems to be the flagship of the distribution's efforts. The new Solus 4.2 release included some key changes. For instance, the release notes mention the system tray for Budgie has been completely rewritten. We are also told the volume control now has a mute button. One big change is the way in which desktop icons are handled. The release announcement mentions past versions of Solus relied on an older version of the Nautilus file manager to handle desktop icons, but desktop icons are now handled by Budgie rather than relying on a third-party solution.
Booting from the Solus media brings us directly to the Budgie desktop and the system plays a short audio clip to indicate it is ready to be used. A panel sits at the bottom of the display. The application menu sits to the left of the panel. A small collection of quick-launch buttons are placed just to the right of the menu. A system tray and logout button are located on the right side of the panel. On the desktop we find icons for opening the GNOME Files file manager and launching the system installer. The application menu uses a two-pane approach with categories on the left we can click on to explore and specific application launchers shown on the right. There is a search bar built into the menu to help us locate specific programs.
The Budgie desktop defaults to using a dark theme. Most panels and menus are black with white text. Highlighted items and folder icons are displayed in blue. The background is soft blue. All of this made Solus visually appealing to me right from the start.
Solus uses a graphical system installer which looks to be unique to this distribution. There is a list of steps the installer will take shown down the left side of the window and we can use this to track our progress. The rest of the window guides us through configuration steps.
We begin by picking our language from a list. The installer then offers to find our location in order to automatically guess some other key bits of information. We are then asked to confirm our keyboard layout and time zone. I found that when I accepted the location check my time zone was guessed correctly, but the keyboard layout was not. However, if I denied the location check the keyboard layout was correct while the time zone was not filled in.
We are next offered the options of guided or manual partitioning and it looks as though the guided option will take over the entire hard drive. The manual partitioning screen can only format existing partitions and assign them mount points. If a suitable partition is not available we need to exit the installer, arrange partitions using a tool such as GParted (which is included on the live media), and then re-launch the installer. The installer itself does not include manual partitioning options. This process works, though I found GParted appeared to lock up for a minute or two while it was applying its changes to the disk.
Assigning mount points in the Solus installer is not a clear process. We need to click on a partition, in a specific field, to assign a mount point. This is not explained for us and it is not clear that one part (though not another) of the partition entry is interactive.
Solus 4.2 -- Assigning mount points in the installer (full image size: 528kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
After this screen we move on to making up a hostname for the computer and optionally installing a boot loader. Then we advance to creating a user account for ourselves. The installer can make multiple user accounts, the first of which is granted administrator access. Packages are then copied to the hard drive and, when it is finished, the installer offers to restart the computer.
My new copy of Solus booted quickly. The distribution brings up a graphical login page. Text is displayed in white on a light background which makes it difficult to read. I found when multiple user accounts existed they are all listed on the login screen. My account was always highlighted by default, but I could not select it. To sign in I had to select another user account then move back to mine before it would let me put in my password. I reboot rarely, but this was a speed bump every time I started the computer.
Signing in brought me back to the Budgie desktop. The file manager icons are still on the desktop, though the launcher for the installer is, naturally, gone. Shortly after signing into Budgie a notification appeared letting me know package updates were available. This pop-up includes a link we can click to open the software centre and display available updates.
Solus 4.2 -- Exploring the application menu while running Firefox (full image size: 671kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
When I opened the software centre from the update notification the software manager showed me 11 available updates, 281MB in size. At first, trying to install these updates brought up a password prompt box. I was unable to click on the box, enter my password, or click the visible Cancel button. At this point I could not interact with the software centre's window either. I eventually closed the software centre and re-launched it. Then tried to apply the waiting updates again. This time the password prompt was responsive and the new packages were downloaded successfully.
The software centre has six tabs down the left side of the window. These are: Home which shows software categories we can browse; Updates, a page that just shows a list of available new packages we can install; Installed, a list of installed packages we can remove; Third-Party, non-free software from unofficial repositories such as Android Studio, Slack, and Skype; Search which helps us find software by name; and Settings where we can adjust the frequency of checks for updates and other options like whether we want to download screenshots when viewing information about applications.
Solus 4.2 -- Browsing the software centre (full image size: 375kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Searching for software worked well and browsing categories went smoothly. The software centre's interface was fairly responsive. New packages can be queued for installation with a single click. There were problems I kept running into though. Typically these issues came up when trying to install new applications, either from the official repositories or from the third-party collection. Often times when I tried to install a new package I would be prompted for my password, but the password box would not let me click on it or type my password. Closing the software centre and then relaunching it usually cleared the issue and the next time around the password box would work.
When I tried to install Spotify I ran into two errors. The first was the inactive password prompt and the second was an error indicating the desired package could not be fetched. This was followed by the software centre locking up and I had to kill its process. I also tried multiple times to install Slack, Falkon and VLC. The Slack process gave me the most trouble. Again the initial password prompt failed. After terminating the software centre and re-launching it, I tried again. This time I was not prompted for a password at all, the software centre just indicated Slack was being downloaded. This proceeded for a minute and then the software centre locked up and its process had to be killed from the command line because the window's close button did not respond.
I started keeping track after a while and found 75% of the time I tried to install software or updates, the software centre failed, unusually resulting in the interface locking up and requiring a trip to the command line to kill its process.
Should we wish to explore other forms of package management, Solus ships with both Snap and Flatpak frameworks. This gives us access to a wide range of portable packages. There are no Flatpak repositories enabled by default, but the default Snap repository from Canonical is available.
I began testing Solus in a VirtualBox environment. Budgie performed fairly well, but was occasionally sluggish. I also found that Budgie's window manager process tended to spike in CPU usage occasionally, even when the desktop was calm. The desktop automatically resized dynamically to fit the VirtualBox window which was pleasantly convenient.
When I switched over to running Solus on my workstation the distribution ran quickly. I no longer ran into any sluggish behaviour (Budgie offered good responsiveness) and I no longer encountered CPU spikes, which I suspect were caused by software rendering when hardware capabilities were not directly available.
Solus worked well with my hardware and I found both the desktop and underlying operating system were pleasantly stable. Solus consumed 575MB of memory to log into Budgie, which is about average for mainstream Linux distributions. Its disk usage was also typical, about 6.1GB were required for the root partition.
Solus ships with a relatively conservative collection of applications. Looking through the application menu we can find Firefox, Thunderbird, and LibreOffice. There is a Calendar application, the HexChat IRC client, and an image viewer. The Rhythmbox audio player and GNOME MPV media player are included along with codecs to play popular media formats.
Solus 4.2 -- The desktop calendar and GNOME Files applications (full image size: 74kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
There are also a large number of configuration tools for tweaking the desktop, power settings, setting up user accounts, and on-line services. These configuration modules are available both through the application menu and the desktop's settings panel. The Budgie settings panel appears to be GNOME's settings panel and, at a casual glance, there do not appear to be any Budgie-specific modifications or features.
The Solus Budgie edition uses the GNOME Files file manager, the systemd init software, and ships with version 5.10 of the Linux kernel. These, along with a few small tools, such as a system monitor and text editor, mean that the application menu remains uncluttered while basic desktop functionality is provided.
I went looking for a way to adjust where some launchers appear in the application menu. I also hoped to find a way to disable the need to click on a software category in order to see the launchers in that part of the menu. However, I was unable to find a way to customize the Budgie menu. I could, on the other hand, pin open applications to the quick-launch bar which made accessing commonly used programs faster.
Solus 4.2 -- The settings panel (full image size: 425kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
One feature which performed inconsistently was the screenshot application. Sometimes if I pressed the Print Screen button on my keyboard I would hear the satisfying "shutter" sound and a new screenshot would appear in my Pictures directory. However, sometimes a "boop" error sound would be played and no image would be saved to the Pictures directory. Still other times no sound would play at all and no snapshot would be taken. I did not find any pattern as to when the shortcut key would work and when it did not. Launching the screenshot utility from the application menu and taking snapshots through the utility always worked.
In a lot of ways running Solus felt, to me, to be similar to running Artix Linux just before I started this review. The two projects have a number of things in common. They are both rolling releases, both use dark themes, both ship with a fairly small collection of software we can build on. I feel as though Artix places more focus on being lightweight with better performance while Solus places more emphasis on looking pretty and having features like a modern-looking notification area.
Solus 4.2 -- The applets and notifications panel (full image size: 718kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The Budgie desktop, which I usually don't use apart from when I am reviewing Solus, mostly worked well. I like its layout and style more than GNOME, but also appreciate that it imports a number of useful tools from the GNOME family (like the settings panel) which lend more functionality and polish to the Budgie experience.
Like Artix, Solus finds a good balance between offering just enough applications to get started without overly cluttering the application menu. There is enough functionality to get people started browsing the web, writing letters, and importing appointments into their calendar, without needing to wade through a massive collection of software.
On the whole, Solus performed fairly well for me and gave me the tools I wanted. The system was stable and, while not super fast, worked smoothly enough. There are two areas where I feel Solus could be improved. Performing manual partitioning could be a nicer experience. Even if the installer just had a button to launch GParted and restart the installer this would save the user from finding and launching GParted manually and then opening the installer again. After that, assigning mount points does not feel clear. I think an obvious drop-down menu or button would be better than making the user click along a highlighted bar looking for the spot that reacts. These are minor issues, but the installer is a big part of a person's first impressions.
The other area I felt needed improvement was the software centre. I had terrible luck with managing software. Downloads sometimes failed, the password prompt worked less than half the time, sometimes the centre would simply lock up mid-action and need to be closed. The layout and organization of the software centre is great, but a successful transaction rate of 25% is devastating to the user experience.
On the other hand, I do applaud the Solus team for trying to provide portable packages, such as Flatpak and Snap, along with popular third-party applications many users will want. New Linux users are often interested in running Spotify, Slack, and Skype so it's nice to see these readily available.
On the whole I think Solus is doing well. There are some key areas that can be polished, particularly software management and desktop performance, though otherwise the distribution offers a solid, useful, and attractive experience.
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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: