SolydXK 201902 "Xfce"SolydXK is a Debian-based desktop distribution available in Xfce and KDE Plasma flavours. The distribution takes Debian's Stable branch and attempts to build a user friendly desktop experience on top of it. The latest version of the project adds new file system support for flash drives (offering f2fs and nilfs2 file systems). There have also been some changes in the arena of web browsers:
We changed the SolydXK Firefox settings even further to improve user privacy and also comply with Mozilla's distribution policies. This is done in the firefox-solydxk-adjustments package which can be purged if you don't need it.
Waterfox is now packaged and distributed by the SolydXK repository. You can install Waterfox with this command: apt install waterfox waterfox-solydxk-adjustments.
The official versions of SolydXK run on 64-bit (x86_64) machines only. There are 32-bit x86 ISO files provided by the community and there is a build for Raspberry Pi 3 computers. I opted to try the official Xfce edition which is a 1.5GB download.
The live media boots to the Xfce desktop. The live environment features bright orange wallpaper and offers a single icon on the desktop for launching the system installer. The desktop's panel, with the application menu and system tray, sit at the bottom of the screen.
SolydXK 201902 -- The default desktop and application menu (full image size: 84kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
When I tried launching the installer, at first nothing seemed to happen. Then, after about five seconds, a window opened which appeared to indicate the installer was being updated. Then the installer window opens. The SolydXK installer looks to be a modified version of the Linux Mint Debian Edition installer, which would make sense since the two distributions have some shared history. The installer walks us through selecting our preferred language from a list, confirming our time zone and choosing our keyboard's layout from another list. We are asked to create a username and password for ourselves and, optionally, we can enable auto-login for our user.
Partitioning is a little unusual. We are shown a visual representation of our disk with a list of partitions. We can right-click on partitions to assign them mount points. If we want to create or change a partition we can click a button that opens the GParted partition manager. Once we have finished working with GParted and returned to the installer, we need to click a Refresh button so the installer will see the new disk layout. When I first tried installing SolydXK, the installer refused to proceed past the partitioning screen, reporting my swap partition was the wrong size: it had to be larger than 1GB and no bigger than 4GB. This seems like an odd restriction since many people do not need swap space at all, but I changed my swap space assignment and managed to proceed. The installer then copied its files to my hard drive and completed its work successfully.
SolydXK boots to a graphical login screen that features a bright, orange background. When I first started using SolydXK the distribution took over two minutes to boot. When I looked into this I found that the FreshClam service was running during the boot process. FreshClam is a tool for updating the ClamAV anti-virus software. FreshClam was consuming all available CPU for several minutes and was set to run 24 times per day, starting when the system was booting.
Disabling the FreshClam service reduced boot times to under a minute (less than half what they were originally). The system was still slower than most to boot and further investigation revealed SolydXK was checking for software updates before reaching the login screen which consumed both disk and CPU resources.
When we first sign into SolydXK a welcome screen appears. It gives a short overview of what the distribution is. The welcome screen has multiple pages with most of them listing popular software packages which we can mark to download. The welcome screen offers to install extra multimedia support, bittorrent software, VirtualBox, games, Valve's Steam client, and PlayOnLinux to help us run Windows applications. I like that the welcome screen warns us about potential licensing and security concerns with some of the popular software items.
At first I went through the welcome pages and selected software I wanted to use. Then I clicked the window's Install button. I was told nothing was selected. Then I realized that the Install button only downloads selected items on the current page. We need to treat each page separately, selecting packages and then clicking Install for each page. I started over, queuing up applications to download. On the third page the welcome window crashed, which also stopped the install process running in the background. The next time I signed into my account the welcome window returned and I was able to use it to download a couple of applications.
The Xfce desktop places its panel at the bottom of the screen. The application menu uses a two-pane layout with categories on the right and specific launchers on the left. The desktop is pleasantly responsive and I had no problems navigating it.
I did run into two problems while using Xfce. The first was that the mouse pointer's image did not always match its context. Specifically, when the mouse pointer was over a pane edge which could be dragged left/right, the pointer displayed the up/down drag symbol. When hovering over a pane edge that could move up/down, the mouse pointer displayed the left/right drag symbol. This happened in both of my test environments.
The other issue was I wanted to change the wallpaper to something less intense. However, the wallpaper switching tool disables browsing into directories, effectively blocking us from changing the background to anything other than one of the wallpapers that ships with SolydXK. I settled for disabling wallpaper and using a solid background colour.
Applications and services
The distribution ships with many popular open source applications, including the Firefox web browser, Thunderbird, the X11VNC remote desktop server and LibreOffice. The Evince document viewer is included along with the VLC multimedia player, the Xfburn disc burning software, an image viewer and a simple scanning tool. There are some other useful items such as a font manager (for installing and removing fonts), a bulk file rename utility and the GNU Privacy Assistant (GPA). The luckyBackup tool is available to help us create archives of our files. Thunar is the distribution's default file manager.
I found the GNU Compiler Collection is installed along with Java. The distribution uses systemd for its init implementation, Network Manager to help us get on-line, and version 4.9 of the Linux kernel.
SolydXK 201902 -- Running LibreOffice and configuring the firewall (full image size: 232kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Some of the included packages are little older than those we find on other desktop distributions. This is due to SolydXK using Debian Stable as its base, which is now about two years old. This means we start off with an older kernel and LibreOffice 5 instead of version 6. Practically this did not impact me, but people who want the latest and great software will probably want to want to enable a backports repository or consider getting newer versions of packages through a portable format such as Flatpak. Flatpak is not installed by default, but it is available in the repositories. It requires some manual setting up, we cannot just go to Flathub.org and click the install buttons of the programs we want; a bit of command line work is required to enable and download Flatpak applications. Flatpaks are not added to the application menu either which means we need to manually create short-cuts or launch Flatpak programs from the command line. This not at all user friendly, but it works and allowed me to run newer versions of applications.
One problem I ran into while web browsing was there were some websites where Firefox would not display images. On most sites, images were displayed, but on a few I would just see broken image outlines. At first I thought this might be a side effect of one of Firefox's extensions SolydXK enables. (Firefox ships with Privacy Badger, HTTPS Everywhere and uBlock enabled.) However, I turned all of these extensions off and the missing images still did not load. Installing another browser (Chromium in this case) did show the images on the same pages so the issue appears to be specific to just Firefox on SolydXK, since the sites worked perfectly on another system running Firefox. I thought Firefox's issues might relate to the comment in the release announcement about the firefox-solydxk-adjustments package, which is installed. I found that removing this package and restarting the browser fixed my issues.
Chromium came with its own frustrations since the browser regularly pops up prompts for our keyring password. This is something which can be worked around or disabled, but it is not a problem users should be forced to deal with.
There are two graphical front-ends for managing background services. One, called Services, lists programs which will be run in the background at boot time. The other, called systemadm, allows us to start and stop existing systemd services. While using these tools I made some interesting discoveries. One is that the OpenVPN service and the exim4 mail service are both enabled. I did not find any use for the mail service and disabled it. I also did not find any indication OpenVPN was configured or meant to be used by default which makes me curious as to why it was installed and enabled.
Earlier I mentioned FreshClam runs periodically in the background and, whenever this happened, it slowed the system down quite a lot for a few minutes. Since I was not using the ClamAV scanner, I disabled the FreshClam service. The service continued to run though, probably launched from another tool or script and I ended up un-installing FreshClam and ClamAV to prevent them from consuming CPU and disk resources.
I started my experiment with SolydXK in a VirtualBox environment. The distribution played well with VirtualBox, running smoothly and integrating with my host machine and using my display's full screen resolution. I had a similarly good experience when running the distribution on my workstation. Sound, networking (wired and wireless), and my screen were all handled properly.
SolydXK was highly responsive in both environments (when FreshClam was not running) and I liked how quickly Xfce would open menus and launch applications. I also liked that SolydXK ships with the CUPS PDF printer enabled, allowing us to convert any document or image to a PDF.
SolydXK 201902 -- Setting up a printer (full image size: 158kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The distribution was fairly light on memory, using 260MB of RAM. Disk usage was about average for a mainstream Linux distribution, consuming 5GB of space with the default applications.
SolydXK ships with two graphical tools for dealing with software. One is called Package Updater which simply checks for new software updates to install. During my trial no new packages were made available so I was unable to properly test this tool.
The other graphical front-end to APT is simply called Packages. The Packages tool shows a long list of software categories to the left of the window and specific packages on the right. There is a search bar placed at the top of the window. We can then browse categories and mark items to be installed or removed. Packages builds a queue of actions to perform and handles them all in one batch. As far as low-level package managers go, Packages is quite good. It doesn't do anything particularly special or different, and it did not cause me any problems. So far as I could tell, there is no separate software centre for desktop applications.
I struggled quite a bit with my feelings toward SolydXK and I think it is largely because, on paper, the distribution sets out to do a lot of things I like. It uses a stable base, runs an extended support version of Firefox with privacy add-ons, has a nice welcome screen that offers users detailed descriptions of popular applications and provides a couple of top-notch desktop editions. I can even get on board with the idea of providing anti-virus software, not because I feel it is particularly useful, but a lot of people migrating from Windows want to have it. So all of these features strike me as good to have.
However, the implementation of these ideas often yielded unpleasant side-effects. The privacy-focused Firefox broke a couple of websites, the welcome screen crashed when queuing software downloads, the anti-virus updater strongly affected performance and boot times, and the wallpaper selector seems to have been disabled. Trying to work around some of these issues was not always easy, as I found out when dealing with Chromium's many password prompts and the system's inability to work with Flatpak bundles.
SolydXK 201902 -- Trying to select new wallpaper (full image size: 153kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
There are still several perks of SolydXK, such as the Xfce desktop's excellent performance, good hardware support and the PDF virtual printer being set up by default. However, I do not feel the distribution is as beginner friendly as it used to be. It seems conservative packaging and privacy (both good things) have taken priority over polish and ease of use (which would also be good things to have). On the whole SolydXK is a good distribution, and worked well once I made some adjustments. After the first day or two, I really appreciated its stable, high-speed desktop and lack of distractions. But there are some bugs to work around and it took me a while to hunt down and remove processes which were causing performance issues and sort out some web browser problems. On the whole this was not a bad release, but there were a lot of rough edges and extra services enabled that did not need to be included.
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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: