Star 1.0.1 - lightweight desktops on a Devuan baseStar is a Devuan-based distribution designed to be run with lightweight desktop environments. The latest release of Star is based on Devuan 1.0.0 "Jessie" and is available in Xfce, Fluxbox, JWM, OpenBox, i3 and network-install editions. The ISO files for these editions range in size from 234MB (for the network-install option) up to 648MB for the Xfce edition, meaning each edition is small enough to fit on a CD. Most of the available ISO files are built for 64-bit x86 computers, but one of Star's newest editions runs the JWM graphical environment on a 32-bit operating system. The 32-bit JWM edition is 526MB in size and it is the one I selected for my trial.
Booting from the Star disc brings up a boot menu offering to launch the distribution's live desktop environment, launch a text-based installer or a graphical installer. Taking the live edition quickly brings up the minimal JWM environment. The window manager presents us with a mostly empty, black interface. At the top of the screen is a panel that holds the application menu, some quick-launch buttons, the task switcher and system tray. Displayed across the bottom of the screen is a status bar which provides a rough overview of our computer's CPU, memory and network resource usage. We can right-click on empty parts of the desktop to bring up an application menu.
We can launch Star's system installer from the application menu or from the live media's boot menu. I decided to use the graphical installer, which Star inherits from Devuan and, by extension, Debian. The installer has more steps in it than most modern installers, but the information it asks us for is mostly the same. We are asked to provide our location and preferred language. The installer gets us to create a password for the administrator's account and to create a username and password for our own, separate account. The system installer then walks us through partitioning our hard drive and can support either manual or guided partitioning. I like the guided option because it will give us a good default layout and then we have the option of tweaking the suggested partitions. Star's installer supports working with ext2/3/4, JFS, XFS and Btrfs partitions and I went with the recommended ext4. We are then asked to select a nearby package mirror from a list and given the option of installing the GRUB boot loader. When the installer finishes, we are returned to the JWM interface where we can continue to explore the live environment.
Star boots to a mostly blank screen that contains a box where we can type in our account's username and password. Once our credentials have been supplied we are signed into the JWM interface. The first time we sign in, a virtual terminal window opens and runs a welcome script. This script is called star-welcome and presents us with a short list of options the script will help us automate. We can select which options we want to run from a text menu. Some of the welcome screen's options are fairly clear and provide a way for us to update our package manager's information and install security upgrades. There are some other menu items which are not immediately clear; three of the options were labeled "office-print", "media-graphics" and "other". Selecting an option brings us a screen with a brief description of the option. For example, "office-print" gives us the options of installing LibreOffice and printer support. The "media-graphics" menu optionally installs the PulseAudio sound software and the GNU Image Manipulation Program while the "other" menu option installs Java on the operating system. Each option tells us what it will do and prompts for confirmation before proceeding so it is safe to select a menu item even if its label does not clearly explain its function.
Star 1.0.1 -- Running the Firefox web browser (full image size: 113kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
Once I had finished browsing the welcome script, the virtual terminal closed and left me to explore the JWM interface. The default theme is dark, matching the default black background. The desktop interface is very responsive and simple with little clutter or distractions, apart from the status panel at the bottom of the display.
Star does not feature any method for letting us know when software updates are available. We can manually check for new security updates by launching the Synaptic package manager or by using the distribution's APT command line tools. I mostly used Synaptic, which takes a package-oriented approach to handling software. Synaptic also has convenient functions for installing all available software upgrades and managing (enabling and disabling) additional software repositories. When I began using Star, there were 18 new software updates available, totaling just 37MB in size. These updates were quickly and cleanly installed by Synaptic.
Star 1.0.1 -- Managing packages in Synaptic (full image size: 119kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
While I was using Synaptic, I noticed that the distribution recognized a few third-party software repositories, such as one for the VirtualBox virtual machine software and another for the Chrome web browser. Enabling these repositories caused an error because the signing keys used to secure the repositories were not recognized. These keys need to be located and enabled separately by the administrator before the repositories can be used. This seems like a bug as the distribution should probably already recognize the keys for any repository available in its default configuration. In addition to these two repositories, Star is also compatible with Debian 8 "Jessie". This may be important for many users because Star, by default, does not provide non-free software packages and non-free items can be found in Debian's optional repositories.
I tried running Star in two test environments, on a laptop and in a VirtualBox virtual machine. I was pleased to find everything worked on the laptop. The system booted quickly, the desktop was responsive and the sound volume was set to a medium level. My laptop's screen was automatically set to its full resolution. The only quirk I ran into while using the laptop was Star disabled my wireless card by default. At first I thought the wireless card was missing a driver, but found I simply needed to toggle on wireless networking using the networking system tray applet.
When running Star inside VirtualBox the distribution performed well. The only issue I ran into in the virtual environment was Star was unable to use my computer's full screen resolution. There were no VirtualBox guest modules in the distribution's default software repositories. To get around this, I installed build tools (using Star's welcome script) and then install VirtualBox's generic guest modules. This allowed me to use my host system's full screen resolution.
In both test environments, Star was quick and light on resources. The distribution required just 70MB of RAM when logged into the JWM interface. A default installation of the distribution used about 1.3GB of disk space, relatively light compared to most distributions I have run recently.
Star is a distribution which is design to provide us with a minimal desktop environment where we can build and shape our operating system. However, there are a handful of common utilities included with the distribution. Firefox 45 ESR is featured (without Flash support). The MPV media player is installed for us along with the Xfburn disc burning software. The application menu features a short-cut for opening the ALSA audio volume controls, along with a link to the Htop process monitor and the GParted disk partition manager. The Mirage image viewer is included along with a PDF viewer, an archive manager, calculator and text editor. The system's default file manager is PCManFM.
The application menu also features a handful of entries that, when clicked, open JWM's configuration text files in an editor. This provides us with a way to manage the JWM environment and programs which run automatically when we login. Editing text files is not a user friendly approach, but I found it worked when I could find the option I wanted to change.
Digging further into Star's default software I found the project ships with SysV init and version 3.16 of the Linux kernel. The usual GNU command line utilities are included too, but beyond that we need to install the software we want to use on the system. For example, unlike most other Linux distributions, Star does not include the OpenSSH client software (ssh, sftp and scp) - these programs can be installed from Star's default repositories. In a similar manner, LibreOffice is not included in Star by default, but it is available through the package manager and through the welcome script. When I installed LibreOffice, the suite was not added to my application menu and I found I had to launch LibreOffice from the command line or from JWM's program launcher.
I ran into one curious bug involving manual pages. Most Linux distributions include manual pages (often called man pages), though some omit the documentation to save space. Star includes the man command and entries for every command's manual page are included, but all of the manual pages are empty. (The files for each manual page are zero bytes in size.) This causes the man command to recognize program names we give to it, but man only ever displays a blank page.
One final problem I ran into concerned the MPV media player. When I tried to launch the player from either the application menu or command line, MPV would immediately crash. I was able to install other media players, such as Rhythmbox and VLC, to handle playing media files. In the VirtualBox environment I found VLC was unable to play video files and would crash if I tried to play a video. Audio files, however, would play successfully in VLC. This inability to play video files appears to be an issue specific to the VirtualBox environment. While desktop players consistently crashed when asked to play video files, I found I was able to play YouTube videos in the Firefox browser without any issues.
On the whole, I like the ideas presented in Star's design. The distribution is basically Devuan and pulls packages from Devuan's software repositories, but the live media and lightweight environments are great for testing the distribution and for breathing life into older computers. While this approach of starting light and adding only what we need is a solid concept, and proved to be very forgiving on resources, there are some rough edges in the implementation. The missing manual pages, for example, and the media player issues I ran into posed problems.
A few programs I used flashed warning messages letting me know PulseAudio was not available as Star uses the ALSA sound system by default. Strictly speaking, PulseAudio is not required most of the time and, if we do run into a situation where it is needed, we can install PulseAudio easily enough by rerunning Star's welcome script.
The default JWM environment is very plain and empty, which suited me. My only complaint was the constantly updating Conky status panel at the bottom of the screen. I was able to disable Conky, but it required digging into JWM's configuration files. Which brings me to another point: many users will probably prefer to try heavier editions of Star (like Xfce) to gain access to more user friendly configuration tools. The JWM edition is intentionally bare bones and probably best suited to more experienced users.
One last observation I had while using Star is that it is based on Devuan 1.0.0, which presents us with software that is about three years old (or more) at this point. This means some packages, like LibreOffice, are notably behind upstream versions. Since Star is best suited for older computers, this may not be an issue for most users, but it is worth keeping in mind that Star's software repository is a few years old at this point.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast