Star 2.1.0The Star Linux distribution has been around for years in various guises and I resolved to look at it in a bit more depth in the current quest to look at more Devuan-derived distributions as alternatives to Debian in my search for init freedom, rather than just running it for a minute in VirtualBox like I have with its predecessors. Star is done by the developers of CROWZ, formerly Zephyr Linux, which seems mostly identical in aim, setup and flavours of window managers provided.
Both projects provide 32-bit and 64-bit Intel/AMD architecture builds and are hosted on Sourceforge and both are built on the currently stable version of Devuan GNU+Linux, at the moment 2.1 "ASCII".
For the purposes of this test I downloaded the JWM, i3 and Xfce 64-bit editions of Star Linux 2.1 (code name "Kirk") from the Files section of the distribution's website where the checksums of the ISO images can also be found to check integrity if one is so inclined. Openbox, Fluxbox and net-install images are also available. They come in at about 480-518MB in size, with the net-install image listed as 320MB. 32-bit images optimized for i686 are only available with JWM or as a net-install option. Interestingly, the i3 flavour with only a bare window manager was the largest at 518MB, while the Xfce flavor came in at 504MB and JWM at 500MB. Backports repositories are enabled by default.
It is clear almost immediately that looks are not what the makers are overly concerned with. The distribution's representative icon reminds me of the negative of a very simple, bad tattoo.
In an e-mail exchange, Zephdev informed me that Ozi Traveller is the lead developer for Star, whereas CROWZ is Zeph's project. Zeph explains the rationale behind both projects:
We both embrace the same ideas and structure our distributions similar right down to no wallpaper. Actually any bloat or unneeded apps are simply not installed in the image build. Most Linux users know what they want or need so installing software other than what is initially installed is the minimum to get the new user up and running. Both distributions use a similar welcome-screen that populates on the first run or when they simply reenter in a terminal for more applications.
Ozi expanded on this by providing a bit of background history.
Star was born from CrunchBang Linux and a parting comment by Corenominal (Philip Newborough), where he described his thoughts on the next version, if he were to build one. I felt boiled down to "more minimal, and only using stable Debian packages".
I intentionally, only have a few applications, Star is meant to be customised by the user. I don't know what the user will want, and everyone is different. Star is a starting point! Customise it to your own liking!
Star Linux is a bit like CrunchBang with its simple, black presentation, only without the additional pipe-menus and scripts. In a way a stripped down CrunchBang. If that appeals to you, read on.
Star 2.1.0 -- The GRUB boot loader (full image size: 14kB, resolution: 640x480 pixels)
As usual, the distribution was first tested in VirtualBox and then as a bare metal install. Booting up the GRUB2 screen is nothing to write home about, with the usual entries. And it is mostly black.
Live session and installation
Anyways, from here we can opt to boot into live mode, extract and copy to memory first, start a text based installer or the graphical installer. Star is using a Devuan base and with that the old Debian installer. Under advanced options one can, for example, provide a preseeded configuration to automate larger installs. Other entries are Rescue Mode and Expert Install which gives a few more options to customize language and keyboard input separately, and to install accessibility features for blind and visually impaired users. Here one can also change the priority of questions asked by the installer and depth of system configuration with debconf. 99.9% of users shouldn't need this and should only ever have to select Install or Graphical Install from the main menu. In fact, in the case of Star, the questions were virtually identical.
Installation is mostly a point and click thing encompassing the usual steps, selecting the device to install on, timezone, root password, making up a username and choosing where to install the boot loader. Most people will want to go with the main hard drive identified and with the MBR for the boot loader or skip it altogether if booting will be handled by another operating system's boot loader. If going for auto-install instead of manual partitioning this setup process can be very streamlined indeed.
Star 2.1.0 -- The login page (full image size: 16kB, resolution: 800x600 pixels)
In VirtualBox the initial boot screen is a lowly 640x480 resolution but we get full mouse integration. One thing that seemed annoying in the beginning was that Star always asked prior to going into live mode what resolution and color depth it should adopt. You are expected to select from a list of supported resolutions and punch in the code. While this seemed old-fashioned at first, it allowed me to set a larger screen size as there is no option to change screen resolution in the live session.
Once rebooted, Star identified simply as Devuan, reinforcing that these custom installs are probably better thought of as modifications of the parent OS than as independent distributions and which are offering alternative flavours with their images as a starting point that the original distribution does not provide. These are a variety of window managers, and also firmware that is included.
The login screen again is predictably black. This may not be to everybody's taste but at least prompting for a username is good security practice. Still though, the login theming should be changed, even if it's going to be all black or, preferably, something slightly more hackerish would suit this modification well.
Desktop and applications - JWM
At first I tested the JWM edition. The desktop is presented with the panel at the top and the Conky system monitor at the bottom. As is common, we get the menu button on the left hand side of the panel, followed by quick launcher shortcuts for the terminal, the PCManFM file manager, the MPV video player and a browser. I haven't had good experiences with MPV as it seems very picky about when to work but applications can be switched out.
Star 2.1.0 -- The JWM environment (full image size: 18kB, resolution: 1440x900 pixels)
Interestingly, not Firefox or something light like Midori has been chosen but Web, the web browser for the GNOME desktop (what I believe used to be the Epiphany browser). Web actually starts up really fast, by default it loads a pre-set page file with helpful links to the forum of related projects, parent distributions and other projects like BunsenLabs Linux.
Star 2.1.0 -- Running the Web browser on JWM (full image size: 86kB, resolution: 1440x900 pixels)
Further to the right we find the window list of open applications and a system tray with virtual desktop switcher, network applet and a clock.
At the bottom of the screen we find the usual information for monitoring a running system, i.e. kernel version, CPU usage, RAM usage and network and battery monitors. From the looks of it you couldn't tell if this is JWM, Xfce or Openbox.
Left- or right-clicking on the desktop brings up the application menu which again, by design, appears very much like the menu in Openbox. Aspects of window manager behaviour and the menu can be changed and edited in the JWM menu under Settings in the main menu. If you have ever edited Openbox or Fluxbox settings and menus via their config files you will feel right at home here. There's also a nicely commented autostart file, in case one is going to install Wicd, or Nitrogen to manage backgrounds, all we have to do is to uncomment the respective entries.
Star 2.1.0 -- Browsing the JWM menu (full image size: 55kB, resolution: 1440x900 pixels)
The applications menu also includes LXappearance to change style and theming once you have installed additional ones as Star only comes with their default theme. True to the one application per task lean and mean philosophy there are only a couple of applications. It's enough to get you started but don't expect heavy packages like LibreOffice to be on board. In addition to the already mentioned programs, under Accessories we get a basic calculator, the Mousepad text editor, Xarchiver and Xterm; under Graphics the Mirage picture viewer and entries for taking screenshots; an audio mixer under Multimedia; the Xpdf viewer is the only item in the Office section. The best stocked area is the system tools section which includes the Synaptic package manager, a hardware information utility, GParted and the Gdebi package installer, a disk manager, Htop for monitoring and possibly terminating processes, an alternatives selector to change default behaviour and which applications will handle tasks, options to start the terminal and file manager as the root user and to mount and unmount removable media.
A minor oversight in the file manager's Preferences --> Advanced tab is that file-roller is selected to integrate archive management but Xarchiver is installed. This is easily remedied by selecting Xarchiver from the drop-down list.
Despite 4.14 being out now for a while Star is still on Xfce 4.12. In essence, the desktop presentation and application choice is trying to preserve a similar experience as in JWM, most visibly borne out by the layout of the panel and the icon theme. The Star Xfce desktop is also using the Epiphany web browser, MPV and alsamixer, Mousepad, Mirage and Xpdf viewer.
Some of the LX applications have been swapped out in favour of those native to the desktop environment, such as the terminal and the file manager.
With Qalculate! a more capable calculator has been included that can also load exchange rates from the net. Apart from this it is the same set of programs. Not quite sure why arandr is included when Xfce has a native module to set screen resolution in the settings manager. Volume management is enabled by default in Thunar and the right click desktop menu has some neat entries to open terminal or file manager with root privileges. A couple of Debian and Devuan wallpapers are included.
Star 2.1.0 -- Running the Xfce desktop (full image size: 54kB, resolution: 1440x900 pixels)
I did not dabble much with this. Predictably, the i3 desktop behaves and looks very differently, for example there is no shell menu on mouse clicks and applications are launched in full screen mode.
Shortcuts in the lower left corner help us get started with common commands and with launching the most common applications. I was able to launch the terminal, the PCManFM file manager and the browser which was also GNOME Web/Epiphany. The text editor was Mousepad so by all accounts the Star team appear to stick to the same set of applications if items are not window manager specific. Even the issue with file-roller set to extract archives instead of Xarchiver is present in the file manager.
Star 2.1.0 -- Running the i3 window manager (full image size: 46kB, resolution: 1440x900 pixels)
The menu in i3 is provided by dmenu which is listed at the top. It is probably the most important shortcut as it allows us to see what is installed and launch any additional programs. I guess to be more productive a good idea would be to define more shortcuts ourselves to get quick access to our most often used programs, in my case to a word processor or the whole office suite. It would have also made sense to have one pointing to Synaptic, but maybe there is a reason not to make it easily accessible.
Being based on Devuan means Star is using the SysV init system for managing PID 1. One of the arguments against SysV init was that supposedly it was taking too long to start up because it was running scripts serially and not in parallel, resulting in long and delayed boot times.
Star's implementation includes the insserv boot sequence organiser package that updates the order of symlinks to optimize the boot process for the installed packages, and startpar to run processes in parallel.
Firmware and networking
I thought this warrants an extra section as the part of the free and open source software world that is based on Debian GNU/Linux, or in this case Devuan GNU+Linux, can be quite particular about inclusion of proprietary blobs.
All editions have free and non-free firmware, iwlwifi and intel-microcode packages as well as support for Broadcom chips (legacy and current installer) included. Other firmware is on the live image for AMD microcode and graphics, Ralink and Realtek chips. Particularly with inclusion of the latter ones external USB adapters should work without further ado.
All editions of Star use connman and connman-ui to manage networks. This appears to support Ethernet, wireless networking and Bluetooth but I am unsure how and if connman works with VPN connections which could be a deal breaker.
Running it for real
So far we've only been cruising around in VirtualBox and giving an overview over what to expect. And that for a good reason. At first I thought my trusty Flash Voyager USB key was faulty until I tried a new one from SanDisk. I tried several utilities to write the live images as well as dd, no joy, as well as all of the above images. None of them were even recognized in the BIOS so I was unable to configure setup to boot from it.This is a newer ASUS Vivobook I am trying this on and unfortunately I do not have access to my old Dell. After a while I found out I had to disable CMS and voila, my USB stick was detected.
I used the JWM edition for bare metal testing as it sort of seems to be the default Star edition. We get the prompt for screen resolution again and, once selected, are logged into the desktop in the live session. The connman utility can be a bit tricky to set up and although I was able to connect after supplying the password, due to the UI, it would not be my preferred networking manager.
There were some oddities where the pmount utility did not detect any of my external memory cards or USB to mount and although PCManFM was set to manage volumes it did not detect any either. I was in essence restricted to the live session, unable to mount any internal or external drives, so this would not be a good rescue medium although quite secure as it doesn't allow us to mess with anything.
To be honest, in the end I didn't feel like installing Star, although it's an incredibly light and fast system.
Going by the JWM edition, CPU usage was low at 1% on idle and no spikes or unexplained activity showing. 110MB of RAM was used immediately after start, 120MB after a few applications had been opened and closed again. 146MB as seen in the screenshot with normal desktop activity and the MPV video player open.
The i3 edition seemed a bit less efficient, needing 146MB straight away after boot. Xfce used 196MB.
At first Star looks a bit bland and barren and only has few basic applications installed, following the one application per task concept. Going by feedback on the project's site and the mini reviews or ratings left on DistroWatch, Star has a lot of satisfied users who clearly don't mind the bare looks and the small size. If anything, that is the attraction. All it needs is a change of wallpaper and some theming if you're so inclined and adding a few choice programs, just like most distributions.
This kind of base can be interesting to the advanced user who wants to build their installation up themselves and know what they want out of it, starting from a small base install but one that has X and a window manager for a functional GUI already available. On top of that it is based on Devuan which presents with a sane and proven init system. I quite like Star and will certainly bear it in mind in the future once there is a new release.
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Hardware used in this review
ASUS Vivobook, ASUSTeK product: X510UNR
Motherboard: ASUSTeK X510UNR
UEFI: American Megatrends v: X510UNR.308 date: 07/24/2018
CPU: Quad Core model (4x2): Intel Core i7-8550U arch: Kaby Lake
rev: A L2 cache: 8192 KiB, 400/4000 MHz Core speeds