Swimming with SharkLinuxOne project which caught my attention recently is SharkLinux, an Ubuntu-based distribution which claims to offer a number of interesting features. The distribution's website reports that SharkLinux is built on Ubuntu's 16.04 LTS release, but maintains a rolling release development cycle. SharkLinux ships with the MATE desktop and reportedly installs software updates automatically in the background. The project's website also mentions that users can perform administrator tasks using the sudo command with no password requirement and common package management commands have been aliased to easy to remember short-cuts.
This may seem like an unusual collection of features, or at least I thought so, but I believed I saw the potential in SharkLinux for a distribution I could give to less technical users. An operating system which automatically gets security updates, doesn't need to be re-installed and which does not prompt for a password when performing configuration tasks seemed like a good idea for less technical relatives.
I downloaded the 1.5GB ISO for SharkLinux and booted from it. The SharkLinux live disc brings up a MATE desktop with the application menu, task switcher and system tray placed at the bottom of the screen. The MATE wallpaper shows us a close up image of an open shark's mouth and the project's logo. An icon on the desktop can be used to launch the project's system installer. The default theme is mostly dark blue and grey, reminding me of the Windows desktop environments of the 1990s.
I decided to jump right in by launching the system installer. SharkLinux uses the Ubiquity system installer which it inherits from Ubuntu. The Ubiquity installer is pleasantly straight forward to use and quickly walks us through setting up the operating system with a minimal number of steps. The installer worked without any problems and, a few short minutes later, had finished setting up SharkLinux on my hard drive. The one odd thing I noticed during the installation was that when I had first launched the live desktop, I had an active network connection. I was able to get on-line and browse the web. However, when I launched the system installer, my network connection was dropped. As Ubiquity likes to have a network connection in order to download some packages, I re-enabled the network connection and things proceeded smoothly from there and my link to the Internet was not dropped again.
The second quirk of SharkLinux I ran into was, once the distribution had been installed, I could not find any button or launcher to reboot the computer. In the distribution's live environment (and in the installed copy of SharkLinux) there is no obvious way to logout, shut down or reboot the computer. I was able to open a virtual terminal and issue a reboot command to shut down the operating system, but this seems like a strange feature to place out of sight of the user.
The first time I booted into SharkLinux I was presented with a graphical login screen. Signing into the account I had created during the installation process brought me back to the MATE desktop and its shark-themed wallpaper. Upon signing in a window appeared in the middle of my desktop and reported the system was being updated. The update window displays a progress bar, but no details of what is being upgraded. We can use the system while the upgrade is in progress and I was thankful for this as the initial upgrade took several minutes.
Once the package upgrades are finished, a welcome window appears. This window doesn't provide us with much information, but does display several icons that offer to set up or install new components. There are several launchers in the welcome window and I will not get into all of them, but I will touch on a handful. One launcher is present for upgrading the MATE desktop environment, another offers to set up the Dropbox client software, another will install software updates. Additional icons offer to open the SharkLinux website, install extra third-party software and configure e-mail. The e-mail icon simply launches the Thunderbird e-mail application. There is an icon called SharkExpansion which, when clicked, opens a window asking if we want to install "SharkExpansion". No details are given and I did not find any information on what SharkExpansion is on the project's website and so skipped this step.
The welcome window only appears the first time we sign into the distribution, but the individual launchers and configuration tools can be found in MATE's application menu later if we want to revisit the utilities.
I noticed, after using SharkLinux for a while, that the background would change regularly. This gives us a variety of wallpapers (most of them not shark-themed) to look at.
SharkLinux ships with a wide variety of desktop applications. Looking through the application menu we find the Firefox and Chrome web browsers, FileZilla for transferring files, the Thunderbird e-mail client and LibreOffice. The Transmission bittorrent software and the Webtorrent bittorrent application are included along with the uGet download manager and the MEGASync desktop client. The Atril document viewer and a dictionary are included. The VLC media player is included along with the GNU Image Manipulation Program and the Eye of MATE image viewer. The distribution ships with Wavebox, a multi-protocol desktop communications client, the Guake drop-down terminal and a system monitor. There are several virtual machine manager launchers and links to download additional items such as Cockpit, Fire Jail, LinuxBrew, LXD Sandbox, WINE, TeamViewer, a Google Drive client, Ubuntu Cloud and SharkCloud. There generally isn't any explanation for what these one-click installers will provide, apart from the software's name so those unfamiliar with the brands will need to look up their descriptions.
SharkLinux uses Network Manager to help us get on-line. Also in the background we find the GNU Compiler Collection, Java and the Deja Dups backups utility. I quite like Deja Dups for its simplicity in creating regular backups. The distribution runs the systemd init software and version 4.4 of the Linux kernel.
Apart from some one-click launchers which will perform a quick-install of third-party software, SharkLinux features two graphical software managers: Synaptic and App Grid. Synaptic is a well known, no-frills package manager which has a well earned reputation for speed and flexibility. Synaptic doesn't make managing software packages particularly pretty - it displays simple lists of packages in a given category, but it works well.
App Grid takes a very different approach, displaying a large grid of applications with screen shots and brief descriptions. Looking at App Grid's graph paper style layout reminds me of looking at the application screen of a mobile device or the comics page of a newspaper. Clicking on one of the panels brings up a screen showing us details of a selected application, complete with a screen shot and user reviews. App Grid has few options, but one thing the software manager will do is let us filter the desktop applications it will display based on a program's category. Managing packages from within App Grid requires our user's sudo password. While it is working on installing new programs, App Grid does not appear to offer any progress information, downloading and installing packages happens quietly in the background. There is a page we can bring up showing items we have queued for installation, but otherwise App Grid is coy about what it is doing behind the scenes.
The SharkLinux website reports the distribution provides a rolling release model of software updates. This is a bit misleading. The SharkLinux installation media (the ISO file) is updated on a semi-regular basis and has no fixed version number. However, the software which ships with the distribution and is available in the default repositories does not get upgraded on a rolling release model. Most software is simply pulled in from Ubuntu's 16.04 LTS repositories. This means, even after updating all available software packages, my SharkLinux system was still running version 4.4 of the Linux kernel. My desktop was still MATE 1.16 even though MATE 1.18 had been available for months. Desktop applications, such as LibreOffice and the GNU Image Manipulation Program were likewise well behind their upstream versions.
In short, SharkLinux will automatically update itself with security updates, but not upgrade to new versions of most packages, with a few common exceptions such as the Firefox web browser which Ubuntu keeps up to date.
I tried running SharkLinux in two test environments, in a VirtualBox virtual machine and on a desktop computer. When running on the desktop computer the distribution ran smoothly. All of my hardware was detected and worked well. Running SharkLinux inside VirtualBox provided a similarly good experience. At first the distribution was unable to use my host computer's full screen resolution, but I was able to install the VirtualBox guest modules from SharkLinux's repositories to remedy this. In both environments, the distribution tended to use just under 400MB of RAM when logged into the MATE desktop.
One aspect of using Linux distributions (particularly younger distributions) I find fascinating is the glimpse into the priorities of the developers. Smaller projects especially can give us a look at what a given developer finds important and what software they do not consider significant enough to include. As an example, SharkLinux ships with many installers and applications for sharing files and synchronizing files to cloud storage, but no printer configuration software. In a similar vein, the distribution includes very few media players, but multiple web browsers. Of course, the big quirk of SharkLinux was the lack of obvious reboot/shut down/logout options, which suggests to me the developer rarely needs to power off their computer or share it with others.
When I first started using this distribution I thought it might appeal to my older relatives. The legacy Windows style of the desktop environment, the quick-install option for WINE, the ability to use sudo without a password and the promise of automatic upgrades all seemed geared toward less experienced, older computer users.
However, having run SharkLinux for a while, I increasingly got the impression the distribution would not suit less experienced Linux users. There are some rare sudo password prompts, the application menu is a bit cluttered with similar entries and there aren't clear descriptions or instructions for many of the Shark tools or extensions. Of course, teaching family members to use a drop-down virtual terminal to power off their computer is not likely to go smoothly either, in my opinion.
The overall impression I cam away with is SharkLinux is a reflection of what the project's developer wants and needs, but is eclectic enough that it's not likely to appeal to a wide audience.
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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: