Trisquel GNU/Linux 9.0Trisquel GNU/Linux is an entirely free (libre) distribution based on Ubuntu. Trisquel offers a variety of desktop editions, all of which are stripped of non-free software components. The project is one of the few Linux distributions endorsed by the Free Software Foundation and a rare project that attempts to both be entirely free and friendly to less experienced Linux users.
The Trisquel website lists several desktop editions. The main edition (which is a 2.5GB download) features the MATE desktop environment while the Mini edition is about half the size and runs LXDE. There is also a KDE Plasma edition (called Triskel) along with Trisquel TOAST which runs the Sugar learning platform. Finally, there is a minimal net-install option for people who are comfortable building their system from the ground up using a command line interface.
The release announcement for Trisquel 9.0 is fairly brief and does not mention many features. The bulk of the information is provided in this paragraph: "The default web browser Abrowser, our freedom and privacy respecting take on Mozilla's browser, provides the latest updates from upstream for a great browsing experience. Backports provide extended hardware support." Though it does not appear to be mentioned specifically in the release announcement, Trisquel 9.0 looks to be based on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS packages, with some applications backported.
Booting from the distribution's ISO brings up a menu asking us to select our preferred language from a list. Then we are shown the project's boot menu where we can set startup options. We can also choose between trying Trisquel's live desktop, installing the distribution, or running a text-based system installer. Taking the Try option loads the MATE desktop.
Trisquel GNU/Linux 9.0 -- Running Abrowser on the MATE desktop (full image size: 998kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
MATE places its panel across the bottom of the screen. An application menu and a few quick-launch buttons sit in the bottom-left corner of the display. The system tray takes up the lower-right corner and a task switcher sits in the middle of the panel. On the desktop we find icons for launching the file manager and opening the Ubiquity system installer.
The application menu has a tree-style layout and no search option. This makes it easy to browse categories of software, but harder to find programs where we only know the name and not the category. Some of the sub-menus get pretty deep. For example, to adjust the monitor settings we need to burrow through four layers of the menu (System -> Preferences -> Hardware -> Displays) or, alternatively, we can visit the settings panel.
Trisquel uses the Ubiquity graphical installer which will be familiar to most people who run members of the Ubuntu family of distributions. Ubiquity quickly and smoothly walks us through the paces, selecting our language, keyboard layout, time zone, and picking a username for ourselves. Ubiquity offers to show us the project's release notes which opens a web browser to display Trisquel's on-line release announcement. We are also asked if we would like to download any available package updates during the install process. When I was first starting to use Trisquel there were no updates available so this option made no difference.
When it comes to dividing up the local disk Trisquel offers us guided and manual partitioning options. Ubiquity's manual partitioning is quite friendly and easily to navigate with nice graphics outlining the layout of the disk. When it comes to guided partitioning Ubiquity will take over available space, setting up an ext4 filesystem to hold the operating system and a swap partition. Alternatively we can enable a guided option that uses LVM volumes and encryption to protect the system.
The system installer performed all of its tasks without any issues. When it was finished Ubiquity offered to restart the computer.
My fresh copy of Trisquel booted to a graphical login screen. Signing into my account brought up the same MATE desktop I explored on the live disc. The login page and default MATE wallpaper display a blue seascape with fluffy clouds in the background. It's a scene I found quite pleasing and it worked fairly well with the light grey default theme. Trisquel does not include any welcome screen or first-run customizations. We dive straight into using the desktop, which displayed no notifications or distractions.
The distribution ran unusually well in VirtualBox. The MATE desktop was highly responsive, new applications opened quickly, and the operating system ran smoothly. The desktop would not dynamically resize with its VirtualBox window, but I could set the desktop resolution in the Displays settings module.
Trisquel GNU/Linux 9.0 -- Exploring configuration options in the settings panel (full image size: 708kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
When I switched over to testing the distribution on my workstation the performance was again great. I love how responsive MATE was in both test environments. The desktop flies on this distribution and windows are wonderfully snappy. MATE is a mid-weight desktop environment, yet it performs like a lightweight window manager on this distribution.
The one serious problem I ran into with Trisquel is that, being an entirely free operating system, it does not include non-free firmware. This means the operating system cannot use my wireless card. In an environment where wired Ethernet connections are available this won't be a problem, but for anyone who uses wireless networking, Trisquel will likely not be able to set up a network connection. Likewise, people hoping to use non-free video drivers for improved video and/or gaming support will not find them included in this distribution or its repositories.
Trisquel uses a relatively small amount of resources. When signed into MATE I found the system consumed 340MB of RAM and a fresh install used up 5.6GB of disk space. This is just slightly lighter than what Ubuntu MATE, one of Trisquel's closest relatives, used when I tested it last year.
Trisquel ships with a fairly standard collection of applications. Though, in some cases, popular software has been swapped out for more libre or privacy-protecting alternatives. For instance Trisquel uses Abrowser as the default web browser, which is a modified version of Firefox. Likewise Icedove replaces the Thunderbird e-mail client.
Looking through the application menu we also find the Pidgin and Jami communication clients, the Liferea feed reader, and the Electrum Bitcoin Wallet. The Transmission bittorrent software is included along with LibreOffice and a remote desktop viewer. The GNU Image Manipulation Program is included along with the Cheese webcam utility and Brasero disc burning software.
Trisquel GNU/Linux 9.0 -- Playing a game and running LibreOffice (full image size: 196kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The Rhythmbox audio and VLC multimedia programs are available along with a extensive collection of media codecs. There are a few games present along with the Caja file manager and the Back In Time backup software. To tweak the desktop and adjust some underlying settings, such as setting up printers and creating user accounts, we can visit the MATE settings panel. The settings panel is nicely laid out and offers a search box to help us filter the list of available modules. These worked quite nicely for me.
In the background Trisquel ships with the systemd init software and version 4.15 of the Linux kernel.
When it comes to managing software the utility which sits front and centre in the application menu is called Add/Remove Applications. This program, also known as trisquel-app-install appears to be a Python application that is divided into three panes. One large pane on the left shows software categories similar to those in the application menu. Clicking these categories shows packages in that category in the upper-right pane. Clicking a specific program in the upper-right pane shows a description of the software in the lower-right corner of the window.
We can click a box next to programs we wish to install and choose to download these programs in a batch. Once packages begin to download the software manager's interface is locked until the operations are all completed. It appears as though the Add/Remove Applications tool calls Synaptic in the background as Synaptic is the program which prompts us for password authorization.
While Add/Remove Applications worked quite well for me and I had no problems with it, in fact I quite like the simple, uncluttered interface, we also have the option of launching Synaptic directly to install, remove, and upgrade packages. Alternatively, we can manage software packages through the APT command line tools.
In addition to these options there is a simple update manager in the System sub-menu of the application menu. I like that this tool asks if it is okay for it to access the network before checking remote repositories for new packages. This potentially reduces bandwidth consumption and improves privacy on untrusted networks.
Trisquel maintains its own software repositories which appear to contain exclusively free software, mostly pulled from Ubuntu. By default there is no portable package framework (such as Flatpak or Snap) installed. I found Flatpak can be installed from Trisquel's repositories. There are also tools in the repositories for creating Snap packages, but the Snap software itself is missing.
While exploring Trisquel and using it to get some work done I started noticing a few things. One is that, unlike many modern distributions, Trisquel does not activate the screensaver after just five minutes of inactivity. The screensaver kicks on after 30 minutes which is much more to my taste.
The Jami communication client, when closed, remains running in the system tray. Even if we terminate the program from the system tray it always restarts itself the next time we login, taking up about an extra 100MB of memory. There is no in-app setting to disable this automatic start-up. Fortunately MATE can disable Jami's automatic activation through the Startup Applications module in the settings panel.
Pressing the Ctrl+Shift+E combination brings up a window for selecting emjoi characters. This interferes with the GNU Image Manipulation Program's keyboard shortcuts. As far as I can tell this key combination is not defined in MATE's global keyboard shortcuts and I did not find an easy way to disable it, slowing me down when I was editing images.
Trisquel is a fairly solid desktop operating system. The distribution ships with many useful applications and provides access to a large amount of software. It has a highly responsive desktop that I found fairly easy to navigate and a flexible & friendly settings panel. The system looks fairly nice with the default theme and offers some alternatives for people who want darker or higher contrast themes.
On the whole I found Trisquel to be pleasant to use, easy to set up, and pretty capable out of the box. I really like how fast it performed tasks and how uncluttered/unbusy the desktop felt.
The one problem I had with Trisquel was the lack of wireless networking support. The distribution strives for software freedom (as defined by the Free Software Foundation) and this means no non-free firmware, drivers, or applications. This slightly limits its hardware support compared to most Linux distributions. It also means no easy access to applications such as Steam, Chrome, Spotify, and so on. This may make Trisquel a less practical operating system to some, but that is sort of the point: Trisquel takes a hard stance in favour of software freedom over convenience.
If you are a person who does not use non-free software and doesn't need non-free wireless support, then Trisquel is probably the best experience you can have with an entirely free Linux distribution. It is painless to set up, offers several desktop flavours, and runs quickly. For free software enthusiasts I would highly recommend giving Trisquel a try.
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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: