Solus 3.9999 Review
The first time, I've ever heard about Solus was a long time ago, when the creative genius (or a madman) behind it, Ikey Doherty, was mentioned and later appeared in Jupiter Broadcasting linux-centric audiocast. It wasn't a single occurence, as at that time, Chris seemed to have a small infatuation with it, mentioning it often and passionately. I remember thinking it was a cool thing that we (meaning Linux users community) had a new, peculiar choice, appart from the stale Debian-based distribitions, Fedora and Arch. I didn't give it a lot of thought, though, as I weren't in an advanterous mood in that time of my live and I was happy chugging along with my trusty Ubuntu. Since I kept hearing about Solus from multiple sources over the years, both from Ikey's collaboration with Martin Wimpress, of Ubuntu Mate fame and from raving advocacy of Marius Quabeck, I finally gave it a go.
Spoiler alert: I wasn't dissapointed
Installation of Solus is easy, bordering on boring, as any proper distro's should be. If you put a chimpanzee with basic English skills behind a computer, it should be able to install it without any hiccups. Even I had no problems with it.
User interface and default apps.
While I was reviewing ZorinOS 12.4, I was disappointed with it's lazy approach to desktop environment. That couldn't be further from truth in Solus. It implements it's own DE, called Budgie, albeit based upon GTK3 library. It's everything Gnome Shell isn't - snappy, smooth and solid. I did not once encounter a crash, freeze or a dropped frame. To be frank, it is missing some key features, but in time I suspect it can reach Unity 7's level of polish and functionality. Some of my main gripes are minor at first glance, but annoying as paper cuts in the long run.
One such annoyance is the lack of pre-configured "standard" keyboard shortcuts. Anybody that's been using mainstream Linux distros for a short while knows that Control - Alt - T launches the terminal emulator. When I tried it in Solus within the first few seconds of running it post-installation, I thought the desktop froze. Fortunately, it wasn't the case, it's just that I had to go to the settings and fill in this keyboard shortcut, that really should be considered part of the "sane defaults" Same thing happens with Print Screen, which, on my machine, does not work even when I manually set it up.
The other issue, however, also isn't easily solvable for a new user. The Budgie panel is nice and snappy, with a bunch of toggle-able applets, but it also lacks some usability features. For one, you cannot launch a second instance of an application from the panel, without right-clicking the icon and selecting new window from the menu. As a person that
abuses the Control - Left click combination many times per day, I have rough time adjusting to this lacking in a DE. Similar pain point was the notification part of the Raven Sidebar. I like the idea of having all the controls and notifications in a sidebar hidden a click away in a corner of the screen, but not being able to act on a notification from the same panel is annoying as heck. What point is there to have a list of notifications that you can only dismiss and do nothing about? You can't even selectively dismiss notifications to keep only the important ones in the panel. Like I said - annoying.
Also curiously, you cannot move about and change the applets on the panel by right-clicking it, you need to launch the budgie settings window and edit it that way. You don't need to do that too often, so it's not a problem, but it is somewhat telling.
The default app selection is rather tame. Apart from the Budgie Desktop Settings app and Solus Software Center, there are stock Gnome applications, Firefox and LibreOffice.
The only technical issues I've noticed are the usual kind I get with my main laptop - bad Nvidia drivers for the GTX 860M screwing with the desktop, and wacky wifi connection. Both disappeared once I tried Solus on my desktop workstation, so it's unfair to call out any distro for this. I also once experienced a problem with updates, but that got fixed by the classic panacea - turning it off and on again.
The Special Sauce
What's intriguing about Solus is not the ways it is similar to other distributions, but rather the way it walks it's own path. It has both it's own desktop environment, solves the Steam integration it's very own way and even implements it's own package manager. This allows it to differentiate from the plethora of other distributions. Unfortunately, this also means, it can't use the established repositories of Debian and Ubuntu, and causes a somewhat lacking offering of packages in the Software Center.
This is partially mitigated by the availability of Snap packages, but even then, there are a few missing things. For example, in order to install TeamViewer, a proprietary remote desktop application, you have to use a custom installer downloaded from the Solus github repository and install it from there. This isn't hard at all, but it is an extra step. Worse, some common open source applications like SubDownloader are missing from Solus and require you to build them from source. This isn't something I can imagine my non-techy friends doing in their spare time. I guess this is the price to pay for the more exciting parts of this OS.
Conclusion on using it.
Truth to be told, Solus is fun to use and a breath of fresh air in the stale company of the big distributions. It makes reasonable choices and although it is still a bit early to widely recommend for daily usage, I think I could live and be happy with it. I wish there were more creative individuals like Ikey, that don't fear going against the flow and stick with skinned Gnome Shell, leach off of Canonical's repositories, change a logo and call it a day. I wish Solus project all the best and I wish to some day see a Qt version of Budgie.
Something's rotten in the kingdom of Denmark - Epilogue.
If you are reading this review after the Summer of 2018, you may be surprised I did not mention anything about Ikey's departure from the project and public eye, weird state of affairs in the Solus team and ensuing confusion in the community. After a discussion about which distro should I try out, Marius Quabeck has suggested Solus with a small advice not to look too deep into the current events. That way, my review would not be tainted with the skepticism about further survival of the project and I could enjoy Solus for what it
Here's a short summary of what is going on at the moment. Ikey has withdrawn from the project and has not posted anything publicly in 8 weeks. The rest of the team pretends nothing is going on, even though they had to change domains for the project, as Ikey was not available to transfer the control over to them. Users were advised to reinstall with a new iso image, as the rest of the team was unable to provide updates to older installations. From what I've heard, this is not the first time, Ikey Doherty has burned out and abandoned a project.
I wish I could spin this any other way, but I cannot see Solus prospering under these conditions. The community as it was is not huge, the dev team is even smaller and without the visionary at the helm, I foresee it will slowly wither away and die out like many other ambitious project have done before. I hope I'm wrong about this and I wish the team the best to fight through this crisis in their ranks. If they fail, Linux desktop space will be a little bit duller once again.