ZorinOS 12.4 Review

DISCLAIMER I am a long-term Ubuntu user (11 years and counting) and some, especially those who see me on occasion sport my Ubuntu-FR hoodie might call me a rabid fanboy. That being said, I try very hard to approach any operating system with open mind and I can find some things I like even in Windows 10 and MacOS X. Since ZorinOS aims to capture and convert Windows users and specifically the BFUs, I tried to find it's potential appeal and even tried to behave in a way a regular converted user and customer might behave.

Background

I've known about Zorin for a long time. It's not a newcomer to the Desktop Linux scene by any definition and I knew it was based upon Ubuntu like 90% of lazy distros, with the UI imitating Windows as it's selling point. For this reason, I've never held much interest in it, as I don't particularly enjoy this desktop paradigm. Last time I checked up on ZorinOS was back it's early versions, where it looked on the surface like a Windows 7 desktop modded by an edgy teen haxx0r.

In this regard, I must say, that the ZorinOS desktop experience has degraded greatly. In it's current version, it mostly reminds me of a badly themed Gnome Shell and that's because it is precisely that. The default theme of ZorinOS is a weird mix of Android Honeycomb in it's darker, neon-blue tones, Lollipop, in it's sometimes eye-bleedingly white rectangles and overall bad design, which might appeal to a teenager with some bad decisions coming his way, but look unprofessional and just plain fugly. You might say, that aesthethics are subjective and that the OS is open source, easy to tweak and most of all free of charge and you wouldn't be wrong, but... That's not completely true. ZorinOS' bussiness model is that you can use the "Lite" version for free, or you can spend ~€20 (including tax) and get the "Ultimate Version". Me being a curious fella and wanting to treat myself to a premium GNU/Linux (gotta have the GNU, unless I want the RMS-fans to haunt my ass forever) computing experience, I took out my debit card and spent my two night's of drinking in Slovakia budget on an Unix-like Operating System. What a nerd. So how was my experience from beginning to an end? Spoiler alert: Not very good.

DISCLAIMER 2 I'm not a fan of Gnome Shell. I liked Gnome2, loved Unity and am excited for the improvements in MATE, but Gnome 3.xx and it's bunded apps leave me frustrated with the decline in usability of major Linux distros.

Installation

Knowing that ZorinOS 12.4 is based upon Ubuntu 16.04, which runs on my laptop quite nicely, I expected no trouble with the installation. Oh boy, was I wrong! I don't know how you can mess up the installer that's used by God knows how many other distributions without a single hitch, but ZorinOS team has managed it. It took me five attempts, five, to get the installer to finish. No matter whether I chose to boot the LiveUSB in the UEFI or Legacy BIOS mode, it would always crash at the "copying data" phase of the install. After a few tries, I found out, that it wouldn't successfully complete the partitioning of my Samsung SSD, and that's why it always crashed when trying to copy files onto the drive. I needed to move forward with the installation, so I've popped in my trusty branded Ubuntu 16.04 keychain flash drive and partitioned my drive from Ubuntu Live session just to be safe. Afterwards, by circumventing the partitioner part of the install, I could finally get Zorin to spread it's goodness all over my SSD. After the installer finished in a standard amount of time, I rebooted my laptop and went straight into installing my favorite apps. Or at least I would have, if Gnome Software wouldn't segfault every time I tried to click on a featured app, search for anything or breath at all. This made me forego my determination to act like a Windows user for a second and whip out my favorite tool. No, get your head out of the gutter, of course I mean the Almighty terminal! There I was just a long "apt install" and several "snap install" commands away from getting most of my computing needs in check.

Differentiation from other *buntu distros

Apart from the premium support the Ultimate version of ZorinOS comes with some extra apps preinstalled. They all are just a basic open source apps that can be found in any mainstream distro's repository, such as Mixxx DJ, Blender, GIMP, LibreOffice, SuperTuxKart, etc. Personally, I prefer the Ubuntu Mate's approach of launching a Welcome screen with courated list of apps for user to pick from, instead of bundling everything that comes to the distro maintainer's mind like it is year 2007 all over again. I couldn't find any app, that would warrant the price I paid, especially since I'm pretty certain that the developers of those apps won't see a dime of that money I've spent. That means, all the money went to the support you say? Oh boy, you really don't see the pattern here, do you? I wanted to try and abuse test the support team by subjecting them to a series of tests and tasks, they could help me with. Unfortunately, their first response to my "clueless Windows user" persona's questions about installing CorelDraw X8, a vector graphics program which is impossible to run on Linux even with hours spent on tweaking Wine was to point me to check out pre-installed PlayOnLinux. The second part of my support query was how to install Nextcloud on my laptop. I didn't specify whether I wanted to install a client or a server part of Nextcloud, but if I was a support techie, I'd imagine an user would probably install a cloud client onto his laptop. Surprisingly, the answer to my clueless question was a link to DigitalOcean's great community tutorial on setting up Nextcloud instance on Ubuntu 16.04 server. Take from that what you will, but I bet I could get better advice from Ubuntu Mate's IRC chat room, that's built into the Welcome screen, or any other free support on any distro's forums, chat rooms or asking the first geeky-looking person on the street.

User interface

User interface is just a themed Gnome Shell with some slight modifications. It tries to mimic Windows 10 with it's black bottom taskbar and bluish theme. If that's not your prefered arrangement of elements on screen, you can use the bundled Zorin Appearance app and switch between 6 preconfigured layouts. The first layout is the default Windows 7 & 10 layout with big icons on a taskbar.

Windows 10 style layout

The second layout is a slight alteration of the first, in that it more closely resembles the "classic" layout of Windows 2000, with it's icons and window titles on the taskbar.

Windows 2000 style layout

Near stock Gnome Shell is the third entry in this list. It's boring, borderline too simplistic to use, but looks clean. Although, if you like this style of Desktop, there is no reason for you to pick ZorinOS, when you have Fedora or older releases of Ubuntu Gnome to choose from.

Gnome Shell layout

Next we have the imperfect recreation of Gnome 2. For the maximum nostalgic value, I would recommend the devs to include some indicators, that will change position on every reboot, or crash without gving any error message.

Gnome 2 layout

Since ZorinOS 12.4 is still based on Ubuntu 16.04, can anybody explain to me, why would anyone choose this sorry knockoff of Unity 7 layout instead of the real thing? Oh yes, maybe you lack ZorinOS' misconfigured /etc/apt/sources.list in the default Ubuntu release. At least Canonical in Ubuntu 17.10 tried to get Gnome 3 closer to the usability of Unity7, even if they somewhat failed at it. ZorinOS implementation of this layout is a lazy solution of using stock Dash to Dock Gnome extension, putting it on the left side of the screen and calling it a day.

Unity layout

Last, and definitely the least is the styling similar to MacOS X. There ain't much to say about it, just that if you want to get the MacOS X GUI and don't want to get a mortgage to buy an entry-level Mac, you should build a hackintosh instead.

MacOS X

Apart from the panel/dock layout presets, you can also change the color theme of the OS, tweak the panel size and adjust other tiny details.

Color themes

Even though it's not ideal, I found the default color scheme the least disturbing. In case you aim for that Razer gaming style to match your overpriced mouse and keyboard, you can use this green and black color scheme:

Green and black theme

Technical issues

Apart from the lack of real differentiation from mainline Ubuntu, ZorinOS adds a few bugs of its own. Just a few of them that I've encountered are:

  • Gnome Software segfaults randomly. On first run, it only showed snap packages, so when I installed Firefox to replace Chromium, it was a snap version that did not really fit in.
  • LightDM got installed in an update and broke logging in. I don't thing a recent convert from Windows would have the nerve to drop into tty, uninstall lightdm and start gdm.
  • /etc/apt/sources.list has duplicit entries by default. It doesn't really break anything, but triggers a bunch of warnings when updating the package list from terminal. Arguably, this isn't a big deal, cause the target audience is not likely to ever open terminal, but shows a lack of attention to detail.
  • Pulseaudio misbehaved on me in a way, I haven't seen 10+ years of using Ubuntu. While playing music in Spotify, the sound got a nice retro effect of old AM radio signal breaking up.

Other than that, ZorinOS bundles in the usual batch of Gnome oddities. Why, for the love of all that is good in this multiverse does pressing the Start Super key and clicking on the ZorinOS icon produce different results? Clicking on the icon reveals a cartoony knockoff of the Windows Start menu,

Start menu

while pressing the button shows the Gnome Shell Activities.

Shell menu

It may be more useful for some experienced Linux users, but it will most definitely confuse users coming from using other operating systems. Also, the preinstalled email client, Geary, seems to have trouble rendering emails from my Citadel server, although Thunderbird, Mailspring and other clients don't have this problem at all.

Geary

The last glaring bug that I've found in my week's long usage of Zorin is the infrequent crashing of the DE while playing Youtube videos and switching to other virtual desktop. Most of the time it's fine, but sometimes it causes a freeze, that can only be broken by hard reboot of the machine. I couldn't even get to the tty to kill the Xorg. For obvious reasons, I don't have a screenshot of this crash and can't be bothered to investigate further the causes of this mess.

Conclusion

I may have been hard on Zorin, but I've spent the week of using it and I didn't get in my way of working on my laptop. That may be a low bar to set, but if I had to pick whether to use ZorinOS, Windows 10 or MacOS X, I would pick ZorinOS. That being said, I am a long time Linux enthusiast and I can deal with it's quirks, which probably can't be said about most of Zorin's targeted users. Also, ZorinOS' usability is no thanks to it's dev team, but thanks to it's foundation in Ubuntu. Preinstalled open source apps and the (unfulfilled) promise of technical support does not provide enough value to make me recommend ZorinOS over any other Linux distro, most of which I consider to be more polished and better thought through.

Meaningless accolades

In my opinion, meaningless accolades like these hurt the real work other distributions put into the GNU/Linux desktop, especially, since other than it's "premium packages", ZorinOS can't even be bothered to host it's own mirrors of Ubuntu repositories.

Repositories

Not wanting to discourage the devs from doing what they believe in, I wish they would do more to distinguish themselves from the rest of Ubuntu-based distributions, since it seems like they've been doing steps back from their original aim to provide a similar experience for the Windows expats. As of right now, I would recommend any users that want to switch to Linux to skip ZorinOS and plunge right into the waters of the big Linux distros.