Category Archives: Stiri iT & C

Freespire 6.0: A Return to GNOME2’s Simpler Linux Days | Reviews

By Jack M. Germain

Feb 21, 2020 11:36 AM PT

If you are tired of distro hopping and want a computing platform that works without drama, check out the latest
Freespire Linux release. Freespire, a U.S.-based distribution built on Debian/Ubuntu, is a no-nonsense operating system that is uncomplicated to install and use.

Freespire is released biannually. Developers on Feb. 11 released the latest MATE edition, the first of two updated versions. KDE will come out soon.

Two age-old sayings are apt when it comes to Linux distributions: “Something old is new again,” and “What goes around, comes around.”

Their literal meanings actually have nothing to do with Linux technology, but after two decades of reviewing computer operating systems and applications, I often get the feeling that I am in some Groundhog Day loop.

That was the case as I worked with the Freespire 6.0 release. Freespire is the free open source version of the commercial Linspire operating system developed by
PC/OpenSystems. Both provide a very pleasant computing experience.

Freespire contains many of the same software packages as Linspire, but it strictly follows the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) philosophy of providing only license-free software. So any Linspire packages that require the community-based Freespire developer team to purchase a license to redistribute the distro are left out.

Freespire 6.0 MATE Edition classic panel and GNOME 2-style controls

Freespire 6.0 MATE Edition keeps Linux simple with a classic panel and GNOME 2-style controls and window styling that resembles Windows 7.

– click image to enlarge –

Familiar Name-Calling

The Linux desktop has been the wanna-be replacement for Microsoft Windows for more than a decade. Some software developers are vocal about how ideally suited their distributions are to serve as a Windows clone.

Saying that a particular distro has a look and feel familiar to Windows 7 users, for instance, easily can be misunderstood by Linux newcomers. Saying that a distro frees users from the agonies of Windows is much more accurate. However, compatibility with Windows is quite a different marketing push.

Freespire goes a long way toward avoiding those advertising pitfalls. Yes, Freespire 6 has a clean and simple look that does resemble Windows 7. Freespire is also easy to install, use and maintain.

The distro’s current open source team avoids the generalizations that compare this OS to Windows. The developers make good on their assertions that users can enjoy trouble-free computing with Freespire Linux. That is a big improvement that sets proper expectations.

Freespire Linux selection of background images

Freespire Linux has a well-stocked selection of background images and simple desktop layout.

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Going Separate Ways

In the early 2000s, a company named “Linspire” released a Linux distro called “Lindows.” It contained tools for running actual Windows programs and tools for more easily handling Linux package management.

Do not confuse this Lindows distro with the
LinDoz edition of the MakuluLinux upgrade I reviewed a few weeks ago. There is no connection between the two.

The “Lindows” moniker triggered trademark complaints from Microsoft. So the third-party developer rebranded its Linux OS as “Linspire.” It used its OS to run a line of Linux-powered desktop computers sold through Walmart.

That marketing venture largely failed. Shoppers thought they were buying a bargain windows computer, according to various reports.

Linspire vacated store shelves and faded away.

Sold, Buried, Resurrected

In July of 2008, I wrote a news article for LinuxInsider about then custom Linux provider Xandros announcing that it
acquired the Linspire and Freespire Linux desktop operating systems from another developer company. The plan was for Xandros to combine technologies, expertise and market presence to become a one-stop Linux solutions company.

I lost track of the developments after that and could not find any record of product releases or additional corporate purchases until December 2017. That is when PC/Open Systems announced that it had
acquired the Linspire and Freespire marks. The company was considering what to do with the properties and whether “it could successfully bring to market these products and shed the controversy and bad decisions of the past from Linspire Inc. and Xandros without abandoning [its] current customer base.”

That led to Freespire becoming a free operating system based on Ubuntu. An open source community took over development as the free distro transitioned to Freespire Linux. PC/Open Systems continued the commercial development and marketing of Linspire Linux.

PC/Open Systems still has a hand in the separate Freespire distro, however. The community support forums for current Freespire releases are maintained at the
Linspire community support site run by PC/Open Systems.

Parallel Paths

Especially with Microsoft no longer supporting Windows 7, Freespire is an attractive Linux distro for users wanting a reliable and similar desktop environment for free.

Meanwhile, the Linspire Linux commercial version is available under PC/Open Systems’ Windows 7 Refugee Program. Consumers can purchase a boxed set of the current commercial Linspire Linux version for US$30.99.

The non-commercial open source Freespire 6.0 distro is a free download, but you can order an installation disk if you choose to pay $15.99.

Be careful if you look for the free download. I found numerous older websites still available that have only outdated Freespire versions.

Use the current “active” website and not the defunct website — — which has version 2.0.

You also can
get Freespire 6.0 here.

Freespire Linux Unboxed

Freespire 6.0’s MATE release has an appearance that will appeal to Windows 7 users. That same look and feel also will be reassuring to the distro-hopping weary.

The MATE desktop is a continuation of GNOME 2.0 simplicity. It provides straightforward functionality without the craziness of drop-down and slide-out antics and other eye candy embellishments proffered by the growing array of so-called modern desktop screen displays.

Freespire 6.0 MATE Edition two-part main menu

The Freespire 6.0 MATE desktop is uncluttered with a two-part main menu that makes finding everything quick and simple.

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The default desktop view is uncluttered. Four Windows 7-style system icons are pinned to the upper left edge of the screen. These give you instant access to the Home and Computer directories. Both icons open the Caja File Manager. A trash icon and an icon to open the Network Servers panel complete the view.

The classic Linux panel is anchored across the bottom edge of the screen. It has right-click menu access for adding applets, icons and launchers to the panel, including the Virtual Workspace Switching tool.

The right end of this bottom panel displays the expected notification icons. The main menu button is on the left end of the panel.

The main menu is a single panel with three columns. Places and System categories fill the left column. The Favorites column fills the middle and right column areas. A search window lies across the bottom of the menu panel.

A button in the upper right corner of the menu panel switches the view to all applications. That button changes to a Favorites switch to return to the previous panel view.

The All Applications panel view displays three columns. On the left are Places and System icons. The center column lists the menu categories. The right column shows the application entries for the designated category selected.

Right-click on any application title to access a pop-up display to place that item on the desktop or panel, or to show in Favorites. Right-click anywhere on the uncovered desktop to access options to create folders, launchers or documents, or to change the background or organize desktop preferences.

The one option missing is a launcher for the menu, such as is available in the Xfce desktop.

Software Levels

This release has MATE version 1.20. and Linux Kernel 5.3.0-28. The distro uses the Synaptic Package Manager to add/remove software and receive system updates.

The Control Panel is a separate entry within the main menu. It has a well organized layout with a search window that makes finding settings options a breeze.

The preinstalled applications are what you typically find in lightweight systems. That surprised me since MATE is not an underpowered desktop environment. Included are basic programs for everyday computing tasks: surfing the Web, writing, handling email, and playing music and videos. Other basic graphics programs and editors are not the best of what is available in other distros.

Having to obtain and install better quality applications is a mere annoyance for experienced Linux users. For a Linux user migrating from Windows or Mac, however, not knowing what to look for can be a bigger problem.

Here is a sampling of the bundled software titles:

  • Chromium Web Browser (the open source version on which Google Chrome is based)
  • Abiword — a really lightweight junior word processor
  • Gnumeric — a lightweight spreadsheet
  • Parole media player
  • Shotwell photo organizer

I was pleased to see Ice SSB included. This is an integrated website launcher that lets you access preselected websites to run as Web apps without having to use a standard Web browser. Not everyone is a fan of Web apps, but being able to “run” Web-based computing tools as if they were locally installed programs has its advantages.

The distro maintains a Software Center application that functions as a front end to the community’s software repository. It is an alternative to using the Synaptic Package Manager.

Bottom Line

Freespire Linux 6.0 is a solid performer. I have not used the MATE desktop in quite a few years, but checking it out for this review instantly returned me to simpler days of using the Linux OS . I was a dedicated fan of the GNOME 2 desktop years ago and followed along with MATE rather than put up with the unsettling changes in the early releases of GNOME 3.

I like the simple approach Freespire brings to using Linux, and I’m anticipating the release of the KDE version. Check back in upcoming weeks for an update when the KDE version of Freespire 6.0 is available.

Want to Suggest a Review?

Is there a Linux software application or distro you’d like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

email your ideas to me, and I’ll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.

And use the Reader Comments feature below to provide your input!

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software.
Email Jack.

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Unsigned Firmware Puts Windows, Linux Peripherals at Risk | Software

By Jack M. Germain

Feb 19, 2020 12:23 PM PT

Researchers at firmware security company
Eclypsium on Tuesday released new research that identifies and confirms unsigned firmware in WiFi adapters, USB hubs, trackpads and cameras used in Windows and Linux computer and server products from Lenovo, Dell, HP and other major manufacturers.

Eclypsium also demonstrated a successful attack on a server via a network interface card with unsigned firmware used by each of the big three server manufacturers.

The demonstration shows the exposed attack vector once firmware on any of these components is infected using the issues the report describes. The malware stays undetected by any software security controls.

Unsigned firmware provides multiple pathways for malicious actors to compromise laptops and servers. That leaves millions of Windows and Linux systems at risk of firmware attacks that can exfiltrate data, disrupt operations and deliver ransomware, warned Eclypsium.

Unsigned firmware in peripheral devices remains a highly overlooked aspect of cybersecurity. Depending on the capabilities of the component, unsigned firmware can lead to the loss of data, integrity and privacy. It also can allow attackers to gain privileges and hide from traditional security controls, notes
the report, titled “Perilous Peripherals: the Hidden Dangers Inside Windows & Linux Computers.”

Eclypsium Research Perilous Peripherals

Software and network vulnerabilities are often the more obvious focus of organizations’ security priorities, but firmware vulnerabilities could give adversaries full control over the compromised device, according to Katie Teitler, senior analyst at
TAG Cyber.

“This could lead to implanted back doors, network traffic sniffing, data exfiltration, and more,” she told LinuxInsider.

Reporting factors

The “Perilous Peripherals” report is based on original research conducted by members of Eclypsium’s research team. They include principal researchers Rick Altherr, Mickey Shkatov, Jesse Michael and CTO Alex Bazhaniuk.

Work on this research began more than18 months ago and was completed this February. The study was self-funded by the company, according to Jesse Michael, the report’s principal researcher.

“It is safe to assume that tens of millions — if not hundreds of millions — of systems have these specific unsigned firmware components,” Michael told LinuxInsider.

For example, annual server shipments are around 12 million, and annual laptop shipments number approximately 200 million units. While the specific vulnerabilities identified in this report affect only a portion of all shipped systems, unsigned firmware components are prevalent within the industry, he explained.

“We have yet to find a system that does not include such components,” Michael said.

Eclypsium Driver Details

Problematic Roots

The problem surrounding unsigned firmware surfaced five years ago. Security researchers found the Equation Group’s HDD implants lurking in the wild. That was a wake-up call introducing the computer industry to the power of firmware hacking and the underlying dangers posed by unsigned firmware in peripheral devices, according to Eclypsium’s report.

There have been pockets of progress in dealing with the problem in recent years. However, much of the industry continues to turn a blind eye to the risks of unsigned firmware, Elypsium’s research indicates.

In carrying out four separate research projects, Elypsium’s team found unsigned firmware in WiFi adapters, USB hubs, trackpads and cameras in a variety of enterprise devices. These issues can be devastating to the security and operation of the devices.

“More often than not, [they] are very difficult to fix. Disruption to components such as network cards, drives and other peripherals can completely disable the device or provide attackers with ways to steal data, deliver ransomware and hide from security,” the report states.

These weaknesses are widespread across components in laptops and servers, the new Eclypsium research shows. They offer multiple pathways for malicious attacks.

Eclypsium Driver Details

See Eclypsium’s
“Know Your Own Device” resource for an overview of some of the most common firmware-enabled components within devices today.

Slow Response, Few Solutions

Despite previous in-the-wild attacks, peripheral manufacturers have been slow to adopt the practice of signing firmware. When it comes to security, most of the attention goes to the most visible components of a system, such as the operating system and the applications.

In response to the growing number of threats, many organizations have begun to add firmware to their vulnerability management and threat prevention models. However, these efforts are limited to the system firmware — the UEFI or BIOS resident on the main board of a device, explained Michael.

The lurking danger is underscored because virtually every component within a device has its own firmware and its own potential for risk, he said. That includes network adapters, graphics cards, USB devices, cameras, touchpads and trackpads, and more.

Eclypsium Linux Vendors ITE SuperIO

“Unfortunately, this issue will be around for quite a while, and we’ll most likely see improvements in next-gen products. But this will not happen all at once. As an industry, we need to pay more attention to hardware and firmware security,” suggested Michael.

Some OEMs, such as HP and Lenovo, have been quick to acknowledge the problem and begin working on solutions with their device/component manufacturers. Signed firmware protections typically require changes within the hardware as well as the firmware. To do that, they must be introduced in a future device revision or model, he added.

Eclypsium Linux Vendors VLI USB Hub

Why the Risk

These internal components in peripheral devices are governed by firmware. The firmware may be burned into the integrated circuit of the device itself. Or the component may have its own flash memory where firmware is stored.

In other cases firmware may be provided dynamically by the operating system at boot time. However the firmware is stored, it can act like a miniature computer that governs the low-level behavior of that particular component. This code often is very susceptible to attack, residing in everything from laptops to servers to network devices, according to the report.

Protecting users from the dangers of unsigned firmware requires work by vendors throughout the industry. The original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and original design manufacturers (ODMs) need to work together to fix these issues.

“By including these types of issues in their risk assessments, organizations can make informed decisions on which peripherals and products are secure and which are not,” said Michael.

Daunting Struggle Ahead

Mitigating the problems unsigned firmware causes over such an extended period of widespread use means a speedy solution is unlikely to come soon — but it is essential to make progress toward that end.

“Unfortunately, though, firmware vulnerabilities can be harder to detect and more difficult to patch,” TAG Cyber’s Teitler said. “Best practice is to deploy automated scanning for vulnerabilities and misconfigurations at the component level and continuously monitor for new issues or exploits.”

The problem is that peripheral devices often lack the same security best practices that we take for granted in operating systems and in other more visible components, like the UEFI or BIOS, noted Michael. Specifically, many peripheral devices do not verify that firmware is signed properly with a high-quality public/private key before running the code.

This means that these components have no way to validate that the firmware loaded by the device is authentic and should be trusted. An attacker simply could insert a malicious or vulnerable firmware image, which the component would trust blindly and run, he cautioned.

No Clear Path Forward

These components are inside laptops and servers, but it is often up to the individual device/component manufacturers to introduce mitigations.

Most organizations do not have the mature processes needed to handle security flaws at this level or assign Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) reports, according to Yuriy Buygin, CEO of Eclypsium.

Often, aging hardware becomes a bigger part of the problem. Technical methods to provide robust fixes for fielded products are unavailable because of an old hardware design, he said.

“So we will see these issues for years to come, and the only way to improve this is to keep finding vulnerabilities, alerting the public, and helping device vendors to establish better firmware security,” Buygin told LinuxInsider.

Attack Vectors

Eclypsium researchers demonstrated how unsigned firmware can be abused as part of a real-world attack.

The company’s report details how an attacker who gains control over a peripheral component can use the component’s functionality for malicious purposes. The attacker potentially can gain new privileges and even get control over the entire system.

The demonstration shows Eclypsium researchers attacking unsigned firmware in a network interface card (NIC) chipset. A malicious attack on the card can have a profound impact on the server.

That, in turn, compromises the operating system remotely. It provides the attacker with a remote backdoor for snooping and exfiltrating raw network traffic while bypassing operating system firewalls to extract data or deliver ransomware.

Such an attack could disconnect a server from a network upon a signal, the report warns. That can result in disrupting connectivity for an entire data center.

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software.
Email Jack.

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Simplicity Does More Than Simplify Linux | Reviews

By Jack M. Germain

Feb 14, 2020 11:34 AM PT

If you want a new Linux distro catering to gaming, check out the Simplicity Linux Gaming release. If you prefer a general-purpose computing platform without a gaming focus, try Simplicity’s revamped release. Either way, you will experience a no-nonsense Linux OS that requires no assembly.

Simplicity Linux, originating in the UK, is a Devuan-based distribution with Cinnamon as the default window manager desktop environment. Devuan is a fork of Debian Linux that replaces the systemd initialization processes.

Disgruntled Debian community members rejected a Linux-wide trend to replace older init processes such as Upstart and System V with systemd. Initialization is a background process that starts when the computer boots and runs until the computer shuts down.

Init oversees all other running processes. Debian developers in 2014 mandated the adoption of systemd as the init process. Simplicity uses a special init method borrowed from AntiX Linux that replaces systemd with the elogind session management daemon.

This latest Simplicity Linux release, version 20.1, is a major change for this distro since I last reviewed it in May 2016. Prior to this Feb. 5 release, Simplicity was based on Puppy Linux and the Xfce desktop.

Now Simplicity is based on the Debian Buster branch without systemd. BusterDog is an offshoot of Debian 10, codenamed “Buster.” Buster Dog is a small Debian-based live system designed to look and act like Puppy Linux.

Simplicity Linux root screen

Simplicity Linux has a limited collection of background images to reinforce its simple style.

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A New Dog Pound

The transition from Puppy Linux with the Xfce desktop makes Simplicity Linux a major change for users of earlier Simplicity versions. However, Linux users already familiar with Cinnamon, as well as newcomers to Simplicity Linux, will enjoy an easy-to-use computing environment.

The previous pairing of Puppy Linux innards and the Xfce desktop firmly put Simplicity with the collection of Linux lightweight distributions. One big advantage to that structure meant the distro consumed less system resources and thus ran well on older hardware.

Simplicity Linux’s retooling with a Devuan base and the Cinnamon desktop brings a more modern appearance and different computing tools. Cinnamon, while more resource-heavy, brings more features to the desktop environments.

For instance, Cinnamon is loaded with configuration options that let you adjust how the desktop looks and works. The ability to add applets to the panel and desklets to the desktop screen makes the Simplicity OS much more feature-rich.

Family Affair

In this release cycle, developer David Purse set aside the usual X Edition in favor of a surprise newcomer, the Gaming Edition. The X Edition served as a showcase of features that might show up in future editions. It initially was designed to appeal more to Windows users looking to cross over to the Linux side of computing. The goal was to make Linux a little less scary for new users

This Gaming Edition comes with Blacknut Cloud Gaming. The developer initially planned to include Vortex Cloud Gaming, but Blacknut offers a more suitable performance.

The Gaming Edition also comes with Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) for streaming and recording. A third component is the Steam Launcher, which downloads and installs the latest version of Steam Client from Valve on the first run.

Beyond the Steam and cloud gaming entries, the new Gaming Edition does not come with any Linux games. The Mini and Desktop editions also are devoid of a Game category in the main menu.

General Purpose Appeal

The Simplicity Linux family also includes Mini and Desktop editions. All three editions in the 20.1 release run the Cinnamon desktop.

The Mini Edition is more of a lightweight Linux distro in terms of its software base. It features minimal preinstalled software and supplements with cloud-based software.

The Mini Edition uses Google Chrome as the main portal to software. It has shortcuts to commonly used cloud-based tools.

The Desktop Edition offers a broader collection of general-purpose software. It comes preinstalled with Chrome, LibreOffice, Claws Mail, GIMP and VLC.

More software is available via the Synaptic Package Manager. Also included is Catfish to find any files on your system.

The Desktop Edition features PulseAudio preinstalled rather than the usual ALSA. ALSA was causing problems with a few modern apps, according to the developer.

Appearance Matters

This latest release of Simplicity Linux comes with a much different look and feel. Unless you are old-school Linux and prefer to dwell in the Terminal window, the desktop appearance is often a make-it-or-break-it encounter, especially for new users.

This is where Simplicity Linux really delivers. I am impressed with its new look and feel.

If you prefer things to look plain and simple, then you do not have to venture far beyond the default black desktop view. Simplicity’s Cinnamon layout does not provide a right-click menu option.

Simplicity Linux desktop

Simplicity Linux starts with a stark, simple desktop view.

– click image to enlarge –

Click on the settings icon on the bottom dock or in the main menu up top on the panel to access the Background control. There you can change the background image.

With the Settings Control Panel display you can click on numerous icons to change the color, desktop effects, themes and window behavior options. The Cinnamon desktop provides a wealth of personalization choices.

Have It Your Way

I was very pleased with Simplicity Linux’s new capabilities with the Cinnamon desktop. The combination maintains, maybe even expands, this distro’s ease-of-use potential.

My first encounter with the Linux OS years ago got me used to a panel bar across the top of the screen. Using the new Simplicity returns me to that desktop layout.

My current Cinnamon distro has the panel bar on the bottom. Simplicity provides both options by placing a dock bar at the bottom as a favorites app launcher and an anchor spot for pinning quick access to essential system controls.

Simplicity Linux Cinnamon panel and dock

Simplicity alters the Cinnamon panel placement and adds a dock.

– click image to enlarge –

I also like the flexibility to add special effects and other tools, such as Scale and Expo views, to the desktop display options. That type of animation is missing from the otherwise very capable Xfce performance of earlier Simplicity Linux releases.

Of course, using the Gaming Edition may make such display features of secondary importance to full-screen gaming windows. Not being a heavy game player, I am more than happy to have this enhanced feature set available.

Dog-Gone Missing

Simplicity Linux can be a good computing platform whether your needs are gaming-specific or more general purpose. Still, I can not help but confess to a measure of disappointment in using this latest release.

I have used a variety of Puppy Linux variants over the years. These Puppy-based distros bring a distinctive look and feel to the screen. The Puppy computing world includes a unique set of apps and tools that set Puppy Linux a step apart from other Linux options.

This latest Simplicity Linux release, at least for me, seems to have put a muzzle on that doggy Linux style. The change to a more powerful and more modern desktop is no doubt the culprit. Some of the dog distro-specific computing apps and tools are scattered in the Debian-stuffed menus, but the Puppy-style architecture is much less prevalent. I miss it.

Bottom Line

Simplicity Linux, even with its more modern retooling, maintains the distro’s earlier goals of providing a simpler way to run a fully powered Linux desktop. The addition of the Gaming Edition makes it easy to get started with computer gaming.

This new offering no doubt could be merged with the Desktop Edition for a more compact selection. That might allow the developer to release a new X Edition offering in the next release cycle.

I am not sure if the Mini Edition needs a full-function heavyweight desktop the likes of Cinnamon. I would like to see a return to the Xfce desktop there.

Either way, I look forward to the next release of Simplicity Linux. This distro holds considerable promise.

Want to Suggest a Review?

Is there a Linux software application or distro you’d like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

email your ideas to me, and I’ll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.

And use the Reader Comments feature below to provide your input!

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software.
Email Jack.

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MakuluLinux LinDoz Offers Windows Comfort Zone, but It’s All Linux Under the Hood | Reviews

By Jack M. Germain

Feb 7, 2020 9:00 AM PT

After a long delay, a new
MakuluLinux LinDoz release is pending last-minute finishing touches and is a week — if not days — away, according to developer Jacque Montague Raymer.

Over the last few months, I have been testing what is now the final build of a new upgrade designed to make using Linux easier than ever. I have reviewed a variety of different desktop versions of MakuluLinux since this Linux newcomer debuted a few years ago.

Recently, I discussed with Raymer the trials and tribulations he faced in maintaining and advancing his Linux line of distros. He revealed a process that no doubt is similar to what confronts many software developers who step into the crowded and financially challenging field of Linux operating system creation. Woven into our conversation is a preview of the next Linux thing.

MakuluLinux is a partial rolling-release operating system that debuted in 2015 with a different approach to implementing Linux OS features. The last few years have brought considerable change and new development to this Linux family.

Family History

The LinDoz distro uses Microsoft Windows themes integrated with superior Linux functionality. It provides a comfortable, familiar computing platform for those looking for an easy-to-use alternative to the Windows OS platform. It runs a heavily tweaked version of the Cinnamon desktop.

MakuluLinux Theme Manager

The MakuluLinux Theme Manager offers a choice of Microsoft Windows-style layouts along with other configuration options. The Desktop Clock Color Scheme lets you switch between light or dark clock applet displays with a single click to match the selected background image.

– click image to enlarge –

The LinDoz and Flash distros have been solid performers since MakuluLinux arrived in 2015. Along the way, Raymer rebuilt them. He completely reworked the distros. Flash runs a strongly tweaked iteration of the Xfce desktop. Core is an innovative distro he introduced early last year.

The Core distro has a totally radical desktop design built on a homegrown user interface centered around a spin-wheel style circular menu display. MakuluLinux Core was something entirely new.

All three distros blended Microsoft Windows traits and Linux functionality into one solid Linux OS. They are not Microsoft Windows clones. LinDoz is designed to make Windows users feel comfortable transitioning to a Linux operating system, according to Raymer. Longtime Linux users also praise MakuluLinux’s different approach.

“There is just enough Windows in LinDoz for them to feel comfortable, but it is all Linux under the hood, Raymer told LinuxInsider.

Planning to Re-Plan

Previous versions of MakuluLinux LinDoz were based on the Debian Testing branch. Raymer, who previously lived in South Africa and relocated to Da Nang, Viet Nam, decided to retool LinDoz to be based on Ubuntu Linux.

That process slowed down the new build. So did discussions by his team about the future directional path. Up for discussion was potentially dropping one or more of the distros.

The release schedule delays were in part the result of deciding to first rebuild the in-house Constructor Tool packaged with the distros. Another cause was the need to resolve changes to the Calamares graphic interface installer that open source community members made to the installer in December.

The last-minute change was crucial because MakuluLinux uses the Calamares installer. Until the rebuild of LinDoz on a Ubuntu base and a port to a Debian base was completed, new releases for the Flash and Core distros would remain on hold as well.

The Linux development world is made up of many small software communities dedicated to specific distributions. Most are not larger business organizations the likes of Canonical, RedHat or Linux Mint. Limited time and money often impede progress.

Maintaining and upgrading releases is often a time-consuming and thankless job that never ends. Raymer found himself at such a crossroads. He had the potential to pursue a spinoff software creation at the expense of continuing his diversified operating systems.

Factoring in Changing Pace

The team met to discuss potentially putting more work into turning the Constructor Tool into some sort of kit for other developers to build their own modified distros. The existing Constructor Tool bundled in MakuluLinux lets users clone the configurations and installed applications to duplicate exact installation copies of their MakuluLinux systems.

With this tool expanded and redesigned, Linux developers then could compile all of the coded components to build their own distros easily, with virtually no knowledge or any coding experience needed, and put out a very professional distro with no effort at all, explained Raymer.

“We were going to start working on the Constructor Tool, build the kit, and start putting all effort into that. After all, with distros we have plenty of competition, and the workload is massive. Whereas if we become the builder of the builders — we build the tools that builders use — we have no competition, at least nothing near as nice as this tool we created. So, this was the plan. This is what we discussed,” he said.

The MakuluLinux team at first planned to phase out the MakuluLinux distros and focus on making “community” builds. The team would release a distro but would not work on it around the clock, Raymer disclosed. Instead, a support community could assume the tasks of editing and maintaining the selected distro with background assistance from the team as needed.

“We will assist as much as we can, to put it bluntly. We would still make distros, but not commit to full-time patches and maintenance unless there was an issue that really required us to step in,” he said.

Raymer and his team got caught up in a whole cycle of releasing distros. Many on the diverse, remotely operating team seemed to force staying on that path because they did not see the potential or Raymer’s vision of things that could be.

“So here we are nearly three years later, and I find myself reflecting, looking both back and looking forward,” he admitted.

Moving Forward, Cautiously

Raymer has weathered the near breakup decision and is ready to advance the growth and development of all three MakuluLinux distros. However, he is not yet committing to any specific dates. That said, he is firm about releasing new editions this year.

The first upgrade is the pending LinDoz release. It is nearly ready to go. It definitely will be based on Ubuntu with a Debian-based release to follow. You can expect the Ubuntu-based version of LinDoz between now and the end of February.

Upgrades for Flash and Core still need quite a bit of work. A last-minute breakthrough on revamping the Constructor Tool this week led to Raymer pushing out the first Flash upgrade build for testing. He still has no clear release date for the Flash distro upgrade. The team will begin working on the Core distro upgrade once LinDoz and Flash are released.

LinDoz First Look

LinDoz is not a Windows 7 or a Windows 10 clone, but users coming from those operating systems will feel right at home as a result of the Windows-style themes.

Combining that look and feel with the inclusion of Q4Wine, a GUI app to manage Wine, lets you bring your essential Microsoft programs to this Linux OS more easily than with other Linux options. Q4Wine enhances the functionality of the WINE Windows emulator.

However, users already familiar with Linux who have no need for Wine can just ignore or remove the emulator. They can change the theme choice to make the desktop view less like Windows. LinDoz is highly configurable beyond the look and feel of the themes.

MakuluLinux  LinDoz desktop

The LinDoz desktop displays all the essentials for Windows or Linux users. It has the bottom panel, an attractive choice of backgrounds, an updated menu, and top-caliber applications.

– click image to enlarge –

For instance, LinDoz has vivid backgrounds, a classic bottom panel, and a preconfigured workspace switcher applet with a nice collection of desktop desklets. It also uses a nicely tweaked version of the Cinnamon desktop with a unique menu.

The new menu blends both Windows and Linux functionality into one OS. The tweaks to the menu layouts make using menus much neater and more complete to provide a smoother user experience.

The tweaking that the Cinnamon desktop provides lets you substitute menu styles, place a variety of applets on the panel, add more panels, and position them wherever you like. Similarly, you can enhance the desktop’s functionality with desklet displays.

Upgrade Highlights

If you have used earlier versions of LinDoz, you will not see much in the way of new looks and major new features. Overall, this latest upgrade contains a tremendous amount of tweaking throughout the distro.

One of the key improvements is centered around changing the base code to Ubuntu, which also is based on Debian. To follow soon is a version based entirely on Debian Linux. The difference rests on Ubuntu being regarded as being highly stable with more current updates.

A new introductory video pops up only in Live mode. This is handy for new users, nice and neat and functional.

A new set-up manager is present in the Ubuntu-based version that is not the same as the intro manager in the existing Debian LinDoz version. It is laid out to go through a step-by-step process to set up things like WiFi, system updates, drivers and more.

You will find a new entry added to the right-click context menu on the desktop. This lets you right-click to open system settings.

This change makes up for removing the system settings launcher from the panel. Other improvements include an update manager shortcut added to the panel, and more Wine entries added to the right-click menu.

It has been years since I used Wine to load Microsoft Windows programs in any Linux distro. It was nice to discover that the configuration hassles and usability frustrations I recall when I did use Wine are not present in the new LinDoz release.

Windows Apps work out-of-the-box more reliably by simply double-clicking on EXE, MSI or COM files. The Windows programs loaded automatically open in the Wine environment.

Also present in this upgrade is a better selection of productivity software and games. The redesigned menus have new categories and content. For instance, apps include a system monitor and the Gnome software center.

Bottom Line

Overall, I am very impressed with the new LinDoz release. It is essentially designed as an easy-to-use operating system that feels comfortable for both Windows and Linux users.

In fact, it even makes using Linux easier for those with disabilities. LinDoz fully supports accessible options to cater for disabled or the elderly that may not see well. It now has a built in Screen Reader, Magnifier and On Screen keyboard. These features are neatly laid out with easy access.

I do not expect an automatic update from the still current version, however. Way too many changes are built into this LinDoz release. So grab the new ISO and experience an effortless fresh installation.

As of this writing, the upgrade was not yet posted for download. But Raymer’s targeted date is between mid February and the end of the month.

Want to Suggest a Review?

Is there a Linux software application or distro you’d like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

email your ideas to me, and I’ll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.

And use the Reader Comments feature below to provide your input!

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software.
Email Jack.

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Solus Shines With Plasma Desktop Options | Reviews

By Jack M. Germain

Jan 31, 2020 11:40 AM PT

Solus, an independent Linux distro based in Ireland, is built from scratch on the Linux kernel and the flagship Budgie desktop. This week’s release brings the KDE Plasma desktop to the growing Solus family.

Solus Budgie, GNOME, MATE

Solus uses a rolling release that frequently updates system files and software packages to eliminate the need to periodically reinstall the operating system when new ISO or installation files are issued. Updated ISOs are available on a predetermined developmental cycle so new users have immediate access to the most recent content.

Solus started out as a new Linux distribution some five years ago as an independent operating system available for 64-bit computers only and was built around the Linux kernel. Unlike many other Linux distributions, Solus is not based on another Linux family such as Ubuntu, Arch or Red Hat.

The first stable version was released in December 2015. It ran a homemade desktop called “Budgie.”
Budgie is an open source project in its own right. It offers a simplified approach to implementing the look and feel of the older-style GNOME 2 functionality.

I tested early beta releases prior to the first stable release. Along the way, I have revisited Solus to monitor progress with the fledgling new desktop environment as the Solus distro gained maturity, navigated rebranding issues, and ultimately survived the departure of the founding developer who turned over the distro’s development to a new team. A huge advantage for the Budgie desktop is that it is not a fork of another project.

Budgie is designed for easy integration into other distros and is an open source project in its own right. The Budgie desktop environment has an intuitive menu that enables quick access to your installed programs, offering both category and compact views.

In its younger stages, Solus was an acceptable Linux operating system that was simple and stable to use, but having only a homegrown desktop environment as a daily computing platform posed challenges.

As the Solus saga continued, that situation became less of a concern. The Budgie desktop became the Solus flagship as the developer team added other desktop options.

The Desktop Factor

The Budgie desktop is grown up. It shares the spotlight with several well-established desktop choices.

The Solus developers did more than plug in a choice of desktops. The devs made sure that the Solus design and application philosophy remained intact. This consistency is one of the distro’s prize characteristics.

One of the unique factors that the Solus distro brings to the Linux table is its independent nature. At its core are the Linux kernel and a growing collection of applications built around its own in-house package management and software center systems.

The inclusion of the KDE Plasma desktop should attract veteran Linux users looking for a more flexible desktop experience. Meanwhile, this latest Solus upgrade brings more usability and options that make Solus easy to use for Linux newcomers.

Solus 4.1 Plasma desktop edition

Solus 4.1 adds a Plasma desktop edition that retains the KDE look and feel without losing the Solus style consistency.

– click image to enlarge –

Early Flaws

My initial reviews noted Solus’ potential for growth. I saw some merit in using Budgie as an alternative lightweight desktop environment integrated into the GNOME 2 framework. In its initial stages, however, the Budgie desktop environment was more like “Budgie Bungled.”

The Budgie desktop was too simple to encourage continued use, I thought. I was disappointed with its slow development. It continued to suffer from a lack of functionality and completeness.

I was much more pleased with Budgie’s integration and performance over the years in other Linux distros. The Budgie desktop was less limited in performance elsewhere. Over time, Budgie in Solus improved. So did the Solus distro as a whole.

History Revisited

Ikey Doherty was the lead developer of what originally was named “Evolve OS” and later morphed into Solus OS in 2015. The morphing included the new Budgie desktop.

Early in its development, Doherty had to rebrand his original distro to resolve a conflict with another Linux distribution. Now the Linux project is called “Solus.”

Over the summer of 2018, due to unclear circumstances, Doherty relinquished his leadership and affiliation with the Solus community. Under Doherty, the distro was based in the UK. The current development team now is based in Ireland.

Moving On

Prior to the change in leadership, Solus lacked the glitz and glitter found in distributions with more seasoned desktop environments. Animation was nonexistent.

Fast-forward to Solus 4.0, which appeared last October and proved to be a mature distro that was alive and well. One of the early hallmarks of Solus was its simplicity. That was evident in every aspect of use.

It became a factor in the distro’s growing popularity. Performance gains and more functionality were evident in version 4.0 under the new developer community. Solus offered a fresh approach to uncomplicating the computer desktop.

That says a lot, given the sometimes sordid developmental path of the almost 5-year- young Linux distribution. Its series 4 release name — “Fortitude” — speaks volumes about the new developer team’s success with updates and improvements to each of the distribution’s supported desktop environments: Budgie, GNOME, MATE — and now KDE Plasma in the current 4.1 upgrades.

The custom Budgie desktop environment in the version 4.0 release sported a new minor release to version 10.5.1 of the Budgie desktop 10.5 series. Budgie received several enhancements, gaining improved menu handling, new font options, and the ability to work with multiple modern versions of the GNOME software stack.

Solus 4.1 Plasma desktop widgets

The Plasma desktop lets you display desktop widgets, a feature the other desktop options do not provide.

– click image to enlarge –

Progress Shows

The Budgie desktop in Solus 4.0 and 4.1 advances the cause of simplicity and elegance. It grew with the user in mind. It has a plain and clean style.

In this latest release, version 4.1, the Budgie desktop is still easy to use. It is a feature-rich, modern desktop designed to stay out the user’s way.

One key advantage for the Budgie desktop is that it is not a fork of another project. The Budgie desktop environment offers an intuitive menu that enables quick access to your installed programs, offering both category and compact views.

Budgie makes it easy to add, remove and modify panels, along with their properties and displayed applets. It gives you quick access to system settings and power options such as restart, suspend and shutdown.

The introduction of the GNOME and MATE desktops added more flexibility and variety to the Solus offering, however. Solus now has one more big reason for new users to check out this impressive Linux distribution. This same reason also might influence Budgie users to switch environments and try something new.

The Plasma Factor

This latest edition to the growing family of Solus desktops — KDE Plasma — is a welcome option. The flagship Budgie desktop provides a neat, clutter-free view. Its bottom panel bar and slide-out display for settings from the right edge of the screen reinforce the Solus mandate to keep things pretty and neat.

Earlier iterations of the Plasma desktop would not have fit that Solus mandate easily, but the latest Plasma layout is a handy complement to the Solus design style. Its bottom panel is almost a functional duplicate of what the Budgie panel bar offers.

Another nicety, at least for me, is the way Plasma handles an essential computing tool — virtual desktops. I found Budgie to be a bit too restrictive in navigating around workspaces. I disliked GNOME for being a tad bit too clunky in that regard. Plasma takes more of the middle ground.

Plasma has what no other desktop environment so far has duplicated. It has a traditional virtual desktop process. It also has what amounts to a “super workspace” system called “Activities.”

The Activity feature works separately from virtual desktops. You can use both together or one rather than the other. The Activity display offers several features not available to plain workspaces.

For example, you can show a different background image in each Activity “desktop.” You also can have different screen widgets for each Activity desktop, as with the main Solus Plasma screen.

Yet another benefit of the Plasma environment is the KDE family of tools and applications.

Solus 4.1 Plasma Activities panel

Plasma’s unique Activities panel provides another layer of virtual workspaces that let you display different backgrounds and desktop widgets in addition to the standard Solus desktop screen view.

– click image to enlarge –

Under the Hood

All of the Solus 4.1 releases have ISOs using Zstandard (zstd) compression for the SquashFS images. Compared to the xz compressed ISOs from previous releases, the ztsd compressed size is slightly larger. However, zstd files decompress significantly faster. This results in a faster installation process.

Solus 4.1 Plasma Edition features Plasma Desktop 5.17.5, the latest of 5.17 series. It is complemented by KDE Frameworks 5.66, KDE Applications 19.12.1 and QT 5.13.2.

The Solus developers did not just drop in a standard Plasma desktop. Like all of the Solus desktop environments, the Plasma edition refines the Plasma Desktop experience.

For instance, this edition introduces Solus Dark Theme, a custom theme that is darker than the standard KDE Breeze-Dark and comes closer to the style of the other Solus editions. Other Plasma modifications include changing the position of the Show Desktop widget inside the system tray and creating a custom layout of the Digital Clock widget.

The Solus Plasma Edition ships with Solus-specific integrations for KDE Applications and Frameworks, as well. That reinforces the Solus style consistency I mentioned earlier.

Solus 4.1 ships with the latest release of systemd, v244. This latest version introduces numerous features and prepares for future improvements to Solus around EFI support.

Bottom Line

Solus is one of the leading alternative distros to other more mainstream Linux OSes. The 4.1 upgrade, especially the Plasma edition, clearly set the standard that other Linux distributions should follow.

If you are a gamer, take note of this: Solus 4.1 just made gaming simpler. Solus 4.1 ships with increased file limits to enable ESync support. This release also raises the file limits in the PAM (Pluggable Authentication Modules) package to
Lutris’ suggested value. This lets you spend less time configuring your system and more time playing games.

Want to Suggest a Review?

Is there a Linux software application or distro you’d like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

email your ideas to me, and I’ll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.

And use the Reader Comments feature below to provide your input!

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software.
Email Jack.

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