The first time I heard about the Solus project was on a recent episode of Bad Voltage podcast. A lot of my workflow happens in a Linux VM running on top of a Windows host. So I'm always on a lookout for a better Linux desktop experience, as unlikely as that is to happen.
Bad Voltage fiasco
That interview, by the way, was amazing on so many levels. The Solus guy, Josh Strobl, might be many things, but a good interviewee and product marketeer he is not. The Bad Voltage hosts had to pry words out of his mouth. In the long-standing tradition of being assholes towards their guests (and each others, for that matter), they also couldn't help but ding him about it at the end.
Strobl had a good grace to pretend he didn't notice the barb (or maybe truly didn't notice). Either way... Dude. For God's sake, please practice presenting your product, or find someone else to do it. That was painful to listen.
But whatever. A good presentation doesn't necessarily correlates with a good product. Solus makes some very intriguing design decisions, like focusing on Desktop experience and not relying on any existing distro or package format. You don't get to see a fresh new Linux platform all that often, so I was curious to try it out.
The project website is above average for the OSS standards, but still way below what you get with commercial projects.
Showing actual screenshots of your product? Good!
Having nothing on those screenshots other than the default desktop background? Come on guys, you're trying to promote your product, not stock photos of flowers. How about showing off some of your widgets or custom apps instead?
The Download section reveals what the Solus authors mean when they talk about simplification. There is only one version available for download. No choice in architecture, size, etc. If this helps them focus on quality, fine by me.
The installation is a standard fare. I created a new VM in VirtualBox and booted it up using the torrented ISO as a "live CD". Sound and network came up fine. The only "pinned" application on the taskbar was the installer. About what you would expect from a modern linux distro.
The installer itself is surprisingly fiddly and non-intuitive. For example, the keyboard layout screen. I clicked on the "Generic 105-key" menu item and it switched to a whole new menu, with languages. I then clicked on the "English (US)" menu item, and it switched back to the first menu.
I have no idea how these two choices are related. Did it remember both my choices, or are these alternative choices or what? I clicked on what I thought were my options a few times in a loop and moved on.
The worst part, though, is the install location screen.
Virtually every modern OS installer offers some kind of "guided" option when setting up your partitions. You just pick out a HDD you want to pave over and the installer does the rest.
Not Solus, though. The only option you have here is the most advanced option when installing other systems. Which is to start up gparted partition manager and configure the layout manually.
IMO this is a huge oversight for a system that's aimed at regular users and loudly advertises a "no hassle" experience. I suppose a determined beginner could get through this part if they remember to bring up the PDF manual, but who does that these days?
Anyway, once the installer finished, the system itself booted up without any issues, and I ended up on the empty flowery desktop like the one on their homepage.
Bootup is surprisingly fast and pleasant experience.
The desktop environment is called "Budgie". It looks like it's based on Gnome 2. The theme and widget design looks pretty nice. On the right side there's a vertical bar similar to Windows 10 Action Center. This includes a calendar and an audio output widget, and is the most distinctive feature of Solus by far.
Every time I logged in, I got "Your connection is ready" notification. I had to fiddle with it a bit before it accepted "do not show this again" command. I have no idea if I can bring this back, and how.
Task bar is, by default, just a row of tiny icons. The hover tooltips were glitching out, which made it pretty much useless (unless I knew exactly which icon represents which application). Once I replaced it with a Windows-style taskbar, the tooltips rendered normally.
By default, Solus comes with one of those useless inert desktops, that only serve to hold a pretty background image and allow no interactions whatsoever. I quickly switched to the usual folder-view, but that revealed the ugly Gnome underneath. Icons can't be forced into a grid and are just floating around freely, which is maddening to someone used to the neat Windows and Mac desktops.
I guess it was too much to hope this would go away with other cruft they got rid of.
Finding a way to configure all this was a chore. You'd think there would be an icon in the main settings panel. But no, there is a separate settings menu for the Budgie, that can only be accessed by clicking a specific gear icon in the side bar.
Every linux distro comes with its own Start Menu clone, and Solus is not an exception.
"Budge menu" is pretty bare-bones. You can search for applications and click to launch them. That's it. You can't organize your icons. I see no way to add new ones. There's no right click menu on anything. Ther's no drag and drop at all (I couldn't, for example, drag that Firefox icon to my desktop).
Even worse, it seems it was never tested with the application menu being anywhere but on top. Once I moved the taskbar to the bottom (a la Windows), it stared glitching out and flickering every time it was brought up.
There is no task switcher UI. Alt-tab simply sends you off to the next application. Even worse, it does that in a round-robin manner. You can't get the standard workflow where you are alt-tabbing between 2-3 most used applications. You have to go through ALL the running applications, one after another, to get back to where you started.
There is no session management. When you restart your computer, you lose the entire working environment and have to start and arrange all the applications back up. This is the same as on Windows, but instead of emulating a bad example, how about we follow the good example of how OS X and other Linux distroes do this?
Solus's custom package manager,
eopkg, seems competent enough. All the usual OSS packages, like Open Office and Thunderbird, are available through the Software Center. I was able to install everything I needed to get VBox guess additions to compile and install.
The real problem comes with the 3rd party support, which is, naturally, nonexistent. There are a few builds available on the official wiki, but certainly not all. On Ubuntu, I can go to Skype.com and download their custom .deb installer. When will I be able to do that on Solus? Probably not anytime soon.
They claim this custom package manager will fix all sorts of problems with versioning and conflicts and yadda yadda yadda. Frankly, who cares about all that? Users certainly don't. Current "mess" might make life a bit harder for software vendors and distro maintainers, but all the users want is to open up Software Manager and click icons to install stuff. And apt and rpm, as broken as they are claimed to be, satisfy that requirement pretty neatly. This whole package management rewrite seems like a needless refactoring for the sake of "software purity", as far as I can tell.
Also, if they just used some established package manager, we wouldn't have to deal with pure choices of terminal colors like this:
Solus is a mediocre distribution. It has a pretty skin and a few interesting widgets here and there. But it needed to have a lot more.
For all the claims of blazing its own path, the finished product feels very much like the Windows reskin you usually get with Linux desktops. Solus authors didn't really do anything especially novel with any of this software.
But OK, there's nothing wrong with doing a stable conservative distro, as long as there are features and stability to go with it. Solus, unfortunately, has neither. All its software seem to be at a "minimal viable product" stage. It gets the job done, but is nowhere near its competition in terms of features and even polish (beyond the visual level). The lack of standardized software packaging doesn't help either.
I don't hate Solus. But at this point, it doesn't really offer anything to recommend it above the competition. If the authors maintain the momentum and keep working on it, it might become more viable in the future. For now, it's little more than a curiosity for most people. Me included.