Like any good Linux geek I have lots of old hardware kicking around my house — most of it running a variant or derivative of Ubuntu. However, in recent years Ubuntu is becoming more resource hungry and doesn’t run smoothly on my older gear. Even on my 4 year old Asus K55A (8GB, Intel i7-3630QM), with lighter desktop environments, such as Mate and LXDE, the lag and lack of responsiveness is becoming unbearable.
So I’m trying Solus. I know, I know, “but there’s no apps, you can’t even…”
I enjoy using the Chromebooks that my kids have and those laptops have no apps. In my search for a similarly polished experience and optimized performance I found that Solus, with the Budgie DE, was the distro to try.
Now granted, Solus and this laptop are not my “daily driver” — I leave that honor to my work laptop (Dell E7450 with Gnome Ubuntu) — but I have been using it at home for my day-to-day browsing and “whatever” needs. So here is my first week with it.
The installer was standard fare, but it was the first window that allowed me to see how polished the Budgie DE was. Going through each panel in the process was a visual joy, with a few panels that were new to me. I was excited to get into the OS proper, that way I could see if the rest of the polish held up to my initial impressions.
Once installed and restarted, I was presented with such a simple, ChromeOS-like experience. The clean emptiness of it is so alluring. You immediately want to click the Activities Overview icon (or press the Super key) to see what possibilities await.
I’ve been a GNOME user for a while and there are certain things I like about it and many things I don’t. Budgie — while not GNOME, is still heavily integrated with the GNOME stack — is all the things I like with GNOME-shell, with some of the jarring experiences removed (like being taken fully out of context when you press the super-key). All I want is a fast launcher, a top panel with notifications, and the time. That is exactly what Budgie offers.
Being so tightly coupled with the GNOME stack, it comes as no surprise that you can customize Budgie in all the same ways. It even comes with the GNOME Tweak tool pre-installed. Right out of the box, the appearance is stellar and I have no desire to change the theme here. One thing that made me really happy is that in the terminal, the Solarized themes come pre-installed.
While looks can help you enjoy your time on a computer, they don’t actually mean much to the overall experience. What really matters is ease of use and overall performance. And that’s where Solus has got my attention. I have no benchmark stats, no scientific evidence to support any of the following claims. This is purely gut feels — my own personal feelings about the experience as a whole.
Ease of use
Just like in GNOME-shell, I want to be able to do anything or get anywhere from a simple launcher-like experience. Pressing the super-key in Solus brings up the Budgie Menu (Activities Overview), which is fast and very responsive. A simple search gets me to the app I’m thinking of off the top of my head. Of all the app menus I’ve played with, this one has exactly what I’m looking for. It’s clean, organized and highly optimized. It’s a joy to use and navigate.
If you don’t need to browse the whole app menu and simply want a straight-up text search, type alt-f2 to bring up the command prompt–though I don’t think prompt actually lets you run commands like GNOME-shell does, just app searches as far as I can tell. You get the same, quick search ability without taking your attention away to the top left hand corner.
The notifications are a joy as well with Raven notification and customization center, much like the one you’d find in Apple’s OS X. Notifications are easily viewed and dismissed in an intuitive manner. The viewing experience is comfortable as well. I added an online account in system settings, installed Evolution (which automatically picks up online accounts from settings) and Raven promptly and unobtrusively notified me of upcoming events and unread emails.
Beyond just notifications you can access applets like a calendar and volume controls. I would expect you’d be able to add more applets in Raven but I haven’t figured that out. That might be a feature on the roadmap.
Raven is also the place to make some convenient Budgie customization, giving you the ability to tweak fonts, appearance and panel settings. I added a clock applet to the center of the panel to give it the GNOME feel was used to.
This image shows the resource usage with 10 Chrome tabs open, youtube playing, htop running, gimp, software center, files, firefox, and system monitor. Yeah, try that with GNOME Ubuntu.
Solus has brought my Asus K55A back to life. The performance is more than I could have hoped for which was a pleasant surprise. The optimizations go beyond the Budgie desktop as I had already tried Budgie on Ubuntu and was underwhelmed. I think Solus, at its core, is a highly tuned distro.
The boot up time is significantly faster than any Ubuntu flavor I’ve tried, and waking up from sleep is instantaneous with the desktop waiting for me before I’ve got the lid fully open.
Apps launch way faster than Ubuntu, and the overall responsiveness feels very snappy. To be honest I had relegated this laptop to a bottom drawer in my office until now. With Solus running on it, I can honestly say I reach for this machine more often than any other in the house (including my Macbook Pro Retina).
The software center is hands down the best iteration of any such feature I’ve seen in recent years. The Ubuntu Software Center, then the GNOME Software Center, Mate Software Boutique… from a purely performance standpoint, they all pale in comparison to the software center found in Solus. It is so snappy and concise. Paging through apps, pulling up app details is so fast. The experience of installing apps is clear and precise, leaving no doubt at any stage that you are installing an app and when an app has finished installing. This is a far cry from the current state of GNOME software center, who’s experience leaves me wondering if anything has happened at all.
Finally, it goes without saying that finely tuned performance comes with fantastic battery life. This laptop has always been short in that department, with the battery dying long before a reasonable session has ended. Now the battery outlives my attention span.
Ubuntu Mate has a nice feature with the Welcome app and the software boutique, which allows you to install lots of 3rd party apps — like Chrome, Skype and Telegram — without having to worry about ppa’s and such. Solus has the start of something similar with their own software center that has a category for 3rd party apps. Currently there is only a handful of apps, like Chrome and Spotify, but those both happen to be exactly the apps I need.
What Solus doesn’t have
Ok, Solus actually has a lot more than I’d have expected and I know the maintainers are packaging more all the time. This goes back to what so many have complained about with so many independent distro’s, there aren’t many apps in the package manager. This doesn’t bother me for my home computer. I use Chrome. I Use Google Drive, Google Docs, etc… Even if I were to make this a development machine, I use vim, node and git. This is the greatest extent of my software needs. A lack of software choice has never been a big factor for me.
But with that said, most developers make their apps available as rpm’s or deb’s. Neither one will work on Solus. I’m not entirely sure at time of writing, what make system Solus uses, so whether you could compile from source is not something I can honestly answer right now.
This could be a huge drawback if your software needs are beyond the mainstream. I did try to install Ghetto Skype, a simple electron app (no make tools required), but was unable to make a go of it.
The contributors to Solus have a very clear mission, to deliver the best, most optimal experience and performance on their OS with their desktop environment on desktop/laptop machines. The software they have packaged, the environment they have fine tuned, the experience they have perfected is for a single purpose — to make their own experience cohesive.
Don’t expect it to be easy to install any other desktop environment on Solus. Budgie and Solus are optimized for each other.
Wait, what? Yeah that’s weird right? Budgie doesn’t have an alt-tab app switcher. Well it does, but there is no visual cue or interface for it. You can use alt-tab to switch between apps, but you have no idea what is coming up next. It’s the Russian Roulette of app switching. There was a blog post from March that says a solution is forthcoming.
Raven Notifications are only that
Raven notifications are nicely listed in the sidebar, but that’s it. They are not actionable items. You can’t click on them or swipe them away individually. Raven is lacking that launch action that GNOME-shell has in it’s notification applet that allows you to open the app that triggered the notification.
Whether you think Solus is ready for prime-time depends on how you want to use it. I want something akin to a Chromebook, something to browse the web, answer emails and such. For that it is perfect. I suspect if you want a general productivity device you’ll do fine with Solus.
As a work device, Solus might come short. The lack of an app-switcher (at time of writing) would certainly make it tough for me to use as a development OS.
With that said, I will continue to use Solus as my home machine and continue to watch it’s progress over time. Who knows, I might even role up my sleeves and help out any way I can.