Updated: July 10, 2013
Well, well, well, I have never imagined I would be testing a distribution based on another distribution, which mandates that you sacrifice animals on a cold slab of red marble etched with runic symbols and C language just to get the networking running. But Manjaro is unto Arch what Sabayon is unto Gentoo. And so here we are.
I have received maybe half a million requests, all right, maybe three requests to review the distro, and they all promised I would not have to manually monkey my way around the system as if it's a paying job. With this in mind as strict rule no. 4, thou shalt not dabble in unnecessary stuff, I set about testing Manjaro 0.8.5, the almost latest version by the time you read this review. The drama takes place on a T61 box, with Intel graphics and SSD.
Manjaro offers several boot options in its menu, including non-free codecs and whatnot, so if you're not burdened by ideology, you will press the Down arrow key once and hit Enter. The desktop that comes up is nice, but maybe too colorful. The system area is a bit too cluttered, and all mounted volumes are shown, so this can be a bit annoying.
A quick remedy, and things look a tad better. Basically, like most Xfce desktops, it offers a bottom panel, which is quite Maccy and neat. You also have the standard top panel, and in the system area, all kinds of icons. There's some inconsistency in the theme; lo and behold the Wireless utility panel, completely different from the rest.
If you compare Manjaro to some other Xfce desktops, then it comes with a curious blend of beautiful and ugly. In some aspects, it's very much like Sabayon we tested a few weeks earlier, in others, more like Xubuntu. And then, not quite like any one of these two. For example, the system menu comes with everything sorted nicely into one comprehensive management utility, so there's really no reason to spell all of them individually, taking the entire height of the screen.
Again, for an Arch offspring, I was surprised. Manjaro was behaving well, with no trouble getting Wireless connectivity or even browsing the Samba shares, with speed and elegance.
So far so good, I was not having to read the future from the entrails and use gerbils to power on the init scripts. Then, you get full multimedia support, out of the box. Quite neat. Flash worked just fine.
MP3 also worked, but it depends what music player you choose. The default player, xnoise was sort of playing the song, but no sound happened on the machine. With VLC, the playback was fine. What I did not like was the completely different style of menus and fonts in the two programs, including the large, underlined letters in VLC. That's just not pretty.
There's also a tool called Manjaro Settings Manager, but it is not really usable in the live session, because it asks for the administrative password. You can try to guess your way around, but it's not slick.
Manjaro installation is very much like SolydK, based on Debian, with a fairly nifty GUI, although some small polish is in order, especially when it comes to partitioning. Still, considering the fact Arch requires that you drink two pints of virgin blood before even attempting to use the distro, this is something of an achievement.
In the partitioning step, if you choose manual, you are warned this is all about really and completely manually configuring your disks and partitions, including adding entries to the /etc/fstab file. Not nice. So you want the default option.
Once this step is complete, you can configure the bootloader, then you get a confirmation window, and once past this stage, it's a simple slideshow, although with some misaligned elements, like the black border not really covering the entire installer area.
The installation went well. I let Pangolin control the quad-boot sequence. On the very first boot, Manjaro simply froze, and nothing much happened, so I had to hard reboot, and this time, the distro loaded fine.
Like before, the desktop was pleasant enough, but a bit too colorful. For example, you get that UN flag prompt in the system area, and this has to do with languages for some obscure reason. Why or how, beats me. This in turn launchers the Settings Manager we discussed, which feels entirely redundant, especially since you have the standard, rather useful Xfce system settings toolbox.
In fact, the Manjaro Settings Manager feels entirely superfluous, as it comes with a very small list of items. Work in progress, seems like. A little bit like what I observed when testing elementary OS, which can be expected from sub-1.0 releases of any software.
As it turns out, it's broken. Yup. Much like Sabayon, although you don't get any of the nuclear reactor components like the Gentoo family. However, clicking on the update manager icon in the system area did nothing. Right or left click. Double clicking would cover the desktop with messages about available updates, but it would not launch. The only way to get Pamac running was through the system menu, and then, the updates and software installations would fail because of broken dependencies.
Then, after this, it would not really launch, thinking it was already running, so I had to do some manual killing before things sorted themselves out. Still, I had no way of doing system upgrades. For a rolling distro, this is bad.
I tried fiddling with MP3 once again, and this time I did get some message that things were kind of broken with xnoise. Audiosink was bonkers or such.
Manjaro 0.8.5 comes with a decent collection. Steam is there too, although it's just an installer script placeholder rather than the fullblown platform. You also get Firefox, Thunderbird, a full LibreOffice suite, GIMP, VLC, Viewnior, as well as some Qt programs, plus some other tools and utilities. Overall, the collection is fairly balanced and useful. You also get Skype in the repo, alas it cannot be installed, because of the aforementioned thingie with the package manager.
Manjaro is not a very hungry distro, but it's not the leanest either. It was tolling about 380MB on this laptop, which is more than Cinnamon or MATE in Mint, for example. The CPU was mostly quiet, but still, not exactly the smoothest experience in the world.
Worked just fine, including Samba.
There were a whole bunch of other problems and errors. For example, you get both the VNC Server and Viewer tools, but the latter just won't run, complaining there's no daemon running. Not my problem, fix it.
PulseAudio also complained, but I forgot to take a screenshot there. Then, while suspend & resume worked fine, unplugging the power cord and making the laptop work on battery power would cause the external mouse to turn off after about 2-3 seconds of being idle. This is ultra-annoying, and effectively makes your laptop's peripheral useless. Moreover, most Fn buttons on the laptop did not really work.
Ignoring all else, a tiny amount of customization, and we get this:
Manjaro is a nice attempt to make unfriendly friendly, but it's a misplaced effort, because there are friendly distros all around. No need to go the difficult way about it. Then, there's the obvious beta feel, replete with errors and bugs of all sorts, the most serious of which are the package management and audio slash multimedia playback. The rest of the problems are not fun either.
If you're an Arch user, Manjaro is a blessing really. But then, why bother. Much like Sabayon, it tries to offer the common user a pleasant experience that simply cannot be, because it builds off such a complex and geeky baseline. That's the big problem, and you get tons of unnecessary problems that could have been avoided just by doing something else. The target audience, apart from the obvious personal fun and challenge in developing a distribution, really eludes me. Manjaro 0.8.5 with the Xfce desktop is a curious blend of all kinds and sorts, not quite here, nor there, friendly with a big fat disclaimer, and tons of bugs, buglets and other insects. It probably deserves about 6/10, maybe 6.5/10. One thing is certain, though, for Manjaro to flourish, it needs a lot more work. The end.