Netrunner 14 Frontier review - Quite all right


Updated: June 27, 2014

Netrunner is mostly a Kubuntu-based distribution, with the KDE desktop, intended to plug in all the holes and boredom pits left over by its parent, to make it more immediately appealing and fun for the general populace. A new version has been released last week.

We shall be testing now Netrunner 14 Frontier, a Long-Term Support (LTS) release, on top of the usual quad-boot T61 laptop, which comes with a pair of SSD. About a month back, we also looked at the rolling Arch-based version of Netrunner, so the comparison shall be most interesting.

Teaser

Live session

The familiar looks are there. Although the wallpaper and the theme have changed, there's an inherent Netrunnerness in the way the desktop has been designed. Now, there are some bad elements too, like the busy system area, where you'd suppose to see the date and time applet flushed to the far right, for instance. But I'm getting ahead of myself, let's start with a few simpler things.

Desktop, live

Hardware detection is good. There were no errors trying to connect to my Wireless routers, either one of them, either band, and Samba, Samba, Samba was good, too. However, the network popup panel is transparent, and it makes for a very difficult read and a wonkish user experience. Super busy. Add to that the relatively confusing arrangement of icons in the system area, and you're no longer winning.

Transparent wireless panel

And now, look & feel

The system menu is still a little tricky to use. The search results are featured bottom up, and the search functionality is not the most accurate. Moreover, the panel will remain open until you choose something or hit Esc, even if you switch focus away to other programs. Speaking of programs, Web Accounts and cloud storage are no longer there, probably because of relatively low use and popularity.

Menu

Multimedia playback

Worked fine, with some small exceptions. MP3 files still open in QMMP, which has zero desktop integration, and looks nothing like any other KDE application. This really mars the overall impression. But the content played fine, including Flash.

MP3

Flash

Installation

The new installer is getting better with each new release. This latest edition will also try to configure Wireless for you, or it will skip the step if you've already done that on your own. Reminds me of Pardus, long long time ago.

The setup is identical to what we've done with many other distributions in the past. We will dislodge one of the four systems, and replace it with Netrunner Frontier. Then, we will install the bootloader into the root partition, because we would like to keep the overall boot sequence control in the hands of Ubuntu Salamander, which resides on the first partition of the first disk. Nice and tidy.

Wireless setup, installer

Installer suggestions

The partitions are clearly marked, as well as the operating systems installed on them, so you have full control of what you're doing. I killed one of the Qiana setups and reused the home partition. Then, GRUB2 goes into /dev/sda2, as mentioned earlier.

Partitions, before

Partitions, after

After that, the setup took about fifteen minutes. Netrunner 14 is prettier than its rolling counterpart, and the slides are more compelling. There were no issues, and the distro booted fine.

Installing

Let's dance

Now, we shall attempt to enjoy Frontier to the max. After all, isn't it said, Netrunner, the final Frontier. These are the voyages of FOSS Linux. It's continuing mission, to explore strange new distributions, to seek out new make and new init scripts, to boldly go where no one has compiled before. Something like that. More nerdy references coming up.

Desktop installed

Package management

I had to admit I was pleasantly surprised by the improvements in Muon, but then the entire family of the recent LTS releases has been like that, from Trusty to Mint, including the patriarch of the family, Mr. Kubuntu. Both the update manager and the actual package manager feel a little more streamlined, a little more polished, and quite a bit faster.

Updates available

Updates, good looking

Muon

Applications

Compared to Kubuntu, Frontier comes with a far richer, far more colorful arsenal of programs. However, some of the choices remain weird, and we've observed that both in the rolling release as well as the previous Enigma-II edition. It doesn't mean it's bad, but it's not ideal.

Anyhow, the list is long. Just the utilities and system helper programs comprise an impressive chunk. You have VirtualBox, Yakuake, both Synaptic and Muon package managers, and quite a few others besides. Then, the conventional setup includes Firefox, Thunderbird, Skype, Clementine, the full LibreOffice, Kdenlive, GIMP, Gwenview, Okular, VLC, Karbon, and many others. The drivers utility is there too, but perhaps for the first time, the desktop effects are gone.

Apps menu

Apps

System resources

Surprise, surprise, Netrunner 14 Frontier is a very quiet distro. The CPU utilization is low, just about 2-3% on average, so this is more than quite commendable. However, memory usage is high, about 1GB, but it's better than the other way around. This does not translate into more battery juice, but then the power pack is broken, with lots of dead cells, so it's hard to estimate the real efficiency of the distro, the kernel and whatnot. On the stability front, no oopses, no crashes, no ugly errors. Suspend & resume work just fine on this all-non-proprietary-drivers laptop, and fast too. It seems like a cushty setup, all in all.

Resources

Printing

Nope. Samba, nicht! Why, oh why!

Printing, broken

Customization

Now, I played a little bit into making the system more presentable. For example, the two default launchers for Dolphin and Firefox are really a phenomenon. Because if you add more icons, they max to the size of the panel, so it gets ugly. Then, you want a bit of breathing space above and below icons, so why not make the panel a tad higher. Finally, the system area can really be polished with a bit of simple, elegant juggling of icons left and right. Throw in a couple of wallpapers, and Bob's your uncle. I know I'm not the most aesthetic person in the world, although I come very close, but I think I'm on the right track, and 99% of distros can be made more appealing in two minutes. Panel, work in progress, me king:

First panel

Work in progress

Best panel

And the desktops, from good to best:

Final desktop 1

Final desktop 2

Final desktop 3

Final desktop 4

Conclusion

Netrunner 14 Frontier is yet another gradual improvement over its predecessors, and that's good to see. Tiny problems are polished, the core identity established, and now it's the matter of finding the optimal balance of programs and beauty, really. There were no errors whatsoever, save only for the printing problem. So that's a good thing overall.

If I have to compare to the rolling release, for some reason, the illegitimate child of Manjaro and Arch is more exciting in some sense, even though the quality and solidness of the Frontier release is way above the other. But that's a good thing. You have something to fret over and decide. Overall, well worth the effort. Let's say 9/10, and now you do the testing of your own.

Cheers.

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