Updated: March 22, 2021
Today, I broke my own rule. I spent a lot of time testing a distro when I really shouldn't have. That distro is EndeavourOS, a spiritual and material successor to Antergos. We're talking an Arch-based system, meant to be simple and friendly - to a point. How much, we shall discover today, maybe, depends on how open our chakras be. So there's that.
My experience with Antergos was polar - the 17.X branch was really cool, including some unique features that I've rarely if ever seen elsewhere. For instance, a super-friendly installer plus seamless proprietary driver setup. But then, the 18.X test was the exact opposite, rift with issues and problems. Then, Antergos ceased to be, and in its place rose EndeavourOS. 'Tis a nerdy distro, cloaked in Xfce by default, but with a bold and optimistic premise. Version tried here, 2021.02.03. Begin.
Attempt 1: Offline install, Xfce
I booted the distro on my new test machine - the triple-boot Lenovo IdeaPad 3, which comes with an AMD processor and Vega 8 graphics. A colorful mix of text and splash going into the live session. You get a dash of purple, bad font contrast with gray-on-gray theming, and a network connection prompt that stays visible for way too long. The contrast and clarity were the big one, especially since the laptop doesn't have the best FHD display to begin with, but we will talk about display scaling and such later.
I went with the offline installation first - you only get the default Xfce setup. The online option allows you to install one of about a dozen different desktop environments. This is cool, but it also feels like a major investment of effort for the distro maintainers - keeping all these different desktops up to date and relevant. The Calamares installer in EndeavourOS spends a few moments searching for "one module" - like it always does, not sure why this message is ever needed. But then, you get operating system titles in the partitioning step, so you actually know what resides where.
The installation was fairly long - given that the system comes with NVMe storage - about 15 minutes. The slides are retro-DOS, with deliberate faux-low-res grainy images that actually look funky and cool. Reboot. The boot menu, all good, the other two operating systems were properly detected and added. Seven seconds to a fully functioning desktop, but it ain't seven pretty seconds, as you get text and messages and whatnot all mixed together. The Wireless network was not preserved from the live session. When I plugged in the charger, the distro auto-changed the brightness to the lowest setting. Why, me wonders.
And this is where me trouble started ...
First, I wanted to make the system more usable - fonts, contrast, scaling. Easier said than done. One, EndeavourOS doesn't ship with too many themes - it's all Arc or basic Adwaita really. Shame, because I do like the color motif. Then I thought, let's scale things up, maybe that will help. I did this in both Kubuntu and Manjaro on this box, with some pretty excellent results.
No luck. Xfce doesn't do scaling well. For one, if you change the factor, you actually need to go sub-1 to make things better. In other words, if you do 1.25, your display becomes even smaller, whereas 0.8 or similar gives you something approximating the 125% scaling one would normally expect. Then, Xfce seems limited to decimal points. But worst of all, when you blow things up, everything looks blurry. Like making an image larger, but without compensating for the artifacts. Maybe one needs to manually change the fonts and DPI, but at this point, I simply didn't want to invest any more energy in this experiment (scaling that is). I've hardly tried EndeavourOS, and partly, mostly, this is distro's fault for using sub-optimal ergonomics, forcing me to go down the change route right away, instead of allowing me to actually have fun and test the system's features.
So I decided to try the default Xfce theme - the distro's Welcome applet lets you do this with one click. And thus we reach the second point in the customization saga. Boy, was this a bad choice. The default Xfce looks are simply wrong. It's not that you get the classic desktop experience, which you don't - the top panel plus centered dock isn't really the classic formula. It's the bad choice of colors, the 90s icons, the fact the system menu looks odd, it doesn't respond to the Super key, and if you hit a wrong button, the whole thing beeps like something from a 1983 sci-fi movie. Resizing the top panel was a pain, and then resizing the icons led to horrible, horrible artifacts. Nope.
I spent just a little bit of time trying all these futile things - and just gave up - similar to my Xubuntu Groovy experience. Going back to EndeavourOS theme, I tried making subtle modifications, like Adwaita once more - but then, the panel items don't change color to match the theme, so you end up with invisible text. In other words, if you don't like the default look, you can't really use the system, because any change simply destroy the fragile balance of the Xfce setup.
Plasma to the rescue? Attempt 2.
Well, I remembered EndeavourOS promising all those other desktops. I really liked the Plasma test in Manjaro recently, on this very same laptop, so I thought, let's do. Now, I couldn't find a graphical package manager - or a trivial way of actually doing this. The Welcome screen could or should include meta links to grab these other desktops, the likes of which the online installer version is meant to do.
I hit the command-line and started pacman-ing. Not the best experience. You need to refresh the package database. This isn't Arch exclusive, but thinking about it, it's funny that you need to do this manually. Anyway, I installed the plasma bundle - this was super-quick, maybe one or two minutes. In this regard, pacman seems tons faster than apt or dnf or whatnot, but its usage is clunky and the flags are weird.
I logged out, tried to switch to Plasma, no can do. The screen would go dark and then fail back to the login screen. So I did a full system update, reinstalled Plasma, and then, things started looking better. But not as much as I hoped.
The next endeavour
So yes, you get Plasma, but it's an incomplete setup. For example, half the packages were missing - no Okular, Konsole, GwenView and alike. I wanted to install these - and Plasma 5.21 lets you actually do this right from the system menu; search for an item, and if it's not there, it will redirect you to Discover (also missing). I installed it, but then it complained that it didn't have any back-ends. I couldn't find these on the command-line, and I'm not sure how well Discover actually works with Arch-based systems, if at all. Thus, I ended up without a GUI manager for me software.
And some more nerdy joy:
error: failed retrieving file 'xdg-desktop-portal-kde-5.20.5-1-x86_64.pkg.tar.zst'
from www.mirrorservice.org : The requested URL returned error: 404
warning: failed to retrieve some files
sudo pacman -S steam
:: There are 5 providers available for vulkan-driver:
:: Repository extra
1) amdvlk 2) nvidia-utils 3) vulkan-intel 4) vulkan-radeon
I did try to grab Octopi, but then you need AUR and whatnot, and this feels like an endless chore for something that should be simple and trivial. Remember, so far, none of what we did is EndeavourOS - but then, it's the distro that provides all this. I see no reason why the installation of the desktop environment shouldn't include all the right bits and pieces.
Eventually, I had the software I needed, most of it anyway. So I tried the HD scaling next. Worked reasonably well. But then I hit fresh Plasma-specific snags. The desktop was configured for single-mouse clicks. Changing this is hard. Not under mouse. Not under Dolphin. Maybe under Workspace? Only it never says mouse - just that single click either opens or selects an item. How hard is it to actually tell people single click or double click? Why overcomplicate something so trivial?
I'm not too happy with the new theming either - I want light app theme + dark window borders, like you have in Plasma before 5.21. But then, just as I outlined in the Plasma 5.21 review, no luck. Annoying. I did try to change the window borders, but the available options do not include Breeze Dark. Why not? If you choose to install new themes, you hit a Catch 22 problem. One, the old add-ons interface opens up, and you're back to rummaging through a pile of half-broken, out-of-date themes. Two, you can't use Discover, because it doesn't really do any job in EndeavourOS.
And then, I also noticed various visual artifacts - as a result of my scaling. A problem that didn't exist in Plasma 5.20, which has splendid scaling, and a problem that now exists in Plasma 5.21. Here we have fresh random regressions, yet again. The neverending state of Linux. And this isn't limited to this particular laptop and its Vega graphics - the problem also occurs even in a virtual machine setup.
Weary, dejected, I finally spent a few minutes trying some basics on EndeavourOS. It works, you get the stuff you need, but then, why did I have to spend an hour or two tweaking when all of this could have been part of the default offering? Even so, with my tweaks in place, you don't get a complete experience. In this regard, Manjaro Nibla did a way better job.
Attempt 3: Online install, Plasma, virtual machine, black screen
I decided to try from scratch to see if there's a difference between letting Calamares configure the desktop for you, or if you pacman it yourself, following the official instructions available on the EndeavourOS site. And I did this twice. In VirtualBox, I had proper mouse integration and I was able to scale the display seamlessly in the live session. No problem. In the installed system, the resolution was stuck at 800x640px, I had no mouse cursor (but it did work), and changing the resolution (somewhat blindly) results in a black screen. Wunderbar.
Attempt 4: Online install, Plasma, broken laptop
So despite my best judgment, I tried to reinstall EndeavourOS on the IdeaPad, online option, Plasma only. That makes for roughly four installations, three of which resulted in nothing really useful. The installation was slow, about 25 minutes. Meh. And then, it never completed. I got an installer error, EFI bootloader, whatnot. Congratulations, broken system! No boot menu, nothing.
Well, that was fun. Not. What did we learn today? Not much, and then a lot. Xfce doesn't do scaling well. Xfce is simply way behind when it comes to usability and ergonomics, and making it look and behave is far from trivial. EndeavourOS ships with sub-optimal visuals, which need a lot of work, and that work can't really be done easily in Xfce. Trying to go down the Plasma route didn't yield amazing results. No easy package manager, incomplete setup, subsequent problems with Plasma itself.
Then, trying the online option was even worse - black screen in the VM and a completely destroyed setup on physical hardware. I've yet to actually boot a new distro on the IdeaPad. Hopefully, the resident Windows and Ubuntu have actually survived the borked installation. What little actually hands-on work I did in EndeavourOS wasn't special in any way, but then I never really got a chance to try the distro properly. In fact, as far as EndeavourOS is concerned, my experience was a total disaster. Over the years, not too many distros died mid-install, so be careful with your attempts. Hopefully, you'll have more luck or fun. But if you have to Arch, then Manjaro seems like the safest, most elegant option.