Updated: January 29, 2016
I don't have too much luck with Arch-based distributions, it would seem. Netrunner Rolling failed me completely, and it wouldn't install. Several week after that first fiasco, Apricity OS did the same thing. Distro did a bad bad thing.
Now, I'm faced with a dilemma, as I'm about to test Manjaro 15.12 Xfce on my G50 laptop, which comes with UEFI, Secure Boot, GPT, and the rest of the uncanny stuff what trumped all these other distributions. But we shall not succumb, and we shall test on the beaches and in the fields. Avanti.
Booting la vida
I'm reusing a joke, but that's fine. I love reusing jokes. Anyhow, no problem booting from a USB thumb drive. This really frightens me. Why do some distros based on a particular flavor work, and others not? I always use the same approach, same tools, same methodology.
The desktop looks neat, but it is cluttered with mounted volumes. Please, don't show them by default. It is ugly and distracting. Also, Wi-Fi was disabled for some reason by default, and I had to manually turn it on. This can freak out some people.
Other than that, you get a reasonably pretty and unconventional Xfce session, adorned with those same amazing round icons we previously saw in the Apricity OS review. Alas, the goodness does not spread equally through every corner of this distribution, as the system area is somewhat too busy, the Bluetooth icon is funky, and the size and spacing could do with a bit of Stackenblochen. Plus, the desktop shortcut titles are truncated in an ugly fashion. You do get a nice welcome menu, which also tells us this distro is called Capella.
So much work to be done there. The clipboard icon is very similar to the battery icon, the spacing is not equidistant, the heights are all wrong, the virtual desktop applet and the show desktop thingie are positioned on the right rather than the left side of the panel, and the logout button is all too convenient to click. It should be hidden to avoid accidental session destructions.
So yes, Wi-Fi was off, but then I sorted it out. Samba printing does not work. The browse button is grayed out, and you can't really discover any network printers. Samba sharing works, and relatively fast. More uncertainty added to my chaotic life.
It was too fidgety, and I had to exercise some disablement.
All good. You get the expected plethora of MP3, Flash and HD video. The music player is a little weird, and while it does look packed with goodies, it's not exactly the most practical choice in the world. For instance, the lyrics plugin just tells you to go online and read lyrics on some site somewhere. Oh really? Thank you, Sherlock. Then, you get VLC for video, so it's kind of surplus having both, no, as VLC can play anything. I also found the contextual system area menus quite neat. Cushty.
The one thing that did annoy me was Google ads on Youtube. Driver downloads prompt? What? This is like the lowest of the low. Peddling diarrhea as fortune cookies. Seriously? Plus, how about some professionalism. I'm running Linux. Why would you recommend me Windows drivers? Suck much?
I have to say, spotless. Windows Phone, Ubuntu Phone, as well as iPhone, all of them were properly detected, initialized, mounted, presented, and usable, without a single error. Very nice. Thumbs up. Borat.
This one, alas, didn't work. Suckety Sux. Why oh why? Asgard is weeping, SOS for love.
Installation - Highway to the Danger Zone
Now, the tricky part. Will it work? So far, the statistics are not in Manjaro's favor. However, I do have to admit the installer looks nice. It's different from some other Arch-based wizards, and I actually prefer it. The steps are also logical and friendly.
The partitioning is a little rough. You can't really setup Manjaro side by side with other distributions automatically. You will need to make such a setup yourself. And then, I learned something new and weird.
Manjaro 15.12 had a Mount Checklist thingie, which I haven't ever seen before. Basically, it requires two partitions, the expected root device, but also an EFI mount point, which translates into /boot/efi. And this needs to be set to the relevant device on your disk, a FAT32-formatted partition. You will need to be able to identify this one, and then NOT format it.
There are many issues with this arrangement: 1) Ubuntu and friends can all auto-detect EFI partitions, I don't see why Arch and friends can't do it, too 2) If it is not empty, the partition should not be formattable, because it's so very easy to do that, and then cause massive catastrophe in multi-boot systems. One wrong click, and my six or seven distros plus Windows would not longer be available for fun, pleasure, work, and education.
Moreover, it is not immediately apparent - if you're not a turbo nerd - that EFI translates into /boot/efi. Why not just /boot? What happens if you select a wrong target device? Then, to add some more inconsistency to the story, Manjaro Capella didn't destroy and then recreate+format the partition, like Apricity OS did, instead it just did a simple and innocent format. But it makes the whole exercise very volatile. There's a lot at stake, especially if you're using a production system with multiple partitions. The lack of OS identification is also somewhat funky.
The installation then began. I waited. Nothing went pear-shaped. It completed successfully after about 20 minutes, so I can safely say that Manjaro 15.12 has an installer that is more advanced than either Netrunner Rolling or Apricity OS, it better communicates its partitioning needs, and once again, we're facing inconsistency, with yet another distro family. Napalm is needed.
The slideshow is decent, but the images and text seem to have been scaled, and/or the DPI isn't matched to the screen, which adds a kind of a blurry effect, with less crispness to the slides. This can definitely be polished.
Manjaro, o-o-o, Cantaro!
Let us explore Capella in earnest now. See the little hints of pseudo-Italian everywhere? Ah? Eh! Anyhow, the desktop, just like before. I had to do a few tweaks to get things into order, but nothing too sinister. I also like the fact Manjaro 15.12 uses the Super key as the menu trigger. No need for convoluted combos.
Package management & updates
Manjaro used to struggle with this aspect - now things are smooth and fast. Not the most beautiful, but definitely practical. There were a few updates, and the system chomped them just fine. Installing new software also works well, including dependency detection.
A colorful bunch, well worth the 1.5GB ISO. You get Firefox, Thunderbird, VLC, LibreOffice, Steam, Pidgin, GIMP, and then some. The collection is balanced and useful. However, there's one tool I don't understand and that's Manjaro Settings Manager. Why is it needed? Why not just use the standard system settings menu for all things related to the desktop functionality?
The CPU is very quiet. Applications open lightning fast. I have blisters on my corneas from trying to see that quickly. Memory utilization stands at 6% of the 8GB RAM, which means about 480 MB, and that's really decent. Similar but slightly higher than Xubuntu.
Not much was needed to reach a rad result:
What about Manjaro of yore?
You will notice I've deliberately not mentioned older versions of Manjaro that I've tested, and for a good reason. Now, we can compare in a calm and calculated manner. The Xfce edition from two years ago was quite buggy. The KDE one was better but still not really a rival to other mainstream distributions. Things are definitely looking brighter this year, with significant improvements in the domains of aesthetics, stability, usability, practicality, and plain ole errorology.
Now, if we compare to our 2015 winner, both in the Xfce space and the distro space, Xubuntu Vervet, it's not quite as good or refined as that, but it is much closer than it ever was, and it won't take much to match the quality. The desktop needs some polishing, the system area can be prettified, the installer needs safeguards against tears, and a few other odd items. That's on the software side.
Fatal problems commence!
Something really bad happened about an hour or two into my test. My network died with the same symptoms affecting Trusty and friends. The Realtek card stopped working, and I had to use the modprobe tweak to restore network functionality, plus a reboot, of course.
This is quite annoying, especially for a rolling distro that has the luxury of flexibility of adjusting and changing quickly. Moreover, for a bleeding-edge nerdo-geeky distro, Manjaro ought to be able to handle problems like this transparently. The same extends to Arch, and if we combine the rolling nature with modern kernels, I sure do not expect to see kernel bugs from about 18 months ago resurface. This is a big fat ugly regression, it has also affected many other distributions, mostly Ubuntu-based ones, but I hate it with passion nonetheless. Lo and behold, Mint Rosa failed for this exact same reason, and both the latest Kubuntu and Ubuntu MATE struggled with the network side of things. Absolutely stupid. And unnecessary.
During the reboot, I noticed another big problem. My Windows installation was not showing up in the GRUB menu! Manjaro had chainloaded all the Linux distributions but it had somehow missed or omitted the Windows 10 entry. What!
I booted into Mint Rafaela and restored its bootloader, and after that, everything was rather dandy. But then, Manjaro stopped booting! Kernel panic! W00t! This is another huge issue, and the panic happens literally seconds into the boot sequence, so it's hardly debuggable.
Now, there are several possible reasons as to why the issue occurred: the change of the bootloader, the modprobe edit, which does not seem to be related but we cannot fully exclude it, and the fact I had executed a bunch of updates on the host prior to this reboot, so we might be facing a wonky kernel or initrd upgrade or something along those lines.
And so, a perfectly sane and quite usable distribution was now just a dead digital weight on my hard disk. This is so annoying, because a splendid-going review has become nothing more than an obituary. It makes it extremely difficult for me to finish this article in a reasonable way. I shall try, though.
Let's ignore the last half an hour of the review. Basically, the reboot piece. Manjaro 15.12 Capella is a very decent distro overall. It has some wild, rough edges, and not everything I'd expect to be there works. Bluetooth, Samba printing, font clarity, some visual glitches, a few other odd spots. Other than that, you get a fast, stable, beautiful, and practical operating system, loaded with fun goodies, including applications, media, and hardware support. Really cool. But. BUT.
Now, let's look at the whole thing. Missing Windows entry? Inexcusable. Kernel panic? Well, if the first hadn't happened, there'd be no reason to tinker, and then everything should work, right. So this is entirely self-inflicted pain. I had not seen many distros struggle being chainloaded or called by other Linux operating systems, and I cannot reconcile with the tragic and complete loss of functionality.
This means that you are facing a very delicate choice. Ignore my warnings and try Manjaro, with a very likely scenario that you may bork up your Windows stuff and/or end up with a system that does not boot suddenly. It also bodes ill for Manjaro multi-boot setups. It is perfectly acceptable to install Mint after Manjaro and use its bootloader. There should be no excuse for why Manjaro would suddenly start panicking.
And so, up to the final bit, Manjaro 15.12 Xfce gets a very nice 8.5/10. It's improved a lot, and it's become an interesting choice for home use. However, with the Windows problem and kernel crash taken into account, the grade goes down to zero, because we have a system that simply cannot be used. Food for thought and debug. Maybe the next version.