Manjaro 18.0.4 Illyria Plasma review - Genius in disguise

Updated: July 13, 2019

It is time to tread perilous waters. Noobs hate him. Master Linux with one little trick. Indeed. Manjaro, an Arch-based system, hardly sounds like a taster's choice for a desktop. And yet, in a world mired in apathy and rehashed content, this distribution is one of the few still delivering unique, original features. Also, quite importantly, it's getting better and better as time goes by.

Yesteryear, I've sampled Hakoila, both the Xfce and Plasma flavors, and found them to be rather solid, dependable, full of curious goodies and delights, and of course, the bane of all small distros, lots of papercuts and odd problems. With Illyria out, it's time to do some fresh testing, and I'll be doing that on my 2010-crop HP Pavilion machine, a dual-boot system with Nvidia graphics and known not to be too friendly hardware-wise to Linuxes out there. But that makes the adventure all the more fun. We begin.

Teaser

Live session

Started nice. Clean boot. Pleasant colors. I'm not too keen on the green motif - too much like Mint, and the fonts are a bit pale, but it is very easy to change the font color in KDE, so this is no biggie. By default, Manjaro uses Plasma 5.15 and the relatively old-ish kernel 4.19, but since this is a rolling distro, we will see later what happens when we upgrade - should be Plasma 5.16 plus kernel 5.x or some such.

Desktop, live

About

Network connectivity

Average. Wireless worked okay. Manjaro couldn't find the Bluetooth adapter, and this got me suspicious. This shouldn't have happened, so I started wondering whether I was going to face poor hardware compatibility on this machine.

No Bluetooth

Samba sharing also didn't work out of the box, I had to install the manjaro-settings-samba package, but then after that, I didn't need my Samba share protocol trick. I also tried to consult the official documentation and found some rather big discrepancies. The first command in the Samba guide references pamac, but the package manager is pacman instead (in the Plasma edition). Then, if you try to install gvfs-smb - as laid out in the tutorial (rather than the package I listed above), you will hit a dependency issue.

pacman -Sy gvfs-smb

resolving dependencies...
looking for conflicting packages...
error: failed to prepare transaction (could not satisfy dependencies)
:: installing gvfs (1.40.1-2) breaks dependency 'gvfs=1.38.2' required by gvfs-afc
:: installing gvfs (1.40.1-2) breaks dependency 'gvfs=1.38.2' required by gvfs-gphoto2
:: installing gvfs (1.40.1-2) breaks dependency 'gvfs=1.38.2' required by gvfs-mtp
:: installing gvfs (1.40.1-2) breaks dependency 'gvfs=1.38.2' required by gvfs-nfs

Printing wise, the Wireless device was detected, but as you can see in the screenshot, the line looks blank, and does not read the lovely name of my lovely printer - Bob. The Samba printer option was there, but the browse button was grayed out. This whole thing can be a whole lot better.

Printers

Multimedia playback

No complaints. HD video was smooth. MP3 songs played fine. Nice.

HD video

MP3 playback

Smartphone support

No sweat. I was able to mount and use Android, iPhone and Windows Phone. I did have a one-time glitch where Dolphin complained about the Lumia 520 being locked, but it could have been the tiniest timing issue when plugging the device in, so I disconnected and reconnected the phone, and everything was fine thereafter. The iPhone 6s did not show in the sidebar, but it was mounted correctly.

Android

iPhone

Lock error

Windows Phone

Installation

I found this to be a pretty solid, straightforward affair. You can choose the keyboard/region language without mucking about with the locale thingie. The partitioner was super-fast AND it also provided partition labels, which is quite neat. The slides are a bit bland, and they look fuzzy, probably due to image resizing/scaling. Overall, the setup took about 45 minutes to complete.

Installer

Partitions

Slides

Using Manjaro ... or rather not

Once I booted the system, I was presented with my modified Plasma desktop, with its legacy of tweaks and changes, similar to what we experienced with Fedora 30. Some of the icons were missing from the bottom panel, which is understandable. Alas, there was a different, bigger issue - I had no Wireless network. Now I realized that the whole "no Bluetooth" issue was not just a fluke. I couldn't connect to any access point, and the system log was showing WLC_SCAN error (-22). The plot thickens.

Desktop, installed

After a bunch of reading and troubleshooting, I had this fixed eventually - but it wasn't trivial. Far from it. In fact, we will have a separate tutorial, in which I will show you how to properly debug this and fix the connectivity issue.

But I am getting slightly ahead of myself. I didn't fix this issue right away. I realized that I was using open-source drivers (Nouveau plus the network one), but apparently Manjaro should have proprietary drivers out of the box, too. Weird. To double-check, I rebooted the system into the live session and I noticed that there was an option to load nonfree drivers rather than free drivers in the boot menu. This isn't instantly apparent, so it's very easy to miss. Well, to be thorough, I decided to redo my test, all over again.

Second attempt - nonfree + installation

I booted Manjaro Illyria with nonfree drivers this time. Blimey. First, you get Nvidia drivers out of the box. And this is with the legacy 340.xx version. Excellent! I also noticed that I did have Bluetooth now! Using the right blobs for my hardware was definitely helping. Such an instant improvement, and such a pleasant experience. Booting into the live session with Nvidia drivers only took about one minute. There didn't seem to be any special delay. Seamless. I loved how Mageia 6 has done this, but Manjaro makes the whole deal even smoother.

Nvidia, live session

Nvidia drivers

Broadcome drivers

Bluetooth works

Anyway, I had the system configured. I rebooted. And then ... still no Wireless. Even with the proprietary drivers available (Nvidia up and running without any issues), the network just wasn't happening. Now, I can't leave you hanging. Until I publish the tutorial, for now, these two commands will get you going, provided you have a Broadcom Wireless card that uses the b43 drivers:

sudo modprobe -r wl
sudo modprobe b43 allhwsupport=1

Anyway, once I re-enabled the network, it was time to start the distro usage proper.

Wireless, connected

Finally, using Manjaro

I noticed some visual discrepancies in the setup - my fault, not Manjaro's. Re-using the old home definitely has its advantages - but it also shows whole backward compatibility thing in Linux still needs a lot of work. I spent a little of time doing some quick housekeeping, adding the system menu icon, polishing a few rough edges, and changing the theme from Breath to Breeze, simply because I find it sharper and easier on the eyes.

Package management, updates & extra software

This always used to be - and remains one of the most problematic elements of Manjaro. In many cases, across the distroscape, the package management is also dependent on the choice of the desktop environment, so you get a drastically different experience if you use Gnome, Plasma or Xfce. Manjaro does offer Octopi as its frontend, so that helps, but Octopi has its own problems.

It's not really a software center - it's an old-style package manager, and it's not very fun or appealing to use. Discover has improved a lot lately, and it should be the frontend for the KDE flavor. Again, you see this elsewhere too, with Muon or YaST, but since Manjaro is aiming to be the brilliantest of the brilliant, it should resolve this in an elegant, friendly way.

I do have to say that pacman (on the command-line) works better and faster than before. And Octopi is also sprightlier than it used to be. But then, I tried to search for some third-party software like Skype and Chrome, and this is where things got weird. There was no way to enable AUR - which would be the magic place for community packages.

Octopi, no third-party software

No AUR in Octopi

Reading through the Manjaro forums, I learned that Manjaro no longer supports AUR. But the alternative is not obvious. What you can do is install pamac, including the frontend - we will discuss this separately in an article dedicated to Manjaro post-install customization. Then, pamac has AUR, and you can install third-party software this way.

Pamac

AUR, enable

I tested this feature, and it worked all right. Technically, the build process is to download DEB archives, extract them, and then reconfigure them for Manjaro (Arch). I tried this with Skype and Chrome, and both worked just fine. I also installed some other programs, like Clementine, GIMP, Kdenlive and friends, and this worked well, too.

Skype installed

The Gnome theme is out of place on the desktop; there's an experimental Qt port.

On the updates side, there was a hefty offering - more than 400 packages weighing a solid 1.1 GB. After about 50 minutes, the system was fully updated. After a reboot, I discovered that I haven't gotten Plasma 5.16 after all (at the time of writing, relax), and if you want newer kernels rather than the stable LTS you have, you can use the Manjaro Settings Manager for that (odd name). All in all, the update process was quite robust. But the whole affair is just too nerdy, and it needs to be made easier and simpler for common users.

Update, WIP

Settings Manager, kernels

About, new

Applications

Manjaro Illyria comes in a 2.2GB ISO, and this gives you Firefox, Thunderbird, Calligra rather than LibreOffice, a whole bunch of Plasma utilities, and also Microsoft Office Online wrappers, which I find to be a very sweet and cool deal. I can't really think of any other Linux distro that offers this, and in combination with Nvidia drives out of the box, it makes for a very enticing proposal. However, this wasn't all perfect. I tried using Skype as a web application, and it complained I was running an unsupported browser. You can always use the desktop app, which is indeed what I installed earlier, but still.

Skype web app not supported

Clementine

Most application settings were correctly preserved; but not all.

At first, Manjaro also couldn't use the Plasma browser integration - the Firefox part was fine, but the system element was missing. This is definitely something that should be improved for people importing their settings or re-using their home directories.

Browser integration

Hardware compatibility

Not really good. Well, we know all about the Wireless. But I also had problems with suspend & resume, similar to Fedora 30. On wake, desktop icon text was gone. So it's a weird visual glitch, but it makes the laptop not really usable as a Linux platform for most distros ... BUT not all.

HW config

Nice gesture, but this needs to be improved further.

After suspend

After suspend, zoomed

And I also saw the same kernel oops due to Spectre patches, for which there might not really be any remedy on old systems. Because everyone can buy new laptops, right.

[ 20.964511] Bad or missing usercopy whitelist? Kernel memory exposure attempt detected from SLUB object 'nvidia_stack_t' (offset 11864, size 3)!
[ 20.964525] WARNING: CPU: 0 PID: 555 at mm/usercopy.c:83 usercopy_warn+0x7d/0xa0

On the Wireless side, I had a stable connection, but much like the Fedora example, I couldn't exceed more than 10 Mbps throughput overall, albeit with good latency. Another thing is, before the b43 module loaded correctly into memory, the boot splash was all text messages. Once I had the driver loading smoothly, the boot sequence became all nice colors and whatnot.

Performance & resource usage

Pretty solid, especially given the fact this is an almost decade-old laptop. Plasma is pretty lithe, but with moderate multitasking, I hit swap really quickly. You can feel some lag when doing lots of things in parallel, and the CPU fans can get loud. However, on idle, the CPU ticked 1-2%, and memory usage was about 700 MB. Rather similar to Zesty about two years back, which is quite encouraging, but that distro had a much better hardware support.

Resources

Some problems

Not everything was perfect, of course. I found a couple of buglets with the Office Online offering. With either the Breeze or Breath icons, the applications didn't have icons in the system menu or in the panel, and would only show with applications actually running. But with Papirus, it was fine.

Office, no icons

Office, fixed icons

Why the different ordering of applications?

Then, I tried to pin different Office applications to the task manager, and if I did this with the software running, I'd get a weird Python error on next start - and the popup window would actually freeze the desktop; I had to close it before I could access anything underneath. I also noticed individual windows for pinned applications showed unpinned at the right end of the task manager.

Office launch problem

Python what? Why is the desktop grayed out? Since when do windows monopolize the desktop? Also, with different method of pinning (menu versus running app right-click), this does not show up at all.

Then, if I pinned applications to the taskbar from the system menu, then they would stay correctly pinned, and the icons would not change whether the programs were running on not. This feels quite odd overall, and I think there's more work needed to tweak this.

Icon pinned, not pinned

Word is pinned in the panel, but it also shows unpinned at the same time. I've seen this before, in other distros, with Chrome and LibreOffice. Check my Slimbook reports for more details - this definitely feels Plasma specific.

I noticed that the top command in the terminal behaved a bit oddly. If you narrow the width of the console window, then the process name gets truncated, but it a rather abrupt way, so you may have an impression that the process table is missing information. The refresh is also a bit weird, and the color scheme is not friendly.

Konsole, narrow width

Konsole width

On the bright side ...

There were also some cool bits and pieces. Icon cache refresh is fast - for when you want to change the system menu icon. I had good, crisp fonts with the Nvidia driver. The system was stable - there were no crashes. Yes, we saw the hardware issues, but nothing in the desktop or app stack went kaput.

Final looks

And the distro was ready:

Distro ready, menu

Desktop, final

Conclusion

Manjaro is a totally bi-polar distro. Utterly genius and silly at the same time. It does some things so well, it offers so much innovation, it has some rather unique features you don't get to see elsewhere, and then it spoils it with some visual inconsistencies, glitches with its bundled apps and very cumbersome package management. No AUR, fine, but what other options do common users have? How can ordinary non-CLI folks enjoy the likes of Chrome or Skype or whatnot on their boxen? There's a lot of progress - just read my Manjaro diaries over the years - but it's still all fragile balance, and the distro still needs to fully figure out its identity and direction.

The nonfree aspect of the live session should be highlighted. All in all, I'm pleased with the easy availability of everyday conveniences, the installer was neat, and there's a lot of original goodness in Manjaro, more than most other distros. But the network support needs some rework, there should be better identification or auto-configuration with hardware issues on so-called unfriendly platform, and the package management feels neglected. All in all, this is a very promising system. Manjaro 18.0.4 Illyria deserves something like 8/10, and I'll be following up with some customization tricks, plus maybe a review of another edition. That would be all for this rather lengthy review.

Cheers.

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