Updated: September 29, 2010
Remastering an existing Linux distribution is not a big deal. Anyone can do it. However, what separates a jumbled effort from art is the fine balance between functionality and moderation, while still allowing a broad segment of users to enjoy your work.
mFatOS is a Linux distribution forked from stock Ubuntu. It is designed to be network independent, i.e. everything comes with the distro, little or no need for online updates, so this will appeal to people with bad or no Internet connection. The downside is the inevitable Second Law of thermodynamics; the extras have to come from somewhere. Indeed, mFatOS is a fairly large 2GB image.
Size aside, what else is there? Should you prefer this remastered version over the default distribution? Well, in this review, I will try to answer that. I'll tackle mFatOS the usual way, see how it handles the everyday stuff, plus some extras. I will focus quite a bit on the system integration, since all of the extras add noise that has to be polished.
My first snag. The 32-bit version is one version behind the latest edition. The current version 1.4 is only available for the 64-bit architecture, at the time this review was written. Since I intended to test the distro on my aging T60 machine with a 32-bit processor, this forced me to try a somewhat older 1.3 release. It's only two months old, so no biggie, but still, it could be better.
Now, actually, a 32-bit edition would be a wiser choice, because it can run on both 32-bit and 64-bit processors, whereas 64-bit can't. Furthermore, the developer could have used the 32-bit edition and bundled PAE kernels under /boot, to allow more than 4GB RAM to be used on 32-bit systems. This would allow the greatest exposure without remastering multiple instances.
The project is hosted on SourceForge, with little information about the distro, so if you're looking for a nice slideshow of enticing screenshots, you won't find any. There's no company behind mFatOS, but I was asked nicely to review it.
Anyhow, let's see what gives.
Unremarkable GRUB 2 menu, standard Ubuntu splash, into the desktop. Overall, mFatOS looks fairly decent and modern. The wallpaper is somber and cool. The choice of fonts and colors is reasonable, although you may want more contrast, considering the fact the wallpaper is dark. You get the Mac-ish dock at the bottom called Awn. But don't be confused, since you get Avant, too. And there's DockX or something, integrated somewhere.
My immediate impression is that mFatOS caters to younger people. The dock is definitely not for everyone, especially not people used to work with the classic bottom or top panels. Then, if you look more closely, you'll notice a handful of glitches.
Take a look at the default applets. First, there's the system area, with both Bluetooth and Wireless icons in Ubuntu Lucid style. Then, you get a social-mail applet, with yet another Bluetooth icon, old style. One is lit, the other is not. The left applet features five icons, four of them in gray, one in color, with asymmetric placement, three-two. For OCD people, this is a nightmare.
Then, there's the little calendar thingie, only it has not been tweaked. It shows in Arabic alphabet, with presumably Farsi language; I would assume that, since the developer of the distribution is Iranian. But the system language is English (USA). This smacks of bad integration and spoils the overall feeling.
The far left icon offers a fairly well-arranged menu, with quick access to everything you need. You will notice the Favorites category contains quite a few interesting and colorful items that you don't normally encounter in a typical distro.
The dock frustrated me!
One of the first things I wanted to do was add some application shortcuts onto the dock, like Gnome Screenshot, for instance, so I could have an easier time preparing images for the review. Alas, this proved impossible.
A thousand right-clicks later and a wagonload of anger trying to figure out the difference between applets and launchers, drag-and-dropping icons all over the place, I still could not get any application icon to show in the dock. Plus, adding custom launchers seems broken. You can drag icons from the menu into the Launchers box, but you get funny, incorrect descriptions fields. Adding launchers manually does nothing, either.
So either I'm a moron or Awn works for people under the age of 18 or something, but I could not achieve what I wanted. Now, if you remember my Ubuntu 8.10 stuff, I was using Awn back then and everything worked fine, so I don't know what went wrong in between.
This was back then:
Then, I noticed the distro was running with some visual effects enabled. I wondered what would happen if I turned the effects off. Would the dock vanish? Where would I find the menu then? Luckily, it stayed behind. But it's not obvious.
Besides, what do you do if you vanish the dock?
Not all is lost though. Open applications stack up nicely in the dock, with pale borders around them and color switch between gray for inactive windows and full color for the active ones, but only for those that do not have launchers already configured.
However, at the end of the day, for me, the dock was the one super annoying feature that almost ruined the overall impression of the distro. If you ignore it, then you have a fairly decent desktop with a solid measure of aesthetics. The default theme is very nice. Nautilus looks quite elegant.
Now, some other stuff.
Wireless, Bluetooth, Samba sharing
No issues. All worked as expected.
Applications, take one
mFatOS is all about making the distro useful for people with limited connectivity. For this reason, the 2GB edition packs all sorts of programs, a very wide and rich repertoire. After having tested openSUSE Edu-Li-f-e last week, this gives us a good opportunity to see how well mFatOS handles the multitude of programs.
You get really a lot.
mFatOS places emphasis on browsing and media, although you get a whole bunch of everything across a wide range of categories. Some, we will discuss later, after we install the distribution. Some, I'll present now. First, let's talk about browsers.
mFatOS offers you Firefox, Chrome and Opera. All of these browsers are tweaked, with additional plugins, extensions and extra stuff, designed to make your experience more productive. One of the default choices made for you is the use of Adblock. This can be considered a controversial choice.
The browser setup is not perfect. For example, Firefox browsing history contained traces of whatever the developer did before finishing packaging the distro. There's some chance there could be leftovers of truly personal stuff somewhere.
Moreover, the browsers are configured in a very specific way, with addons and themes that cater to a certain population, young and flashy. Bundling extra extensions could work, but then you can't really satisfy everyone. What's Novell Moonlight doing there? And why is it disabled?
Another strong point, so to speak, of mFatOS is the plethora of tweaking utilities, which allow you to control almost any aspect of your desktop and subvert it to your taste and need. For Gnome desktops, this is roughly the equivalent of the very detailed KDE Control Center.
Now, mFatOS overkills with two or three, maybe more such programs. You get Ailurus as well as Ubuntu Tweak, such an inadequate name, as well as some other tools. Then, you can also go the usual way through the System Menu. Lots of freedom and choice, but you should be careful. You can easily out-tweak yourself.
Which reminds me, I should probably write a handful of tutorials on the subject; give you a pseudo-philosophical take on system tweaking, show you how to do that responsibly, warn you against pitfalls and dangers of tweaking, and sum up the experience. Considering the fact I already promised that when reviewing Ubuntu Ultimate Edition long time ago, you're probably starving after my pledge. I should review dock apps, too. Anyway ...
It's not all about that. You also have Skype, VirtualBox, GoldenDict, and more. Multimedia playback also works flawlessly, with the usual stuff, Flash, MP3 playback, Windows video, and whatnot. Screenshots coming later.
We'll talk about apps soon.
You also get an offline graphics card installer, with the latest versions of drivers for the major cards available at the time of packaging. If you refresh your repositories, you won't be able to use these. Like stock Ubuntu, there are no restricted drivers available for my aging ATI card, I'm afraid. You will need some extra PPA setup for that. Hopefully.
Finally, back to the Dock issue. When you open a handful of programs, the dock starts getting seriously cluttered. You have icons for applications, like media players, Skype, Opera, and several others, which merely minimize on close. The already tightly packed notification area applets become seriously crowded.
Plus the icons don't stay in a fixed position. For instance, the language icon slipped into the bottom row, the Farsi calendar slid diagonally to the right, and so forth.
Now, it really gets messy when you get two Bluetooth icons inside one applet!
This is officially OCD hell!
One word: Ubuntu. Really, there's nothing to indicate you're installing anything else.
Post-install shenanigans (usage, so to speak)
Overall, live DVD session was not that impressive, although I'm being picky. There's a lot of good things about the distro, including lots of useful programs, multimedia playback out of the box, decent looks. Now, let's see what happens after the system is installed.
Overall, mFatOS handles the basic visual stuff fairly well. Compiz is not installed, but you get transparency, shadows, glow, and a very nice smoky theme, which create a feeling of expensive and posh. The menu is semi-transparent, but it is not obtrusive.
I mentioned this, but didn't show you any screenshots, so here we go:
Applications, take 2
Lots of programs. We sampled some, let's see what else is there. Tons of multimedia programs. Really too many. Right-click on a media file, choose open with and see what happens. If I'm not mistaken, no less than fourteen different programs, half of which I've never heard of.
Now, don't you dare click on scripts in the context menu! You will be bombarded with an endless list of available tasks, which possibly include simulating Big Bang and shopping for groceries using Braille.
On top of a billion media players, tons of system tools and utilities, you do get Pinta, GIMP, Grsync, Thunderbird, Opera Widgets Emulator, Wine, and a whole lot more. One thing that's missing is office stuff; it is seriously under-represented.
You also get a somewhat archaic-looking performance monitor desklet, which is un-hidden by moving the mouse to top center of the screen. It will show you CPU and network usage, allow you to glimpse at /var/log/messages and kill any unresponding programs.
There are several other changes compared to default distro.
The GRUB menu is full screen with tiny font. This looks garbled. The GRUB menu last entry reads Windows loader (/dev/sda1), which is complete bollocks since mFatOS was the only operating system on the machine, installed just then on /dev/sda1. Must be a left over from developer's own dual boot configuration.
Notifications messages last only a second; this takes the notifications to the other extreme of the spectrum, where you hardly get time to respond. At least they are placed in the top right corner rather than further below, the default way in Ubuntu, which leaves a handsome 20-50px gap between top panel and the message popups.
Software sources are hard-coded to Iran, even though you may have chosen a different location during the installation. This could lead to slow downloads, while you try to lug bits half the way across the globe instead of using the local repo.
System performance and stability
Nothing new here, stock Ubuntu. Immediate suspend and resume, average memory consumption, typical responsiveness. mFatOS will run well on older hardware.
And that's it.
mFatOS has a few big issues that need to be smoothed out.
First, there are just too many programs available. I can understand variety and color, but it's just too much. Adding applications for the sake of adding them does not help the average user. Sometimes, less is more.
Second, the integration of various elements. Ubuntu logos all over the place, hard-coded repositories for developer's country, applets in non-English configuration, browser history, GRUB menu layout, all of these are not done with enough care to make it feel professional enough.
mFatOS joins a long series of quickly remastered Ubuntu forks, including OzOS, MoonOS, Zorin, Ultimate Edition, and some others. Like most of these, the integration of elements is not good enough. The magic is in the little details. Unfortunately, it takes months and months of dedicated work by entire developer teams and can't be done easily.
It's very decent, it works well, it's fairly suitable for the typical Linux user, and the offline stuff is a blessing for people with bad Internet. However, mFatOS does not have a critical WOW factor. If you're looking for a heavily loaded distro that has it all, take a look at openSUSE Edu-Li-f-e. You may even want to consider PCLinuxOS. Another suitable choice could be Scientific Linux. Last but not the least, let's not forget the one true fork of the highly successful Ubuntu family, Linux Mint, which really takes the remastering business to another level.
mFatOS is a solid effort, but needs more work and polish. With just a little bit more attention, it could become an excellent champion of helping people without broadband connection worldwide. What I would do is: ditch the dock, reduce the number of programs to 2-3 best choices for each category, default the browsers, add quick customization scripts for extra stuff, and make sure the distro logo, brand and names are uniform throughout. And think of something that really makes users go wow. That's the magic.
It is quite likely that all of the above has been fixed in version 1.4, so I might need to do a re-review one day, but for now, my findings stand.
Overall, mFatOS gets 10 for the effort, 5 for integration, 6 for usability. I will be looking forward to see how this distribution evolves. My review ends here.
Now, just a quick note for future reference:
Not directly related to this review, but worth mentioning.
In a few weeks, we'll examine yet another distribution that comes with a whole load of everything. After that, I will check Super Ubuntu, if it still exists under that name, and possibly redo a review of Ubuntu Extreme Edition. Peppermint also comes to mind. Autumn Fever is almost upon us, so expect an avalanche of reviews of fresh releases of the leading distros.
P.S. Some of you have asked to check extra stuff in my reviews, including 3G modems, SSD devices, boot from and general use of smart cards, printing, and extra media stuff, like radio streaming and such. I will try to accommodate your needs, as much as time and hardware permits. Haven't forgotten or ignored you. Time, money, opportunity.
Finally, that would be all for today.