Updated: December 4, 2019
Let's mix it up a bit, shall we. So far this distro-testing season, we had Ubuntu MATE and Kubuntu, both of the Ermine stock. Reasonable results. Now, we will try something completely different. The distro of choice for today's session is MX Linux, a frugal, lightweight Xfce-clad system, with some nice features and perks.
Over the years, my experience with it has been ... mixed. But, most importantly, it's steadily improving. Version after version, it's getting better. Friendlier, more mature, more accessible to people outside the circle of diehard penguin-loving geeks. With that in heart and mind, and good results with MX-18, the previous version that is, we are testing the latest edition, patito feo. After me.
The boot sequence went fine. Some flickering, but no text messages intruding. The Xfce desktop has its unusual side-bottom layout, with a Graybird theme, Ubuntu fonts and Papirus icons. Looks the part, and feels more consistent than previous iterations of the distro. The touchpad was jittery, so I had to disable taps and all that.
Not bad, but not as good as MX-18. Namely, Samba sharing now requires a manual protocol tweak to work. Wireless, no issues. Bluetooth pairing, no issues, but the devices applet is so 1990 it makes my eyeballs hurt. Finally, printing, all is quiet on the Western front.
Speaking of printing, in the system menu, there are three options, including CUPS, Run printing and such. The CUPS one is shown as the top entry, so there's definitely some polish that can be done here, as we don't want newbs failing themselves with a nerdy Web interface.
Everything was fine. Music files open in Clementine by default, videos in VLC.
No problems. But, Thunar display the device serial in some cases, which feels ugly. I tried the three major brands, Android, iPhone and Windows Phone, and they all worked fine. I didn't take an iPhone screenshot, so you will need to trust me. Let's no forget the iDevice Mounter as part of the MX Tools bundle, which more than guarantees a happy ending.
The distro offered updates - in the live session. You get single-click in Thunar by default, and this can be confusing and annoying, and it's not consistent with the rest of the system. The terminal is transparent, and this isn't the best visual solution. Plus, the preferences are hidden behind a right-click in the terminal area, which is rather non-intuitive.
I also found Thunar restrictive - cumbersome drag & drop for bookmarks into the sidebar, and then you need to rename the shares if you don't want to see the full path and all that. Window resizing is also difficult. It's hard to grab the window borders with the mouse pointer.
I've always found the MX installer to be a thing of fast wonder. In pepito feo, for the first time EVAR, the wizard actually stood still for about 20 seconds before I could progress onto the next screen. I don't know what kind of background magic took place during this unresponsive period.
The rest of it is pretty straightforward - but a bit awkward and confusing here and there. Partitions are not labeled. A custom setup is pre-selected, which is cool, but MX Linux decided on my Windows 10 partition as its target, which is not cool. Out of the 16 partitions and eight operating systems available, it selected this one.
I changed that and then saw that checkbox about preserving /home. This refers to any existing home directory on the target partition and not the preservation of live data from your session, which is something that MX Linux does, and rather uniquely at that. So I went ahead, and then realized I wasn't formatting my target partition (sda6). So I went back, and unchecked the box, and this time, the wizard did inform me it was going to format the target. But it still scanned it and informed me there was an existing home directory, and whether I was sure with my choice. Noice. Plus points for this, minus points for the pre-selection.
I then configured the rest of it, decided to SAVE the live session data, and started the actual installation. It looked like it was lagging a little in the beginning, but six minutes later, the data copy part was done, and then there was a 15-20-minute GRUB configuration step. Then, once the whole deal was done, and I tried to reboot, the system threw a super-ugly error, and it couldn't reboot. I had to resort to command-line trickery.
The distro booted with lots of text messages invading and be-uglying the boot splash. But inside the installed session, all my live data was preserved, including Wireless configuration, files, even the shortcuts I've added to the panel. Very neat. I can't think of any other system that does this by default right now. Le nice.
You get multiple vectors of spartan goodness. The package manager is quite rudimentary UI-wise, but it does the job. Updates and such, no sweat. Then, you have MX Package Installer, which is somewhat similar to Boutique in Ubuntu MATE, sans pretty colors and that. But functional. I used this utility to grab everything that wasn't included in the basic image. In my case, this included Skype, Steam and Google Chrome. Seamless setup. You have dozens of high-profile applications available, so this is a great way to stock up on cool stuff, and no need for any command-line games.
At only about 1.4 GB, the MX ISO is about 50% smaller than most contemporary distros, but it packs an equally capable punch, if not more so. In fact, the app selection is quite reasonable. You have Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, Transmission, VLC, Clementine, GIMP, Geany, and then some. MX Linux also comes with an adblocker, which works on the hosts file level, so that's another clever addition, but it can be a slow way of resolving hosts. And the MX Tools utility allows you to quickly grab additional software, codecs and then some. This is a robust, easily accessible arsenal of programs.
Making patito feo look the part
Now, here's the thing. Across the Linux desktop scape, among the actively developed environments, I think only Plasma has the right mix of looks and ergonomics, and suitability for fast, elegant work. This means visual consistency, menus, layouts, efficiency, and modern perks. So when you want to do the same with Xfce, which aims to be more sort of traditional, issues arise.
I wanted to have Xfce with a panel at the bottom, or maybe top. No problem. MX Tweak does the job, and it's got a super-convenient tool to quickly change the layout of your desktop. But then, I noticed the task manager area, i.e. window buttons for open applications don't double as shortcuts. In other words, it's a Windows XP layout, with a quicklaunch area and active windows shown next to it. That works in some cases, especially if you have a large, hi-res screen, so you have enough horizontal space. If not, you probably want an icons-only thingie.
Except ... this does not seem possible in Xfce. So I placed the panel at the top, and then added the Plank dock at the bottom, and hit many a problem. Very similar to what I've experienced and observed in Ubuntu MATE. You may say, this isn't an Xfce or MX Linux issue, but it is in that I need functionality that isn't available in the stock system.
So I encountered all of the following: Plank preferences need to be invoked from the command line, the icons look wrong on non-12x sizes, so if you go for 36px or 48px height, the icons are sharp, but try anything in between, and they are blurry. The panel can sometimes show up as an icon. Google Chrome couldn't be pinned, and I had to make a manual tweak to its desktop file, and then log out and log back in, before I was actually able to pin the icon. Let's not forget the horizontal line across the bottom of the screen, which is caused by the shadow settings under Compositor. Some icons are too big or too wide, including the MX Tools one. And then, there were a few other niggles here and there.
With Google Chrome, you need to add the line StartupWMClass=Google-chrome-stable into each "app" section in the google-chrome.desktop file, under /usr/share/applications, something like this:
Next, I wanted a global menu arrangement, a-la Unity - which you can accomplish in Plasma if you want, or you can use the Munity layout in MATE, but not so in Xfce, because the global menu applet isn't even available by default. This was a thing once, and I wrote a nice article about this, but not anymore.
Strictly MX Linux? Nope. But it's part of the overall experience.
The clock also gave me grief - by default it's tiny. I made it larger, increased spacing and all that. After a while, for some odd reason, the clock background changed, and I had to manually set it to the right color so it would blend in.
System notification area icons gave me grief, too! Apparently, depending on the height of the panel, the icons behave and render differently. So I had all sorts of issues. The VLC icon had weird artifacts, as though it was hiding a Bluetooth icon behind it, and clicking on it would INDEED launch the Bluetooth wizard. Skype, another broken icon, and entirely height-dependent.
I had to change the icon height in the panel, and then still hide the VLC icon to get a "perfect" look:
I had some more problems with the MX Tools applet. It does not fit the height of the screen! And on minimal height (you can't scale as you like), it still doesn't quite fit on the 1366x768px screen when using the dock. So this really is a major annoyance, as it spoils the experience.
Thunar also annoyed me. It's an okay file manager, but it simply isn't flexible enough for everyday use. You can't reorder the sidebar, and those Devices at the very top are useless. That's where Home directory shortcuts ought to be. Pinning bookmarks is still cumbersome, although, you get share names rather than paths, so this is different from the live session earlier. If you choose a detailed view, it affects ALL folders and not just the current one.
After a while, it was okay, but it took too much effort.
MX tools ...
Let's ignore the height problem for a second. Other than that, this is a fabulous toolbox, with tons of goodies. It's also constantly improving, becoming better, more versatile, and in MX-19, you also get revamped, friendlier looks. There's a lot here, including boot management, user management and system cleanup, driver and codec installation, session tweaks, and then some. Very handy.
No issues that I could see. Suspend & resume, jolly roger.
'Tis a super-fast distro, I'll grant you that. patito feo flies. Very quick and nimble. I'm happy. In raw numbers, this translates to 550 MB of RAM, which is 150 MB more than MX-18. The CPU was very quiet, though, ticking only about 0-1% on idle. Not bad, but there's definitely a big change between these two versions.
Power management & battery life
Two sides to this coin. One, there does not seem to be any advanced power management out of the box. I had to manually change the display brightness (with a rather annoying right-click on the applet). Once this was done, the system offered 2.5 hours at 50% brightness for a battery that currently stands at 62% its original capacity. This would effectively translate into 4 hours battery life, less than what we saw with Kubuntu Ermine recently. Now, over the years, MX Linux has been a record setter when it comes to battery life, but it's been struggling lately to achieve some of the numbers from two or three years back. This is still better than most distros, but not better than itself a version or two ago.
Two, I noticed a system log error. TLP wasn't being used due to an error, which would explain why no power management kicked into action. I have always believed that TLP can't work around sub-optimal drivers, but if it's included, it should at least work. This can also partially explain the less-than-ideal battery life results.
Nov 26 15:49:56 tester kernel: <1052>[ 378.962211] systemd-udevd: Process '/usr/sbin/tlp auto' failed with exit code 4.
Problems and errors
Not everything was peachy. Clementine (fruit joke, get it) stopped worked for some odd reason. Looking at the system logs, there was a bunch of text vomit. Some database error of some kind. Not nice.
15:52:12.881 ERROR Database:595 db error: QSqlError("11", "Unable to execute statement", "database disk image is malformed")
15:52:12.881 ERROR Database:596 faulty query: "CREATE TABLE directories (\n path TEXT NOT NULL,\n subdirs INTEGER NOT NULL\n)"
15:52:12.881 ERROR Database:597 bound values: QMap() __logging_message__15:52:12.881 ERROR unknown Unable to update music library database
I tried a few other Conky themes, and while I did find one I like, it also had the distro image creation date in addition to actual system date, which can be confusing at a quick glance. The update icon does not seem to have a tooltip, while everything else does (and nicely positioned). While all of my data was ported from the live session, the Firefox profile wasn't, I noticed. In Thunar, if you double-click on the file name column, the file manager shrinks it rather than expands it to the longest string.
Well, well, well. MX linux MX-19 patito feo is a nice distro. It has a lot of great elements. But ... it also has a lot of annoyances as well as problems that weren't there in the previous edition. Overall, you get very decent connectivity and media out of the box, and the live session data save is a big plus. That said, Samba sharing ease is not there anymore, and the Firefox profile wasn't ported. Customization was quite annoying, and there were actual application errors.
I do like MX Linux, and it is improving in many aspects. It feels cleaner, more consistent, the MX Tools package is becoming more useful and powerful, and the application selection is respectable. But these are offset with problems that didn't exist in the past, and they make me feel that the development team might have found themselves trapped, plateauing. I hope this is a one-time glitch. All in all, 7.75-8/10, definitely worth testing, but for now, I believe Continuum was better put together, by ever so slight margin. Let's hope this ain't the end of a long, beautiful run. To be continued.