Updated: January 5, 2013
Netrunner is a Kubuntu-based distro, with some extras of its own. Only the last time I tested Netrunner, I was not that much impressed. The distro was plagued with bugs and little issues, all of which cropped from its transformation from a stock Kubuntu into something more. But therein lies the rub, the magic. How do you makeover a distro without adding problems?
Six months since Dryland, the latest version promises to take care of the problems and offer a fresh new experience to its users. Let's see if this is indeed true. Anyhow, I am writing this review with possibly some friendly bias, since you may have read my articles in Netrunner Magazine, but that should not bother you much. You will get the story as it is, no sugarcoating. Do follow me.
Before we begin
I must confess I started testing Netrunner in its RC flavor. I did observe some problems back then and reported them to the development team. Namely, the major issues included a notification from the Network Manager about a failed connection even though it was successful, a variety of Web Accounts related stuff, and the installer crash.
The latest one prevented me from committing the distro to disk, so the initial impression in that stage were rather bad. But then, I decided to start fresh with the official version, and then compare to the earlier release and check if the reported problems were resolved.
The boot to live desktop was fairly uneventful. What you get at the end of the boot process is an interesting product. One, it is more stylish and less cluttered than what it was in the spring, with fewer options and menus to draw your eye. The desktop search is gone, the bottom panel is transparent.
You also get a very beautiful set of decoration all around. The most notable change is with the Dolphin file manager, which offers more views and search options, as I have reported in my Gnome vs. KDE article some time ago.
The windows border decorations are also lovely - you get FormaN, although the theme used in the RC version was quite decent, too. So here they are, one below the other, and I think that FormaN wins, but that's personal taste. Awesome, I'll grant you that, but not everyone can appreciate my genius.
Then, you can also pin application launchers to the bottom panel, but then the icons end up being smaller than the shortcuts, which are added the standard way. If you ask me, you're better off using standard icons than this method.
The menu is set to the classic, stacked view, but you can switch easily to Applications centric style. Personally, I think the latter suits the KDE spirit more, especially in modern distributions. Unlike Kubuntu, Netrunner does use the Super key as a shortcut for the menu, in line with Ubuntu and Mint, which is quite nice.
The funky notification remains - this is caused when connecting to IPv4-capable only routers, as the IPv6 thingie does not seem to like it that much. However, on the bright side, it works just fine.
Web Accounts, take one
I decided to test Web Accounts to see whether I could finally get desktop-cloud integration, which has never quite worked for me in the past. Much like during the RC testing, Netrunner complained about Akonadi not running. So you have to start it first.
Another thing that was prominent during the Web Accounts testing was that the service could not access the requested account type, due to KWallet daemon not running. This is resolved in the final release.
Unfortunately, toward the end, the wizard crashed. And then after that, I was back to square one, only it was a triangular shape now, because the Web Accounts could not connect to any one of the supported options. We will see how the service fares after the installation.
Unlike Kubuntu, Netrunner ships with bells and whistles turned on, so you can enjoy your adult art straight away. Both Flash and MP3 playback worked fine. One thing that did surprise is that music files opened in QMMP rather than Tomahawk, which is far, far superior as a product, both in terms of fun and usability.
Here, I stumbled upon my one big problem. Luckily, I was able to overcome relatively easily, but it's a serious issue. Namely, when trying to use a separate home partition without formatting it, the installer crashes. The same thing happened in RC, but strangely, not in Kubuntu Quetzal. Moreover, in the RC stage, I used to get a lovely Python vomit message, but not here. Something along the lines of:
ubiquity: Device /dev/sdb6 not found in os-prober output
ubiquity: Device /dev/sda6 not found in os-prober output
ubiquity: switched to page Form
ubiquity: last message repeated 4 times
kernel: [ 1036.396477] ubiquity: segfault at 120 ip 000000000047dc99 sp 00007fff11ebc2b0 error 6 in python2.7[400000+21f000]
I resolved this by not using a separate home partition. Only then was I able to advance in my testing. For most people, this could be a showstopper. However, once past this stage, the installation was quick. Netrunner 12.12 settled into a quadruple boot configuration with a Pangolin controlling the startup sequence.
Using Netrunner - revving up
Once the system came up fine - and did so rather quickly, I updated the distro to the max, to resolve any potential bugs. Indeed, there were some 200MB worth of updates, and once these were installed, I rebooted and began testing in earnest.
Wireless, take two
The stupid IPv6 error is gone. Finally!
Web Accounts, take two
This time around, everything worked fine. I was able to register an account and integrate it to contacts and chat. Indeed, my friends were imported, and I was able to control the login through Telepathy, which is rather neat. The one niggle is that the left column listing Web Accounts is not resizable. Oh, and the account name should not be center, it should be flushed to the left. OCD rules!
This is another neat service offered by the distro, as part of its somewhat-online flair. Namely, you get a free 5GB storage account if you want, where you can sync your data, your calender events, your contacts, and such. Quite neat, and it worked well. At this stage, I began to warm up toward Netrunner. And finally, things were working!
Netrunner 12.12 also tries to be friendly by adding your network drives using a simple wizard. Now, you can achieve the same in Dolphin, just by typing smb:// and then the name of the network host, but this one is also useful and friendly. For first-time users, this could be a helpful tool for getting connected to their other boxes.
Netrunner 12.12 comes with a very rich and useful arsenal of program, almost too rich for some. You get a wide range of applications across the whole board of categories. For starters, you get the usual Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, GIMP, GwenView, FileZilla, Kamoso, Tomahawk, and some others. The more exotic side includes Skype and Web apps. And you also have a whole range of multimedia programs, plus VirtualBox and Kdenlive as heavy weaponry. Oh, did I mention Winetricks, too?
It's a lot, and you will need time to explore all of those. Web Apps are basically single page launchers for Firefox, a-la Prism. The multimedia section needs a tiny bit of polish, since Tomahawk should be the music app of choice, and VLC is really redundant overall. Other than that, you get a very solid, powerful and well balanced baseline.
Did not seem to work on the generic Intel card, strangely.
In the installed system, plus updates, Netrunner 12.12 was stable and quiet. It did nothing of the sort like the live session experience. In fact, if you put aside the initial woes, you will find yourself immersed in a rather solid KDE desktop. Suspend & resume worked well.
Netrunner is not a great guzzler of resources, but it is not frugal either. It demanded about 500MB of RAM on idle, but the CPU was fairly quiet overall, with none of the woes caused by indexing and suchlike.
I was able to test the new Dolphin action, and for once, Nepomuk behaved and did what it is supposed, and that is to search for files, quickly, rather than complain. In fact, the Netrunner test was Nepomuk-whining free, maybe a first ever.
Overall, Netrunner 12.12 is a very pleasant looking distro, with its transparent borders and the bottom panel. Throw in a dramatic wallpaper, pin a handful of shortcuts, and you end up with a beautiful final layout. Notice the KDE handling the clutter with style. You have the solid system area integration, plus the underlying bar denoting the active program.
Netrunner 12.12 is not a perfect distro. But it is so much better than what its live session can give you. In fact, this is probably the most critical part, because people often judge distributions and decide whether to use them based on the few minutes of live CD testing. And considering what Netrunner can offer you, you might almost be tempted to give it a pass. But do not.
If you get past the installation stage, you're in for a very, very solid KDE experience, peppered with some extras, like the powerful application stack, good aesthetics, and a strong cloud integration. True, you can achieve all of this on any desktop, but the way things are woven together here is rather decent. Really good, actually. I am surprised that I am liking some of these bits and pieces, but Runners-ID and Web Accounts actually make sense, and they are not annoying as I would have expected.
This does not excuse all the woes in the live session or the almost femme fatale nonsense with the installer. Netrunner developers should also work on resolving all other glitches, including the Network Manager, KWallet, Akonadi, and everything else. The live session should be as spotless. And there's the matter of desktop effects, but that could also be my el-cripple card. Anyhow, when you bunch it all together, Netrunner 12.12 probably deserves around 8/10, which is a huge improvement from its past incarnation. But it can do so much more, and if the bugs and problems are resolved, it could very well offer the most refined and Internet-aware KDE meal around. Let's if that can be done. For now, do take it for a spin.