Updated: August 20, 2018
I have been hearing about Robolinux for a long time, and getting requests to review it, probably more than most other distros. But then, there isn't that much information about it out there, except an odd article or two, no more. Intrigued, I set about exploring and testing.
Today, I will commit Robolinux 9.3 Raptor MATE edition into a dual-boot setup on my oldie but goldie LG machine, which is approaching its tenth anniversary, but still runs fair and true, thanks to its 4 GB of RAM and an Nvidia graphics card. Should be interesting. Follow me.
Starting up & live session
Robolinux advertises itself rather aggressively as THE distro for Windows converts, offering a 100% virus-free solution, ability to convert and import your Windows installations, plus all the visual bells and whistles you'd want, like Compiz, 3D effects and such. Under the hood, the distro is based on Ubuntu 16.04 Xenial, which means good, easy access to most of what Linux has to offer, then again, this heritage means it's fighting for a very crowded place alongside so many other Ubuntu forks.
The distro booted fine, with a somewhat archaic-looking boot menu and a clean splash. The desktop itself feels very outdated, roughly mid-2000s, with a dark theme, gradients, old-school Gnome/MATE icons, and some modern elements. You get kernel 4.13 and MATE 1.20 on one hand and 2008 styling on the other.
Pretty good. Both 2.4 and 5 GHz Wireless bands worked fine, Samba sharing also works as the changes added in the 18.04 family that prevent access to Windows 7 machines by default aren't here, and consequently, the printing also works just fine. Bluetooth is something we will check after the installation.
Pretty good again. Maybe the distro isn't the most aesthetic specimen in the clade, but it sure offers all the basics out of the box. HD video was smooth, and MP3 works fine, including rudimentary system area media player icon with controls. You have both Rhythmbox and VLC, the former is the default player and not very useful. If you try to play a song, it will launch, enumerate the folder contents and stop. Really mars the experience. Luckily, VLC delivers flawlessly.
Well, there were some odd things here and there. Samba sharing works, but I got a double prompt for password. Caja, the file manager, is configured for single click, which is unusual for MATE desktops. Sometimes, the mouse would kind of get stuck and not respond to clicks - the Touchpad worked fine, plus it wasn't jittery.
This was a pretty ordinary Ubuntuesque experience. You make your choices - and the language stays whatever you choose and is not set to any regional thingie or locale based on the timezone. The partitioning works just fine. No slideshow. Nothing but the simplest of progress bars. The procedure was quick, about 15 minutes on this ancient hardware. Not bad.
Now, again, I encountered a few glitches. The network disconnected and reconnected once during the installation. There were some errors in the installer window output, but they did not seem to harm or stop the process.
/usr/lib/ubiquity/ubiquity/frontend/gtk_components/nmwidgets.py:133: Warning: Source ID 7812 was not found when attempting to remove it
/usr/lib/ubiquity/ubiquity/frontend/gtk_components/nmwidgets.py:17: Warning: Source ID 7854 was not found when attempting to remove it
Robocop? No, Robolinux!
The installed desktop did not retain any settings, not even the Wireless network. I had to do it all again. Most importantly, I invested a lot of effort in making Raptor look nice, because I wasn't happy with the default looks, and I wanted a lighter theme, better icons, and a bit more finesse.
What I did was: switch to the standard Ambiance theme, install Papirus icons, grab an F-22 Raptor image from the official USAF website, setup Plank and global menu - somewhat similar to my MATE & Mutiny transformation and the Xfce tweaks I did a while back. Along the way, I also discovered some small problems.
Robolinux 9.3 does ship with MATE 1.20, and you have the option to use the fantastic panel layouts, including Cupertino, Mutiny (Unity like), classic and more. However, MATE is built against gtk2 only for Ubuntu 16.04 and not gtk3, so you don't get Brisk menu, and the global menu ever so slightly differs in name and implementation from what I've shown you in the Beaver MATE review.
And the final look, beholden:
The indicator applet had four icons when I started - including a volume icon that refused to change color, but on subsequent login, the battery indicator was gone and the spacing between icons was much nicer now. But I had no option of getting the battery icon back - I could use a separate one, but it did not conform to the selected icon set, and looked quite out of place. The indicator applet also crashed quite a few times, even with full system updates in place.
Package management & updates
This was an ... odd experience. The updater did pop up right away, but it only offered updates for VirtualBox for some reason. Running the full apt-get thingie from the command line resulted in 350 MB worth of other packages. You have Synaptic as well as the sweet Boutique, only here, with Robolinux, it comes without an inline search option, which makes usage quite difficult. To make things more complicated, Boutique suggests other software centers if you find it cumbersome, and then you get a long, bewildering array of choices.
This is an interesting concept. And potentially hugely controversial. Robolinux comes with scripts that allow you to migrate your existing Windows XP/7/10 installations into virtual machines - physical to virtual (P2V) - using VirtualBox. When I say comes, Raptor provides shortcuts in the system menu that will then take you to the official site, where you can download the packages. There's also a detailed howto, and the process does not look easy or trivial. There's quite some work you need to do to achieve the end result. On one hand, the whole effort is commendable, on the other, the stated value is overblown.
In general, software security is overrated, so by doing this, you might actually hamper your own functionality that you get on existing, physical hardware (including graphics drivers) for a somewhat restricted virtual setup that won't guarantee any miracles. This could work if you have old end-of-life systems perhaps, but it does not seem like a good idea for working, supported operating systems.
However, I like unique projects - there are far and few in between in the Linux world. Most spins and forks just go for some wallpapers and icons plus a few string changes. Robolinux actually tries to differentiate itself with a rather ambitious attempt. This isn't bad, but it would be better if this was fully automated.
Speaking of automation, if you try to setup any which VM, you will be taken to the official site and asked to donate to the project. Quite a few times. You can eventually get to the right download link and get the needed stuff without any cost, but it's annoying and distracting and probably causes more harm than good to the Robolinux mission. People don't like being coerced into action, and aggressive focus on the monetary side of things will not spark any goodwill. However, you do have to appreciate the pun: Raptor = bird of prey = bird = penguin = Linux; Raptor = stealth fighter, and here you have the stealth VM setup.
Robolinux comes with a fairly colorful and practical collection of programs. It packs a decent bunch
into its 1.5GB image, with Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, Transmission, Deluge, VLC, Kazam, VirtualBox,
and a whole selection of helpful tools, utilities and scripts.
Boutique does seem like the best way to install software, including nice proprietary stuff. Robolinux comes with installer shortcuts in the menu, but like the VM option above, this takes you to the official site for another page of explanations and donations. It kind of defeats the purpose of helper scripts for Steam, Chrome and the like, especially if Boutique allows the same thing.
No auto-prompt, but you have the right category in the MATE Control Center. A few minutes later, I was up and running with the proprietary drivers, no problems of any kind. This is how it should be, always.
More network - Bluetooth
I finally got to test this aspect - it didn't work. It was cumbersome. First, an error telling me that the download folder was missing. Then, the laptop didn't pair - the pairing number showed up on the phone(s) but not on the laptop. Then, the Bluetooth manager crashed. The thing looks different if launched for the first time from the MATE Control Center or through the indicator in the system area. Sprinkle visual artifacts for best effect.
I tested Android and Windows Phone - didn't get to use me iPhone - and the two phones worked seamlessly, and without any errors, plus I was able to play music from either one without any issues. Not bad at all.
Average. Fn keys worked but there was no screen overlay to indicate the change of brightness or volume. Webcam worked fine. I was not able to suspend the box - even with Nouveau drivers. I did mention the problem this old machine has with sleep & wake with Nvidia drivers, the whole AHCI vs IDE thingie, but it wasn't supposed to happen with Nouveau. Once, the system also couldn't log out, and I was left with a black screen. Add the mouse issue, and the Bluetooth issue, and it's not the most compliant of systems.
However, power management is good - the moment you remove the external source, it dims the screen and vice versa. Seems quite well aggressively tuned to offer the best juice. Alas, I cannot really test this, as the machine is very old, even though the battery seems to be in a good shape. Now, now, there's no battery indicator that you can see - but you get funny battery life estimates nonetheless:
Resources & performance
Not bad but not ideal either. Robolinux isn't too hungry. The numbers for Nouveau and Nvidia are similar, but the laptop is a tad faster and less hot with the proprietary blob. Memory usage on idle was about 550 MB, which is not bad for this particular machine, and about 7-8% CPU, which is on the higher side. I'm not 100% sure why the numbers are a bit jumpy.
And this did impact the responsiveness. The mouse problem never went away, and I'd get stuck without the ability to click. Playing a Youtube video and downloading updates in parallel did induce some lag. It can be better, and we've seen better. I am not sure if this is the 16.04 base, the kernel, or the specific Robolinux changes.
Not everything was peachy - in addition to the errors I've mentioned, there were some others, like an odd Firefox crash (actually the browser would freeze and segfault in the background) and such like. The clock applet also wonked once.
[ 353.768299] firefox: segfault at 0 ip 00007f2b3cb294b3 sp 00007ffd778f2f98 error 6 in libxul.so[7f2b3a5e9000+5ff7000]
[ 898.534677] clock-applet: segfault at 210 ip 000000000040ba1e sp 00007ffcf089edc0 error 4 in clock-applet[400000+1e000]
Other things & observations
All in all, Robolinux behaves quite predictably - and it does offer everything you get in stock Ubuntu, like backup reminders. The standard MATE menu is disappointing - you can't set the Super key as the shortcut, and there's a little down arrow, which looks annoying. The theme in the text editor - Pluma - suddenly and randomly changed from light to dark there, go figure.
The MATE Control Center remains a lovely thing - you get everything there really.
Finally, syslog is not running - the syslog, kern, boot logs, all zero size.
Robolinux 9.3 Raptor is an interesting project. On one hand, it does most of the basics well, offers good functionality out of the box, comes with modern features and software, and tries to provide unique value through its Stealth VM capability. Quite commendable on that front.
Unfortunately, there are problems, too. The looks are more than questionable, the aggressive focus on donations spoils the experience and even breeds a sense of mistrust, hardware compatibility can be quite a bit better, and there were also some crashes and a dozen papercuts typical of small distros. In the end, it's still Ubuntu, improved and spoiled by the extras. The security card is flashed way too many times, and it creates a sour feeling. This is a neat distro, but it tries too hard.
All in all, it has its own identity, and it could become quite useful to new users, but it's overwhelming in its current guise, and the desktop stability needs to improve, pretty much across the board. It deserves something like 7/10. Well, that said, I'm looking forward to the next release, hopefully with more aesthetic focus and a fully streamlined operating system conversion and migration experience for new users. Now that could really be a killer feature. Take care.