Updated: February 22, 2020
Commence to test a fresh distro. I took a short break from Linux distros after the end-of-year compilations, because overall, I felt exhausted by the indefinite products, the unpredictable outcome, the emotional seesaw of quality, brilliance and then sadness. Now, with renewed vigor (Igor with vigor, right), I'm about to set sail into the Tux waters once again. Our candidate today: Solus 4.1 Budgie.
Last year, I was pleased with Solus 4.0 Fortitude. First, it was my only successful complete test with this system, after several botched attempts in the past, mostly due to bootloader problems. Second, despite the rough patches, it delivered a pretty interesting, reliable and even moderately fun setup, so much in fact, that is scored quite highly in my Best of Gnome annual summary, even though Budgie isn't technically Gnome, but then, it is. Anyway, we're testing again. So let's begin.
I grabbed the Solus ISO, and booted on my G50 laptop, which comes with eight different operating systems, including Windows 10 and then a handful of Linux distributions, plus Intel graphics. Always a useful test, to see what happens en masse.
Solus 4.1 is very similar - if not identical - to the previous version. Pretty but with issues. The one thing that instantly annoyed me was the choice of the dark theme. Good for developers, bad for everyone else. More than that, the font was blurry, with insufficient contrast, the foreground and background elements are almost identical, and you also get gigantic alpha window borders, which means taking clean screenshots is a pain.
Funnily, speaking of the dark theme, if you go to the Solus official site, it's very airy and light, with the use of gray and blue colors and crisp black fonts, and even a white case design for the laptop frame. This does not give you any indication that the default theme is dark.
I then spent some time changing the look & feel. This is done through Budgie Desktop Settings a-la Gnome Tweaks rather than the standard Settings menu. I noticed quite a few discrepancies here. For instance, the desktop icons text; invisible against the default background. If you toggle the dark theme to off, this still doesn't do anything - you also need to change the widgets.
However, with the light theme now on, I was still having severe font clarity issues. They were just fuzzy, and the color contrast was bad. Things look significantly better with the default theme - Adwaita, but then, the icons in the panel are offset funnily (toward the bottom).
I then started playing with font settings and discovered something nice and weird. You have the option to use fractional values, which is very neat. But the way the fonts are rendered on the screen varies hugely from one increment to another. Say 1.02 gave me super-sharp results, but then 1.03 is all mangled. And before you say my eyes are bad - my eyes work fine. I have no issues in Windows 7, Windows 10, Kubuntu with slightly darkened fonts, or stock Ubuntu on this very same machine. It's the simple, cruel reality that most distros have suboptimal font settings.
I did a whole bunch of testing here - I won't post the dozen screenshots I took tweaking and fiddling. In the end, I found out that Droid Sans with 0.99 text scaling plus 1pt font size increase renders the best results, which leads me to believe that the whole scaling, anti-aliasing, hinting and DPI thing is broken. A general issue that I've been talking about for the past decade plus.
I discovered that the use of the light theme has its extra issues. The panel remains dark, but the menu is light-colored. Not what I'd expect. This feels inconsistent. Then, if you right-click on panel icons, some of the elements are not that visible, probably because they were designed/optimized to work with the dark theme only.
In the system area, the session end and notification area icons are confusing. The one on the far right looks like a door/exit symbol, but it actually opens the notification sidebar. The one left of the clock is the power button, and logically, it should sit on the far right side.
Wireless, Bluetooth, fine. Samba sharing, also fine, no issues. Samba printing, nope. The printer applet did show the Wireless device but not the one attached to a Window box. You also have no indication what the wizard is doing, and if it's searching for any new printers.
Not bad, but the media players uses a hard-coded dark theme - this is a carryover from Gnome, and a problem since forever. There's no system area integration. Overall, not bad, but then this feels more like a tickbox exercise than an attempt to provide a shiny, fun user experience.
There was more good stuff to check, but I decided to do those after committing Solus to the hard disk ...
A somewhat confusing and frustrating affair. The wizard is nice, but it comes with some odd choices. It asks you about your location, which I presumably is used to configure the timezone - a separate step that is then rather unnecessary. The installer comes with its own set of inconsistencies - no alpha border, and notice the word 'detect' almost touches the right margin, completely not in line with the left margin - the actual text is also indented/padded farther in than the title.
Then, when it comes to partitioning, Solus got stuck. It hang in the examining local storage devices step for a good half an hour. Most distros take their merry time figuring out what I have on the 16 partitions on my Lenovo G50 laptop, but this was too much. I killed the installer and then started fresh, and then it was able to bridge this step fairly quickly.
Notice there's no space between words 'displayed' and 'When' in the third line. Now, you get partition labels, but there's no built-in partitioning functionality, which is a big drawback compared to most distros of this ilk. You also select partitions in an odd way, via right-click. No other button there to give you a clue of what you're supposed to be doing.
The actual procedure was super-quick, only about 3-4 minutes. Surprisingly quick, I must say. Because usually it takes 15-20 minutes to configure GRUB on this machine. The eight-boot thingie baffles the bootloader step. On pretty much every distro. The thing is, initramfs images are created one by one, serially, and for each kernel, and then, there's the OS probing step, which is slow. All combined, it takes a while for this thing to finish. Hence, the Solus five-minute deal didn't sound right.
And after rebooting ... I was right. I only had the GRUB rescue prompt, but nothing else. Solus had killed the system. We've seen this in the past quite a few times. If you recall my earlier reviews, every single time, something different would happen - the install would fail, the system would be borked, the bootloader image would be placed under /boot/EFI, but GRUB wouldn't be touched, and now we have a new situation. The Solus installer has placed its images under /boot/EFI, similar to the 2017 adventure, but then it also killed GRUB. While I can somehow, remotely understand the first venue, there's no way I can excuse this second episode. Rendering the system unbootable, what.
I had to delete the Solus EFI files, and then restore GRUB. But all in all, at this point, I decided to stop this review. One, the system is not bootable, and that's the end of it really. Two, whatever an installation does, it must not harm the other operating systems on the disk. We're also back in 2017 when it comes to usability, so this is actually a regrettable regression. Thinking about it, the only reason I seem to have had luck with Fortitude is because I installed it on a non-EFI system (old legacy BIOS/MBR). Well.
Sometimes, I wonder if I should stop testing Linux distributions for good. The soul toll is immense. Not just the fact that things can fail, which can be okay now and then, but the whole unnecessary rollercoaster of pointless regressions and unpredictability. My expectation is that systems should be simple, reliable - and more than that, they should be a product. A complete box of functionality that allows the user to work and have fun. Alas, every year, we're getting farther and farther away from that. It's not even the question of the Year of the Linux, or anything like that. It's the question of basic stability without which there's no foundation for anything meaningful. It's depressing me, and it's self-inflicted.
Solus 4.1 has some really cool points. I liked what I saw last year. But in 2020, things are different. Clear fonts are no longer clear. Go figure. Some library or something got changed without any testing. The problems I raised back then remain. New problems abound. And then, it killed GRUB and left my machine unbootable. All in all, Solus 4.1 is pretty, and offers reasonable connectivity out of the box, and comes with some unique features against the vastness of mediocrity that grips the Linux desktop. But these are more than offset by glitches, bugs and the installation trouble. It's a no-go. Dedoimedo, sad and out.