Updated: December 30, 2013
SparkyLinux is not the first, nor the seventh name that comes to your mind when you think about possibly popular Linux distributions for home users. But then, consult, if you shall, the DistroWatch celebrity list, and it's there, in spot #20. Which probably does not mean much to the common user. Some shedding of light is needed, which is why we are here, the true nature, possibly tapering exponentially, of the DistroWatch PHR tail notwithstanding. Call it statistical noise, if you will.
Sparky is a Polish distribution, based on Debian, flavored with a whole bunch of more lightweight environments, like LXDE, OpenBox, E17, MATE, Razor, and alike. Since it's impossible to do them all, I chose LXDE, which I kind of like, even though I consider it inferior to Xfce. And let's see how it goes. Oh, I know this is not the latest version, but it was the latest when I tested, so there you go.
No worries. The system booted fine, and all my peripherals, including a pair of SSD inside a T61 laptop were properly initialized and used. The desktop environment is curious, blessed in monochrome silver, gray and black, and I really find it tasty. True, the top panel is quite crude, and Conky is not everyone's favorite applet, but it's not a bad combination, even though it smells of 2005.
Still, in my opinion, E17 is antiquated, Razor is too crude, OpenBox works better with something like CrunchBang, and MATE is a familiar player, happily used by Mint, which is why we need the LXDE underdog here. So far, within the expectations, but there's room for visual improvement. Sort of like what Xfce was three years back.
What else is there?
OK, looks aside, what gives. Now, Debian, in its vanilla form, is not a friendly distro, because you must sacrifice a goat before you get any codecs. But, if do that, then all is well. Indeed, SparkyLinux gives you full network connectivity, Samba sharing, with tabs and bookmarks in the PCmanFM, and multimedia playback - Flash and MP3. Really nice. The big problem here is the presentation layer. HTML characters in the song title and non-resizable GUI, but we'll get there.
Very atypical Debian. If you've followed my reviews recently, then one like SolydK is a good example. Now, here, it's a bunch of discrete windows, asking you all kinds of things in a rather friendly but somewhat tedious manner.
Most of the options are fairly benign, but the option to format the home directory by default is quite risky, quite the opposite of what the installer suggests. Not bad all in all, but bland and geeky and possibly alienating to the common user.
The user setup is curious. You get separate root and user, and your own user will not be automatically added to the sudoers file, so you will have to escalate privileges via su - rather than sudo.
I did not like the fact you cannot not install the bootloader. Why not. Finally, the installation itself is just a small window with the progress bar dancing left and right, very quickly, if I may add.
The quad-boot setup went fine. Now, SparkyLinux comes with the identical setup you've seen earlier. So let's play a bit. I will try to manage updates, check a bunch of software, and try to customize the look, to make it something more like Linux Mint or Xubuntu.
Sparky offers the reliable apt-get backend, with its own frontend called APTus. Worked fine and without any problems. It's all there. In this regard, the Debian reputation for taking it slowly proves its merit.
Sparky comes with a very rich and colorful set. Reminds me of PCLinuxOS in its 2009 Gnome version. There's a lot of focus on multimedia, but you also get a whole lot of other goodies. GIMP is there, and so is LibreOffice. TeamView, PlayOnLinux, even though it will not run due to an error. MiniTube is also cool, and works flawlessly. VLC, Audacity, you name it, a handy arsenal for all types of users. Finally, no Firefox for you, but you do get IceWeasel. The application set is kind of Xfce oriented, with some exceptions. Not bad overall.
Another strong side of this distribution is the ability to backup and restore application configurations, something I've only recently discussed in a Netrunner Magazine article on Linux improvements. Not many systems do this, and it's quite commendable.
Here comes the weak part of this distribution. There's no centralized systems menu for doing things. Well, there is, sort of. It's called Sparky Center, and it has a small subset of options available, akin to what Xfce used to do in the olden days. Not friendly. Then, you also have configurations for other frameworks and desktop managers and it becomes tricky. Moreover, I was not able to add icons to the rather pretty bottom menu.
SparkyLinux 3.1 with LXDE is a very fast and nimble system, tolling very few resources. on idle, the CPU hovers round the zero mark, maybe 1% due to Conky itself, and the overall memory usage is just 11% for a 2GB system, i.e. 220MB. Very handy for a 64-bit edition.
Suspend & resume were fine. Apart from an occasional software error, mostly bad configurations, and gThumb hanging once trying to access an image file on the Samba share, there were no problems. Well, a few flaky attempts to overwrite files on Windows drives, really. Other than that, lithe and stable.
SparkyLinux 3.1 LXDE is a rather trouble-free system. But that does not make it perfect or very usable. It's good, but the integration of its components needs a lot of rework to create a single cohesive entity. Once this is done, Sparky could become a true kickass distro. It already has speed and stability, which are quite important. Now, the fun parts need some effort.
Sparky needs to be more beautiful by default, more accessible, tone down some of its rough edges, throw away the less needed stuff, and polish the configurations so that no little quirks and bug come to plague the experience. Last but not the least, we come to the question of future development, relevance and target audience. Sparky is a classic distro, the kind that ruled the last decade, but that's not enough to make it everyone's choice. Perhaps the owners do not seek any growth in user base, but if we look at the project from a neutral point of view, then it can benefit from some extra softness. But it's an interesting choice by all means, just make sure you're willing to sweat to get LXDE tamed, and handle the colorful desktop blessed with multiple personalities. My grade for this one splits into two: overall integration 5/10, potential as a real player 8/10.