Zorin OS 12.4 Core review - Surprisingly good

Updated: March 6, 2019

It's been some three years since I last tested Zorin OS, and back then, it was a beta version. I hadn't been too impressed, and the experience was rather bland. But three years is half an eternity in Linux terms, so it's time for another review. Besides, I was looking at the list of potentially interesting distros to test, and I do have to say, it does feel rather quiet, maybe even slightly despondent.

Today, Zorin stands at version 12.4, but that on its own does not say too much. Lots of Ubuntu under the hood, a heavily customized Gnome theme, and now, there's also a payware option. You can purchase Zorin Ultimate, which comes with software, games, new themes and wallpapers, and even a support channel. If you don't like this venue, you can use the free (Core) edition. That was my choice for the test - with Lenovo G50 being me scapegoat. We roll.

Teaser

Live session - a nice twist of events

A good start. A clean boot sequence, with no spurious text messages. But it did take a bit. After that, you'll reach a distinct blue-and-white Zorin desktop, which uses a customized Gnome shell to give you a more Windows-like look, with a proper menu, icons-only panel and such.

I noticed a few small bugs right away - the Wireless icon is hidden in the system area applet that also contains the sound and battery indicators, so this might not be obvious to new users, who are obviously the target audience for this distro. The Super key invokes the Gnome activities rather than the actual menu, which seems to miss the point, because the menu is there for a real, ergonomic reason. Also, if you lock the screen, the menu shows at the top, not at the bottom the way it is in your desktop session.

Wireless icon

Desktop, live

Menu

Drive C entry is confusing

That Drive C: thingie is probably related to WINE, but it is a bit confusing.

Network connectivity - flawless

Niggles aside, I was really impressed with what Zorin did on this front. Wireless, fine. Samba sharing, also fine, with a reasonable (if not blazing fast throughput). Printing, also fine, including Samba devices. Then, Bluetooth sharing also worked! In fact, my Aquaris phone auto-connected to the laptop, but there was a separate entry for Zorin (even though it's the same MAC address), so I had to request a separate pairing, but it still worked without any problems. Among the more streamlined experiences in the Linux world in a long time.

Printersd

Phone Bluetooth pairing

Bluetooth works

Smartphone support - flawless

This was another basket of goodies. I tried Aquaris E4.5, Moto G6 (review coming soon), and Lumia 520, which would be a Windows Phone - iPhone 6s is something I'll check later on - and all of these phones worked without any problems or weird messages. I did have issues with G6 in some other distros, again, this is a separate story for another time, but Zorin handled it nicely. I likez.

Android, Aquaris

Android, Moto G6

Windows Phone

Media playback

This was almost flawless. The first time Videos launched, it didn't have the right codecs, and it searched for some, and then offered me the choice of installing a few plugins. I find the good/bad/ugly naming convention for Gstreamer to be totally misplaced in 2019. A simple mp3-codecs would work so much better, rather than make people wonder about odd frameworks and architecture (i386 and whatnot). After I installed the codecs, the music did not auto-play - you need to restart the player, so this is a sub-optimal thingie. But then, it still wouldn't play, and it offered me some more codecs. Eventually I had it sorted out, so yes, you do get playback, and it works fine, but the whole sequence can be improved. HD video, no issues.

Codecs, missing

Why is the media player using a dark theme?

Codecs

Only super-nerds can decipher this message.

Music, MP3

HD video

Look & feel

Zorin is quite elegant - and also tries to do things with its own unique, stylish flair, which makes sense if you want to brand yourself as a product and stick a price tag. I find this a better approach than just scattershot work without an ambitious goal.

Zorin start page

A custom Zorin-flavored start page.

You also get thoughtful, nice touches everywhere, like the right-click option in Files. I mean this is Captain Obvious for Plasma users, but there's almost no Gnome-based distro that will give you more than just New Folder, and even New (Text) File is a struggle. Not here.

Right click in file manager

I didn't have any super-great objections to how Zorin does things, except, of course - the fonts are too pale, and the default theme does not have sufficient contrast. It's hard navigating when your indicator is a thin blue line (as opposed to a thin red line, mwuahahaha) on a big canvas of brilliant white. Gray fonts, nope.

Theme, contrast, conts

Zorin comes with its theme changer wizard, which is a very nice thing, but there simply isn't an option to darken the fonts. Some of the tabs also look slightly different, so there's more work to be done on the integration side. Overall, not bad.

Settings

Desktop

Theme

Panel

Accessibility

Then, I tried the high-contrast theme. I must say, this is the FIRST ever distro that does high-contrast well. Typically, you get ugly looks, or a mix of icons from a modern set and something from 1995, but Zorin actually does a very reasonable accessibility alternative (not perfect but still so much better than the rest). I'm quite impressed here. So maybe you don't get good fonts out of the box, but rather than hacking Gnome themes, you can use this to alleviate the eye hurt.

High contrast theme

High contrast theme, menu

Other things

Overall, it was a very good start. The live session pretty much gave me 100% I typically need or expect, and this is a rarity nowadays. Most distros struggle with basics, and Zorin goes an extra mile, or a kilometer and a half if you will. Plus, accessibility is really sweet - that does not negate the need for immediate font improvements, though. But a lot DID change in three years.

Performance was a bit sketchy - never a strong side in Gnome. I left the media player on, listening to excellent music, due to my exquisite taste and choice, and now and then, the playback would get garbled when running a thing or two, or when starting an app. A bit of CPU wonk. Chromium also took forever to launch that I thought it was kaput.

Chromium, slow launch

Installation

This was a typical Ubuntu affair - predictable, simple but with a super-slow partition discovery. On G50, there's sixteen of those hosting eight operating systems, Windows and Linux, and it took about 15 minutes for the wizard to get to the next step. At one point, the system told me the installer wasn't responding, and if I wanted to close it. I didn't, and a minute later the wizard actually stirred and shook and progressed, but then took a few more seconds to refresh the partition list.

Install not responding

The installer is not resizable, so you get truncated lines, and on a 1366x768px screen, it dips below the panel, which creates a rather odd effect. Anyway, I misplaced a random distro, and let the installer continue - we shall see about the language/regional thingie. No fancy slides for you.

Installer, no resize option

Partitions, ready

Installing

A view to a skill

The system booted fine - clean splash again - and I had me Wireless. Good. Other than that, no other setting was preserved from the live session. But it's a reasonable start. After all, every little thing matters, and high quality has become such a rarity in the Linux world. But as far as modern distros go, only MX Linux actually saves your entire live session data.

Desktop installed

Package management & updates

Not bad. I had the prompt for updates - but there seems to be a disconnect between what the update manager says, what apt-get on the command line says and what the (Gnome) Software Center says. The last one gives only eight updates, but they are actually bundles, and I'm not fond of the whole reboot-to-update thingie. While updating the machine, I also checked the app stack and noticed a curious mix between new and old software (Xenial base, mind). Even after a full update, some of the software remains relatively "old" like LibreOffice, at version 5 rather than the latest version 6.X. Oh well. But the updates worked fine.

Software Center

Updates

Applications

Zorin packs a decent bunch - Chromium, Geary, Videos, GIMP, LibreOffice, a handful of its own custom applications and utilities. I guess the list is deliberately conservative, to allow some distinction between Core and Ultimate. Zorin also places emphasis on Windows compatibility, with WINE and PlayOnLinux. The latter is a bit clunky, as it comes with a non-resizable UI where the text touches borders and such. You don't get any preinstalled Windows-based games, though - not in the Core version at least. I did install Firefox (using the Browser Manager), VLC and a few other programs.

Apps

Browser manager

WINE apps

Smartphones, again

I got the iPhone and hooked it up. Well, here, I got my first error. Basically, you need to connect the phone once, trust it, then umount and re-mount it, and then it will work just fine. Shame, because it was such a spotless record.

iPhone

Hardware compatibility

No issues. The system log is clean, remarkably clean, I must say. Suspend & resume worked just fine. You also have the additional drivers utility, plus all the Fn buttoned behave as you'd expect. Again, this is not a given, even four years into the lifetime of the Lenovo G50 box.

Performance & resource usage

Average. Zorin 12.4 is a guzzler, like most Gnome-based distros, and on idle, the CPU does chirp merrily. I do always get emails, with people telling me it's the system monitor itself that's doing the noise, but then other desktop environments manage without the noise, plus the numbers actually tend to change between different releases, and that change is more worrying than the fact the CPU usage is there. Zorin ate 1 GB of RAM, which is mildish for Gnome standards, and the CPU usage was 10% idle, which is fairly high.

Resources

This also translates into less-than-optimal responsiveness. Not too bad, but Plasma and Xfce perform way better on this machine. Compared to other Gnome-based systems, it's relatively sprightly, but there's a lot more that can be done.

Battery usage

Consequently, battery life is rather poor. The power management ain't that aggressive - removing the power cord doesn't do much right away. Eventually, with mild usage - some browsing and music playing in the background and the screen at 50% brightness, I only had about 100 minutes of juice. The battery has deteriorated since I bought the machine, currently standing at about 65%, so we need to add 50% to the charge estimate. This still results in less than 3 hours - compare to more than 4 hours for Windows 10 or MX Linux on this same machine.

Battery life

Fonts!

To illustrate how sub-optimal the fonts are, I opened Gedit and then changed the default (Classic) color scheme to Kate, which uses black fonts. Just observe the difference. And this is pretty much all it takes for Zorin to be super nice without having to use the high-contrast theme. The pale gray fonts are the bane of modern computing, and there needs to be a new class of punishment for that.

Classic color scheme

Kate color scheme

And zoomed - default top, changed bottom:

Classic fonts, zoomed

Kate font color scheme

Customization

I didn't actually do much. Zorin comes with nice wallpapers, it's quite pretty and elegant. So there. If you do want to tweak the system though, you can grab Gnome Tweak Tool - and in combination with half a dozen Zorin apps, you can do whatever you want.

Final looks, nice wallpapers

Zorin Dash

Zorin Zorinovich Problemov

There were a lot of small issues what cropped up during me test. Not serious stuff, but they did mar the rather stellar first impression. What I like to term second- and third-order dependencies in making a perfect desktop. Some of these were aesthetic, other functional.

Chromium complained about not being the default browser - this BEFORE I even considered installed Firefox. In the system area, VLC does show when you play music, but there's no such indicator for Videos. There also does not seem to be any Show desktop button, as Zorin Dash seems to be like Dash to Dock, which doesn't have this particular feature.

Default browser warning

Some apps have the nice blue-line border, some don't.

My language was localized, tsk tsk.

I had a small problem navigating multiple open Files windows using Alt-Tab. Some just wouldn't show up, but I did find out that if you right-click on the Files icon in the panel, you will have the window list in the context menu. This only works for techies, though.

Panel, right click

Conclusion

Zorin 12.4 is a very reasonable, capable distribution. It starts super-strong, and this is a great selling point. The live session is truly impressive, and you get a wealth of goodies out of the box. Even the high-contrast theme is good. Then, as I continued using the machine, things did fray at the seams a little, but there was nothing cardinal to deter me from having fun.

That does not mean Zorin is perfect. The fonts and all-too-pale default theme are the biggest blocker to enjoyment. The installation can be faster, and so can be the system - performance is average, with a mediocre battery life as a consequence. There were also some niggles here and there, including visual inconsistency and legacy bits ported without any great oversight. But then, Zorin does compensate with a unique spin and an attempt to shatter the amateur allure that most distros have. All in all, one of the more refreshing offerings in a while, with a bunch of custom extras that do please the soul. 8/10. Well worth checking out.

Cheers.