As I wrote last summer, desktop Linux computing has reached a state of boredomness. Just pick your favorite flavor of Ubuntu, or maybe Linux Mint, and start using it with minimal fuss and excellent stability. The availability of choice has actually decresed, at least from my point of view, as the Ubuntu family of Linux distributions is so far ahead of the competition. Back in the days it was different when a number of desktop oriented distros (Mandrake/-driva, SUSE, etc) were competing neck to neck to win the harts of the regular users. The alternatives still exist, but lack behind in stability, support channels and attention to detail. But luckily every now and then new interesting Linux distribution projecst arise that are doing some things differently and a lot of things right. I am writing this post on one of them.
I've been keeping an eye on Manjaro for some time as it has been a rising star in the Distrowatch popularity contest. They have been very productive since their 1st release (2013) with remarkable results. In two years they have produced a credible distribution, developed Manjaro specific features, grown a large user community and gathered a great amount of high quality documentation. Most distro projects often forget about the documentation part altogether. And from technical perspective the Manjaro has a lot going for it:
- Manjaro is based on Arch Linux but they host their own repositories. They do not inherit Arch updates directly, but provide an additional layer of quality assurance and release the updates in semi-rolling fashion. Downloadable snapshot releases are published few times a year, but in theory there is never a need to re-install a newer release.
- Being Arch based, the Manjaro is compatible with the AUR repository which, provides tons of pre-packaged software.
- There are three official flavors: XFCE (flag ship), KDE and a bare bones Net install. Community variants are provided for just about every desktop environment out there. Personally I feel it is a shame that Gnome is not one of the official ones.
- Manjaro provides in-house developed tools for switching and using different Linux kernel versions. You can go for the latest or choose a more stable but older LTS version.
- Unlike Arch, the Manjaro comes with a very user friendly installer that is very similar to Ubuntu.
KDE Plasma 5 - don't even bother...
I started with the KDE edition, which provides a visually quite pleasing desktop. Plasma 5 is a hugely improved from the 4.xx version in terms of look and feel. Manjaro's green-gray color palette reminds me of OpenSUSE or Linux Mint.
For me however, the Plasma 5 desktop was uselessly unstable. it started producing errors repeatedly just by sitting idle in the Live DVD session and installation did not really improve things. I am not sure whether this is something that is Manjaro (or Arch) specific or due to the general pre-maturity of the Plasma 5, but I am guessing the latter. It took the KDE project literally years to stabilize KDE Plasma 4 and the version 5 seems to repeat the pattern. It is really a shame as this desktop environment has great potential.
XFCE - stable but ugly
So I switched to the XFCE version, which seems to be the primary/default edition of the Manjaro. The XFCE project provides a simplistic but somewhat spartan desktop experience. The basic environment has remained the same for years, only providing small gradual improvements with each new version. Based on few days of active usage the XFCE edition runs stable. I had also the opportunity to try one of the Manjaro release update hops, and it went smoothly (version 0.8.13 to 15.09 RC). The system is responsive and runs snappy, but its worth noting that Manjaro is not a feather weight distribution in terms of system RAM footprint, consuming about 310 megs after boot. This is comparable to other feature packed XFCE distributions, such as Xubuntu. So if you are searching for an ultra light distribution, then look elsewhere or build your Manjaro from ground up with the Net Installation media.
The downside of Manjaro XFCE is the looks. Out of the box just about everything on the desktop seems to be a bit off. The icons and fonts really do not match the theme at all and this has to be one of the ugliest distros I have seen recently. For example Xubuntu is miles ahead in terms of visual design. I find it very odd that the Plasma 5 offers such a nicely configured default interface, while the XFCE is just about the opposite. If the XFCE edition is considered to be the flagship, please give it the attention it needs.
The good thing is that this is Linux and you can fully customize the user interface based on your own preferences. Personally I like distributions that look good out of the box and need minimal tweaking afterwards.
Overall the Manjaro is a very interesting project. It has a lot to offer from technical perspective and it's biggest cons (visuals) are rather easy to work around. It is a huge shame that the Plasma 5 is not ready for daily use, but most likely Manjaro project is not to blame about that. Personally i am a big fan of Gnome, so I would love to see an official Gnome edition rather that the simplistic XFCE desktop.
I would recommend everyone to check out Manjaro, with the exception of absolute Linux beginners. It offers an easy gateway to the Arch Linux platform and offers the benefits of a rolling release model. There is plenty of good documentation readily available and a blossoming community to support you further. In addition you can utilize Arch Linux documentation, which is most likely the best available among any Linux distribution.
Give it a spin and please post your feedback below. I am going to use Manjaro XFCE for a while as my production environment and most likely will be posting further updates later this fall.
Test hardware used:
- Thinkpad X301
- Intel HD 1440x900 graphics
- Centrino 2 vPro CPU
- 4GB RAM
- 64GB SSD