Sunday, September 03, 2017

Why I'm not participating in the general love-in over Solus

If any post I have ever written on this blog is guaranteed to generate me legions of haters and hate-mail, it's this one, whose premise is: I don't love Solus.

Don't get me wrong, Solus is beautiful; or rather, as I commented over on the Solus Google Plus page as soon after the release of Solus 3 as I was able to get my hands on it, it used to be. It has (and still has) beautiful wallpaper (background) artwork, and used, until the release of Solus 3, to have beautiful icons. Although there is a wide range of icons installed by default, Solus 3 no longer includes the beautiful set of icons which used to be installed by default in Solus (although they can be installed); moreover, to my mind the new icons emphatically do not fulfill lead developer Ikey Doherty's stated function of being high-contrast and easy to distinguish one from the other. The default icons included in Solus 3, to my mind, are washed out and ugly, and several of the replacements installed by default (although I cannot claim to have checked them all) are obscure and difficult to distinguish one from another. Ironically enough, I have installed the set of icons Ikey uses by default in Ubuntu Mate, and there, for whatever reason, they are better looking than the default set and don't look washed out, so I don't know what's happening there. However, they detract from the visual beauty of Solus to a great extent.

A rant about icons, however, is not the main thrust of my argument. I have now installed Solus three or four times since it first came to wide public attention, and each time it has annoyed me with its irritating, superfluous quirks. Given that Ikey is backtracking on a previous promise never to allow Solus to use Ubuntu snaps - a way of installing software on Linux without having to cope with a raft of already-installed dependencies and various package managers across different distributions - one of my biggest gripes in Solus, in all fairness, may soon change. But the remainder... remain.

I shall preface my comments by saying that all Linux distributions annoy by making gratuitous changes, and lack good documentation, which means you can find yourself going down meaningless rabbit-holes of gratuitous change in any given distribution. The changes Ikey has made, however, have been described as making Solus "not feel like Linux", and to my mind at least, that is Not A Good Thing.

Now, don't get me wrong; I'm all for ease-of-use. I use KDE Plasma, which has been accused of making Linux desktops look Windows-like, but which still has some rough edges (today for example I was struggling, in just the manner described above, with getting KDE Plasma's login manager to display both the right keyboard settings, and text in a pleasant font; these are things which in a configuration- and panel-heavy desktop manager like KDE should be configurable in a menu, but aren't, leading one to go down the aforementioned rabbit-holes). I also eschew window managers like awesome and i3, for the most part, which by default don't allow one to use the mouse to move windows around (instead tiling them automatically, or semi-automatically, as they appear), and use non-dynamic text files (which must be reloaded manually or on login) for configuration - although I do admire their minimalist aesthetic. When it comes to Solus, however, Ikey has made some changes to the way a Linux distribution works which I personally find gratuituous and annoying, don't help naive users (which would be the only reason they would be welcome), and are at variance with his stated goal of "sane defaults".

Starting, as it were, at the beginning, the Solus installer has some grave deficiencies (although admittedly the same could be said of the installer from my personal favourite distribution, Manjaro, at least up until the latest version of the installer, which was released today and which I haven't had a chance to install due to writing this blog post). The Solus installer (by contrast with both the Manjaro installer and many more full-featured installers) has a very limited set of features, even down to limiting the way in which the installer can be installed on a hard disk. Unlike many installers, it insists on a very limited set of mountpoints, or separate "containers" to hold data [Linux geeks will have to forgive my non-standard use of containers here], and doesn't allow you to create or edit partitions - instead insisting you do this outside of and before using the installer). Unfortunately, this is the point at which the naive user is most likely to be betrayed by "sane defaults" which are neither sane nor easily changed. Skipping over the aforementioned new icon issues, we then find that when installing a new shell (as I do, being an avid lover of the Z shell), if we install the shell alongside the popular Oh My Zsh configuration package, even after installing zsh, Oh My Zsh will complain that it is not installed. Why? Turns out that a Linux distribution keeps a list of shells which users are permitted to install.(Linux being a clone of UNIX, it was originally intended for use in old-style mainframe and minicomputer settings where many people would have an account at a single machine, sit down at a terminal which was basically just a screen and keyboard - and before that, a typewriter - and use a set of programs selected by them from among a pre-selected number of programs installed by the system administrator(s); thus, whilst a user could install his own shell, or text user interface, he could only choose from amonth those listed in a file called /etc/shells, controlled by the aforesaid sysadmins.) In Solus, this file has been gratuituously removed - gratuitous, since neither its presence nor its absence will delight, amuse, confuse or annoy the naive user, but very definitely will confuse the intermediate user, annoy the advanced user, and neither amuse nor delight either. Similar things can be said of my experience of installing most, a text file pager or viewer which displays text files (particularly the system's included man, or manual, pages) in a colourful, easier-to-read format than the black-and-white-with-the-occasional-bold format they are usually displayed in. Imagine my surprise (and annoyance) when I come to installing this package (from source, since - although this is a forgivable admission - it's not included by default and not likely to be made a snap out of any time soon), and find that the usual directory or folder, /usr/local, in which such user-contributed packages are usually expected to be installed is also absent. Again, another gratuitous change which does not improve quality of life for the new user, and merely annoys the seasoned used or expert.

Now, we come to the boot manager. Ikey Doherty, lead developer of the Solus project, a man by his own admission of strong opinions (completely unlike myself, in other words ;-) ), has been recorded saying that the default boot manager in Linux, GRUB, which does a fair but not perfect job of detecting all operating systems on the drive (essential if one wishes to keep, say Windows on the same computer as one or more Linux distributions) "needs to die". His preferred solution appears to be Clear Boot Manager, or as it's billed in the boot menus on my computer, Linux Boot Manager, a "Boot Manager" which appears to remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that one might have - shock horror! - other distributions on the drive on which you're installing Solus. Not only that, but upon installing Solus on a drive with OpenBSD installed alongside it (whose boot loader, to be fair, is also not up to the task of handling anything but OpenBSD, but doesn't claim to be, either), it promptly hosed the OpenBSD information in favour of (to quote Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) "its new matrix". (Whilst OpenBSD's boot manager is dumb, I can confirm after experimentation that unlike Solus' boot manager it is not also rude.)  That's an attitude worthy of the Windowsian Crapsody, that is. (Mama, just killed a disk; put a gun against its head, pulled my trigger now it's dead...)

OK, so I've installed Solus, and I've corrected or I'm putting up with these problems. Now, I use Linux on laptops, and because I like to try and ensure that should they be stolen, the information contained therein should not be accessible either to the thief or to all and sundry, I like to encrypt my drives. I create for myself a separate, encrypted data partition, include it in /etc/fstab, and reboot. Whereupon Solus fails to boot - instead just sitting there - and I've had just about all I can take of this seriously flawed distribution, flavour of the month though it is. Get off my ship.

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