Hands-on with Makulu Linux Xfce 7.0: The most beautiful Linux distro I have ever seen

A new release and a new desktop for this distribution. Here's a summary of my experiences with it so far.

The latest release of Makulu Linux has two major things going for it: first, it is based on Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, rather than Debian; and second, it uses the Xfce desktop. Makulu seems to be doing a tour or rotation of desktops so perhaps having Xfce shouldn't be a surprise, anyway.

The Release Announcement / Release Notes give some interesting insight into the background and development of this release, as well as the major features of this release. As always with Makulu Linux, aesthetics was a major focus, and it includes loads of beautiful wallpapers, themes, icons, and fonts. The other major focus was speed, thus the choice of Xfce for the desktop, and Firefox rather than Chrome, the synapse launcher rather than slingscold, and the inclusion or omission of various other packages.

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The ISO image is available from several different mirrors, listed on the Makulu Xfce page. It is approximately 1.4GB which pretty much qualifies it as svelte when compared to other Makulu releases.

Unfortunately I was not able to convert this ISO image to a bootable Live USB Stick, try as I might. I started with the obvious approach, simply copying it directly to a stick with 'dd', which has worked with previous Makulu releases, and works with many other Linux distributions (perhaps even most other distributions these days). That wouldn't boot. So then I figured that since this release is derived from Ubuntu, I would try the Ubuntu Startup Disk Creator. That seemed promising, at least it recognized the ISO file and copied to the stick. But that wouldn't boot either. Ugh. I then tried unetbootin, which has worked for me before when all else fails... but not this time.

So, I was forced to burn the ISO image to a DVD. Sigh. I have a personal objection to that, especially at this time of year I think that it is obvious that too many artificial Christmas trees have been cut down to be used in manufacturing blank CD/DVD disks. But this time there was no way around it, and at least it worked, I was able to boot and install from DVD.

Another stumble, although an all-too-common one these days, is that this release is still not UEFI compatible. I'm always a bit baffled by this, when one distribution (such as Makulu) is derived from another (such as Ubuntu), and the original distribution is UEFI-compatible, why/how is it that this gets lost in translation? Sigh. Makulu is certainly not alone in this, it happens with a number of Debian derivatives I have looked at as well.

Anyway, the Live DVD works just fine on MBR/Legacy Boot systems, and on several UEFI-firmware systems I have tried with Legacy Boot enabled. As I always do with such installations, after installing I switch back to UEFI boot mode, and I use either another UEFI-compatible distribution or the rEFInd boot manager to handle booting and starting Makulu. Obviously, leaving the system in Legacy boot mode would also work.

The installer is a cosmetically modified version of Ubuntu's 'ubiquity'. Anyone who has had to suffer through previous Makulu installers (including the modified LMDE installer in the previous Makulu release) will be very pleased with how clean, easy, and fast this one is in comparison. The release notes say that it can be installed in five minutes; my little portable external DVD drive was not fast enough for that, but it still only took about 10 to 15 minutes start to finish, and that is pretty good.

Makulu Xfce
The Makulu Linux 7.0 Xfce Desktop

One of the first things you are likely to notice after booting the installed system are the beautiful icons on the desktop and Xfce panel. Well, in fact you're likely to notice them even when running the Live system, because they are there as well. This is typical of Makulu releases, the presentation is always gorgeous.

The Xfce desktop can get a bit cluttered if you have a lot of partitions on the disk, so I always go into 'Desktop Settings...' (right-click on the desktop to get to it), and then on the 'Icons' tab un-check 'Removable Devices' in the 'Default Icons' list. In my case this is just about mandatory because I have so many partitions on the disk drive that it clutters the desktop, but the down side of it is that I don't get a desktop icon when I plug in a removable drive or stick, either.

Whisker Menu
This release has the Whisker Menu rather than the standard Xfce menus at the left end of the bottom panel. I think that's an excellent choice, the Whisker menus are better looking, clearer, and easier to use. Here you can also see some of the colorful and stylish icons used in the default theme.

The menus here don't cascade - there is a simple list of groups or categories down the left side, and when you move the mouse cursor to one of those, the right side shows the content of that group.

Any menu item can be added to the 'Favorites' menu by right-clicking on the item and choosing 'Add to Favorites' (duh), and an item can be removed from the Favorites menu by right-clicking and choosing 'Remove from Favorites.

The 'Recently Used' menu is filled and updated dynamically, and it is not possible to remove individual items from this menu. You can, however, clear the entire menu by right-clicking on any item in it and choosing 'Clear Recently Used'.

For those who are still partial to the standard Xfce menus, or are partial to cascading menus, or are just feeling nostalgic, you can still get them by right-clicking anywhere on the wallpaper and moving the mouse cursor to 'Applications'.

The synapse Launcher Window
At the other end of the bottom panel, Makulu has the synapse launcher. This is another change for Makulu, previous releases have generally used slingscold for this. The release notes say that synapse was used because there are some issues with slingscold on Ubuntu-based systems. I have never seen synapse before, but I liked it immediately, and it took me no time at all to get used to it. I never really took to slingscold, even though I liked the concept. It just seemed to take a bit too much getting used to, and I never quite got over the hump with it.

The functionality of synapse is really pretty impressive. The default search for whatever is entered is 'All', but you can limit the scope of the search by using the left/right arrow keys (or the mouse) to select Applications, Documents, Images, Video, Audio, Internet... you get the idea. If you select a file, document or whatever, it will be opened with whatever the associated editor/player for that file type.

In addition to the 'Type to search...' function, you can just hit the down-arrow key and synapse will show a drop-down list of recent activity. The scope selection also works for this list, so if you have it on 'All' it displays everything, or you can limit it to recent video or audio.

The Docky Shortcut Bar
The docky shortcut bar is included, although it is disabled by default. There is a menu item to enable it (it is initially in the Favorites menu), if you like the Mac-style shortcut/favorite/launcher bar. When active it is added at the top of the screen, and it auto-hides when something else is active on the screen.

I'm not much of a fan of this kind of shortcut bar (I've never been a Mac user... although I looked at and liked the Lisa in its day). But I will say that it seems to work very well and it is well integrated with the Makulu Xfce desktop. The animations and effects were smooth on all of the systems that I have tried so far. It sort of seems like having docky, synapse, Whisker, and the Xfce menus all together might be a bit of overkill, but system performance is still good, and the Makulu attitude is pretty much 'why not?', so if you feel like it, go for it!

Compiz Wobbly Window
Compiz is also included in this release, along with a simple menu item to enable and disable it. I tried enabling it on my puny little Samsung N150+, which has an Atom N450 CPU and integrated Intel graphic controller, and I found that features like 'wobbly windows' worked very nicely. I had expected it to bring this little system to its knees, but that just didn't happen.

You don't get only wobbly windows with Compiz, of course. The desktop cube effect for workspace switching is enabled, and that also works just fine on the N150+. The Makulu Release Notes also mention other Compiz effects, including reflections, window previews, and such. Zowie, good stuff!

One last thing about cosmetics, before I move on to other areas. The variety wallpaper changer is included and active by default. This is quite nice, but it will drive you crazy if you aren't aware of it, and you try to manage the wallpaper the old way, via the Xfce Desktop Settings utility. There is a 'variety preferences' item in the menus, so if you want to manage your own wallpaper you can disable variety, or you can change the image source directory, the time interval for wallpaper changes, and even configure it to download new wallpapers periodically.

OK, enough about the presentation, let's take a look at the contents. As has been the case in previous Makulu releases, this version includes the WPS Office Suite (aka Kingsoft Office). I don't want to get into a long discussion of the pros and cons of this choice, I will simply say that if you aren't happy with WPS, or you absolutely must have LibreOffice for whatever reason, all you have to do is go to the Software Center (or Synaptic, they are both installed) and install LibreOffice. I just did that. It took less than five minutes to download and install, LibreOffice was automatically added to the Office group in the Whisker menus, and of course is listed in synapse searches.

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A couple of choices which are not all that common among other Linux distributions, but which are likely to make a lot of people happy - both Wine and Steam are in the base distribution.

There are a couple of omissions which are likely to surprise a lot of people. There is no photo management application included (Shotwell, F-Stop and various others are listed in the Software Center). GIMP is not installed (but of course is also in the Software Center). The only video player included is 'videos' (aka totem), where I would have included VLC. I suppose that what all of these have in common is that this is an Xfce distribution, it is supposed to be slimmed-down, so smaller/lighter/faster alternatives have been chosen when they are available. Fair enough.

Finally, just a few numbers and comments about some parts of the core of the distribution. As you would expect from it being based on Ubuntu 14.04, the Linux kernel is version 3.13.0 and the X.org server is version 1.15.1. While these are not the latest versions available, when you choose to base on an Ubuntu LTS release, you are choosing stability over currency. But it is important to remember that Ubuntu includes a lot of back-ports of the latest drivers and hardware support.

The Xfce desktop is a mix of version 4.10 (the latest stable release) and 4.11 (the current development release). That is pretty much the latest version(s) available, as Xfce 4.12 development is still grinding along, setting all sorts of new records for the length of development cycle of open source software.

OK, that pretty much wraps it up for this release. In summary I would say just about the same thing I have said about other Makulu releases. It is the most graphically beautiful Linux distribution I have ever seen. The care and attention to detail in the selection and integration of themes, wallpapers, icons, and desktop layout goes far beyond impressive. Honestly, this distribution is worth looking at just for that.

It has the most eclectic selection of applications and packages I have ever seen as well. For example, I don't know of any other distribution that includes four different menu/launcher packages in the base distribution (Xfce menus, Whisker Menus, Docky, and Synapse). It includes Compiz, along with a menu selection to enable/disable it. It includes Wine and Steam, neither of which are common in general-purpose Linux distributions. But it is not the kind of over-the-top, throw absolutely everything you can think of into it distribution that some of the previous Makulu releases have been.

I have found just two significant limitations/surprises to keep in mind. First, I was not able to make a bootable USB stick so you will have to plan on burning it to a DVD. Second, there is no UEFI support, so if you have a UEFI-firmware computer, you'll have to install it in Legacy Boot mode. If you can get past those two points, then I strongly recommend giving this Makulu Linux release a try. At least boot up the Live image and see for yourself how it looks, and how it works on your system.

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