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Innovation

Mabox Linux is a throwback to old-school Linux with a new-school look and feel

If you're looking for an Arch-based Linux distribution that is easy to install and offers a different UI than the tried and true GNOME, KDE, or Xfce, Mabox Linux might be just what you want.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer on
Reviewed by Alyson Windsor
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Image: Getty Images/Maria Korneeva

I've run the gamut of Linux distributions, from the incredibly simple to the overly complex, from modern interfaces to old-school throwbacks. 

I've used Fvwm95, CDE, KDE, Xfce, AfterStep, Blackbox, Enlightenment, Cinnamon, Mate, GNOME, and nearly every desktop that has ever been available to Linux. I've also used Ubuntu-based, Fedora-based, Arch-based, and just about any distribution based on nearly any other distribution. The combinations have been staggering over the years. Needless to say, I've experienced it all since I started using Linux in 1997.

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Because of using so many Linux distributions over the years, very little surprises me these days. But when I spun up a virtual instance of Mabox Linux, I couldn't help but smile. Why? Because it reminded me of my early days using Linux, only with a bit of a modern, user-centric twist. 

You see, back in the early days, Linux wasn't so user-friendly. Quite the opposite in fact. Linux was hard in its infancy. So, when I see a Linux distribution that reminds me of those days but manages to make it easy on users without years of experience under their belts, it reminds me how far the open-source operating system has come.

Such is the case with Mabox Linux.

Now, I wouldn't suggest just anyone downloading and using Mabox Linux. It's not that Mabox doesn't make Arch Linux easy…it does. But when you first log into the desktop, you are greeted with something most hard-core Linux users love to see but can be a real put-off to new users. I'm talking about information…and lots of it. 

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You see, Mabox Linux places four information-centric widgets front and center on the desktop, so you can get an at-a-glance look at how the OS is using your system resources and even two widgets that give you keyboard shortcuts for things like opening various apps, menus, and even window management controls. 

The default Mabox Linux desktop.

Mabox Linux gives you plenty of information right on the desktop.

Image: Jack Wallen

Also on the OpenBox Window Manager desktop, you'll find a single top panel that gives you quick access to all your installed apps, the Mabox Colorizer (more on this in a bit), and a system tray with plenty of controls.

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Click on the OpenBox Menu and you'll see all of the installed applications. Missing from that menu is an Office or Productivity entry. Poke around and you'll see there is no office suite or email client installed. Fortunately, those apps are easily added with the help of the Add/Remove Software GUI tool. Do a quick search for LibreOffice and install it with a couple of clicks.

The default Mabox desktop menu.

Missing from the OpenBox menu is an office or productivity menu entry.

Image: Jack Wallen

Installation and performance

Like most Arch Linux spinoffs, Mabox Linux makes the installation a snap with a total point-and-click affair. There's even a point during the installation where you can choose between open-source or proprietary video drivers. 

The installation of Mabox Linux is as easy as any Linux distribution you've ever tried, which says a lot, given how simple modern Linux is to get up and running. Once you have the distribution installed, the big surprise comes by way of performance. Mabox Linux is amazingly fast…like faster than most distributions I've used. A big part of that is due to the OpenBox Window Manager, which is very lightweight. Compared to my regular GNOME-based Linux desktop, Mabox is like driving a Lamborgini instead of a Prius. The difference is that obvious. 

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The OpenBox Window Manager might be light in weight but not in customization. As I mentioned earlier, there's the Mabox Colorizer. Open the Colorizer from the top bar and you can easily customize the color of your Mabox desktop, including the theme, side panels, Conky (which creates the desktop widgets), wallpaper, Tint2 Panel, and even the terminal theme. From the Colorizer, if you open the OBTheme Menu, a sidebar will appear, where you can get even more granular with your theme customizations.

The Mabox Linux Colorizer.

Theming Mabox Linux offers plenty of options via the Colorizer.

Image: Jack Wallen

Who is Mabox best for?

I'm not about to say that Mabox can be used by anyone. Although I'm confident that anyone could use this Linux distribution, once you start digging into the customizations it's probably best to have a bit more experience tweaking a Linux desktop. Overall, however, if you've been itching to try an Arch Linux distribution and want something outside of the usual GNOME/KDE/Xfce desktop environments, Mabox Linux is an outstanding option that's easy to use and lightning fast.

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