SolydXK hands on: Two good Linux distributions with a solid base

Two Linux distributions (Xfce and KDE), based on Debian Testing, with LMDE extras.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

I remember very well when Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) first appeared, and I thought this might be 'the one', a distribution with the excellence of Linux Mint and without the baggage of Ubuntu. 

My hopes were high, and if you go back and read some of my posts during that time it shows in the way I wrote about it. Then there were rumours that there might be a KDE version of LMDE, and I thought that would be Nirvana for sure. 

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Alas, it seemed like the real world caught up with us: the KDE version never materialised, and the Gnome version changed from 'rolling release' to 'Update Packs', and the interval between Update Packs sometimes seemed to stretch out forever. 

I'm sure there were a lot of people who were as disappointed as I was, and SolydXK is the result of someone who actually got up and did something about it.

The SolydX (Xfce) and SolydK (KDE) distributions are based on Debian Testing, with lots of Linux Mint goodies added in. They actually started as one users personal project in the Linux Mint forums to develop a KDE desktop for LMDE. 

It didn't take long before others in the forums were helping with the project, and when it became clear that there was not going to be an "official" LMDE KDE distribution, this became a real distribution project. It was expanded to include an Xfce version as well, and it has gotten continuously better since then. 

These days I don't really think of SolydXK as being a Linux Mint derivative, I think of it more as being a parallel distribution, coming from the same roots and sharing a lot of technology, but independent in a lot of ways. One of the most important of those is updates — see below for more detailed comments on that.

As should be obvious from the above explanation, SolydXK is actually two distributions, one using the Xfce desktop and one using the KDE desktop.

I will be looking at both of them here; for purposes of loading and evaluation I made what I think are the most obvious choices — I loaded SolydK on my Lenovo T400 notebook, which I keep on my desk with a docking station, external monitor, keyboard and mouse, and I loaded SolydX on an oldest netbook, a Samsung N150 Plus, which has a much weaker CPU, less memory, and a 10-inch display.

Neither of these choices is dictated by the distribution itself, of course, and I'm sure the reverse would work just fine in both cases (KDE on the netbook and Xfce on the notebook), but I think this more or less matches the most common use cases.

One other note about loading SolydXK and choice of systems, the current distribution does not include UEFI support, meaning that the Live Images don't have UEFI boot capability, and the installer doesn't try to install grub-efi when it is necessary.  There are ways around this, but I am not going to get distracted by that here, I will simply choose to ignore UEFI and limit this distribution to my legacy-boot systems.

Working within those considerations and limitations, the installation proceeds smoothly and works perfectly for both versions.  I am going to write a bit about the KDE version first, since that is what I am writing on now, and then I will move on to the XFCE version.

The SolydK Live image is rather large (about 1.5GB).  As with many (most?) distributions today, it can be written to a USB stick with the dd utility if you are already running Linux, or with the Win32 DSisk Imager under Windows.  Of course, you can also burn the ISO image to a writeable DVD disk if you want.

In fact, there is a very nice Tutorials page that contains videos showing how to create, install, update and use SolydXK.  The installer is a version of Mint Install (ala LMDE), and is easy to use.  Once the KDE version is installed it boots to the standard KDE desktop:

The SolydK KDE Desktop


But of course you could then go into System Settings and switch to the netbook desktop if you prefer:

The SolydK KDE Netbook Desktop

SolydXK uses the Linux Mint Update Manager, and thus has the same innocuous update notifier included in the bottom panel that you may be already familiar with from Linux Mint or Mint Debian.

It uses the same sort of Update Pack system that Mint Debian uses, so that updates can be checked before being passed along (remember, this is the Debian Testing distribution). Unlike LMDE, which seems to release Update Packs about once every blue moon, SolydXK is on a monthly update pack schedule. 

As it happens, when I sat down to write this post today, I checked for updates and the December pack had just been released. I'm not sure yet if this is always true, but I had to click Refresh in the Update Manager to get it to see that the new Update Pack was available. Once I did that, it showed the list of available updates, and when I clicked on the "Info" icon, I got this:

SolydXK Update Packs

There you can see that the previous update pack was dated 6 November, and the new one is 6 December.  As is always the case, it is important to read the release notes/announcement before installing. Click Install Updates to start the installation (duh). This pack updated the linux kernel from 3.10.11 to 3.11.2, so of course it had to be rebooted once the update pack installation was complete.

Details of the Current SolydXK Update Pack

Ok, so that's SolydK installation and updating. Before looking at the details of what packages are included, I'm going to jump to the other member of the family, then at the end I will list some of the details of both, so they can be directly compared.

The SolydX Live image is somewhat smaller (about 1.1GB), as you might expect from an Xfce based distribution.  The same comments apply here as made above about copying to USB stick or DVD. Installation is just as smooth and easy as it was for the KDE version, and when you reboot you get this:

The SolydX Desktop

That's a standard-looking Xfce desktop, with a bottom panel, only Home and File System icons on the desktop, and various icons including a Menu, Network Manager, Update Manager, Power Manager and Clock. I am quite pleased to report that SolydX includes the Whisker Menu system, which I consider to be really excellent. When you click on the Menu button at the bottom left of the screen, you get this:

The Whisker Menu

SolydX uses the same Mint Update utility as SolydK, and as expected shortly after I booted this time it informed me that there was an Update Pack available. The update process was exactly the same as it had been for SolydK.

 OK, so now that we have seen both of the desktops (well, all three if you count KDE netbook), how about a list and comparison of packages and versions included? This is where the really significant difference between the KDE and Xfce versions should show:

  SolydK SolydX
Linux Kernel 3.11.2 3.11.2
Desktop KDE 4.11.4 Xfce 4.10
X Server 1.14.3 1.14.3
Web Browser Firefox 25.0.1 Firefox 25.0.1
eMail Client Thunderbird 24.1.1 Thunderbird 24.1.1
Office LibreOffice AbiWord 2.9.2 / Gnumeric 1.12.6
PDF Viewer Okular 0.17.4 Document Viewer 3.8.3
Image Viewer Gwenview 4.11.4 Ristretto 0.6.3
Photo Management digiKam 3.5.0 Shotwell 0.14.1
Image Editor GIMP 2.8.6 GIMP 2.8.6
Audio Player Amarok 4.11.4 Exaile 3.3.2
Media Player VLC 2.1.1 VLC 2.1.1
File Manager Dolphin 4.11.4 Thunar 1.6.3

So they both use the same base and building blocks (Linux kernel and X Server, for example), and of course they each have the latest version of their respective desktops. Those desktops included different utilities, such as Dolphin and Thunar for File Management. 

Some of the most common additional packages are the same (Firefox/Thunderbird and GIMP, for example), but in some cases SolydX includes smaller/simpler/lighter alternatives. The most obvious example of this is that SolydK includes LibreOffice, which SolydX has abiword and gnumeric. 

Of course, if you need/want/prefer LibreOffice on SolydX, it takes one click of the mouse to get it installed. Then there are a number of things which are included in the KDE Software Collection but which do not have equivalents included in Xfce, so comparable packages have been installed — such as digiKam/Shotwell, Gwenview/Ristretto, and Amarok/Exaile. In almost every case, what was included in SolydX is smaller/lighter/simpler, and the cumulative result of that is the significant difference in the ISO image size noted above. 

That difference carries through, and expands, after installing the ISO image; with no additional packages installed, on my systems SolydK used just over 6GB of disk space, while SolydX used just under 4.5GB.

In summary, these are two really good distributions, sharing a common and very solid base. They deserve consideration on their own merits, but they have the additional benefit of their connections with Linux Mint.

Further reading

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