Hands-on with Makulu Linux 5 Xfce: The most fun you can have with Linux?

My first look at this wonderful Debian Testing/Unstable (Jessie/Sid) derivative reminds me of how much fun there can be in Linux.
Topic: Linux
1 of 21 J.A. Watson/ZDNet

Makulu Xfce

I'm going to start by getting right to the point with two very simple, and very clear, statements.

One: this is not a distribution for beginners; such users would be very likely to be traumatised by exposure to Makulu. Two: I love this distribution.

Makulu is so much fun I'm going to have a hard time conveying the feeling. I'm pretty sure there are places where it's illegal to have this much fun.

Next, I want to explain the format of this post because it's going to be different than anything I've done before. While it is a gallery post, with a series of screenshots and text, the meat of the post will be in first few pages. So if you don't like galleries, you will get all of the important information up front. All of the following screenshots and descriptions just fill in some details as described below.

Okay, now on to the good stuff...

I noticed the release announcement for Makulu Linux 5 on distrowatch a while back, and something about it piqued my curiosity. Now I have had a chance to load it (on the same Lifebook S6510 that I just loaded Zorin OS on) and try it out for a few days, and I have to say that I just love it. It's good. It's fast. It's stable. It's loaded with lots of goodies. It's fun!

Makulu Linux is derived primarily from Debian Testing (Jessie), but with a fair number of packages from Debian Unstable (Sid) included, and a very substantial amount of hard work to put it all together.

The release notes for MakuluLinux 5 Xfce give a good overview of the release. The ISO image is on their download page, and can be burned to a DVD or copied to a USB stick using unetbootin. There is only a 32-bit (PAE) version, and at the moment for the Makulu 5 release there is only an Xfce desktop version.

But with previous releases there were also KDE and Enlightenment versions, so I assume they will come along for this new release as well, and I just read a note on the web page that said they are also working on a MATE version.

The first hint at what Makulu Linux is going to be like comes when you boot the Live image. It doesn't boot directly to the desktop — you have to login — and there is a very colourful and cute wallpaper on the login screen (it is the thumbnail for this post).

Once you get logged in, the wallpaper is gorgeous too. Colourful, comfortable, relaxing — but still very functional, with a desktop icon for the Live Installer, and a bottom panel with a good selection of menus, controls, icons, launcher, and once again, lovely graphics (this is the desktop shown on this page).

A bit of poking around reveals that it is indeed Xfce, with the Whisker menu on the left end of the panel and the Slingscold Launcher at the right end. Browsing through either the Whisker menus or the Launcher gives a further hint of what Makulu Linux is about. There is an insane amount of stuff here, probably more than I have ever seen in the Live image of a Linux distribution.

Then I ran the Makulu Live Installer. Oh My God. I have been using Linux for a very long time, and I used Unix for a much longer time before that.

I don't think I have ever seen a more intimidating program that this — and I mean intimidating to me! I have this mental image of some "less experienced" Linux user, perhaps someone who has previously installed Ubuntu, or Mint, or maybe openSuSE, so they think they are Linux "experts" now... and they are slowly reduced to a quivering, blubbering pile of flesh by this installer.

It's sort of like taking the Debian installer (which I was mildly complaining about recently, and I now take all of that back), and updating it to a real graphical interface, but at the same time adding every possible question you can think of, with every possible variation.  

I mean, this thing was asking questions that even I had to stop and think about to be sure what it was asking, why it was asking that and what it was going to do with the answer. Oh, and each question gets its own (new) window, which disappears after you answer that question and another new window pops up for the next question. That in itself gives a feeling of a lack of continuity.

The last 18 screenshots in this gallery document my walk though the Makulu installer and my thoughts and comments on them, so if you are interested, or you think that I might be exaggerating just flip through those before you make up your mind.

But then the installation was complete, and I started using it. And I smiled. And the more I used it, the more I smiled. It got to the point where my partner even noticed, and she said: "Whatever that is, it must be really good because I haven't seen you having this much fun in a long time."

So here's the summary. Makulu Linux is the distribution a lot of us think we would like to create, if we had the time, energy and especially the talent to do it. I don't know anyone in the development team, so this is all speculation on my part, but I would say that it is a group of people who just don't know when to stop — and I mean that as a compliment, and a very good thing.  

They're not satisfied with "enough", they want more! They aren't dissuaded by "accepted limits" or bounded by other's expectations. They do things because they can, because it's cool and it's fun and the response to "Why do that" is "Why not?".

Here's some examples:

  • I mentioned above, at the left end of the Xfce bottom panel is the Whisker menu. At the right end is a very nice Launcher. Why have both, when either one of them is considered sufficient by pretty much any other distribution? Well, why not?
  • Compiz is included, with all sorts of visual effects enabled. Wobbly windows. Window open/close effects, transparent/translucent windows, whatever. Why not?
  • Outrageously colourful and graphically beautiful wallpapers, icons and such
  • Xfce 4.10 (comes with Debian Jessie)
  • Slingscold Launcher
  • Compiz and Emerald Theme Manager
  • Variety wallpaper changer
  • jockey device/driver manager
  • mintUpdate, mintBackup, mintInstall
  • Chromium AND Iceweasel web browsers
  • Thunderbird mail/news client
  • Kingsoft Office AND LibreOffice (after updating)
  • MyPaint, Pinta and ImageMagick graphic utilities
  • Audacious music player
  • VLC, Minitube and Flash video players
  • Pitivi and HandBrake video editor and converter
  • WINE (Windows)
  • STEAM (gaming)
  • Way more than I can think of to write here...

The overall effect of this abundance is that I find myself saying "wow, look at this" again and again.

The Xfce distribution image includes Linux kernel 3.12.9, but installing the latest upgrades brings that up to 3.13.5. That's a very good, very current kernel. Speaking of updates, I got them via the Synaptic Package Manager, my preferred tool, but Makulu also includes mintUpdate (and various other of the excellent mint utilities), so I suppose that I could have gotten the updates that way.

After the updates were installed, there were four new icons on the desktop. I mention them here because I think they are indicative of what I consider to be the single biggest strength of Makulu — the passion and dedication of the developer and the team behind him:

  • Introduction.mp4 — video overview and features
  • Important Please Read.wps —description of known bugs and fixes in this release
  • Makulu News.pdf — News and info about the next release development
  • Makulu Linux Survey — To give user input for the development of the next release

Oh, and while I'm on the subject of updates, here's a weird one. The base installation had only the Kingsoft Office Suite in the Office category. But after I installed all of the outstanding updates, it had also picked up LibreOffice (4.1.5). I didn't ask for it, and I certainly didn't go through Synaptic or the Software Centre to get it, so I guess it was picked up as a dependency of something else that was updated. Maybe the developers just got so much pressure about not including LibreOffice that they decided to add it, I don't know.

I was so impressed with Makulu Linux on my old Lifebook S6510 (Intel Core2 Duo) that I went up and installed it on the Lenovo T400 on my desk. 

I can't say that the installer was any less intimidating, irritating or tedious the second time around, but I got through it, and it works perfectly on that system as well. It didn't configure the dual displays automatically, but I was able to do that either using the Display GUI utility or the xrandr CLI utility.

I worked with Makulu on the T400 for a while, first checking the hardware support (I didn't find anything that wasn't working) and then trying a bit more of the software that is included in the Makulu base distribution. Everything looked good.

Finally, I decided to give it a shot on my Samsung N150 Plus netbook. Surely a little, old, underpowered (Intel Atom N450) netbook like this couldn't run a massive, complex distribution like this, could it? Yes, it could. Installation was the same (painful) but of course a lot slower, and when it was finished, everything worked. Didn't just work, but was nice, pleasant to use, reasonably fast response times, overall quite normal and quite acceptable.

I'm going to present a couple more screen shots in the next few pages, but I will include the summary here. Makulu Linux is an amazing distribution. Its weakest point is the installer, because it is such a complicated, tedious pain in the rear. But you only have to deal with that once, and then it's out of the way.

Beyond that it is probably the most complete (and most complicated) distribution I have ever seen. I think that is its biggest advantage, and its biggest problem. If you are interested in Linux, and you want a distribution with everything included so you don't have to add a bunch of packages yourself, then Makulu Linux is an excellent choice.

I am certainly going to keep it on the three systems I have already loaded, and if it had UEFI support I would almost certainly put it on the others as well.

But having that much stuff in it makes it big (it uses 6.8G of disk space after the latest updates have been installed, and I swear I haven't added a single package to it myself), and complicated. There are interactions and dependencies that I don't understand, and bits and pieces all around which I don't know where they came from. I fear that a Linux novice might disappear into this thing and never be heard from again.

One of the things I frequently do is set up Linux systems (or multi-boot systems) for family, friends and neighbours to use. I don't think I would use Makulu Linux for such a system, because there are just far too many places where things could go wrong, and I wouldn't want the support burden.

But as I said at the beginning, for my own purposes, for exploring and learning and seeing things that I haven't had the time to install myself, or often that I didn't even know existed, I absolutely LOVE this distribution. I think it is wonderful, and the people who produce it are heroes in my eyes.

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Whisker Menu

This screen shot shows the Xfce Whisker Menu. Note the very coloful and expressive icons on the menu, desktop and panel. The clock/calendar and Quotes on the desktop are managed by the Variety wallpaper changer.

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This is the Slingscold Launcher — it is intended to look like the Launchpad launcher on MacOS X. Again, notice the stylish and colorful icons.

This is the last of the Live/Installed screenshots. The following 18 pages document my walk through the Makulu installer. If that doesn't interest you, now is the time to leave.

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This is the initial screen of the Installer sequence. You would do well to heed the advice about consulting the User Guide shown on the desktop if you are unsure about anything.

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Ok, here we go — and here's your first taste of what this installation procedure is going to be like. Select your time zone. Well, not exactly; in this window you only select the Geographic Area of your time zone, then you have to click "Forward", and this window will disappear.

One thing that is useful to notice here. Hover the cursor over the selection field, and you will get a pop-up that at least tries to explain what the selection is about. Sometimes the explanation is pretty good. Other times it just seems to add to the confusion.

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Here you actually get to select your specific time zone, or the major city closest to where you are located that is in the same timezone you are. If the city happens to start with a "Z" (such as Zürich), that involves a good bit of scrolling... (I wish some people would figure out that Bern is the capital of Switzerland, because it starts with "B").

Well, at least this is still pretty straight-forward, and other than being split into two separate windows it is the same as you have to do for most other Linux installers, and identical to what you have to do in the Debian installer.

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Select the locale(s) you want installed. I suspect this will be confusing to a lot of people, especially when they see that the only one pre-selected is en_ZA. Do you really need to select the "right" value here? Maybe it's better, or at least good enough, to just leave it alone? Or maybe Select All? What is the difference between UTF-8 and ISO8859? Uh-oh, this is starting to get scary...

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Default Locale

Now you have to set the "Default Locale". Whatever that means, or might be used for; and if in the previous window you checked something nice and logical like 'en_US' but you didn't un-check 'en_ZA', well then the default is still 'en_ZA'.  

But guess what? If you were clever enough to un-check 'en_ZA', because you knew or figured out that it refers to South Africa and you aren't there, then you are left with no default, rather than it picking up whatever you checked. So you still need to set that as the default. I suspect that "None" would be okay here, and would get what we used to call the "C" locale or some such (is it still called that?), but I'm not sure.

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Select the physical style of the keyboard. The good news: the default it offers seems likely to be correct, at least it knew to offer me 105-key International. The bad news: how many people actually know for sure what the correct selection is here, and what are the consequences of getting it wrong?

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Keyboard Layout

Select the keyboard layout (language). If it is anything other than English, you have to go first to 'Other' and click 'Forward', then select the correct layout from the much longer list. But by this time you are probably getting so paranoid that you wonder if clicking Forward will just leave the keyboard set as Other. In fact, for me this was a three-step selection: Other / Forward / German (Switzerland) / Forward / German (Switzerland).

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Keyboard configuration

Configuring Keyboard Configuration: it's the Department of Redundancy Department.  

Three things to select here, concerning specific keyboard functions. In this screen the pop-up help/explanations can be particularly useful — or particularly confusing, if you still don't get the basic concepts of an AltGr key, or a Compose key, or the whole idea of "restarting the X server", much less what key combination you might want to do that with. My head is starting to hurt.

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Installation Tasks

This is basically a "task selector", or a sort of "dispatcher" if you want to think of it that way. What has come before this has to be done for every installation, but what comes after this is all "optional" at least in so far as you can let the installer do what it wants to by default, and you will end up with an installed system.

But my goodness, look at that list of tasks, and think about what they mean. The really bad news here is that the pop-up help windows are nothing more than a repetition of the items in the list.

Even the obvious ones are not really so obvious. The first one, "Change user name". Change it from what?  If I don't change it, will I get some default name, or (God forbid) some bizarre limited Guest account like I had to fight with on Zorin OS, or will there be no "ordinary" (non-root) account created at all?

Lots of other stuff. Even if you got this far without getting scared, it's probably going to get you now. Here's a hint. For my simple installations, I choose:

  • Change user name (if you don't, it will be makulu);
  • Use existing swap partition (because I already have a lot of other Linux installations on my disks, and I always have them share the swap partition);
  • Change hostname (if you don't, it will be makulu).
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If you need to set up your disk partitions, you can choose to do it with either 'gparted' or 'cfdisk'. If the disk is already partitioned the way you want it, you can just 'Skip this step'.

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Finally, a screen where I think I understand the options and implications. In the "normal" case, if you want to use the Linux GRUB bootloader to control the boot process, take the default MBR. If you want something else to control the boot process, either the Windows bootloader or some previously installed Linux distributions, choose 'Partition' to put GRUB in the root partition. If you don't want GRUB installed at all, take 'No Bootloader'.

If you've gotten so freaked out by this point that you're about to wet yourself, choose 'Exit'.

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GRUB Partition

Because I chose 'Partition' in the previous screen, I now have to specify which partition. As far as I know, the only partition that makes sense is the root, but this question is in other distributions as well, so maybe I'm just not thinking of something here.

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Root Partition

Here you have to select the root partition for the installation. What you can't see in this screen shot is that there is actually another window popped up with a parition list (blkid output), in case you need help remembering what partition you want to use. The bad news is, that window is underneath of this one, so you have to move/stack windows to see it. The even worse news is, it doesn't go away when you are done with this window, it stays there until you close it yourself.

It also occurs to me here that if you chose 'Partition' for the bootloader installation, then it would have been useful for the partition list to have popped up already along with the bootloader partition selection window. But it doesn't.

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Choose the filesystem type — ext2/ext3/ext4. If you know this, it's easy. If you don't know it, some help via the pop-up windows might be useful, but no such luck.

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Swap partition

This one irritated me even more than the others.

There's only one candidate (partition type Linux Swap) on my system, and it has been found and listed in this window... but it is not selected by default? And if I don't select it, but just hit 'OK', the installer assumes that I either don't want to use a partition but will use a swapfile instead, or I have to 'Cancel' completely out of the installer. Period. No option that says "ACK! HEY! I didn't realize that you weren't taking the only choice available in the previous screen! Let me go back and fix that! Please? Pretty Please?

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Finally, another nice, simple, clear, easy one. Well, except for the fact that certain characters aren't allowed in a hostname, but at least it will tell you if you have used an illegal character.

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This is a summary of what you have chosen, how the installer has interpreted that, and what actions it will take to perform the installation. This is your last chance to bail out (Exit).  

If you click Proceed with the Installation, it will perform the specified tasks, and after restoring the base distribution to the specified partition, it will prompt you to change the root password, and the user name and password if you checked the task to do that.  

This is my last little complaint about the installer, I don't like programs that gather only part of the information, then go off and run for a while, then come back and ask for more input. Get what you need from me while you've got me on the line, and save it for later if necessary. Once the installation starts, I want to walk away and forget it, and when I come back I want it to be done. Most Linux installers have gotten this right, but this is not the only one which still does it this way.

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Hooray, the installation is complete and you can reboot to run the installed system. End of story.

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