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Hands-On: Zorin OS 8 Linux

This is the distribution that is touted as the "easiest" transition from Windows to Linux, so how does it stack up?
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Topic: Linux
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1 of 6 J.A. Watson/ZDNet

Zorin Desktop

I've had several comments recently asking or recommending that I look at Zorin OS. Whenever this distribution is mentioned, it is invariably said to be the easiest/best migration path for Windows users to change to Linux.

To be honest, I haven't given it much serious consideration because I thought of it as YAUD (Yet Another Ubuntu Derivative), and there are plenty of those around. A lot of them are good, solid Linux distributions, and they work very well for their users, but there is generally not enough that is different about any of them to really catch my interest.

But Zorin 8 was released a few weeks ago, and I've gotten even more suggestions about checking it out, so I decided to give the new release a try.

There are several choices which have to be made when getting Zorin OS.  You see the first when you click 'Get It' on their web page — there is a free and a 'premium' version. If you choose the premium version you get Zorin OS 8 Ultimate, which includes preloaded applications and utilities for multimedia, gaming, business and such.

Of course, as this is Linux you could start with the free version and add the extras yourself, but there are a number of good reasons to get a pre-packaged and tested version, and besides giving financial support to any Linux distribution is a good thing. The "minimum donation" for the premium version is €9.99 if you want to download it, or €14.99 (plus €3 shipping) for physical media.

The Get It premium page also contains a very good piece of advice — before purchasing the premium version, at least download and boot the free Live version, to make sure that it works on your computer and supports all of the hardware.

If you choose the free version, you will then be offered a choice between the latest release (currently Zorin OS 8.1), which is based on Ubuntu 13.10, or the current Long Term Support (LTS) release (Zorin OS 6.4), which is based on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS.  Furthermore, both the current and LTS releases have three versions: Core, Educational and Gaming. That's quite a variety of versions to choose from — and there might even be a "Lite" version coming with LXDE!

Anyway, I've looked around for a clear list of the differences between the Core, Educational and Gaming versions, but I haven't found anything so I chose to download the Core version.

The Core ISO file is about 1.75GB, so it obviously won't fit on a CD. I guess we should have given up expecting that quite some time ago now, and just note the few exceptional cases where there is a download that would fit on a CD. Anyway, the download page notes that you can either burn this image to a DVD, or create a bootable Live USB stick using our old friend unetbootin. I took the latter route, and it booted to a nice looking Linux desktop with an "Install Zorin 8" icon on it.

Unfortunately there is no UEFI support in these Live images, so if you have a computer with UEFI firmware, you would have to either use Legacy Boot, if it is available, or install some other boot manager such as rEFInd. I am nowhere near that determined to get Zorin running, so I just dragged out my old Fujitsu Lifebook S6510 and booted it on that.

Zorin uses the Ubuntu installer (ubiquity), rebranded with Zorin graphics and messages. I won't spend a lot of time going through that in detail, it has been described many times and in many places. I will, however, pass along the biggest and most important piece of advice that I have about installing Zorin at this point (here comes the rant).

When you get to "Who are You", where you create your user account, you should select the "Log in Automatically" box. This is something that I never do, and I never recommend, but I am making an exception here. Why? Because if you don't, then when you reboot after installing you will get a login screen, with "Guest Session" as the default account.

You can then login with any password you like, or no password at all, and you will be in a special temporary restricted account. You can run user programs — browsers, office and such - but you can't do anything administrative to the system. You can't enter a wi-fi password to connect to a wireless network, for example.

You can't sudo to get around these restrictions, and you can't even su to whatever user account you created during the installation. What you can do, I can tell you from experience, is get more and more frustrated and angry as you try to understand what is going on, until you are ready to throw the computer down on the floor and stomp on it, or play it a little safer and just fire the Zorin OS USB stick out the window into the cow pasture.

If you find yourself in this situation, the correct thing to do is logout, and then on the login screen click where it says "Guest Session", and the user name you created during installation will "magically" appear above the login prompt.  You're still not home and dry, though, because you then have to click on your name, and that will change the login prompt to your account, and you can login.

Okay, who thought this was a good idea, and why? This is supposed to be an "easy transition from Windows" kind of a system. Does Windows contain this bizarre behaviour, and I'm just not aware of it? I've certainly never seen it before.

Does it seem natural, obvious or intuitive to anyone? If it didn't come from Windows, then where did it come from? Zorin is derived from Ubuntu, did it come from there? I install every new release of Ubuntu, and login at least once, and I follow exactly the procedure that I used here, and I've never seen Ubuntu do this either.

This is without a doubt one of the most obnoxious things I have ever seen a Linux distribution do, and I just can't make any sense of it.  If someone would like to enlighten me about it in the comments, I would really appreciate it.

If you take my advice above and set "Log in Automatically", then when you reboot after the installation is complete you will be logged into whatever account you created. That makes perfect sense to me — I don't particularly like it from a security viewpoint, but it certainly makes more sense than presenting you with an intentionally misleading login screen.

Unfortunately, if you happen to logout you will then still be presented with the "Guest Session" default login.  If that happens, go back to the beginning of my rant and read it all again.

Here is the most important question of all.  Why is there no mention of this in the Release Notes or the Installation Guide (such as it is)? Would that be too much to ask?

Maybe I am just as thick as a brick, but I don't seem to be the only person who has run into this, once you start looking around you can find comments on the release announcement and in the Zorin User Forums from people who have had it too. Of course, it is one of those things that once you figure it out it's obvious, and you probably never think about it again.

But until you figure it out, it's maddening — and if the objective is to make a Linux distribution which provides an "easy" transition for Windows users, I would suggest that avoiding or at least clearly documenting things like this should be a top priority.  But maybe that's just me...

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2 of 6 J.A. Watson/ZDNet

XP Look

One of the best features about Zorin OS is that you can change the look of the desktop. The default is "Windows 7", shown on the previous page. Shown above is the "Windows XP" look. When you switch between these two, the first thing you notice is that the bottom panel changes, both in layout and content.

The "Quick Launch" application area disappears from the left side of the panel, and when you click on the "Zorin Menu" (at the left end of the bottom panel, where the Windows "Start" button is by default) you see that the layout and content of the menu has changed.

This menu is vaguely reminiscent of the Windows XP Start menu, but it is far from identical to it. Maybe I sound like I am splitting hairs here, but considering the way Zorin is promoted, I feel like it should be a lot closer being identical to Windows XP (and/or 7). However, if you will forgive them the variance, this is a very nifty feature, and it certainly does work very well.

If you hover the cursor on "All Applications", it will pop up a new window with the Application/Category menus.  Again, not quite the way XP did it, but probably close enough that a user would recognise it.

There you can navigate through the menu hierarchy to find whatever program or application you might want. One thing I haven't figured out how to do yet is add more items to the static (left) portion of the Zorin menu.

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3 of 6 J.A. Watson/ZDNet

Gnome Look

The third option in the Zorin Look Changer is Gnome 2, shown above. It has top and bottom panels, with 'Applications' and 'Places' menus and various icons on the top panel, and a task bar and desktop selection on the bottom panel.

Those who are used to Gnome 2 (or MATE) should be comfortable with this desktop, although they might be surprised and disappointed (as I was) to find that you can't right-click the panels to change Preferences. Perhaps this is possible in some other way or some other place. Perhaps not...

This is the last of the Zorin "Looks", there is no Windows 8 (thank God for that). However, if you right-click on the Zorin Menu button in the panel, and then choose 'Preferences' you will find a list of other menu styles and icons. Some of these are pretty nice, so take a look if this kind of thing interests you.

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4 of 6 J.A. Watson/ZDNet

Browser Menu

Another nice feature of the Zorin OS is the Web Browser Manager'(found on the 'Internet' menu). The Zorin Core distribution comes with Chrome installed. This utility lets you install (or uninstall) Firefox, Opera or Midori as well.

When you select one to be installed it actually goes through the package manager to download and install it, and it will then be added to the Internet menu and will show up as being installed in the Software Centre or Synaptic.

Interestingly, when I installed Firefox this way, after the installation was complete I suddenly got a notification that there were a lot of updates available. Apparently the installation process had set up the software sources and refreshed the cache.

By the way, I am pleased that Zorin OS still includes the Synaptic Package Manager in addition to the Software Centre. I still prefer to use Synaptic, so I was disappointed when it was dropped from Ubuntu. Yes, I know that I can still put it back there myself, but that's just one more step, so I'm happier this way. Humour me.

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5 of 6 J.A. Watson/ZDNet

Applications

The Zorin OS 8.1 Core distribution, with the latest updates installed, includes:

The Core distribution includes a good selection of application software and utilities:

  • Google Chrome 33.0
  • Mozilla Thunderbird 24.4
  • GIMP 2.8.6
  • Shotwell 0.15.0 (Photo Manager)
  • ImageMagick 6.7.7
  • LibreOffice 4.1.3.2
  • Noise (Music) 0.2.4
  • Videos (Totem) 3.8.2
  • OpenShot 1.4.3 (Video Editor)
  • WINE 1.6.1

Using the Zorin Web Browser Manager you can also easily install:

  • Firefox 28.0
  • Opera 12.16
  • Midori 0.4.3

Using the Software Centre or Synaptic, there are literally thousands of other packages available.

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6 of 6 J.A. Watson/ZDNet

Zorin Dark

Okay, one last screen shot and then a summary. In addition to the Zorin Look Changer mentioned previously, there is also a Zorin Theme Changer, which by default gives you a choice between 'Light' and 'Dark' themes.

The default, shown in all of the previous screen shots, is Light; the screen shot above is Dark. I suppose that there might be a way to add other themes, but I didn't notice it — there's nothing for that in the Theme Changer window, at least.

How to summarise my impression of Zorin OS? I'm afraid that what I have written until now just seems relentlessly negative, and I don't mean for it to be that way.

It seems like a good distribution, and it has some nice, novel ideas included. The different "Looks", with different menu layouts and operation and a very easy way to switch between them is nice.

The Light/Dark theme switching is also a nice touch (although the Dark theme has gray text on a black background, which is nearly unreadable on my laptop).

The Zorin Web Browser Manager is also a good idea. It is based on Ubuntu, which is a good, solid foundation, and the developers are to be commended for maintaining both a current and an LTS release, that requires a significant amount of additional work.

But something about it just doesn't sit right with me: maybe I just had the wrong expectations going in.

With all the hype about easy transition for Windows users, I was really expecting more than I got — a lot more. In my opinion (and my experience with a lot of family and friends), the biggest problem in getting ordinary users to move from Windows to Linux isn't really the desktop or user interface, it is the applications.

I don't recall that I have ever had someone tell me they couldn't/wouldn't use Linux because they couldn't figure out or deal with the desktop. It is always "I need Office", or "I need Photoshop" or whatever, any one of a long list of established Windows applications.

Now I know that there are good alternatives for pretty much all of those things on Linux, but Zorin doesn't seem to do any more than any other Linux distribution in this area — that list of applications on the previous page is similar to many other distributions.

The one thing it has preloaded which most others don't is WINE, so you could actually run most original Windows programs, but are Windows users trying to switch to Linux going to be able to figure that out?

Even if you ignore the application issue, I don't even see the Zorin OS desktops as being close enough to Windows XP or Windows 7 to make the transition https://cms.zdnet.com/story/edit/7000027587/significantly easier than with many other Linux distribution.

Well, I guess I should qualify that: compared to KDE, Xfce, MATE and even LXDM, all of which have similar kinds of "panel at the bottom, menu button at the left end, icons and such at the right" layout.

The transition to Gnome 3 or Unity might be more difficult, since the basic concepts are different, but even then, how long does it take a reasonable user to figure that part out? The ones I have watched, or helped, take about a minute to say "Oh, okay", and that's that.

Like I said, I don't want to be totally negative about Zorin OS. It looks good. It works well. It has some nice unique features. Considered on its own merits, it stacks up well against other Linux distributions. If it looks interesting to you, give it a try.

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