11 Mar 2012

Italian Simplicity: Semplice Linux

Just a few weeks ago, at the end of 2011, I reviewed a Linux distribution based on Ubuntu with the OpenBox window manager: SalentOS. That distribution was created by an Italian person who lives in Salento, hence the name.

I am not sure if Italians have some extreme love of OpenBox, but very soon after that, I heard about another OpenBox-based distribution from that country. This time, though, it is based on Debian. To be precise, on the unstable branch of Debian – Sid.

This distribution, Semplice Linux, was mentioned in comments to my review of Debian XFCE.

Semplice means Simple in Italian. How simple is this distribution? Is it "just another Debian spin"? Or something worth looking at? I was asking that question of myself.

The latest version of Semplice Linux is 3.0 Alpha. In addition, there is a version 2.0.1, which is called “Stable”. How stable can a distribution based on unstable Sid be? Quite a dilemma! After some thoughts, my choice was v.2.0.1, released on the 19th of January 2012.

There are ISO images for both 32- and 64-bit architectures available for downloading.

The project keeps its images on the Sourceforge.net, so you can use a well-scaled infrastructure to get your own copy of the ISO image.

The image size of Semlice Linux is only 563 Mb, which is much less than, say, Debian XFCE. You can easily burn an image of that size to CD.

In my turn, I wanted to use a Live USB. Command dd did not help me in this, that’s why Unetbootin was used for the task.

So, the Live USB is ready and plugged into the port of my Fujitsu-Siemens Amilo Pi 1505. Reboot. Choose to boot from USB. Let’s go!


Booting

Not counting the Unetbootin start menu, there was only one question asked by Semplice Linux during the boot. This question was about the keyboard layout. There was a choice between English UK, English US, Italian and some other European languages. Russian was not in the list, unfortunately. My choice was for English UK.

The boot time itself was average.

Right after the boot I wanted to see memory usage on a fresh system. That was not possible, because I found no application that would show me the memory usage. That's why I can't say how resource-hungry Semplice Linux is.
As I said above, Semplice Linux uses OpenBox as the window manager. The Linux kernel inside the OS is version 3.2.1.

Desktop

After the boot, you get into the empty screen of Semplice Linux, where the only right-bottom corner has something. This is the notification area. You can see some usual items in there: clocks, clipboard monitor, volume control, power status and network manager. There is also a Composite Desktop icon, which is unusual for most distributions.

The default wallpaper in Semplice Linux is a simple flat deep-blue colour image without any objects on it. There are no alternatives in the default distribution, so if you want to spice up your desktop, you’ll need to get a picture from other resources.

There are several themes available for windows. The default one is pretty nice: SempliceDusk in deep-blue and grey colours. It is slightly depressing, perhaps, but definitely nicely designed. There are about half a dozen alternative themes, including the quite widely used Adwaita and Raleigh.

You won't notice it from the start, but there is actually a whole panel at the bottom of the screen. It is opaque, that's why it is unnoticeable before you start the first application.

This is the OpenBox window manager, so you don't have anything like the Menu button in Semplice Linux. Instead, you can right-click anywhere on the empty space of the desktop to get the system menu.

Network

I was pretty much surprised when I saw a pop-up notification right after the boot of Semplice Linux. It told me that wireless networks were available.

Why was I surprised? Because Semplice Linux is based on Debian, and I've never seen Debian with drivers for my Intel 3945 ABG network card included. Even though it is a free driver, Debian requires a separate installation of it.

The developer(s) of Semplice Linux decided to include the Intel driver in the distribution, so I am grateful.

The usage of Network Manager in Semplice Linux is slightly different from any other distribution I've seen so far. For example, Network Security is the very last tab in the configuration of the connection, whereas I used to see it in the first tab.

Anyway, it was easy to figure out the network configuration steps. The connection was established, and I was able to browse both my network and the Internet.

The menu

What is available in the menu of Semplice Linux? I should say that there are not many applications which you get from the start. Some widely used items are missing. That explains the relatively small size of the distribution.

The default and the only browser in this operating system is Chromium 16 Developer build. Other Internet tools include Claws Mail, gFTP and Pidgin. There is no default torrent client in here.

The Graphics menu in Semplice Linux only includes a simple GNU Paint editor and Mirage image viewer. There is nothing like GIMP or LibreOffice Draw. Also, the screenshot tool is not listed in Graphics, but included in another section.

AbiWord and Gnumeric from GNOME Office are in the Office section of the menu. Also, ePDFViewer is listed here.

The Multimedia tools include players Exaile and GNOME MPlayer, and also Volti and xfburn. Neither Exaile nor Volti started for me from the Semplice Linux menu. It was even more baffling when I was able to start Exaile from the command line.

The System tools include two terminals XTerm, UXterm. I am not sure why you would need both, and I have not noticed any difference between the two. Cairo Composition Manager, Program manager and a Language / Keyboard layout configuration utility are also in this section of the menu.

The Accessories menu in Semplice Linux includes a more or less standard set of tools: Disk Utility, File Manager, Guake Terminal, Mousepad editor, ROXTerminal. Again, I was disappointed that File Manager did not start for me from the menu item.

The menu itself is not impressive, although you get most of the components you may need. The applications are pretty much a mix of GNOME and XFCE-native applications. I would like to highlight few issues I noticed here:

  • Too many terminals: ROXTerm, Guake, XTerm, UXTerm - why would you need them all?
  • Quite a lot of applications did not start when I tried to run them. The most serious issue here, from my point of view, is File Manager.

Package Management

There is not much to say about the package management in Semplice Linux.

This Linux distribution uses Synaptic Package Manager, which is what you expect from a Debian-based distribution.

There are 2 repositories active in Semplice Linux by default. They are Debian unstable and Semplice Linux’s own repository.

I won't describe what is available in the repository. It makes no sense, because the whole Debian repository is just under your fingertips.

However, you would need to update the repositories before you can access some packages, like, for example, smbfs.

Keyboard and touchpad

There is a keyboard selection utility in the system menu. It calls up the same screen seen during the boot. But it only allows you to change the global language. Unfortunately, there was no graphical tool to configure the layouts. Despite this, I was able to configure my usual set of layouts, using the method from the OpenBox forum for FreeBSD. It was the command
setxkbmap -layout gb,ru -variant -option grp:alt_shift_toggle,grp_led:scroll,terminate:ctrl_alt_bksp &

Unfortunately, there were still a couple of issues:

  • I could not use Ctrl-Shift hotkey to change the layout. Only Alt-Shift worked in this method.
  • There was no indicator in the notification area.

To solve the second issue, I installed fbxkb package using the Synaptic package manager. Right after that, I was able start fbxkb from the terminal, and an applet appeared in the notification area. But still… it did not show me the UK flag, and disappeared as soon as I closed the terminal. Honestly, I did not investigate for long. I have a gut feeling that I would able to configure the indicator to work my way even in Live session, if I had little bit more patience. And, of course, it should work in installed system too.

Anyway, the general impression in this area was pretty much positive.

Unfortunately, the touchpad did not behave that well. One-finger scrolling at the touchpad edges did not work here. The default scrolling in Semplice Linux is configured for two fingers. I found neither a graphical nor a text-file option to reconfigure it. File /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/10-synaptics.conf, which is responsible for touchpad configuration in many Linux distributions, does not exist in Semplice Linux.

External partition

There is no Samba client in the default Semplice Linux distribution. When I tried to run the command sudo mount -t cifs... for the first time, it threw me an error about this.

I installed the smbfs package, and then mounting went OK.

Russian characters in filenames and folders worked fine even without iocharset=utf8 parameter in mounting command.

Multimedia

Because of the issues with File Manager in Semplice Linux, I could not navigate through my file system in Semplice Linux. Because I wanted to play music from my external partition, I had to navigate to the file there from the Exaile. And... the results were negative. The error messages were different for files with and without Russian characters in the path, but the outcome was still the same: there was no sound.

Unfortunately, very similar results were found in MPlayer.

The results were much better when I tried to reach the files on my local disk from Exaile. I was able to play MP3 and video files.

This means that Semplice Linux includes the necessary codecs for MP3 and video files, but Exaile (or OpenBox?) has issues with opening of files from a remote partition.
Semplice Linux supports Flash

Flash Player worked for me, when I tried to open my Flash test page.

YouTube also worked without any issues in the Chromium browser.

General impression

Semplice Linux is not bad. It is a decent attempt to create a Debian-based distribution with the lightweight OpenBox window manager.

It is quick, responsive and stable. At least, I saw no crashes during my Live run.

It still lacks some functionality and requires some polishing here and there.

But, generally speaking, you can start using it straight away, and make necessary adjustments later yourself, if you're an OpenBox fan.

If you're not fan of OpenBox then... why bother with Semplice Linux at all?

Have you tried Semplice Linux yourself? Or, maybe, you’re using other OpenBox-based Linux distributions? Please share your experience!

Useful links:

http://semplice-linux.org/ - Semplice Linux homepage

http://distrowatch.com/table.php?distribution=semplice – DistroWatch page of Semplice Linux

http://all-things-linux.blogspot.com/2011/12/semplice-linux-exercise-in-simplicity.html - another review

Simply Linux - Russian approach to simplifying the Linux

Video used in the screenshot

12 comments:

  1. You can almost certainly use the "free" command to determine memory usage. I would be absolutely shocked if it didn't include "free" or "top" on the live image.

    Any Debian based openbox distro warrants comparison with Crunchbang Linux.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am still little bit scared to review the Crunchbag. But the time will come.

      Delete
  2. Thanks for your review! I'm a developer of Semplice.

    I'm not at home and I'm reading this review from my mobile phone, so sorry if I do not cover everything.

    1) There is a "Custom" field where you can specify your locale.
    2) To get the File Manager, use the Places menu.
    3) To see memory informations, simply read /proc/meminfo.

    Eugenio

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Eugenio,
      2) it would be still nice to have standalone item for file manager, wouldn't it?
      3) I will try.

      Delete
    2. 2) Maybe yes, maybe no. I think I discovered where the problem is. The file manager (pcmanfm) is started as a daemon by our startup scripts. When you launch the file manager, you will get no response as the file manager is launched without any path specified.

      Sometimes the file manager crashes and when you select the File Manager item in the menu you get correctly the file manager, which is started as a foreground application.

      Yes, this means that it's better when it doesn't not open from the menu item than it does.

      Unfortunately, It's not our problem, but debian's one. This is usually fixed with some updates but if not I will issue for sure an update into our repositories.

      Eugenio

      Delete
    3. 3) I tried to look at /proc/meminfo. It is too difficult to understand which value is for actual memory usage. There are too many lines to analyze. It would be much easier if there was some kind of task manager which shows the memory usage.

      Delete
  3. Ok, I'm at home now so I can cover a bit better this review.

    4) "The Multimedia tools include players Exaile and GNOME MPlayer, and also Volti and xfburn. Neither Exaile nor Volti started for me from the Semplice Linux menu. It was even more baffling when I was able to start Exaile from the command line. "

    Exaile should start from the menu, so you're right here.
    Volti is the volume icon that you find in the tray, which is already started.

    5) "However, you would need to update the repositories before you can access some packages, like, for example, smbfs. "

    That's because sid changes faster than many other distributions, and smbfs was updated after the semplice 2.0.1 release.

    6) "There is a keyboard selection utility in the system menu. It calls up the same screen seen during the boot. But it only allows you to change the global language."

    There is a "Keyboard Layout" drop-down menu on the utility.

    7) "Unfortunately, the touchpad did not behave that well. One-finger scrolling at the touchpad edges did not work here. The default scrolling in Semplice Linux is configured for two fingers. I found neither a graphical nor a text-file option to reconfigure it. File /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/10-synaptics.conf, which is responsible for touchpad configuration in many Linux distributions, does not exist in Semplice Linux. "

    Try installing gpointing-device-settings and configuring it.

    8) "Because of the issues with File Manager in Semplice Linux, I could not navigate through my file system in Semplice Linux. Because I wanted to play music from my external partition, I had to navigate to the file there from the Exaile. And... the results were negative. The error messages were different for files with and without Russian characters in the path, but the outcome was still the same: there was no sound. "

    The File Manager (as written above) is available into the Places menu.
    For Exaile and remove paths I do not know... try mounting the remote partition from the file manager (Go -> Network and then select your remote path).

    Ensure that you have the latest updates installed, many problems that an user can encounter on semplice are made by the natural evolution of sid and fixed in a few days by the debian maintainers! ;)

    Eugenio

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 5 - it's not a bug. Only a note to people who might want to install something on their systems.

      6 - yes, but you can only select one layout at a time there, whereas I usually use 2 layouts (English UK + Russian) and switch between them with Ctrl-Shift hotkey. It is diffcult to understand for people who only use Latin characters in theor writing, but Russian and English have different letters: Cyrillic vs Latin. Therefore, it is impossible to get them in the same layout. All major distributions have the ability to configure the keyboard the necessary way. The only exception I've found so far was OpenSuSE GNOME.

      7, 8 - I'll try, together with p.3. It'll be not earlier than Thursday, I am afraid.

      I can't follow your advice about latest updates, because I usually review the Live systems.

      Delete
    2. 7 - it worked! Thanks!
      8 - the file manager showed me my folders on external network drive, but click on them returned an error "Failed to retrieve share list from server". I think this is a common issue, because I've seen the same message before. But it would be nice if smb fixed it.

      Delete
    3. 6 - Ok, guess I will add something to configure more layouts into the keyboard selection application
      8 - Ensure you have samba (not only smbfs) installed.

      Eugenio

      Delete
  4. I really like Semplice Linux.
    It's simple and exacly fits my expectations.
    Even 3.0Alpha works quite well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's good. I hope you will enjoy it for long!

      Delete