I’m disillusioned although not dispassionate about everything that’s software; but when one sees the catastrophic crap that is Win10, whatever might be wrong in Linuxland becomes almost acceptable. Why are we still using Windows?

Five weeks ago I started poking around in the quest for a keeper Linux distro. I was insisting on the fact that recent versions of ALSA and PulseAudio started to stop detecting when headphones are inserted into my fairly recent (by my standards) and decent laptop, but that fixes seem to exist. In the meantime I found a German article–Ubuntu 20.04 : Kein Sound nach Update von 19.10–where the same fix is applied with a minor modification, and that summarizes the patching succinctly this way:

sudo echo "options snd-hda-intel model=auto index=1" >> /etc/modprobe.d/alsa-base.conf
sudo echo "blacklist snd_soc_skl" >> /etc/modprobe.d/blacklist.conf

Well, the author didn’t actually try the above commands, or else he would have noticed that the effect of sudo disappears once the redirection is made through the non-privileged >>, so the correct version should be:

sudo bash -c "echo \"options snd-hda-intel model=auto index=1\" >> /etc/modprobe.d/alsa-base.conf"
sudo bash -c "echo \"blacklist snd_soc_skl\" >> /etc/modprobe.d/blacklist.conf"

Being lazy, I usually issue administrative commands in a sudo bash shell.

It’s worth noting that restarting PulseAudio (after killing it with pulseaudio -k) would fail on some distros if attempted with pulseaudio -D, but will succeed with pulseaudio --start or (even better), just use systemctl --user restart pulseaudio.

This being said, at the time I was tempted by Peppermint OS 10, a snappy distro based on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS–the then latest LTS, now obsoleted by 20.04 LTS, although still supported for enough time.

Version 11 of Peppermint OS, based on Ubuntu 20.04 LTS, is going to be ready when it’s ready, which is totally uninformative. I’d rather avoid an upgrade from 10 to 11 (i.e. from 18.04 to 20.04), and I’d also not stay with Peppermint OS 10, no matter how fast and nice, because some packages are older than in Debian stable! Too bad they don’t release Alpha or Beta versions of Peppermint OS 11, nor do they report much in their forums. I understand that their leader passed away last January, but the only way they’d show things are really moving on is communication, and this is exactly what isn’t happening these days. That’s disappointing.

One week ago, after some other comments, I added one about how Clem has deleted a comment of mine’s on his Linux Mint blog. Well, I wasn’t going to go back to Mint anyway, being it 19.3 or 20, MATE or Cinnamon, or Xfce. Clem took some questionable decisions in the past, he’s going to take some more (it’s his distro after all), and I’m quite bored with the look and feel of Mint.

In the meantime, Dedoimedo has just reviewed on July 8 Linux Mint 20 Ulyana Xfce (based on Ubuntu 20.04 LTS), to find it “Not quite there“. He’s one of the few people who test a distro “on metal” (as opposed to in a virtual machine), and this is one of the reasons I usually trust his reviews (the other one being that he has a sort of an OCD when it comes to details, and I share with him the same condition). I’m not surprised by the poor choices made by Clem, but this one is preposterous:

Mint ships with #303030 gray fonts rather than pure black, and this made me eyes water right away.

Plenty of small bugs and annoyances, final grade 6/10. OK, moving on.

Linux Lite 5.0 (also based on Ubuntu 20.04 LTS) feels much better than version 4.8 (based on 18.04 LTS and somewhat ugly): very nice looking, very friendly, and snappy.

It includes some useful tweaks:

And they had the common sense to configure the full hinting for the fonts, and without subpixel coloring (for the grace of God, I never understood why on Earth would one to smooth a black-on-white text not with shades of gray, but with colors!?):

Alas, no matter what I tried, the inserted headphones were still undetected: after pulseaudio is restarted, nothing changes, no matter how I patch it.

xfce4-pulseaudio-plugin doesn’t see the inserted headphones, and neither does pavucontrol, but if I manually change the output from speakers to headphones, the sound goes correctly to the headphones. Doing it every time I plug the headphones is a no-go for me, which disqualifies this distro for the time being.

I can confirm this another bug reported on their forums: “When you use the brightness keys, a bell is showed, instead of the usual sun.” Yeah, it displays the same notification as per changing the sound volume with the function keys.

Maybe it’s time to try something totally different for a change (no, MX Linux was not on my shortlist!). The Debian-based SolydXK 10.4 tempted me because they recommend NordVPN, and they even have their own applet for it: nordvpn-indicator. Of course, this one might work in other distros too, and similar GUIs should exist in the wild, but it’s a nice touch nonetheless.

I first tried the Xfce edition, which looks like this (screenshot stolen from Distrowatch, because I forgot to take one, but it really looks like this):

A unusual thing: their XFCE (SolydX) looks exactly like their KDE (SolydK), which means they themed XFCE to look like KDE. I tried them both and, frankly, if it has to look like Plasma, then let it be Plasma!

Their Debian stable inheritance and their subpar wallpapers are not exactly attractive (I love orange, but not the text on the wallpaper), but the distro is quite solid, even with KDE. One of their selling points is privacy: Firefox with HTTPS Everywhere, Privacy Badger, uBlock and stricter privacy settings (firefox-solydxk-adjustments).

Dedoimedo only reviewed SolydK in 2013, when KDE4 wasn’t exactly great (it’s only since Plasma 5.8 that KDE could be considered “usable again”), and yet the distro received a 9/10 grade back then. Huh.

But here’s one of the gazillion idiocies that still exist in KDE: “Executing Dolphin with sudo is not possible due to unfixable security vulnerabilities.” Dedoimedo complained about it 2 years ago. At some point, Plasma allowed again Dolphin to run as root, but apparently this is not the case anymore.

Now, in both SolydK/SolydX, alsa-base.conf already contains a line

options snd-hda-intel model=auto

but even after adding to alsa-base-blacklist.conf (note the specific blacklist file!)

blacklist snd_soc_skl

…the headphones bug was still there… up to a point. In SolydK, KDE’s Audio Volume applet plasma-pa still couldn’t see the headphones; pavucontrol however did, and the sound goes to the headphones. Confusing behavior. This distro requires further thinking, especially as I’m a NordVPN user.

Further of Debian extraction and with KDE, Neptune 6.5, recently released. German, but this doesn’t mean anything when it comes to software. Heck, they don’t even have a decent website: the English version of their website gives a broken link to their forum; the proper link is only in the German version of the site! [EDIT: they fixed the link in the meantime.] The OCD version of me would have dismissed this distro entirely, as a matter of principle (the second charge: their logo is oval, with width:height of about 9:8; third charge: their forum software, Flarum, is a pathetic choice because of the “More…” and “Load more” design instead of a page-based one); but I was curious, so I decided to give it a go. [LATE EDIT: Oh my, their About page, both in EN and in DE, still says Neptune is based on Debian 9! Of course they switched to Debian 10 in August 2019, when they released Neptune 6.0. Oh well, finally they changed the text to say Neptune is based on Debian Buster.]

Funny thing, Neptune originated as a spin-off Debian-based version of the Ubuntu-based ZevenOS, now defunct. But if ZevenOS had a BeOS look and feel, Neptune is just a better looking KDE that still looks very much the same as it looked like two years ago, at version 5, when it was based on Debian 9. Highly praised by a few, completely ignored by the rest of the world, maybe it deserves more love! The screenshots suggested a polished distro, so I had to try it.

Right after the boot (LiveUSB), I found the text too small. As I’m not interested in fractional scaling (I tried 125% in Linux Lite 5.0 and everything was too big), nor in changing the DPI, increasing the relevant fonts was the way I went:

The first hiccup: the Muon Package Manager seems totally broken: the search simply doesn’t work, even if the package is shown prior to searching by scrolling down the list! Discover (plasma-discover) works flawlessly, but as Muon was supposed to be the Synaptic replacement, this is hugely disappointing. Here’s a report about Muon’s search not working in 2016 in Kubuntu’s forums. And it’s still not working, in version 4:5.8.0-1, which is the latest! For Ubuntu, here’s a bug report from 2020-03-03: 1865925.

2020-03-29: Status changed to ‘Confirmed’ because the bug affects multiple users.

And yet… After a very long while (say, 30 minutes after the latest apt-get update), Muon started to display search results! (In the above bug report, a similar “out of the blue it works” behavior is reported towards the end.) There must be a serious problem with the search index rebuilding.

Remember the “Executing Dolphin with sudo is not possible due to unfixable security vulnerabilities.” idiocy? Here’s another one: “Executing Kate with sudo is not possible due to unfixable security vulnerabilities.” Fuck the KDE fucktards!

But at least ReText is preinstalled–nice choice. And Back in Time is too. Aaaaaand… it detects the insertion and removal of the headphones without the need of a fix!

That’s amazing, really the greatest thing about this distro. I suppose the upstream Debian would behave the same, right? Well, Neptune looks good after all, but what’s the fucking issue with kdesudo, libkdesuor wherever the “unfixable security vulnerabilities” lie? Also, as I’m not a huge fan of neither Excalibur nor Kicker: if only there were such a thing as a Whisker menu (xfce4-whiskermenu-plugin, see Linux Lite above) for KDE! Arc-Menu for GNOME looks interesting too.

Neptune 6.5 doesn’t add that much to Debian. The features page summarizes everything, including the “Neptune Specialties”–but I decided to check out for myself. Unpleasantly, the Neptune repos not only still have “5” in their name, but most of the packages are ancient indeed, as they were made for version 5. Filtering by origin in Synaptic reveals that Neptune 6.5 only adds to Debian: VirtualBox, Amarok, its own “look and feel” packages, drivers for Brother printers, Calamares, remaster-kit, snapshot-manager, Enlightenment, chromium-windevine-plugin, Encode (ffmpeg GUI), knetworkmounter, plasma-discover, quickusbformatter, Rage Video Player, Yet Another Video Tube Downloader. Not bad, but this is still “Debian” with additional packages. In the past, it seems that Neptune used to offer many packages in newer versions than in Debian stable (Distrowatch claims it offers “a newer kernel, some drivers and newer versions of popular applications, such as LibreOffice,” but this is not entirely true).

So basically, it’s Debian 10.4 who’s to praise for what works in Neptune! And, of course, the three guys from Neptune who managed to customize and add without breaking anything 🙂

But let’s go even further. Who said PPAs are only made for Ubuntu? I needed mkusb, I added the repo for Ubuntu Focal as described here, and it worked! (This wouldn’t be the case with most PPAs though.)

The NordVPN aficionado in me wanted to try with adding SolydXK’s repos (NOTE: modified to match the current keyring after the server move):

echo "deb http://repository.solydxk.com/ solydxk-10 main import rpi" | sudo tee -a /etc/apt/sources.list.d/solydxk.list ; sudo wget -P /etc/apt/trusted.gpg.d https://downloads.solydxk.com/solydxk-archive-keyring.gpg

Now nordvpn and nordvpn-indicator could be installed. And they work even on the LiveCD! (BTW, user/pass are user/live; might need to logout and login for nordvpn-indicator to show up. Note that there is a one-time need to launch nordvpn login at the CLI to tell it your credentials.)

Let’s recap: Debian stable; customizations and extra packages from Neptune 6.5, which also has a better installer than Debian’s LiveCD; further packages from SolydXK, which is based on the same Debian stable; on occasions, a PPA made for Ubuntu; and, soon to be needed, WINE’s repos for Debian.

Before someone else tells me: yes, I know Neptune’s memory usage seems quite high. The distros I tried using LiveUSB (with persistence when possible) generally used ~550 MB to ~700 MB of RAM, but Neptune was more like 1.2 GB* (EDIT: see this comment). But it was a “LiveCD” session, where the RAM could also be used for /tmp and more, so I don’t think this is relevant. Either way, what matters to me is the general responsiveness and a low CPU load.

I hope this to be a keeper, as I’m too old for distro-hopping all the time. In the end, it should be able to solve my eternal irresolution (à la Buridan’s Ass) between Xfce, MATE and Cinnamon. GTK-based apps can be run in KDE, and with a proper theme (which is the case in Neptune) they’re indistinguishable from the Qt-based ones. Either way, if this is the way, it started with Neptune65-Plasma5-20200707.iso.