Today, we venture away from the more common, more popular and explore the slightly more niche (or nicher) – BunsenLabs, the spiritual and material successor to CrunchBang, a lightweight distro based on Debian and running Openbox.
I do not know why CrunchBang was EOL-ed, but then, it does not matter. We will focus on what this little system can and cannot do. The test machine is, for reasons that shall be revealed soon, my older but golder LG RD510 laptop, currently dual-booting a few distros, but it is still an interesting setup, with an Nvidia card thrown into the lot. No UEFI. Let’s start.
The distro launched fine from a USB drive – but then, it would not do so on my regular test box, the Lenovo G50 machine. Won’t be the first nor the last distro to struggle with some common, modern hardware. Anyway, BunsenLabs Linux comes with a black & white theme, with an almost exclusively monochrome icon set, plus Conky.
Openbox is a very old fashioned desktop setup – right-click anywhere, and you have the menu, but not in any one fixed position. I probably hit the browser icon a dozen times mistakingly, and this is ultra-annoying. No easy or obvious way to add the menu, either, or for that matter, any extra icons apart from the default set of four. And once launched, they look different, including color, than the placeholder shortcuts.
Shortcuts versus launched apps.
Well, a mixed bag. Wireless worked fine. Bluetooth does not exist as an option. Samba sharing worked fine. Samba printing is not supported out of the box. My wireless printer was detected, but then the applet crashed trying to guess the right drivers. Now, to begin with, you actually have to install printer support, as it’s not there by default.
I didn’t have any problems with my MP3 songs or HD video. Nice.
Well, I decided to postpone the rest of the work after the installation. One, not too many USB sockets to plug in stuff and test, two, I wasn’t having too much fun, and I wanted to commit the distro. Obviously, BunsenLabs expects some things to be done AFTER the installation, which is why I headed that way next.
Installation – Que?
I wanted to install the distro from the live session – apparently, it’s not possible. I had to reboot and choose a different boot menu option. The installer is typical Debian, with a million screens. This may have been cool in 2001, not so anymore.
The network card setup was wonky – it completed, telling me no Ethernet card was found. When I clicked back, it showed me the entire guided installation setup menu, and I had to manually select the hardware detection step. This time it did find the Wireless card, too, and I was able to configure it. Very laborious.
The partitioning step wasn’t too difficult with just two distros on the disk. I decided to keep Antergos for now, and displaced the little Q4OS instance. After that, Deuterium did inform me that it had discovered the Arch-based distro, and asked me about the bootloader setup. Not bad.
Using BunsenLabs – and getting frustrated
The Wireless configuration was preserved. Much like CrunchBang, BunsenLabs comes with a very neat first-time setup script, which lets you configure additional software and tweaks using a text-driven wizard.
At one of the stages, I decided to skip the system upgrade, as I did not want to spend too much time on this. Only the wizard informed me that the step is REQUIRED, and then it quit. Well, if it ain’t optional, why offer Y/N questions?
Worse, there’s no button to relaunch the welcome wizard anywhere. It’s located under /usr/bin, of course, and you can re-run it that way, but it’s also a very convoluted way of doing things. Frustrating in its inefficiency. Also, the wizard is slightly less fancy than the one in CrunchBang. You can still configure Flash, Java and some other dev-related packages, but not Printers or Bluetooth, for instance. I also see no value in reading about Debian and how not to break it. I did not download Debian, I downloaded BunsenLabs and the whole do-not-break should be part of the system configuration not a user’s responsibility.
At this point, I tried to do a few quick configuration changes so I could have a usable, practical distro. Only, it seems to be all about weird text configurations and manual changes. Why is the would-be panel called Tint2? How’s that relevant? Also, why is there no way to automatically pin new application shortcuts? What about startup items? What about Conky? You actually have to de-select any running Conky from a list for it to actually stop running. And so forth.
At some point, after I hid the panel, and then moved it to the bottom of the screen, all icon previews vanished. Screenshots no longer worked, and the system complained that PNG is no longer a valid file type. I’d gladly show you this, except I could not take screenshots anymore. Nor change/choose new Tint2 configurations.
It’s not fun doing this
There must be a little bit of chemistry between the system and the user. There was none for me. I was struggling in that I had to read Wiki pages and config files, and all sorts of things that just make no sense in the modern era, just so I could have my desktop modified to my liking. No. I don’t want to do that.
With no sign that my Nvidia card deserved any special attention, no Bluetooth support, no trivial way to customize the desktop layout, or even just add a screenshot tool shortcut, I decided to stop the test. Gnome 3 is equally frustrating, but there, you just grab GTT and fix the basic deficiencies quickly and ruthlessly. Here, it’s a journey. Not interested.
Debian base, kernel 3.X, a desktop and some apps. That’s pretty much that. This is true in 90% of the cases, and the distinguishing factor is tiny, if any. But I’d like to believe there should be more, so that I can feel like I’m not just repeating same old stuff over and over without any real benefit or unique advantage. BunsenLabs Deuterium gives us a lightweight setup, it truly is that, but on any moderately decent hardware, the advantage goes away, and in its place, you get the horrible ergonomics of Openbox, which is simply not suited for any reasonable, modern work.
Hardware support is mediocre, the installation process is quirky, it’s very hard to customize the desktop, network support is average, and in the end, you need to invest energy to achieve something you get out of the box with any other desktop environment. There’s really no justifiable reason for that. Perhaps Deuterium will appeal to a small base of users, who want the flexibility and simplicity of Openbox, but for the vast majority of people, it’s a hassle.
So much in fact that I gave up. There wasn’t anything cardinally wrong with the distro. But it’s like walking into a store, seeing something, and then you move on, because there was no magic. Something like 2/10. Well, maybe next time. Or perhaps a different desktop environment.