2012!!!!!!! I hope you had a wonderful “yay-we-are-one-year-older-where-the-hell-did-2011-go celebration” and wish you an exciting 2012. If you're more like me and would rather have an uneventful 2012, you can switch, no problem; my wish store is sufficiently flexible.
Today, in the very first week of January 2012, I am happy to report that I found out who runs the Internet. It's no secret government agency, no occult faction, no MiB, it's a Linux distro. How do I know? Because it is called... NETRUNNER. The truth is often hidden in plain sight. ;)
Netrunner 4.0 Dryland is a Kubuntu-based distribution that aims to provide an all-round OS for desktops, laptops and netbooks.
And it certainly delivers on its promise by bringing a polished interface, sensible, real-world software selection and ease of use.
Like every journey begins at the start (yup), Netrunner advertises itself through a professional website, filled with news, features, screenshots and a decent amount of information. Moreover, it even has a built-in forum, a tutorial section and a growing Facebook community.
Weighing in at ~1.2 gigs, the ISO has to be burned on a DVD or written on a USB flash drive with unetbootin. Users can either download the file through a dedicatedserver (which was very fast on my connection) or use their favorite torrenting application and save the folks some bandwidth AND enjoy high speeds at the same time.
Netrunner was quick to boot up from my 4GB Kingston flash drive and promptly displayed its glorious KDE interface, which I sincerely missed. After I assessed the overall performance of the live environment -which was top notch- I went ahead and installed the system onto the second HDD in my machine. As you can see from the screenshots, everything went very smoothly, *buntu being known for their user-friendly installation process.
The now established Netrunner booted up in roughly 30 seconds, a note-worthy performance these days. Plus, it helps with maintaining the reputation implied by its name.
The nifty default wallpaper shows a cool sandy beach and a clear body of water which unexpectedly and seamlessly fades into a mountainous region. Quite a dramatic effect! And of course, the Netrunner logo is beautifully integrated.
The UI layout is quite simple: one thick panel at the bottom with a start menu, a few shortcuts to the file manager, terminal, Firefox, YouTube and Facebook (these last two are “webapps” - in actuality they are merely links to their websites which open inside Firefox).
The application switcher comes next, followed by two extra shortcuts: system settings and Synaptic Package Manager. The notification area hosts the usual: clock, network manager, volume control, Klipper and “show desktop”.
As you may already know, KDE can be highly customizable, so you can bend it to your will with not too much of an effort: add panels, widgets, move them around, etc. Netrunner also comes with a bunch of desktop effects pre-configured, but you may want to check the appropriate section in the system settings to see how they can be used.
Moreover, if you are willing to put some time into it, you can assign complex macros to custom keyboard shortcuts. I activated the example provided by KDE and now, by pressing CTRL+ALT+H, the word “Hello” appears in any active text field. Quite powerful and a huge time saver in certain workflow scenarios. Hmm... what more is there to say? I did like the way fonts are rendered and I also appreciated the way GTK apps have been made to look decent.
The desktop is fully usable as a file manager window, meaning you can place icons, create documents, new folders, and so on.
As stated in the introduction, Netrunner 4.0 comes bundled with a decent selection of software. Flash is not included by default, but can be installed with a few clicks from the notification area. Let's go through a quick round-up, shall we?
Photo management is done either with Gwenview or DigiKam, both of which offered import options the moment I inserted my Canon A550 camera memory card. Update: the second time I tried importing a batch of photos, DigiKam segfaulted. It did work the third time though. :) To further manipulate the photos, Netrunner recommends GIMP, Hugin (Batch Processor and Panorama Creator), ExpoBlending and DNGConverter.
The “Internet” category appealed to me with Pidgin, the Qt version of Transmission, the exquisite Quassel IRC client and THE voice-video chat solution, Skype. Of course, Firefox 7.0 was in there too, which was updated to 8.0 (not the latest, but still, a very recent build). Oh, and Firefox comes preloaded with a bunch of add-ons: DownloadHelper (aka media companies nightmare), Adblock Plus (aka ad companies nightmare) Download Statusbar (no need for an extra window when downloading stuff), FireFTP, Status-4-Evar (brings back the status bar) and Tabbrowser Preferences (didn't look too much into it). While most of these are helpful, FireFTP is too much of a “niche” app to be bundled by default – not many users manage their own websites through FTP, and those that do, will know to install it anyway).
The multimedia section is also well-covered by the likes of Amarok, Clementine, Dragon Player, Qmmp, VLC and utilities such as AcetoneISO and K3b.
Starring in the “Office” are Michael Scott, Dwight Schr... erm, wrong show! I meant LibreOffice (the whole suite), KOrganizer, KaddressBook, etc.
Finally, the common Accessories found on most systems: calculators, terminal, notes, virtual keyboard, Kate text editor and so on.
As packed as it may seem, Netrunner can't possibly cover all of your needs out of the box, so installing extra software can be done easily in two ways: the good ol' Synaptic Package Manager or the Muon Software Center, which brings a nicer, more informational UI.
There is, sadly, quite a major issue: I installed a bunch of extra games that didn't fit in any of the categories that come pre-loaded inside Netrunner's menu, and, even after a restart, there was no trace of them in there. Surely, they are installed and can be run by bringing up the “Run command” dialog (ALT+F2) and typing their name, but, a new user can get quite frustrated by this. I also tried installing an educational app (again, the category was not pre-bundled), and this time, the menu was automatically refreshed to include the new software. So, at least it's not a system-wide problem; only the games seem to suffer from this.
In case you're curious, I installed SuperTuxKart (split-screen multiplayer fun!), 0A.D. (didn't get to play it yet), Battle Tanks, Chromium BSU and Extreme Tux Racer. While all these worked fine in window-mode, some of them would start flickering whenever I full-screened them. I immediately thought of the open source video driver, which is just fine and dandy for fancy compositing, but seems to lack when it comes to 3D gaming. Happily, I found the “Additional drivers” menu entry and was able to install the proprietary NVIDIA driver, and all my problems went away. Well, not all, as SuperTuxKart segfaulted on me everytime I tried changing resolutions (a 800x600 window is quite nasty for split-screen). This time, the forums showed me the way to its configuration file and was able to edit it for native 1440x900 and full screen. Mission accomplished!
Run, Dryland, run!
After spending a lot of time with GNOME 3, Netrunner was a breath of fresh air with its modern, yet old-school KDE offering. The few problems that popped up along the way are, I'm sure, easily fixable and not a major concern. Still, the developers need to look into them as soon as possible and, if not issue an update, at least iron 'em out in time for the next release. All in all, Netrunner 4.0 Dryland is a perfectly usable, good looking, featureful OS that is suited for both home and work environments.