June 27, 2015

First impressions of Chromixium OS 1.0

Chromixium OS is a recent addition to our database of open source operating systems. The project has an interesting goal: to mix the user interface style of a Chromebook with the power and flexibility of a full featured GNU/Linux distribution. The project's website sums up its characteristics as follows: "Chromixium combines the elegant simplicity of the Chromebook with the flexibility and stability of Ubuntu's Long Term Support release. Chromixium puts the web front and centre of the user experience. Web and Chrome apps work straight out of the browser to connect you to all your personal, work and education networks. Sign into Chromium to sync all your apps and bookmarks. When you are offline or when you need more power, you can install any number of applications for work or play, including LibreOffice, Skype, Steam and a whole lot more. Security updates are installed seamlessly and effortlessly in the background and will be supplied until 2019."

At the time of writing, Chromixium provides one build for 32-bit x86 machines. The ISO we download for the distribution is 800MB in size. Chromixium's one edition provides users with the Openbox window manager and some LXDE components for the distribution's desktop environment. Booting from the Chromixium live media brings us to a graphical login screen. The default password for the live user account is "user". Signing in brings up a desktop environment with a scenic background. At the bottom of the screen we find a transparent panel. This panel is home to quick-launch buttons, an application menu and the distribution's system tray. One of the quick-launch buttons opens the project's system installer.

Desktop and application menu
Chromixium 1.0 -- Default desktop and application menu
(full image size: 812kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)

Chromixium's graphical system installer has a similar style to the installer used by its parent, Ubuntu, but there are a number of small differences. The installer begins by showing us the project's license agreement. We are then asked if we would like the installer to automatically partition our hard drive or if we would like to manually divide our hard disk. Taking the manual option, I found, launches the GParted partition manager. Using GParted, we can create the partitions we want and, when we close GParted's window, the installer moves on to the next step. The following screen asks us to create a user account for ourselves and then we can optionally enable the root account and create a password for the root user. The next screen asks us to assign mount points to the partitions we created earlier. We can also select the location of Chromixium's boot loader from this screen. There is a checkbox on the page which toggles "Transfer user settings" on/off. I enabled this option and nothing happened so I'm not sure if importing or transferring user settings has been implemented yet. The system installer then formats our disk and copies its files to our computer. When it is finished we are asked to select our time zone and then confirm our keyboard's layout through a series of menus. We then select our preferred language and reboot the computer.

Our local copy of Chromixium boots to a graphical login screen. Signing into the account we created at install time brings us back to the Openbox powered interface. Opening the distribution's application menu reveals an icon for launching the Chromium web browser. There are also icons for launching a minimal Chromium browser in order to access such Google services as Google Drive, YouTube, Google Docs and Web Store. The quick-launch buttons at the bottom of the screen provide access to these same services, plus there is a quick-launch button for opening the distribution's file manager.

Desktop and system settings
Chromixium 1.0 -- Desktop and system settings
(full image size: 1.1MB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)

At this point in my trial I was wondering where the usual collection of GNU/Linux applications might be found since they were not available in the visible application menu. I found that by right-clicking on the desktop I could bring up a context menu. This menu gives us access to the distribution's settings panel and an application menu. The application menu takes several seconds to load, but it does give us a classic menu tree of software, with applications sorted into categories. The applications provided in the default installation include the Chromium web browser with Adobe's Flash plugin, the Transmission bittorrent client, an image viewer and an application for retrieving data from an attached scanner. The Brasero disc burning software is included along with the Parole media player. We are given the GParted partition manager, a hardware/system information browser and an on-screen virtual keyboard. Network Manager is available to help us connect to the Internet. We find such small applications as a text editor, archive manager and calculator. The GNU Compiler Collection is installed for us too. In the background we find the Linux kernel, version 3.13.

Chromixium does not ship with multimedia codecs. However, attempting to open a media file brings up a window letting us know we are missing codecs. The system then offers to locate appropriate codecs for playing our files. During my trial Chromixium successfully found and installed the codecs I required, allowing me to play my media files. In the application menu there is a launcher for a program that will hunt down codecs and software for reading video DVDs from the Ubuntu software repositories.

Software management
Chromixium 1.0 -- Software management
(full image size: 510kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)

The distribution provides users with two graphical package managers. The first offers a web-based interface and is called Ubuntu Apps Directory. Launching this package manager brings up a website which looks and acts in a very similar manner to the Ubuntu Software Centre. We can search for packages, browse through categories of software and click on packages to bring up a summary of the selected application. Unfortunately, I found whenever I clicked on the button to download and install a package the Apps Directory displayed an error saying the package could not be found. This made the Apps Directory entirely unhelpful. Luckily there is a second graphical package manager which runs as a native application. The Synaptic package manager is present to help us locate, install, update and remove packages on our system. Synaptic worked well for me and the native package manager worked quickly. My one complaint while using Synaptic to add software to my system was that freshly installed desktop software would not appear in either of the distribution's application menus. The user needs to log out and then sign back into their account before new software is added to the context application menu. During my trial a number of software updates were made available. I downloaded 33 updated packages, totalling 70MB in size. Each of these software updates installed cleanly. Chromixium pulls software from Ubuntu's repositories. There are a number of extra add-on repositories configured on the system, but they are not enabled by default. We can enable these extra repositories via Synaptic.

I tried running Chromixium on a desktop computer and in a VirtualBox virtual machine. In both environments the distribution functioned well. My screen was set to its maximum resolution in both environments and both networking and sound worked out of the box. I found the distribution's desktop was a bit sluggish, especially when accessing either application menu. Opening the main application menu took a few seconds and opening the context application menu (where the native applications are stored) took about four seconds. Launching programs tended to be unusually slow too when compared with other Ubuntu-based distributions. In either environment Chromixium required about 290MB of memory to log into the Openbox interface. This seems like a large amount of RAM for such a light graphical interface, almost twice what Debian running the MATE desktop used earlier this month.

Browsing the application menu
Chromixium 1.0 -- Browsing the application menu
(full image size: 931kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)


I want to make it clear I do not own a Chromebook and, unless I'm mistaken, I've never used a Chromebook computer. I mention this because one of Chromixium's goals is to provide a Chromebook-like experience and, honestly, I have no idea whether it accomplishes this goal. Assuming, for a moment, that it does, I have to admit I'm entirely outside the target demographic for such a device. A computer which deals almost exclusively in on-line web services and web applications would not be useful to me. However, for a person who wants to use their computer almost exclusively for browsing the web, watching YouTube videos, checking e-mail and social networking sites, I can see how such a simplified user interface would be appealing. In a lot of ways I think Chromixium has similar design goals to Peppermint. Both projects have minimal interfaces, a focus on web apps and use local programs to round out their functionality.

My point is that people who are likely to enjoy Chromebooks and use their computers almost solely for accessing the web will probably find Chromixium quite useful. However, while it is technically possible to access more features and off-line software through Chromixium's application menu, the process is slow and awkward when compared with other desktop Linux distributions. Granted, Chromixium is still in its early stages, it just hit version 1.0, so the standalone features will probably improve in time. For now, I think Chromixium offers an interesting web-focused environment with the fallback option of using locally installed applications. The implementation has some rough edges at the moment, but I suspect it will get better in future releases. * * * * *
Hardware used in this review

My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications:
  • Processor: Dual-core 2.8GHz AMD A4-3420 APU
  • Storage: 500GB Hitachi hard drive
  • Memory: 6GB of RAM
  • Networking: Realtek RTL8111 wired network card
  • Display: AMD Radeon HD 6410D video card 

Source: http://distrowatch.com/weekly.php?issue=20150615#chromixium