Regolith Linux | Review from an openSUSE User

Regolith is a very interesting distribution based on Ubuntu that uses the i3 Window manager. In this case, you get all the benefits of the Ubuntu distribution with the unique i3 interface with predefined shortcut keys. The creator of this fine distribution, Ken Gilmer, has put a lot of time, effort into really making this a fine demonstration of i3.

This is my first i3 experience and overall it has been quite enjoyable. For those that are less familiar with what a Window Manager vs a Desktop…. I really can’t say, to me, it is a desktop environment I’m sure there is some nuance that distinguishes a “desktop environment” to a “window manager” but that debate and discussion is outside of the scope of this blathering. For my purposes, anything that allows me to interact with my computer in a holistic fashion is a Desktop Environment. So what is holistic in this context?

This is my impression of using Regolith as a deeply entrenched, content openSUSE Tumbleweed User that thinks using anything other than Plasma keeps my fingers hovering just over the bail-out button. Bottom Line Up Front, Regolith was a challenging but educationally enjoyable experience. My trip through Regolith sparked my imagination as to some specific applications and uses for this user environment. As cool as the interface is for Regolith (i3) is, it is not enough to push me off the openSUSE Tumbleweed Plasma mountain. This is my biased impression after running Regolith as a my interface into my computer.

Installation

Since this is Ubuntu based, the installation is really quite trivial. The team at Canonical have done a fantastic job of giving us a low barrier of entry into the Linux world. When Regolith boots, out of the gate, you are asked to select your Language. The Grub Boot menu pops up where the second option will put you immediately to the “Installation Process.” Thumbs up there! Anytime I get that option right from the beginning, I am just pleased I don’t have to hope that the Installation Icon is not hidden, bypassing my need to hunt around for the one function I came here to do.

Choosing this option, it looks like Regolith boots up a basic desktop and you are immediately greeted with the installation application. To start out, you are welcomed and asked for your language preference… again… perhaps just a verification that you do indeed speek the language you previously specified. Then you selet your Keyboad Layout.

Next you are asked to select whether or not you would like to install updates and 3rd Party Software. The Installation Type I have chosen for this is to erase the entire disk as I am running this in a virtual machine

Before committing to the drive modifications, you are given a sanity check and that makes this the point of no return, in a manner of speaking. After that, you are required to select your location.

The last step is going to be to set your user information. Here you can determine if you want to log in automatically or not here too. I find, even in VMs that will have no chance at having sensitive information, I still won’t select to automatically login.

The installation process occurs as fast as any other Ubuntu installation and you are given a slideshow of information as you would expect to see. I didn’t notice any differences in this installation sequence than Ubuntu proper.

Once you are given the installation completion message, select the Restart Now button and you are off to the Regolith races.

First Run and Impressions

Since performance was not going to be an issue with this distribution as it is not something loaded with extra bells and whistles. I wasn’t conserned with any lagging due to running this in a virtual machine, and the reality is, there wasn’t any issue at all.

To start off, you are given the Ubuntu Welcome Walkthrough that once again sets up your system.

The walkthough then allows for location preference and cloud services. Once that is complete you are done and ready to i3 to your hearts content.

One of the beauties of having a machine with muliple monitors is that I can dedicate one monitor to a full screen virtual machine and very much get the feeling of bare metal. Doing this, I used Virt-Manager with KVM/QEMU.

The desktop (window manager, I know but I am calling this a desktop, feel free to send condescending comments or emails on this point) has instructions plastered to the background to get started with navigation. I found this so handy that I took a screen shot and used this as a reference.

I was muddling my way through a bit on Regolith but I didn’t get into my groove until I watched this demonstration by Eric Adams on YouTube. Watching him go through and show some other features that weren’t on this page, and see how he navigated it very quickly, I mimicked it a bit and I started to see the real power.

I started to see how I could use this very nicely with any terminal based applications and tile them quite quickly and nicely, ready make things happen. Used it to do many of my terminal and web browsing functions. I could easily modify the boarder size with Super+ + or Super+ –

I really liked the ease of opening new terminals and browsers into new work spaces or into new pane on the existing screen. I think, if I were to use this regularly, I would probably end up with many, many virtual desktops in order to manage similarly what I do in Plasma. I think in some ways it could be better and perhaps more effective. I then wondered what would happen if I went more than 9 Virtual Desktops…

Being forced to use keyboard shortcuts to force me to jump into different virtual desktops for a while on Regolith started to become second nature. Consequently, I now use the default keystrokes for virtual desktop switching with Plasma. I am tempted to change them to the Regolith shortcuts but I think I have those mental profiles for switching in Plasma locked in now and I must say, way better than moving the mouse to the bottom of the screen.

What I Like

The minimalist feel of the window manager. The speed of which to lay out the panels is really fantastic. Managing all aspects of the window are done with the need to move my hand from the keyboard is really quite minimal. Combine that with a laptop pointer mouse you would see on a business class Dell or Lenovo, you could potentially do a lot very fast, so long as it wasn’t an artsy thing.

Using Regolith reminds me of the days of old using DOS based applications but layered in a fantastically intuitively manner. Being able to switch between, resize window panes and dig through menus on a keyboard alone feels like a nerd superpower.

The location and status information in the bottom panel is almost just right. If I took the time to tweak it just a bit to give me just a bit more information, I would almost call this perfect.

What I Don’t Like

There seems to be a lack of being able to customize the color scheme. Although the color scheme is fine, I would like to tweak it a bit. I am sure that I could install Gnome tweaks but I am what you would call a proponent of the extension system. Therefore, I am not installing such a thing.

Related to my previous dislike. This is Gnome based, currently, and this could change, I have limited confidence in Gnome as a whole. GTK appears to be a wonky and broken tool kit when used by Gnome, although it is fine in Plasma, I have experienced mixed results with GTK in Gnome. I also don’t like that Gnome is a single-threaded process. I would prefer something Plasma based where the environment is multi-threaded. To further contradict myself, since i3 isn’t exactly doing a lot, this might be a silly and moot point.

I don’t really run Ubuntu, not for any technical reasons, I just don’t prefer Ubuntu, so I think I would prefer using i3 or something like it on an openSUSE base. After all, this is my biased review and having that familiar set of terminal tools that I greatly appreciate would make for an even better experience. I think what might happen next is taking i3 for a spin on an openSUSE machine and comparing the keyboard input schemes of the two different systems.

Final Thoughts

Regolith is a very interesting distribution using the i3 Window Manager by default. Although you can essentially just add i3 to any Ubuntu distribution, this will make the end goal of an i3 environment on Ubuntu much easier. It has a real raw, strap yourself in with a 5-point harness, this is going to move fast, feel to it. The very way you interface with the system is speedy and feels ultra productive. I can appreciate the design and thought of i3 and especially the time that Mr. Ken Gilmer has put into Regolith.

The biggest take away of using i3 was that it forced me learn and use the keyboard in such a way that when going back to Plasma, I wanted the same kind of productivity enhancements. This forced me to learn the bindings in Plasma to better navigate my desktops and a few other functions.

After dabbling around with i3 and modifying my Plasma desktop usage, I have decided Regolith or i3 for that matter wouldn’t make my Linux life more efficient on my primary machine. The keyboard shortcuts are very awesome for doing very rapid switching between applications and tiling them around on the screen. The reality for me is, I don’t see this as enough of an enhancement that I would gain more than I would lose from moving away from Plasma on openSUSE… but then this had me thinking… where I could most certainly see this being used is in a more server or systems monitoring application where a full desktop is not necessary. The awesome nerd-value of i3 is strong and for some sort of persistent system where I can have it monitoring logs and activity is exactly where I would use this.

Regolith might be one of the greatest experiences I have had in Linux for a long time. Not so much that I have radically changed anything about what I am doing but that I have taken what I have learned from the productivity enhancements and assimilated them into my own workflow to make my work more efficient. For that, I am extremely grateful.

References

Regolith Linux Home
Virt-Manager with KVM/QEMU on openSUSE Tumbleweed
Big Daddy Linux Live! 8-24-19 Regolith Discussion Week 1
Big Daddy Linux Live! 8-31-19 Regolith Discussion Week 2
Eric Adams Regolith Runthrough