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Distro Madness reaches its final four

Not much to say as we reach the final four of Distro Madness. Linux Mint has clearly dominated from the start thanks to some heavy involvement from Mintcast forums. However there is no longer anywhere to hide with an all Mint semi-final.

Here are my key takeaways

Voting was way up

The Elite 8 was by far the highest number of votes we have received with almost 50 responses. Thanks again to everyone who is participating. I think that it has been a fun exercise.

Solus puts up a noble fight

The community’s love of Solus has been one of the key takeaways of DistroMadness and even in defeat Solus still got plenty of love (22 votes). Yet it was not enough to get past the Linux Mint warwagon as LMDE eeked out the win with 25 votes.

Manjaro XFCE does not

Contrasting Solus’ performance was Manjaro XFCE which lost to Mint Cinnamon by 43 votes. A tough result that I think is due to the popularity of Cinnamon and a preference for Manjaro KDE by our community.

Time for some Mint on Mint crime.

There is nowhere left to hide at this point, we are down to brother vs brother, to decide which DE is the best.

Vote here

Review- Manjaro Mate 21.02 for Pinebook Pro

Dylan Burger (Canada)

I love Pine64. I love how they are making quality hardware available for reasonable prices, I love how the community shapes their decision making and the degree to which they communicate with me as an end user. At the moment I own both a Pinephone and a Pinebook Pro and the build quality on these items relative to the price is just amazing. I will 100% be buying more Pine64.

I purchased my Pinebook Pro (PBP) in August of last year. I needed a laptop for my daughter’s online schooling and I decided to buy a PBP instead of a low-end chromebook. When my daughter returned to in-person schooling later in the fall I claimed it as my own.

As stated above, I think that the Pine64 hardware is simply outstanding. It makes me wonder what they could do for $1000. However I find that the software options have yet to catch up to the hardware. That’s not to complain, I knew that I was purchasing a work-in-progress when I ordered my PBP and the developers are constantly improving things. However in the past 6 months I must admit that I have found myself looking forward to the day when the software catches up to the hardware.

When it comes to evaluating a distro for the Pinebook Pro it is not as simple as on a conventional x86 system. The system uses UBoot instead of UEFI/Grub and it is built on ARM architecture. This means that you have to write the image directly to your eMMC or to an SD Card (the PBP can boot off of either with the SD card superseding eMMC when loaded). Essentially the process of loading a distribution more closely resembles the process for a Raspberry Pi than a conventional laptop or desktop PC.

My typical distro testing process (for PBP) is as follows: I boot into my main driver running off of my eMMC. Then I use GNOME Disks to “restore disk image” on a microSD card. From there I boot off of my microSD card into the new distribution (going through the installation steps such as time zone and user name/password on first boot). If I really like the new distribution then I will install to my eMMC. For that I use GNOME Disks while I am running off of microSD to “restore disk image” onto my eMMC . There are certainly other approaches to getting a distribution onto your PBP (the Pine64 forums are quite good for advising on this) but this process has worked quite well for me.

The ARM architecture, small-ish user base and relatively recent release also means that there are fewer distro options available. In particular there is no “official” Ubuntu release (although there is a community build of 20.04 and the reasonably good Armbian releases rely on Ubuntu). Sadly that means no Linux Mint Cinnamon (my first choice Distro)), or Lubuntu (second choice distro)for me.

Because my top choice distributions are not available I have been searching for an offering that I can use as a daily driver for the entirety of my PBP ownership. At this point I have tried every distro image listed on the Software Release Page at least once. I always manage to find an issue (either major or minor) that keeps me searching. However I recently installed Manjaro ARM 21.02 (MATE version) on my Pinebook Pro and I think that my search for a daily driver may be over. Here are some thoughts on Manjaro Mate for the Pinebook Pro and how it compares to some of my other experiences.

Background

My system initially shipped with Manjaro KDE 20.04. This was sufficiently functional to get my daughter started in her online schooling. It looked professional with a nice Splash screen and background options but I hate KDE and in particular the Manjaro take on KDE. It was a large amount of work to get everything to look and work well for a grade 3 student (i.e. really simple). But my biggest problem with Manjaro 20.04 was that I had an update completely wreck my system . I reported the bug and booted from SD to reflash with Manjaro XFCE 20.04 but about a week later I ran into the same problem.

I then switched to the Fedora 32 Community build because at the time it was the only offering that had the Cinnamon DE. This allowed my daughter to get through her schooling without any further stability issues and I continued to run this until January without any major complications. I did have two issues with Fedora. First, the fact that it was a community build showed through (i.e. no splash screen, limited background etc…). I suspect that this will be addressed if and when the official release comes available (there was some talk about this with Fedora 33 but I haven’t seen any update on this in quite some time). The bigger issue for me, and the one that pushed me to try other options, was the fact that the Fedora build uses DNFdragora as a package and update manager. DNFdragora was SLOW; by far the slowest update process I have ever had for any distribution on x86, RPi, or Pinebook Pro. It is also extremely difficult to browse/search for software. To me this is significant because the PBP is ARM-based. Since not all software is available for ARM architecture, I often find myself looking for alternative programs and DNFdragora makes this challenging.

So in February when Manjaro released their latest offering for the Pinebook Pro I was excited to have a fresh look. The big news for me with this release was that Manjaro added a Mate offering in addition to the KDE and XFCE versions that had been available. XFCE and KDE are my two least favourite desktop environments so having MATE as an option was extremely welcome news. I am still holding out hope that they will eventually offer Cinnamon or LXQT, however Mate is a DE that I quite like and am comfortable with.

Hardware Details

My PBP is essentially as originally ordered. The only modification is that I purchased the 128 GB eMMC to replce the stock 64 GB (it is a simple install that just snaps into place). I also have the NVME adaptor and for a time I had a 256 GB NVME drive installed as well but I found it to be too taxing on the battery and eventually removed it. One of the nice things about the Manjaro release on PBP is that it is an official release designed specifically for PBP. As such I have had no hardware compatibility issues whatsoever. Mind you the only peripheral I have used is a wireless mouse.

My User Experience

My first impression of Manjaro Mate 21.02 was that it was far and away the most polished distribution available for Pinebook Pro. The splash screen looks smoother than the previous iteration and the background options are visually appealing. The menu system is familiar and everything works well.

Setup (i.e. language selection, keyboard layout, region and user details) went smoothly and I was able to get my VPN up and running (a common roadblock with other PBP distros) on first boot. I have been able to run my typical compliment of software: Remmina, Plank, Telegram, Chromium, Shotcut, LibreOffice and Evolution Mail without a single issue over several weeks. I’m particularly happy to have LibreOffice running smoothly as in the previous version of Manjaro (and a handful of other distros) I have had display issues (phantom text disapperances/reappearances). Another issue that I have had with other distros (notably OpenSuse) is with the touchpad sensitivity and button recognition but, again, this has been issue free in Manjaro 21.02.

I also can’t say enough about Pacmac as the package manager. It is loaded with every (ARM-compatible) software you could possibly need, has an intuitive interface with rapid installation and updating. It is on par with the best software centres/package managers that I have used and really makes Manjaro accessible. My primary goal for this system is stability so I am still a little leary about using a rolling release but I’ve had almost two months worth of issue-free use thus far.

From a resource perspective, Manjaro Mate runs fairly lean. The PBP has 4 GB of RAM and at rest it uses about 550 MB. With LibreOffice and two browser windows open it goes up to 1.1 GB. This is fairly similar to my experience with Mate-based distros on my x86 systems and leaves plenty of resources for more intensive use. When my daughter was using Google Meet alongside Classroom there was the occasional frameskip but the sound was smooth and there was no mouse lag.

If you run into issues with Manjaro on PBP, finding help is fairly easy. Those used to a Ubuntu-based distro on x86 architecture may find the material limited but when you consider the PBP specifically then I would put Manjaro at the top of the list. The Pine64 forums have a fairly active base of users who are extremely supportive. There is also a Pine64 podcast “PineTalk” that just started. The focus is more often on the PinePhone and the hosts are developing but new users may still find some nuggets in the episodes. Outside of Pine64 the Manjaro forums are filled with people who are quick to respond and supportive although I personally hate how they are structured. Finally, to avoid hate mail I will add “there is always the Arch Wiki”.

Final Thoughts

The Pinebook Pro is really an excellent piece of hardware that deserves a distribution that can fully realize its potential. My first choice for any system would be Ubuntu-based; and that may eventually be an option now that Ubuntu has an ARM distribution for the Raspberry Pi. But in the meantime the new Manjaro is a smooth and polished distribution that solves all of the major issues I have had to date. It is a no doubt daily driver for a system that didn’t really have such an option until now.

Distro Madness Reaches the Quarterfinals

Distro Madness- Round 3 Wrap-Up

And with that round #3 of distro madness comes to a conclusion. Thanks to everyone for their support and participation. Here is where we stand going into the “Elite 8”:

Here are my key takeaways

The Mintcast Community Continues to Show Up
After 3 rounds of voting, all 4 offerings from Linux Mint remain in the competition. Only LMDE has had a close matchup to date (narrowly defeating Ubuntu in the latest round). Clearly our audience has a preference. Going forward this competition will be more interesting if we can branch out to include other communities but for now I’m curious as to which DE will reign supreme and whether one of our other distros can knock off one of our Mint DEs before the final 4.

Manjaro continues strong showing
Manjaro also brings multiple DEs into the elite 8 with the flagships XFCE and KDE advancing. Manjaro XFCE did so at the hands of its parent distro Arch. On a personal level I have to say that I have historically been quite negative on Manjaro (issues with updates in the past) but the latest edition of Manjaro-MATE on my Pinebook Pro is starting to change my perspective. I’ll likely have a review with further thoughts on this in the coming weeks.

Solus continues Cinderella run
Amongst the final 8 distributions Solus is a bit of an outlier. MX Linux, Manjaro, and Mint are 1,2,3 on DistroWatch rankings while Solus sits 11th. It has managed to outlast Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, despite the fact that each of those had multiple entries. It is in tough facing LMDE for a slot in the final 4 but, regardless, it has been a strong performance.

Now, on to Round #4
Can anyone prevent an all Linux Mint final 4?

Vote here

Distro Madness Round #2 Concludes

Round #2 of Distro Madness is now complete and it seems to be gaining momentum. We had more responses and much more competitive voting for most of the matches. Here is a quick recap of where we stand.

Here are my takeaways from round #2.

A more competitive round

Because of the seeding, round #1 had a number of matchups that weren’t terribly competitive. However with the popular distributions advancing the matchups were much more competitive in this round. Only two distributions received fewer than 10 votes and 6 matchups were decided by 4 or fewer votes. Hopefully round #3 will bring more of the same

Mint Mate continues strong performance

Mint Mate was the darling from round 1 winning by 31 votes. In round 2 it was given a stronger challenge from Ubuntu Unity but it still received the second highest total votes with 28. Only Mint Cinnamon received more votes with 32.

Debian GNOME edges Elementary OS

I’m going to take personal credit for this because I voted for GNOME but this was a very close matchup that changed leads several times throughout the week. I’m really happy that Debian advanced and stayed in this competition but it faces a daunting task with Mint Mate up next.

PopOS! takes down Ubuntu Mate

To me this was the matchup of round #2 and it didn’t disappoint being decided by just 2 votes. I will admit that I am a little surprised to see PopOS! advance. I thought that Mate would advance on the popularity of Martin Wimpress in the community but it is possible that there are a lot of system76 fans or gamers amongst our voters.

Incomplete votes abound in round #2

The survey is set up such that voting on each individual matchup is optional. Interestingly, many voters are being selective about the matchups that they are voting on. I think that the most likely explantion is that voters are avoiding voting on matchups when they aren’t familiar with the distros involved. This is probably for the best (every vote we are receiving is an educated one) but it is worth noting so that readers aren’t confused by the different vote totals across the matchups.

There is still interest in this

Once again I want to thank everyone for their participation and kind words in the chat. To see the interest grow in this from round #1 to Round 2 was quite gratifying.

Now, on to Round #3

I’d say that the feature matchups are Ubuntu vs LMDE and PopOS! and MX Linux vs Xubuntu. What about you?

Vote Now for Round 3

Distro Madness Round 1 Concludes

Voting for Round 2 will be open until March 12

Distro Madness- Round 1 Wrap-Up

So Round #1 of Distro Madness 2021 is in the books. Thanks to everyone who took the time to vote.

Before we open the voting for round #2 let’s recap the results of round 1. Here is the updated bracket with voting tally’s and the winners advancing to the next round.

Many of the results were predictable thanks to the seeding system which kept the most popular distributions away from one another, however other results were a little more surprising. Here are my takeaways from round #1.

Every distribution received votes

With 64 distributions to complete the bracket I clearly had to include a number of niche choices. Heck, Rocky Linux is still in beta. Despite this however, every single distribution listed received votes. A common refrain from users lamenting the lack of Linux desktop uptake is that “there are too many distributions” but clearly the efforts of developers are still appreciated by the community.

Mint Mate received the most votes

This was surprising to me. Slax is a pretty cool little distro that has 32 bit and 64 bit versions and can be run directly off of USB. It is incredibly lightweight and flexible. The latest release was 2019 so part of this might be a case of “out of sight, out of mind” but I think that this result is more about people’s love of Linux Mint Mate. It has to be considered an early front-runner in DistroMadness.

Close call for Manjaro KDE

I think that most people would consider Manjaro a top tier distribution and the KDE version of Manjaro the “flagship” at this point. Despite this, it struggled against PCLinuxOS and only advanced by X votes. I know that many in the Mintcast Telegram have been stung by a Manjaro update but this was still surprising to me. Is there just a love for PCLinuxOS out there? Other close calls from Rd1? Endeavor OS edging out Kali, and Kubuntu by 1 vote over Bodhi.

CentOS survives a Rocky challenge

I think that you can probably see what I was trying to do with this round #1 matchup. I was curious how people would vote after the PR disaster that was the transition to CentOS stream. In the end, CentOS still advanced, albeit in a close match. Perhaps the fact that Rocky is still in beta was a deterrent. Or perhaps the Jupiter broadcasting damage control campaign from the past few weeks has been effective?

Slackware upset

Round 1 included few results that I would consider “upsets” but Ubuntu Unity handily winning over Slackware probably counts. Not too long ago Slackware finished second in a poll of best distros on LinuxQuestions.org. Clearly this is a different audience. Feren winning over Redhat might also be considered an upset on first view.

There is interest in this

Finally I want to thank everyone for their participation and kind words in the chat. I started this on a whim and wasn’t sure quite how it would go, but having almost 40 participants makes this worthwhile.

Now, on to Round #2

Where the feature matchup has to be Ubuntu Mate vs PopOS,

Vote here

Updates 2/22/21

You probably noticed we added Dylan Burger as a writer and admin on this page. As of today, we have also added Dale Miracle as an admin, and he has some articles to contribute, so watch for those. We have other friends talking to us about submitting articles, so it could get really exciting here.

We are hereby updating the license for all articles published on this website. Everything you find here is licensed under Creative Commons/ Share Alike (CC/SA) license. If you borrow it, do not change it, always credit the author and the site you got it from (ItsMOSS.com).

We also have come to a verbal agreement to share articles we (or Ronnie) choose with Full Circle Magazine, whose articles are also published under a CC/SA license. So if you borrow it from us, and we borrowed it from them, you are welcome to credit them or both of us. Thanks, Ronnie!

We are still accepting contributions from anyone. We are limiting this page to hardware and software, review and instruction, mostly not including phones (but we might make an exception for some Pine64 stuff from time to time).

Enjoy!

It’s MOSS Staff

A Simple Guide to Running a Local WordPress using Docker

Dylan in Canada

As I have started contributing to ItsMOSS, one challenge for me has been using WordPress again. I used WordPress briefly about 8 years ago to help maintain a site for an organization I was involved with, but I haven’t touched it since.

So rather than jump back in unprepared, I decided that I should set up WordPress locally and play around to try and remind myself of how things work.

I did some reading and realized that an option is to run this through Docker. I had been wanting to get into Docker for some time now and this seemed like a good opportunity to learn.

So I set out to learn how to run a local WordPress using Docker. It seemed simple enough, and really the process is not complicated. However, I found the available guides did not work for me.

What follows is an amalgamation of several approaches that finally allowed me to get it working. I have tested this successfully on Ubuntu 20.04 and Linux Mint 20.1, and presumably it will work on most distributions (with adjustment for the appropriate install commands).

By no means is this meant to be the definitive guide to doing this, just something that will hopefully help others who want to try this.

Step 1: Install Docker from Terminal

sudo apt install docker.io

Step 2: Install Docker Compose from Terminal

sudo apt install docker-compose

3. Create a folder for the WordPress container and create a Docker compose file for the container

mkdir wordpress-local && cd wordpress-local
touch docker-compose.yml

4. Open your docker compose file (docker-compose.yml) in a text editor

If you used the above commands then the file will be found in home/wordpress-local/docker-compose.yml

5. Add the following text to your docker-compose.yml file

web:
image: wordpress
links:
- mysql
environment:
- WORDPRESS_DB_PASSWORD=password
ports:
- "127.0.0.3:8080:80"
mysql:
image: mysql:5.7
environment:
- MYSQL_ROOT_PASSWORD=password
- MYSQL_DATABASE=my-wpdb

6. Save your docker-compose.yml file

7. While in your WordPress directory, run docker compose to pull the material for the wordpress container.

sudo docker-compose up -d

Important: You must be in home/wordpress-local/ for this command to work.

8. Run the local WordPress installer by visiting 127.0.0.3:8080 in your preferred browser. 

9. Follow the on-screen prompts to install your WordPress site

10. You can access the admin login for your WordPress site at any point by visiting

http://127.0.0.3:8080/wp-admin/

11. If you turn off or restart your computer, you can re-activate your local wordpress container by simply repeating steps 7-10. 

Distro Madness 2021

Round 1 Voting is closed

Welcome to DistroMadness 2021

What is Distro Madness?

DistroMadness is an effort to understand the Linux community’s distribution and desktop environment preferences that is modelled off of the NCAA college basketball tournament held in March of each year in the United States. That tournament, affectionately called “March Madness” determines the top basketball team in the country through a series of single elimination matchups.

How does it work?

For “Distro Madness” we have selected the most common distributions available and will work through a series of choices between two distributions. Votes will decide which distribution they personally prefer based on whatever criteria they choose. At the end of each round I will tabulate the votes and the distributions with the most votes will advance to the next round and so on for a total of 6 rounds before deciding on the champion distribution.

Seeding

To avoid having the top basketball teams in the country facing each other early, the basketball tournament divides the teams into 4 regions (East, South, Midwest and West) and then further seeds within the regions from 1-16 based on the estimated quality of the team. Similarly, we have divided the Linux distributions into 4 groups with seeding from 1-16. This was done subjectively and is admittedly not perfect at the moment. In future years we hope to use the results from the previous year for seeding.

Enough background let’s see the bracket

Here is the 2021 bracket

How do I vote?

Just click on the link below. We will collect answers using the WordPress plug-in “Quiz and Survey Master”.

Office In Linux: What are my options?

by Dylan Burger, Canada

In September of last year I e-mailed the Mintcast team with a question about dual booting Windows vs. Running in a VM. The crux of my question was a desire to switch to Linux while still using the one software package that is absolutely essential to my daily activities: Microsoft Office. While most of the software that one uses on a daily basis has a native linux app or workable alternative, Office is still noticably absent and, in my opinion, this represents the biggest barrier to switching to Linux. It is near ubiquitous in government, schools, universities, and much of the business world. I myself have consistently used Outlook, Word, Powerpoint, and Excel for more than 20 years (following brief stints with Corel Office and Lotus Smartsuite). So when I decided to switch to Linux my primary focus was on identifying a solution that allowed me to maintain my productivity with a viable office suite. Over the past few months I have tested every solution that I could find to the Linux Office conundrum. Spoiler alert: none are perfect. Until there is a native linux option with true feature parity and 100% compatability we will be left to select the best option for our personal needs. Below is a summary of my experiences and when and where each option would make sense.

Option #1: LibreOffice

This is probably the simplest option available. Virtually every distribution is pre-loaded with LibreOffice and it is well maintained and constantly improving. LibreOffice features a word processor (Writer), spreadsheets (Calc), presentation (Impress), graphics editor (Draw), databases (Base), and formula editing (Math). Notably lacking is an e-mail client equivalent to Outlook so if you want a full replacement for Office then you will need to add an e-mail client such as Thunderbird.

Feature-wise, LibreOffice is fairly strong. Things you would expect in a word processor, such as track changes, spell check and thesaurus, are available in Writer, and there is compatability with citation managers (i.e. Zotero) and other add-ons. Calc and Impress also have the expected functionality. Document recovery is available and works as well as that in the Microsoft package in my experience. Draw offers vector graphics editing. Generally speaking I use GIMP as my image editor, but I do appreciate the ability of Draw to edit PDF files easily. I rarely use databases and have not touched Math so I won’t comment on the remaining offerings. Support-wise, LibreOffice is fairly widely used, so there are a large number of resources available for troubleshooting.

LibreOffice by default saves in the open document format (.odt, .ods etc…), however the suite is capable of opening and saving common office formats (.xls/xlsx, .doc/docx, .ppt/pptx) so using LibreOffice will not prevent you from editing documents originally created in Office. Office compatability is good, particularly for Writer, but not perfect, and this is really the main drawback. If you are working with LibreOffice but interacting with others who are using Microsoft Office you will almost certainly run into compatability issues. A few examples of issues that I have ran into:

• Font switching that can lead to loss of special characters in documents

• Embedded images in files from Powerpoint commonly (more often than not in my experience) appear streched or altered in some way. This generally requires me to re-do the slides.

• Calc has a maximum number of columns of 1024 whereas Excel has a maximum of 16,384. Unfortunately this means that I have spreadsheets that I am unable to open in Calc.

• Citation manager compatability. I typically use Zotero but even with the identical database on both systems I cannot create a document with Zotero-embedded references in Word and edit it in Writer or vice-versa. So collaborative writing with this tool was an issue for me.

• [From Moss:] Quite often, bringing an MS Office document into LibreOffice, editing it, and sending it back to the MS Office user results in major formatting issues, as the entire concept of paragraphs is different between the two. I have often had to convert the complete office to .txt and then reformat it in MS Office.[/Moss]

Acknowledging the above and other compatibility considerations, LibreOffice remains a decent option for many productivity needs. If I was generating my documents myself and did not need to share with colleagues using office it might be sufficient. Likewise if I could convince everyone in my work circle to switch to LibreOffice there would be few issues. Unfortunately that is not the case and when I need to share a document or create a presentation that will be delivered in Powerpoint I cannot rely on LibreOffice to yield a product that is without issues. On top of that, the e-mail clients which are available (external to LibreOffice) also fail to replace Outlook adequately. In particular options which have compatability with exchange servers are limited (i.e. Hiri and thunderbird with add-ins).

The Verdict: If I just needed to produce documents on my own and was using IMAP server for e-mail then this might make sense but as it is, this option falls a little short of my needs. That said, for simple tasks, such as writing this article, I still use LibreOffice. [from Moss: Ditto for sharing files — if everyone you are interacting with is using LibreOffice, you’ll be just fine.]

Option #2: Office Online

There is actually a way to use “Microsoft Office” on Linux without any compatability issues. You simply have to use Office 365. Because it is a web application that runs in your browser it will run on virtually any system without any plug-ins and as Microsoft’s own product, compatibility issues are non-existent. There is also an online version of Outlook which obviates the need for a separate e-mail client. Troubleshooting should be easy as this is a widely used product with fair documentation and support from Microsoft. Nevertheless this is by no means a true replacement for desktop Office. First, it still does not have full feature parity: for example Word online can not edit protected documents or run macros. The major limitation though is the total reliance on internet access- there is no editing offline. That’s a dealbreaker for me because I need to be able to work when I travel. I also find there to be lag when working with Office 365 that reduces my productivity (even in a high powered system with a good connection).

In terms other drawbacks, some users may be put-off by having their files held in the cloud and the notion of having to maintain an annual subscription can also be a barrier for longtime users of desktop office suites.

The Verdict: I’m not personally going to pay for an office suite that I can only access part-time. Individuals who have access to Office 365 through work and/or those who will only be editing when there is access to the internet may still be interested in this option.

Option #3: Google Docs

Cloud-based options are not limited to Office 365. Google Docs also offers the ability to edit .xls/xlsx, .doc/docx, .ppt/pptx and does a fairly good job with respect to the word processor. Gmail is an option as an e-mail client although it does not easily work with exchange servers. Generally speaking there are good online resources for troubleshooting should you run into trouble.

The issue with not being able to use the applications offline comes into play again here. As does any concern that you might have with saving your documents in the cloud. A further issue with Google Docs is that the presentation program is extremely weak and flat-out not an option for anyone used to the functionality of Powerpoint.

The Verdict: Add compatibility issues on top of an online-only restriction? Its a no for me. But individuals who aren’t trying to share across platform, have minimal need to create presentations and will only be working online may turn to this option.

Option #4: Softmaker Office

Softmaker office is a commercially available cross-platform office suite that offers some impressive functionality. It has been around since 1987, predating the Microsoft offering by a full year. The package includes a word processor (Textmaker), spreadsheet editor (PlanMaker) and presentation application (Presentations). Much like LibreOffice, Softmaker’s offering lacks an e-mail client. The Windows version also includes a macro editor (BasicMaker) and a PDF editor (FlexiPDF) is usually thrown in to the package, but that is not included in the Linux version (there is no discount in lieu of this). The office suite is available as an annual subscription (~$30-50 USD/yr depending on setup) or as a one-time purchase (~$80-100 USD/yr). Updates from previous versions, issued every 2-3 years, usually go for half the price of the full license. If you purchase a license it can be used on up to 5 computers in the same household. The manufacturer has fairly decent documentation and support on their web site, however external material is limited compared to LibreOffice, Microsoft Office, or Google Docs. There is a 30-day free trial for those who wish to test before they commit.

The Softmaker Office package features an impressive list of features that are close to on-par with Microsoft Office. The word processor has spell check (in 20 languages), a large library of document templates, and integration with citation managers; Planmaker can work with up to 16,384 columns (the same as excel), and Presentations has a large variety of templates to work from. Softmaker Office works natively in .docx, .pptx, and .xlsx so file conversion is not necessary.

In terms of weaknesses, compatibility remains an issue. In particular I had formatting issues when I tried to open powerpoint files in Presentations and vice-versa. The prospect of paying for the product when a no-cost alternative is available in LibreOffice may also put off some users but others may appreciate the visually appealing and feature reach Softmaker Office. While some macros from MSOffice do not work readily in Planmaker, they are usually easy to convert, but that leaves a task for the person you pass it back to if you’re exchanging files.

The Verdict: To me this offering fits in a very narrow space, it offers a bit better features and compatability than LibreOffice. But given that it still falls shot of feature parity and 100% compatibility I had a hard time justifying a purchase. Cost considerations aside, the use case here is very similar to LibreOffice: if you are just creating documents for your own use and do not need to share with Microsoft Office users then this may be worth considering. At least you can take advantage of the 30 day free trial to be certain. [from Moss: This is my choice, and I’ve been using SoftMaker Office since 2008, 2012 in Linux.]

Option #5: Microsoft Office in Wine

For those who are unfamiliar with Wine: it is a system for running Microsoft Windows applications on Linux. The details on what Wine is and how it works is beyond the scope of this article. If you want further detail then check out the Wine manual or one of the many Youtube videos on the subject.

The promise of using a simple framework to allow Microsoft Office to run within the Linux environment is incredibly appealing. Unfortunately I was never personally able to get Office to work on Wine. I tried with Office 2003, 2013, 2016 and 2019, all to no success. Part of that could be my inexperience, it is possible that with persistance one get this to work. However I have read that Powerpoint and Outlook often have issues even when the other Office programs are able to work through Wine. While there is documentation available across various platforms, it was sufficiently limited that I wasn’t able to get this option to work.

The Verdict: This would be a very appealing option but sadly I couldn’t get it to work. If I could (with full functionality) then might be a preferred option.

Option #6: Dual Booting Windows

Another option is to maintain a copy of Windows alongside your Linux distribution and reboot to Windows as needed to run Office. Of course this isn’t really a true solution since it involves running a full Windows system completely distinct from Linux but it does allow at least allow for the ability to run Linux while maintaining the ability to edit Office documents. Critically, you will not be able to multi-task with Linux applications while running your Windows applications.

The Verdict: I did use this option for several months when I first started but this isn’t really a solution to the problem. You are essentially just sticking with Windows.

Option #8: Remote Desktop

One option that does come with the ability to simultaneously run Microsoft Office and Linux applications is to maintain a separate system running Microsoft Office in Windows (or even Mac) and then use your Linux system to remote desktop (SSH) in to that system. Personally, when I employ this option I use the truly excellent Remmina as my remote desktop client but other clients are probably available. A good tutorial for setting this up on Remmina is available here.

This arrangement offers a number of advantages. First, it does allow you to run Microsoft Office while otherwise using Linux to run your applications. Compatibility is 100% since you are running a true version of Office. Another benefit of this approach is that the additional resources required to run Office come from the host PC rather than the client. This preserves resources for Linux tasks and can make a big difference for low spec systems.

In terms of drawbacks, the need for a second system that is available (and powered on) for remote access will be a barrier to many users. Likewise it will require a Windows license if the user does not already have one. Another drawback is that file transfer between the host and client systems can be an issue. There are ways around this (I, for example, use ProtonDrive to move files) but it is definitely not equivalent to having a native application on Linux. Another issue is that there will be no integration between Linux programs on the client system and Windows programs on the host system. For example, my Zoom client on Linux can not schedule through Outlook on the Windows system.

The Verdict: This is a fairly decent option that I do use on my low spec systems regularly. If it weren’t for option #9 this would be my go-to solution.

Option #9: Virtual Machine

The final option is run your Microsoft Office in a Windows virtual machine. This involves using a software package (in my case VirtualBox) to emulate the functionality of a full computer system within your Linux system. There are a number of ways to do this but I find this guide to be particularly helpful. Don’t forget to install the guest editions package to ensure full screen functionality.

I should note that this is a fairly resource instensive process so you will need a decently specced system. I typically reserve at least 2 cores and 8 GB of RAM for my VM. I have gotten away with 4 GB of RAM but it is a bit slow. Ultimately you want to make sure that while your VM is running there is still enough resources to ensure that Linux runs smoothly.

Once you have your Windows VM set up, boot into your VM and you should be able to install Office the same as if you were on a physical system (right down to the excrutiatingly long wait for download).

As with the remote desktop option, compatability is 100% since it is Office running where and how Microsoft intended. Likewise there will be the same barrier to integration with native Linux applications. This is a good option to run Office alongside Linux applications on a single system. I have had zero compatability issues and, in contrast to remote desktop, there is no risk of losing your connection in the middle of a critical task. Another benefit is that you can share folders between the main system and the virtual machine so accessing files across the two systems if quick and painless.

The Verdict: At the moment I think that this is the best option available for a high spec system. In a dual monitor setup I sometimes even forget that the VM is even running. It feels that close to native. The fact that I have to pay for a Windows license is a little frustrating and there still is room for app integration if a native Linux Office suite does emerge. However this is my choice for the time being.

Review: Odyssey Blue J4105 MiniPC

Dylan Burger, Canada

My transition to Linux has triggered a bit of a hardware buying spree in me over the past few months. It hasn’t been anything crazy (no matter how much I want a Thelio Mega); aside from a work laptop I actually haven’t spent more than $300 USD on any individual item. Nevertheless, what I lack in high end purchases I have more than made up for in volume. Over the past year, along with dozens of peripherals, I have added a raspberry pi 3b+, 4, and Zero W, a Pinephone and Pinebook Pro, and my latest purchase, an Odyssey Blue J4105 from Seeed Studios.

The systems from the Pi foundation and Pine64 have hundreds of unboxings, user guides, tutorials and overviews available from the community and I don’t see the need to add another detailed review to what is already out there. When it comes to the Odyssey Blue system however, I find that there are considerably fewer sources of information. As I’ve had my Odyssey now for about two months and have a good variety of systems to compare to I think that its probably worth taking stock of my experience.

Overview:

The Odyssey Blue J4105 is a single board computer that has several unique features that differentiate it from the Raspberry Pi and similar SBCs. The major distinguishing feature is that the J4105 is x86-based rather than ARM. It is powered by a quad-core Intel Celeron J4105 processor (1.5-2.5 GHz) that significantly outperforms my Pis and opens up a plethora of software options not otherwise available. Like a Raspberry Pi and other SBCs the Odyssey has the classic 40-pin GPIO, but it expands on this with an onboard Arduino controller with its own 28 pin breakout (I must confess i have not used either of these as yet). Finally, the board has a host of storage options available (eMMC, SD card drive, and two M.2 slots- one B-key and one M-key, and a Sata III data connector) and a SIM card slot. All-in-all the Odyssey board tries really hard to be a “Super Pi”.

Specs at a glance:

The Odyssey X86J4105 is available in a number of configurations either as a solitary single board or shipped in a blue computer case with removable acrylic cover. The case is quite slick and I highly recommend it. Side note: The case is actually available separately and is said to be compatible with Raspberry Pi and Jetson Nano boards as well.

The system can be purchased with one of two storage configurations: a 64 GB eMMC or with a 128 GB M.2 SATA SSD. Note that the eMMC slot does not have an easy snap connector (i.e. Pine64 boards) so if you purchase the 128 GB M.2 version then adding an eMMC will require soldering.

The Odyssey boards ship with Windows 10 (unactivated or activated for a premium). Sadly there are no Linux options at ship, but I was able to load Mint, Lubuntu, and Debian without issue.

How do I use the system:

So the appeal of this system to me was its flexibility and portability. Primarily, this is being used as a media centre where it replaces a Raspberry Pi. The benefit of the Odyssey is the ability to have a large amount of storage contained within the single system. I currently have the 128 GB M.2 SATA, 1 TB NVME, and 128 GB microSD card all connected to a single system with no OTGs, external cables etc… To me this has tremendous benefit because it allows me to reduce the clutter around our entertainment unit considerably.

Because of the multiple storage options I have taken the opportunity to set up a dual-boot arrangement with Windows booting off the 128 GB drive and 1 TB running Linux Mint 20.1. Unfortunately the microSD card is not bootable, otherwise I might have set it up to boot a third distro. One mistake that I made in purchasing was not getting the system with the eMMC installed. Unfortunately installing an eMMC myself is beyond my present ability so I am missing out on another possible storage option. The eMMC is also bootable if you select that option.

Extending from the primary use, my family also attaches a web cam frequently to have family calls where we can sit on the couch and converse with grandparents or cousins on the television. This use is by no means unique to the Odyssey system but the dual booting option does ensure that we can use whatever platform we want.

Finally, we are also in the process of adapting this to be our primary retro gaming platform. We are replacing an old Pi3B+ that I had been running for several years. Initially this was with Batocera running off a USB stick but we recently switched to the Ubuntu version of Retropie to free up another port. From what I can tell I can emulate up to N64 and PS1 without issue- I haven’t tried anything more advanced yet.

Strengths:

The main strengths of this system are the flexibility and the power. I said in my opening that it was trying to be a “super pi” and I have to say that it largely achieves that goal. The system is considerably faster than my Pi4 or my Pinebook Pro. In fact, in a pinch I believe that I could use it as a daily driver. The increased speed coupled with the X86 architecture really opens up new uses for the system- which is actually quite crazy when you think of what Raspberry Pis can already do. In addition, despite being something of a niche product I was surprised by the level of compatibility. I have tried 4 distributions at this point (plus Windows 10) and not had any issue whatsoever.

For me the biggest benefit is the on-board storage. The Odyssey replaced two Raspberry Pi’s, and an OTG with three external hard disks. As this setup was in my living room the new purchase has left me with a very happy wife. On-board storage is something that people have long been clamouring for on the Pi and it really is a game-changer. I’d be utterly shocked if the next version of the Raspberry Pi did not have some form of storage beyond the microSD option. While not really my area of interest/expertise, I think that the on-board Arduino controller and Raspberry Pi GPIOs will be of interest to the tinkerer’s.

Weaknesses:

As you’ve probably guessed I don’t have many complaints about the system. The main issue with respect to the system is the limited documentation which does make any changes a challenge. It even took me some time to figure out how to enter the BIOS. I should note that the manufacturer does make a clear effort to provide information. It is just unfortunate that outside of this documentation there is little out there. Hopefully over time this will change.

The other minor issue I would say is that my fan seems a little “trigger happy”. I have yet to have the system heat up meaningfully but the fan still seems to engage fairly regularly. That said this is something that can be adjusted in the BIOS and I just haven’t gotten around to playing with the settings (for now I’d rather have the system cooled excessively rather than not cooled adequately).

Final Thoughts:

Any single board computer will inevitably end up being compared to the Raspberry Pi. In most cases you can identify one or two aspects that are advantageous: perhaps it is slightly faster, or perhaps it has an eMMC chip. The Odyssey J4105 system seems to try and improve on the Pi everywhere all at once. And I have to say that they’ve done a pretty good job of doing just that. The true test will be longevity and power usage because out of the box the Odyssey board serves a very useful purpose for me. It improves upon some of the minor frustrations I have had with other options (clutter, software compatability…). I would definitely not hesitate to purchase the system again.