Just like its idiosyncratic name, if you look past the minor peculiarities of Emmabuntüs, you’ll discover a well put together distro that’ll even appeal to users beyond its intended user base.
In fact, it’s unfair to look at the distro in isolation. It’s part of a much broader ecosystem and it should be evaluated in that context. The distro was designed to ship with reconditioned computers assembled by humanitarian organizations from donated pieces of hardware. It owes its name to the French Emmaus charitable movement.
Due to this, one of the main goals of the distro is to run on minimal hardware. In fact a computer with a 1.4 GHz processor and just 512 MB RAM will power the distro.
At the same time as being lightweight, the distro also needs to be attractive enough to appeal to users and intuitive enough for them to use it with ease. The distro developers also had to take into account the fact that a majority of the recipients of these refurbished machines would not have access to the Internet.
When you take all this into account, you’ll understand why the distro weighs in well over 3GB and requires 15GB of hard disk space to install, why it has every popular open source app there is, why it includes proprietary codecs and apps, and has a fancy dock on top of the lightweight Xfce desktop.
In fact, the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach to software on top of the Xfce desktop works wonderfully well. On our test machine which had a 1.4Ghz Celeron processor and 2GB of RAM, the distro performed smoothly without any hiccups.
However because of the size of the Live image, the distro takes quite some time to boot up. Running the Live distro on an older computer like our test machine will not give you a very pleasant experience.
In contrast to the 20 minute installs of modern distros, installing Emmabuntüs took me almost two hours. But not only was the system very responsive post-installation, it was chock-full of apps.
One of the first things you’ll notice about the distro are its easy to follow menus for installing proprietary add-ons. Despite being obviously written by someone whose primary language isn’t English, the menus do a nice job of educating users about non-free software.
You are greeted by three dialog boxes when you first log into the new installation. The first asks you to select one variant of the Cairo-Dock to display. It offers three choices: the default “Simple” version for new Linux users, a “Kids” version for children and a “Full” version for experienced Linux users.
This is followed by the proprietary software dialog box, which first briefly explains software licensing and then shows a list of proprietary apps and codecs. The best thing is that almost all of the apps and codecs are bundled along with the distro and don’t need an Internet connection for installation.
Once the non-free components have been installed, the final dialog box lets you remove the language packs that you don’t require. By default, the distro installs support for the French, English, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese and Arabic languages.
The distro is built on top of the rock solid Xubuntu 12.04 LTS release. The only core component of the desktop the distro has added is the Cairo-Dock. In the apps department, the distro has over 60 apps including some popular proprietary ones such as Skype, Dropbox, TeamViewer, and others.
The distros’ two web browsers, Firefox and Chromium, ship with lots of plugins to block ads and prevent phishing attacks. This helps make the distro suitable for young users who’ll also enjoy the plethora of educational apps and games, including the OOo4Kids office suite for children.
There’s also LibreOffice for the grown ups. Along with several popular multimedia tools including VLC media player, Gnome Mplayer, OpenShot Video Editor, RecordMyDesktop screencasting app, K3B for burning optical media, and image viewers and editors such as GIMP, Fotoxx, Picasa, and Hugin photo stitcher.
Power users will appreciate the tons of utilities packed in the distro such as Boot Repair, BootUp-Manager, OSUninstaller, Ubuntu Tweak, UnetBootIn, VirtualBox, and an ndiswrapper front-end for installing Windows wireless drivers. There’s also Wine and PlayOnLinux for installing Windows software and games.
The desktop is clean and only includes a link to a folder that contains a variety of media, most of which is in French. For example, there’s the French-version of IBM’s “The Future is Open” advertisement, the Linux Foundation’s video celebrating 20 years of Linux in English, along with French and English versions of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” ebook, and some CC-licensed music by French musicians.
All said and done, Emmabuntüs will dazzle you but only if you don’t compare it with the popular regular desktop distros like Ubuntu and Fedora. The distro isn’t just a random assortment of Linux and proprietary apps, but rather a purposeful assembly of the right components to cater to the largest number of people.
Image credit: Nic McPhee