Deepin is a rising star among Linux distributions, thanks to its combination of an elegant desktop environment with the stability and reliability of Debian. But Deepin is also a divisive Linux distribution, both because of its Chinese origin and some arguable choices by its creators.
Where does it diverge from the alternatives? What does it offer compared to other distributions? How is it in actual everyday use? Do you have to worry about the safety of your data if you use it as your primary operating system?
Deepin’s primary goal is to offer a dependable, but also beautiful, and easy-to-use work environment. To a large extent, it achieves this. It both looks attractive and feels unique among its peers. But it’s also far from flawless, and some cracks show on its otherwise polished surface.
Your typical easy installation
Deepin’s installation is as simple as any other modern Linux distribution’s. The hardest step is downloading its ISO file and converting it to a bootable DVD or USB.
By booting with this, the installation itself is the classic sequence of steps where you choose where to install it, in what language, what the computer’s and the user’s aliases will be, and a handful of clicks on “next” buttons.
From the very beginning, a peculiar choice casts a shadow on its trustworthiness: Deepin is one of the few Linux distributions where the installation can’t continue unless you accept an end user license agreement.
You know … just like Windows.
Beautiful and easy to use
Even its most ardent critics have to recognize that Deepin provides one of the most beautiful, complete, and well-designed open-source desktop environments. Aesthetics and visual cohesion are its core ingredients.
The force behind Deepin’s desktop is the same powering KDE: the QT framework. It provides Deepin with a great mix of technology, performance, and looks. It displays shadows, transparency, and animations without consuming significant resources. It’s “current” with no need for “current” hardware.
Deepin has great default options for its window theme, the icons, and the wallpaper it uses, and offers access to interesting alternatives to all of them if you’re not happy with the defaults. Unfortunately, though, most of them feel too similar – even the initially striking wallpapers. Here’s an example: can you tell the difference between the two icon themes, “Deepin” and “Deepin Dark?”
Transparency, one of the key elements of its look, regularly turns out to be annoying instead of beautiful. It makes it hard reading white text on a transparent background when white windows are behind it – e.g., when the “main menu” opens in front of a browser that displays the homepage of a popular search engine.
An original take
Deepin manages to differentiate itself compared to all other distributions by following its own unique path. It achieves this by going above and beyond what many other distributions do. Instead of offering some original window themes, icon sets, and wallpapers, plus some mostly aesthetic tweaks to popular apps, Deepin comes with its own custom software alternatives.
The Dock is probably the most important – and polished – out of them since it’s also the first thing you notice when you log in. Taking the place of the OS’s primary taskbar, the Dock is the place through which you launch and manage all the other software available, and control your computer. It is smartly designed to present everything in an organized fashion, grouping program launchers, tray icons, and system buttons visually to ease access. And for those that don’t like the dock approach – called “Fashion mode” here – it can turn to a more standard taskbar spanning the whole bottom of the screenm called “Efficient mode.”
Unlike any Control Panel found on any other distribution – or even flavor of Windows – Deepin presents all its system-related options in panels living in a “sidebar” that appears on the right edge of the screen. It’s Deepin’s Control Center, and the approach makes it feel like everything necessary is just a click away.
Deepin’s comes with its own File Manager that tiptoes between the modern and classic take on the subject and feels a bit like a mix between Dolphin, Nautilus, and Thunar. It follows Deepin’s visual language: looking “clean,” and offering easy access to all its functionality. It works as anyone would expect from a relatively modern file manager, allowing easy copying, moving, renaming or deletion of files and folders, access to the contents of connected devices and network shares, or preview of images.
Screenshot does what its name promises, able to capture anything displayed on-screen to an image file immediately after launch.
Similarly useful and straightforward to use, Screen Recorder allows the user to capture any part of the screen as either a video file or an animated GIF.
An even simpler to use Voice Recorder makes taking voice notes dead easy, its interface more reminiscent of a simple smartphone than a complicated desktop app.
Deepin movie can play any media file you throw at it or, at least, all of the ones we tried. It’s a good alternative to admittedly more popular media players, like VLC or MPlayer, and works fine as a full replacement for them if you don’t need any specific functionality or features they offer over it (like the advanced filters and stream management VLC allows).
Those are the ones we deem the most important apps of the bunch, but they’re not the only ones. Deepin also offers a Music Player, Image Viewer, Calculator, Calendar, Terminal, System Monitor (Task Manager), and a Graphics Driver Manager that helps when installing GPU drivers.
They’re all serviceable and good at what they do, but also don’t excel at anything, offering precisely what you’d expect from programs of their kind – but nothing more.
One of them, though, to which we’ll have to dedicate almost the whole next part of this review, is the Deepin Store.
Negatives and controversy
Like all things in life, Deepin is far from perfect. At first contact, it looks polished and leaves you feeling as if you just discovered the ideal operating system for the rest of your life. Then you remember you had to accept an end user license agreement to install it. You notice that its dark theme is only available for a subset of its apps, that some of them are “basic” at the very best or even forced, like the choice of WPS Office instead of the more full-featured and mature LibreOffice.
Arguably its primary highlight and differentiating factor, Deepin’s Control Center feels revolutionary at first. It combines a notification center with everything you’d expect to find in an OS Control Panel in an elegant and theoretically easily accessible way.
In practice, though, its confined space means there’s a lot of back-and-forth between options, realized when you find yourself in a sub-sub-panel with options that could be easier to see if the Control Center took advantage of the large screen estate it forcibly ignores.
The aforementioned small problems and quirks aren’t significant enough to push you away from Deepin – there are more positives than negatives. Unless you’re ultra-conscious about your data, and that’s because Deepin was accused of being “spyware.”
Some time ago, a YouTuber “caught” Deepin communicating with the Chinese data analytic company CNZZ’s servers. Since there was no reason for such an exchange of information, many users branded Deepin as spyware.
Its creators explained that the whole data exchange was restricted to its Software Center. It works as a site and, just like most sites today, was using the analytics services of CNZZ to improve its functionality further, based on what Deepin’s users “did in it.” In that regard, CNZZ did for Deepin what Google Analytics does for millions of sites around the world.
The problem is that Deepin didn’t inform anyone that such a data exchange would take place, nor offered any opt-out options. As the cherry on top, all of the exchanged information was encrypted, with no way to check it to verify Deepin’s innocence.
Adding further fuel to the fire, Deepin collaborates closely with Huawei. Officially, their relation is restricted to Huawei using Deepin as the primary OS for a series of laptops they offer to the Chinese market. Unofficially, it’s implied Huwaei has a say on how Deepin evolves.
Putting those negatives one after the other paints a clear picture of why many people would rather avoid Deepin: it’s one of the few Linux distributions (and the only one this humble writer remembers) that comes with an EULA. It sends all data about which apps you install and use to a Chinese analytics company. And its primary benefactor is a Chinese tech company accused of cyber-espionage.
Objectively, with its source code available, Deepin Linux itself looks safe. It’s not “spyware” in the real sense of the word. That is, it does not secretly track everything the user does and then send relevant data to third parties. Not as far as day–to–day use goes.
Also, note that Deepin itself, and the software that comes preinstalled, may not be spyware, but there are no guarantees for the apps available through its App Store.
The gist of it
Deepin is an interesting distribution that stands out, thanks to design choices and the perseverance of its creators. For over a decade they’re been mutating and improving what we know today as Deepin, overtaking the alternatives in aesthetics and usability.
And yet, sometimes it feels like beta software compared to other distributions. Its options more restricted, and its apps less featured than freely available alternatives it could incorporate instead of trying to go its own way.
As for security, those who want complete control over all the data they share with third parties and the digital footprints they leave on the Internet would be better off looking for an alternative. But if you’re using Steam for all your gaming, “share stuff with friends” on Facebook and maybe still dual-boot with Windows, Deepin would probably be the safest – or “the least data-sharing” – of the bunch.