Deepin Linux Review: Stylish Distro or Spyware?

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 bootable DVD, you meet an even more simplified installation than the previous version. You only have to select where to install Deepin and which language you’d prefer. All other settings, like the computer’s and user’s aliases, the timezone, etc., have been moved to the first boot after the installation. It’s also worth noting, though, that the newest version of Deepin also demands more space from the get-go: if you have less than 64GB to dedicate to its installation, it will refuse to proceed.

During the installation, 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, “Bloom” and “Bloom Dark”?

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 other available software 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 who don’t like the dock approach – called “Fashion mode” here – it can turn to a more standard taskbar spanning the whole bottom of the screen called “Efficient mode.”

If you were among those who liked how Deepin used to present its settings in a sidebar, you can forget about it in the newer versions. Although the old approach was original and looked beautiful, unfortunately, it also didn’t take advantage of our modern, large, high-resolution screens. It led to a lot of scrolling and hunting down for options that could be better organized in a larger, wider window.

The new version follows precisely this approach, which although unoriginal, and looking just like any other OS’s control panel, feels better in actual use.

Deepin’s comes with its own File Manager that tiptoes between the modern and classic takes 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.

The individual Screenshot and Screen Recorder apps of the previous versions have been combined into one. It allows the user to capture any part of the screen and save it as a screenshot, a video file, or an animated GIF.

The old Voice Recorder has evolved into Voice Notes. It makes taking voice notes dead easy, but now it can also take text notes, while organizing everything into separate notebooks.

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 some of its apps are “too basic.”

The latest version, though, is a vast improvement compared to what came before. It shows that Deepin’s developers listen to criticism and strive to make something better. For example, the last time we saw it, we bashed it for coming with WPS Office, which is quite limited compared to the more mature LibreOffice.

Lo and behold, in the new version, WPS Office is replaced by LibreOffice. Rejoice!

Although its Control Center used to be one of its primary highlights and differentiating factors, we believe its replacement for a more mundane but usable approach is for the better.

The accusations that Deepin’s was the equivalent of spyware could have been overblown. For those not in the know, some time ago a YouTuber “caught” an older version of 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 and didn’t offer 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.

Even if those accusations are unfounded, even if you treat them as conspiracy theories, the truth remains that Deepin is still one of the few Linux distributions (and the only one this humble writer remembers) that comes with an EULA. You can’t install it if you don’t accept it. 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 usage 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’ve been mutating and improving what we know today as Deepin, overtaking the alternatives in aesthetics and usability.

Its past version felt more like a beta, with quirks like its dark theme not working uniformly even in its own official apps. In its latest Deepin 20 incarnation, it feels more mature, not afraid to shed features that defined it – like its Control Center and its inclusion of WPS Office – for better alternatives.

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 probably still be better off with an alternative. Linux users are usually more security-conscious, and Deepin’s devs will have to work even harder to get rid of the spyware accusations many people still remember. Maybe getting rid of the EULA would be a good starting point.

We still believe that if you’re using Steam for all your gaming, “share stuff with friends” on Facebook, and maybe still dual-boot with Windows, Deepin at its worst would probably still be the safest – or “the least data-sharing” – of the bunch.

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Odysseas Kourafalos

OK's real life started at around 10, when he got his first computer - a Commodore 128. Since then, he's been melting keycaps by typing 24/7, trying to spread The Word Of Tech to anyone interested enough to listen. Or, rather, read.

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One comment

  1. I used the Russian Point Linux while it existed and had not problems, but Russia was no longer under a communist regime at the time. Regardless, could it spy on you anymore than the new Windows 10?

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