VeltOS: An Arch Derivative to Look Forward To

In the world of Desktop Linux, new distributions pop up faster than mushrooms after the rain, yet most fail to achieve anything more than being a re-branded version of their base distro. VeltOS tries to be different. Although still under heavy development, its first public developer preview came out a little more than a moth ago and is already showing great potential.

VeltOS (or vos) is based on Arch Linux and comes with a custom environment (Budgie Desktop at the moment), a unique, albeit limited, selection of packages and a core philosophy that sets it apart from most distributions: Everything, every package included in the system, and “every single feature in a product is campaigned for and voted on by the community of users.” Anyone can set up a poll about a feature, and if it gains traction form the community, it will be included in the system. Simple as that.

Of course VeltOS is not the first Linux distribution to be based on democratic principals. For example: Debian, the granddaddy of the most widely used distros, is notorious for debating every major question and only moving forward once there is consensus. Still, Velt takes this a step further, allowing literally anyone from the street to have a say and an impact on development. There is a very convenient voting system in place, so users only need to register and vote or campaign away. In fact, Velt Systems (apparently a company behind VeltOS) put a lot of faith in this new approach towards empowering its customers, and they promise more products built on similar principles to come. It would be definitely very interesting to see how it all works out.

VeltOS is far from ready; it is currently in its very first developer preview stage, literally 0.1.0. The devs promise to put it out in the wild as soon as it reaches 1.0, but there is no way to know when this will happen. Having your users design your system has one sure downside, that is not being able to plan ahead.

For now, it is advisable to try the system as a bootable ISO from inside a VirtualBox (instructions here). The image is downloadable from here, both as a direct link and as a torrent. There seems to be quite some interest in the preview, so you can expect a slow and unreliable download from the github link. Using the torrent should be more reliable. (Please do not forget to seed it once it has finished downloading so that others can get is as well.)

The more adventurous can install VeltOS over an existing Arch Linux installation. If you want a pure VeltOS experience, first prepare a fresh installation of Arch without a graphical interface, then set up the VeltOS repositories by adding the following lines to /etc/pacman.conf

[vosrepo]
SigLevel = Never
Server = http://vosrepo.velt.io/$arch

finally, run

pacman -Sy xorg vos-desktop vos-greeter vos-networkmanager yaourt nautilus cheese leafpad libreoffice totem vivaldi gnome-terminal gnome-calculator
sudo systemctl enable wicd
sudo systemctl enable lightdm

and you should have a working VeltOS developer preview. The latter method is especially useful if you want to keep an eye on the VeltoOS development, for Arch makes full system upgrades as easy as

pacman -Syu

When you first start the downloaded ISO, a vanilla Arch grub shows up. There is no bootsplash (yet) either, but the similarities end here. The LightDM greeter looks clean and simple.

veltos-greeter

Logging in does not change much with the aesthetics. The desktop is minimalistic.

veltos-desktop

At this point the desktop of choice is still Budgie from the long-awaited Solus OS (or Solus Project as they like to call themselves these days). Solus has been started and discontinued and restarted many times in the past, and Budgie never seems to be quite ready. In a recent poll that was approved only two weeks after the release of the developer preview, the VeltOS community has decided to leave Budgie to its fate and come up with its own Dektop Environment. By the looks of things, this new DE will continue where Budgie has left off, and visually it seems to be a straight continuation of what you can see now.

Application menu

The Budgie menu is simple and usable. You have categories on the left and a scrollable list of apps grouped into categories on the right with a search-bar on the top.

veltos-app-menu

This is somewhat configurable. The scrollable right side can be turned into a simple list by turning off the category headers, although no alphabetical sorting will happen; the application names will retain their former order.

veltos-app-menu-categories-off

Or it could be turned off completely, simplifying the menu even further

veltos-app-menu-compact2

The menu, although simple, is very good, both aesthetically and practically. It’s quite surprising then that the developers want to change it into something probably overly simplistic for the new DE. The following screenshot was taken from Velt’s website:

veltos-app-menu-proposed

The proposed menu looks like something that has been simplified beyond usefulness. The community will definitely have something to say about that.

Bottom panel

The bottom panel is very simple as it is. Application launcher can be pinned to the taskbar, and only icons will show, even for running apps. The active window is underlined. On the right side you get a system tray of sorts, a Wicd indicator. Clicking the sound level also reveals the shortcut to Gnome settings which is quite weird. While the panel looks OK, the right side of it does not looks very well-aligned or designed at all.

veltos-bottom-panel

The proposed replacement seems to change this. Active applications will be highlighted with orange, and the tray icons look a lot better designed and drawn. The following mockup is displayed on Velt’s website.

veltos-bottom-panel-proposed2

Overall design

The Budgie Desktop is based on Gnome 3.16, and VeltOS also takes many of its design choices right from upstream GNOME, be it the dark grey hues or simplistic Gtk3 window decorations. A nice and fresh addition is the full Numix experience. The icons are flat and modern, giving the desktop a well-designed and contemporary feel.

veltos-desktop-overall-design

Network manager

Currently, both the standard Gnome network manager and Wicd seems to be available, although only Wicd is in use. Skinning Wicd was not quite successful; it looks rather rough.

veltos-network-managers

In the mock-ups of the proposed new DE, a much nicer network indicator is shown which looks much more polished and in line with the desktop.

veltos-network-manager-proposed

Applications

The choice of default applications is also noteworthy. VeltOS promises to be bloat-free, and the first developer review certainly delivers. There is only the absolute minimum included, a mixture of official Arch packages, AUR packages, and VeltOS’s own stuff. in the following list, taken “as is” from the Velt website, the asterisk (*) means packages available from the Velt repository, while vos- prefix means a modified/custom package:

  • cheese
  • gnome-calculator
  • gnome-terminal
  • leafpad
  • libreoffice
  • nautilus
  • numix-circle-icon-theme-git*
  • numix-icon-theme-git*
  • numix-themes-git*
  • package-query*
  • totem
  • vivaldi*
  • vos-desktop*
  • vos-greeter*
  • vos-networkmanager*
  • vos-wallpapers*
  • vivaldi*
  • xorg (all)
  • yaourt*

You will see a lot of the usual stuff there, but a few of them stand out. Some Gnome-specific packages have been kept/included, like the calculator (which is a very good application), the standard gnome terminal, and Nautilus, which feels pretty mainstream, yet the default web-browser is Vivaldi, which is rather novel (and which looks curiously like Maxthon browser for Linux, only in red).

veltos-vivladi

It is good to remember that all of these packages are included based on community recommendations and votes, so watching what makes it into VeltOS also indicates what software is most widely used (at least by Arch and/or Gtk users) and is a good indicator of software like Vivaldi browser gaining some inertia in the community.

VeltOS is still in a very early development stage but already looks most promising. Although the idea of being completely community-driven is not entirely new, in such a radical realization it might not have existed before. It will certainly be interesting to see how well VeltOS will fare. It will be a great indicator of what the community really wants, what they prefer to use and see in a distribution, and with a little luck the news will make its way into to the ivory towers of the developers who bring us mainstream distros and environments. Until then, the best thing to do is participate in the VeltOS community and help form the distribution that truly listens to its users.