Distro Hopping, Manjaro XFCE 17.1 Edition

I had been using Ubuntu 18.04 for a while, but was growing increasingly disappointed by its performance on my hardware. I wouldn’t expect to have performance issues with 7th-gen Core i7, 16GB of RAM, dedicated graphics, and an SSD, yet I was seeing serious lag every time I switched applications or workspaces. I also found that I couldn’t launch basic apps like Calculator and System Monitor because of some Snap package misconfiguration. Why would Canonical use Snaps (with all of their inherent performance problems) when native apt packages exist ?

My experience with Snaps ^

It was time to set off in search of a more performant/well-behaved distro.

So Long, Ubuntu. Hello, Manjaro!

My Manjaro Desktop

Manjaro has been at the top of the popularity ranks on distrowatch.com for a while, and uses XFCE for its primary edition, so I thought it could be a good distro to test. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with XFCE in the past. It feels quick and has a fairly well-rounded set of features, yet it also feels very dated and lacking in consistency. I figured if any distro could make me fall in love with XFCE, it was Manjaro.

The install process went off without a hitch and I was soon rebooting into the new environment. The first thing I was greeted with was a lovely text-based Grub password prompt that looked something like this (I didn’t grab an actual screenshot, but this is close):

The 90’s called. They want their command lines back.

I suppose this almost beats the prompt on some distros that looks like this:

Umm, what am I supposed to do here? Is this even a password prompt? Which password??

But seriously? A tiny bit of configuration could go a long ways in making this a more friendly experience.

First Experiences

After login, I was greeted with a welcome splash and a fairly plain XFCE desktop. The selection of pre-installed wallpapers was decidedly disappointing, so I downloaded a few from unsplash.com. I also disabled desktop icons, since I like to keep my desktop nice and clean.

Can’t we have some nice photos? At least a cat pic or something?

Next I installed some useful applications, like VS Code and Slack. I had to dig a bit to find the option to enable the AUR; the Manjaro article on this is extra wordy and unclear on exactly how to accomplish it. Do I use yay , aurman, or trizen? Or is it octopi? Eventually I figured out that the “Add/Remove Software” app in my whisker menu was actually pamac, and found instructions elsewhere for enabling the AUR in its settings.

At least it’s supported. Too bad the documentation is so poor.

Once I’d figured out how to enable AUR, it wasn’t too hard to install the apps. The installation felt extra slow, despite me choosing the bin version of the apps when possible (to avoid building from source). I noticed that xz was running a lot during this time, so I think the slowness was due to pacman creating an archive for the app and subsequently unarchiving it.

As a sidenote, having multiple versions of apps could be very confusing for a beginner. I looked at the popularity ranking as well as comments on each AUR package before installing in order to make sure I was choosing a well-maintained package. Contrast this with Fedora and Ubuntu, both of which have started including officially maintained third-party apps in their software centers. Obviously it’s hard to fault a software repository like AUR too much, since it’s a community effort, but still… the experience could certainly be improved.

Evaluating Criteria

A while back, I created a list of criteria that I consider for each Linux distro that I test. Let’s take a look at how Manjaro did against those criteria (plus a few more things I ran into while testing):

Base Environment

  • Boots up without needing special parameters. ✅
  • No dire errors in the kernel logs. ✅
  • Network (wired, wireless) works without any extra firmware/drivers. ✅
  • Mouse cursor movement doesn’t lag or periodically hang. ✅
  • No kernel panics. ✅
  • No hard freezes, even for a few seconds. ✅
  • Can suspend and resume without any issues. ✅
  • Can connect to multiple VPNs at the same time without DNS problems. ❌ Required additional configuration via NetworkManager.conf. There was also an annoying issue where the list of wireless networks scrolls, even though there is plenty of space on the screen to show a full list with no scrollbar.
  • Can install new-ish versions of VirtualBox, Docker, and other dev tools without jumping through hoops. ✅

Desktop Environment

  • Unplugging and plugging back in a second monitor works consistently. Windows are restored to their previous positions when the second monitor is re-attached. ❌ Plugging in my second monitor defaulted to mirroring sometimes. Unplugging the monitor did not result in windows being collected to my primary display.
  • Font rendering is decent out of the box. ✅
  • Audio doesn’t skip, even when system is under some load. ✅
  • Supports all hotkeys including volume, brightness, and keyboard backlight. Shows an OSD when pressing hotkeys. ✅
  • Supports adding shortcuts for actions like copy screenshot to clipboard, maximize window. ⚠️ I ran into an issue where the Win key couldn’t be used for any combination shortcuts if it was mapped to the Whisker menu by itself. I remapped the Whisker menu to Win+Alt to work around this, but that required relearning one of my commonly used shortcuts.
  • Screenshot utility supports copying a region to clipboard. ⚠️ While xfce4-screenshooter supports region selection and copying to clipboard, it would always pop up with a dialog to save the screenshot even when I launched it with the -c flag. Also, it had just enough lag between when I selected a region to when it actually took the screenshot that I would often capture the wrong thing.

Bonuses

  • Sets backlight level automatically for plugged/unplugged states. ✅
  • Supports setting left-/right-handedness of mouse per device (I switch between mice using my left and right hands). ✅

Beyond the failures above, I also encountered an issue where Firefox’s “Open Containing Folder” would launch Audacious and show an error, rather than launching Thunar as expected. Weird. Later on, this problem mysteriously resolved itself. Cool, I guess?

Performance

Compared to Ubuntu 18.04 running on the same hardware, Manjaro was waaaaay snappier. Switching between applications and workspaces was instant with no lag. Launching applications seemed faster as well. Even after suspend/resume and using my laptop for a while, I never saw a slowdown.

Final Thoughts

As another reviewer noted, many of the issues in Manjaro could be solved with a little attention to detail. However, I think a number of the issues I encountered were XFCE-related, so probably not exactly Manjaro’s domain.

This leads us to a question — is it the distro’s responsibility to fix issues in the DE that they use? Or should that fall completely to the community that maintains the DE? I think it should be a little of both. The distro should try to polish the user experience as much as they can, and part of that might be submitting bug reports and fixes for the DE that they use.

Overall, Manjaro XFCE edition is not a distro I will be using for a long time. Despite performing very well on my hardware, I found the various problems to be annoying enough that I will continue looking elsewhere for my “holy grail” of Linux distributions.

Behold, the Holy Grail! Will I ever behold it with my earthly eyes?
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