Review One of the reasons Linux never established itself as a desktop operating system, as Linux fans know, is that Linux is not a desktop operating system is a kernel. And putting it together into a cohesive package that users can install is the job of a distro.
This is a very different distribution model than the one used by Apple or Microsoft, and it confuses newcomers. Windows and macOS are easier to understand, they are unique things made by unique companies. Canonical and Red Hat notwithstanding, Linux is not packaged and presented that way at all. I have long believed that this difference was one of the main obstacles to wider Linux adoption.
Apple has macOS, Microsoft has Windows, Linux has … hundreds of awkward and confusingly named options.
This is both Linux’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. For those who already understand and use it, the options are welcome. I’ve been a Linux user for over a decade and have used dozens of distros, some so different from each other that it’s hard to believe they’re built from the same foundation. This wealth of options is great, but it is both confusing and overwhelming for new users.
Distributions like Basic Operating System are popular with people switching from macOS to Windows because Basic Operating System offers the same highly refined all-in-one package that makes it easy to transition between proprietary operating systems. . But it’s Linux, so you can’t just have a basic operating system.
The last distro that caught my eye is CutefishOS, which owes a considerable design debt to both ElementaryOS and the operating system made by this fruit company.
Cutefish desk (click to enlarge)
CutefishOS seems to have started as a desktop environment (and it’s still available as a desktop on Arch and Manjaro), then progressed to a full distro built on Ubuntu, or more specifically Kubuntu 21.04. When I first saw it I almost jumped on it because do we really need another desktop distro? But CutefishOS turns out to have some very interesting tricks up its sleeve that make it a distro worth watching even if you don’t jump in at this early stage of development.
CutefishOS does not have version 1.0 yet, it is currently at beta version 0.4.2 which is labeled “developer edition”. As such, I wouldn’t suggest you rush out and install it, as it certainly still has some rough edges. That said, it’s surprisingly polished for a developer beta and if it continues to grow at its current rate, I think it has tremendous potential.
The CuteFish office
Almost all of the new desktops I’ve tried lately were GNOME-based. Not CutefishOS, which adopted KDE and the Qt Toolkit to develop its desktop and application base. When you install the Kubuntu-based version of CutefishOS, you get all the Qt-based foundations of a KDE-based distribution, but with CuteFish’s own desktop environment and the burgeoning range of local apps. Seems familiar? Yes, this is more or less the model elementaryOS used, although elementaryOS does this using GNOME as its base.
I couldn’t find out for sure, but I think the name CuteFish probably comes from the Qt-based foundations (Qt is usually pronounced “cute”). Either way, it’s nice to see developers working with KDE. And for a version earlier than 1.0, the CuteFish desktop is surprisingly usable. With Kubuntu 21.04 under the hood it’s very stable and I never had the desktop crash on me.
I also performed some of my testing using the CuteFish desktop on Arch. It was a bit more buggy and more difficult, although that might have been my setup (I installed CuteFish alongside my existing Sway desktop, rather than doing a clean install like I did with the Kubuntu version. ). Either way though, other than crashing some of the CuteFish apps in Arch, I had no issues using it as a daily driver for several weeks.
Click to enlarge
Aesthetically, it is undeniable that CutefishOS is what one might call “heavily inspired” by macOS. There is a dock at the bottom of the screen and a status bar at the top. The application menus appear in the top toolbar rather than the application window, and the minimize, maximize, and other window controls are in the upper left corner (the wrong corner as it is also called). There is also a small “control center” drop-down menu in the upper right corner that appears to have been pulled straight from iOS.
CutefishOS is by no means a macOS scam, there are a lot of different things – there’s a fullscreen app launcher with a search box reminiscent of GNOME, for example – but if you’re the kind of person that spends hours downloading theme files to create your current favorite desktop looks like macOS, then CutefishOS is definitely worth a visit. It’s also worth noting that the CutefishOS website lists JingOS among its “friends” and has some design similarity to JingOS (which is itself inspired by iOS).
The launcher (click to enlarge)
However, even as someone who doesn’t support the macOS / iOS aesthetic, I still find CutefishOS worth a try as I think it has a loosely coupled development and update model that I find seems like a step in the right direction. More on this topic in a minute.
But first let me say that when I say it’s not quite ready for prime time, I’m mainly thinking of the home apps that come with CuteFish, not the desktop itself which is. already pretty solid and offers a lot of control over the settings. While most of the apps that you would need in an operating system exist, many of them are very limited at this point. This is to be expected in a version 0.4.
Settings and files (click to enlarge)
Right now you have a file manager, terminal, settings manager, photo organizer, and a few more (notably, no email client). Of these, the most mature is the Settings Manager, which handles all system customizations and adjustments from theme changes (there is also a dark mode) to display resolution, touchpad controls, and more. In other words, the tools you need to connect and work are all there.
The included CutefishOS apps are all very basic, but functional – a good foundation to build on. Right now, CutefishOS makes up for what is lacking by offering a few KDE apps (Kate, Muon, Gwenview, etc.), as well as a few third-party apps like Discord and Telegram.
Again, this has a certain familiarity. If you were to go back and read the early reviews of elementaryOS, you would see the same review – great start, but we’ll have to wait until the apps are developed. The big question is, will CutefishOS eventually get to where elementOS is? I hope it will because I like the development model of CutefishOS.
Embrace the chaos?
Once I got past the aesthetic differences between myself and the developers of CutefishOS, I was intrigued by the decision to include two package managers. When you want to update the underlying system, you run Apt, just like you would on any distribution derived from Debian or Ubuntu. If you want to update the CuteFish desktop, you run Tap, an in-house package manager that will continuously update the CuteFish desktop.
At first glance, this seems painful, especially if you add a few Flatpak apps – you now have three package managers to track and run updates.
Actually, it’s painful, but only because these things haven’t been unified by a good GUI. Suppose, however, that at some point CutefishOS provides a graphical application that integrates all of this into a single interface that is not tedious.
I don’t want to rule out the problem, as it’s not a trivial thing to develop, but assuming the developers can make it happen, you would have a Linux distro with a solid foundation that gets updates as the releases change. ‘Ubuntu (twice a year), but a desktop environment that gets updates on a continuous release cycle. It’s the best of both worlds in many ways, especially for distributions downstream from Ubuntu or Debian that want to iterate faster than the parent distribution.
What makes it even more Unix-y is that it embraces the chaos of choices in the Linux world and uses it to create something well-designed and user-friendly.
The big question is whether CutefishOS will manage to make it happen or will it stop after an initial sprint. We won’t know for a long time, but I think it’s worth watching. ®