Crunchbang, Crunchbang++ and bunsenlabs Review and Comparison

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Let’s talk Crunchbang!

The original Crunchbang was developed by a single guy, Philip Newborough, aka “Corenominal”. It was a very minimalist distribution, based on Debian 7 “Wheezy” and using the Openbox window manager in conjunction with a Tint2 panel for it’s desktop. It became very popular and a sizable community thrived around it. By the time I discovered it in 2015, Corenominal had already discontinued it. To the dismay of many, he decided to end the project completely instead of passing it on to the community for further development. He did keep the website and forum alive for some time after his announcement and that gave time for the community to organize themselves. Two new projects emerged eventually: Bunsenlabs Linux and Crunchbang++ . Bunsenlabs is a team effort of some of the original community members while Crunchbang++ is yet again a distro made by a single developer, much like the original one.

Now, let’s have a look at all three, shall we, starting with the original Crunchbang! (or #! for short)

The last version released: Crunchbang! 11 “Waldorf” was a 775mb ISO download. Right from the installer, everything turns grey and it stays that way throughout the whole experience. It adds to the overall spartan minimalist experience.

Once installed, you have a simple login screen and once logged-in, you’re greeted with a nifty post-install configuration script that’ll help set everything up and install additional software. These type of first time greeters are more common now but back then they were a bit of a novelty. After a cold boot, the system runs on less than 150MB of RAM, I had it as low as 122MB in my virtual box install. So, obviously, that was especially great for older hardware. By default, there was a Tint2 Panel at the top with a system tray on the right and a Conky script displaying system stats and keyboard shortcuts on the desktop. The wallpaper was just a grey background which you could change if you wanted using Nitrogen.

The main interaction with the system was through Openbox, a simple windows manager. By right clicking anywhere on the desktop, you would invoke the menu but users were encouraged to use keyboard shortcuts for most actions. The concept of Openbox comes from the original NeXtStep OS and is quite intuitive once you get used to it. Out of the box, it is set up to access everything properly, but as you start to add software, you will need to add the entries into the Openbox menu manually. Thankfully there is a simple GUI program installed to do just that. What it does, is basically alter the configuration file accordingly. The same goes for the Tint2 panel and Conky. Both have their configuration files listed in the menu for easy access and modification. Clearly, this system isn’t meant for beginners but this type of not too difficult interaction was and still is great way to encourage aspiring Linux enthusiasts to get their fingers dirty. Where do you get to modify configuration files now a days?

Fast forward to 2020 and Crunchbangplusplus (or #!++ for short)

I am pleased to report that #!++ keeps everything as close to the original as possible. It is now based on Debian 10 “buster” and the ISO comes in at 1.3GB! Quite an increase for something that looks and feels pretty much the same. The system now uses 265mb out of the box in a live session. Still an excellent value and pretty much everything I mentioned about the original #! applies to #!++ too.

You get an updated post install greeter and the same set-up of Openbox + Tint2 + Conky.  It is still all grey but the Icon theme is revised to the well fitting Faenza set.

As with the original, here too the distro is mostly maintained alone by a single developer: “computermouth”. In the forums, an anxious user did question the longevity of the project. Computermouth said he did plan to release an update once Debian 11 is out but no further plans beyond that at this point. Other users have pointed out that anyone could put together a similar system using stock Debian plus the extra software and some theme tweaking. So, you wouldn’t really need a stand alone distro to achieve this set-up.

Anyways, if you’re curious, head to the website, download the ISO and try it out. It worked pretty good in my virtual box, unlike the original #! – the mouse was a jittery mess.

Now to Bunsenlabs!

This is the, maybe, more “official” successor to the original, if one can say that. Entering in a browser will direct you to! So, that’s that.

The ISO is similar in Size to #!++ at around 1.2GB but from the moment you fire it up you’ll notice this is a different animal. Gone is grey. Now everything appears in shades of teal and it actually looks quite good. I think it looks much better live than the screen shots do it justice. It is obvious a lot of work has gone into the making and tweaking of it. In fact, one might say the distro has fallen somewhat behind because of that. The official release is still based on Debian 9 but reading through the forum, it appears the newest version “Lithium” based on Debian 10 is coming soon.

Once booted into the live session, the system uses 195MB of RAM, very frugal indeed! You are greeted with the same basic setup: The Tint2 Panel on the top with the system tray on the right. You now also get the most commonly used apps pegged to the top left: Browser, File Manager, Text Editor and Terminal. Of course, you have your Conky running on the right hand side of the desktop and the system uses Openbox just like the original. So, although it looks strikingly different, they have actually kept to the same basic concept. A welcome addition to the upcoming “Lithium” edition is that the root menu used by Openbox will be exchanged with jgmenu. This auto updates when new programs are installed and also has type to search functionality.

A good addition to any Openbox system would be a semantic launcher like Synapse that one can invoke with a special key combination. These are fast and you really just need to type a few letters to find anything, from apps to documents. So, when at some point you get too lazy to update your Openbox menu, you’ll still be able to find your newly installed apps.

There is a vibrant community behind Bunsenlabs and you’ll find plenty of help and documentation on their website.

I will definitely give “Lithium” a try when released. I have always been a fan of Openbox. I’ll soon be trying out Window Maker which intends to replicate the original NeXtStep system and feeling. Stay tuned for that next step coming up!

Have you used the original CrunchBang or any of it’s successors? Share your experience with us in the comments below!




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11 months ago

One of the best Linux Os, fast and lightweight maybe a better choice then windows for one that needs just a few things on a desktop

Bruno SantanaD
Bruno Santana
10 months ago

#! was amazing, specially in netbooks! Loved the minimalist interface.

I use mainly ubuntu these days, but I always install openbox as my second DE