Manjaro JADE Desktop Review


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Today we’ll take a look at a cool new desktop environment under development: JADE. Created by Vitor Lopes a developer at Manjaro, JADE is a desktop that uses web technologies HTML/CSS with JavaScript and Python for its visuals. It has come a long way since its inception and is now in a pretty usable beta state. Do we need another desktop environment I hear you say. Well, the answer is in the name: JADE: Just Another Desktop Environment, so there you go! Vitor says he wanted a desktop environment that was easy to use and hack while requiring minimal configuration to setup. Sounds intriguing? Let’s give it a spin!

Manjaro 20.2 “Nibia” sporting the JADE desktop in version beta 0.4.1
Installation

Currently the best way to try out JADE is to install a pre configured Manjaro ISO. With some tweaking, it can also be installed alongside existing desktops. I went ahead and downloaded the 1.78 GB ISO from  OSDN.net. The version I got was beta 0.4.1 of the Manjaro Webdad 20.2 release of the unstable branch.

Manjaro uses the Calamares installer. It complained about the missing internet connection so I obliged and connected to my WiFi. That was a mistake! I was on a 4G modem with limited speed and the installer seemed to take for ever downloading all the updates since last November. I had to quit midway and restart. To my surprise the installation seemed to work but I decided to give it another clean install without updates. Calamares offers to install alongside previous installs, replace a partition, erase and use the whole disk or do a manual installation. I went for replacing the partition of the previous abandoned installation. It installed in less than 2.5 minutes! Quite incredible, right? Unfortunately, Not a lot of software is installed by default. We only get a file manager and a bare minimum of utilities. No web browser, no media player. Not even a screenshot tool. I do not know if this is an Arch thing or a rolling release thing but it is not possible to install anything without doing a full system update first. I couldn’t even install htop. In order to start using Pamac or Pacman for anything, hundreds of megabytes of database files need to be downloaded followed by around 1 gigabyte of software updates. In the end, with some frustration, I did all that so now let’s get to the more interesting parts!

htop figures after a fresh boot:

  • 799 MB RAM
  • 76 Tasks
  • 176 Threads
The Desktop

Upon the system’s fast reboot and first start we are greeted with two open apps: The standard Manjaro “Hello” greeter and JADE’s own quick tour app. The set-up is clean and simple, instantly reminding us of Chrome OS and to an extent Enso OS that I had previously reviewed. We get a sleek wallpaper, a dock at the bottom left and a tint2 panel at the bottom right that is functioning as a system tray. Moving the mouse to the top edge reveals our installed apps in a grid while moving to the left edge reveals all the settings. Both areas can also be reached through their respective icons in the dock. We also have a search icon that can launch apps and settings. I couldn’t make out any keyboard short cuts for anything so at this point it is all mouse driven. There is one exception: F12 invokes Guake, a semi transparent drop-down terminal, very practical. Installing neofetch confirms some system basics: GTK theme used is Matcha-Sea and the icon theme: Papirus-Dark-Maia. Linux kernel in use after updates is: 5.10.17

neofetch in the drop-down terminal Guake
The App grid. Icons can be dragged and added to the dock.
The settings. Invoked by hitting the left edge of the screen.

We’ve seen this type of desktop before, so where is JADE different? JADE is mouse centric and has a more “one thing at a time” approach. The opposite of a keyboard centric tiling window manager if you will. The settings, App grid and terminal all open in a full screen mode. Semi transparency is used throughout. Just like Chrome OS, JADE uses web apps. Clicking the time icon for example launches a web window to Google Calendar. This wrapper is part of JAK (JADE Application Kit) developed by the same author as the desktop. This is similar to what Peppermint OS and now also Mint do with their ICE web apps.

WhatsApp as a web app

A cool feature of JADE are mood backgrounds. These are moving wallpapers and the effect is really quite stunning. I made a gif of my favorite you can see below. The original is much more fluid and has a longer duration so you do not notice the loop. The original file size is around 30 megabytes. That’s a lot for a wallpaper but if you want to impress someone it’s there! I wish the playback speed were controllable as some of them are a bit too fast to be relaxing.

Mood Background. Trimmed for this article, much smoother in its original state

Another nice feature in the settings is the ability to predefine apps to launch when switching to a particular desktop. This way you can group your related applications to fixed desktops for quick access. They won’t launch unless you switch over, but then stay open. Unfortunately I couldn’t switch desktops with the keyboard. I kept getting the “hitting the edge” effect as if there were no more desktops. So it is a bit cumbersome having to click on the multi tasking icon in order to move around. We shouldn’t forget this is still in beta and a one man show for the most part.

Also reminding us of the beta state was the missing brightness control. Thankfully the setting was fine out of the box but there was not way to modify it – There was also no power management tool present.

Software

The Calamares installer gives us some control over the software that can be included in the installation process. I appreciate that a lot. I went with a very minimal setup. Chromium as the web browser. Geary as the email client. VLC for media files and gThumb as an image viewer. The default file manager is Nautilus which is in version 3.38 after doing all the updates.

Installing additional software worked fine with Pamac, the Arch based GUI software manager. Alternatively one can also just use pacman in the terminal. By default, the the software source is set to the “unstable” branch. This can be changed in the settings menu to either “testing” or “stable”. By default AUR repositories, Snaps and Flatpaks are all disabled.

Day to Day use

I have to admit I didn’t use the system for very long. It didn’t play nicely with my dock so I could only use it as a laptop. There are a few issues and inconsistencies here and there. I found myself often invoking the app grid by mistake while interacting with an open app. It’s easy to hit the top of the screen by mistake. Gnome’s hot corners are more forgiving. Clicking the menu icon twice seemed to mess with the virtual desktop set-up by sending me to my last used app. VLC oddly couldn’t be resized but it played all my media files out of the box nicely. The system is quite light and very responsive. It boots-up and shuts-down in no time.

VLC in its fixed size. Full screen is available, though.

This is still an early beta so not really meant for every day use. The purpose of the review was to get a first visual impression and visually it did certainly deliver!

Final Thoughts

Impressive what a lone developer can deliver. It is a new take on a light, more web based, system. Visually very pleasing and with a set-up many would feel perfectly at home with. Quite looking forward to version 1.0 but I suspect it is still some time away. I hope the developer can build the momentum needed to see it through and create a community to keep it alive and kicking. We wish him the best of luck!

Mike


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Mike

Chief geek (editor) and maintainer of distrocrunch.com
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