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SpiralLinux: Anonymous creator of GeckoLinux puts out new Debian remix
Yes, yet another Debian downstream, but a particularly interesting one
SpiralLinux is the result of the creator of GeckoLinux turning their attention to Debian – with an interesting outcome.
Some Linux distros have many remixes and respins, while some have very few. For example, there are multiple downstream variants of Debian and Ubuntu, but very few of Fedora. The Reg FOSS desk is only aware of one for openSUSE: GeckoLinux, whose Rolling edition we looked at earlier this year.
Now, the creator of GeckoLinux – who prefers to remain anonymous – has turned their attention to one of the most-remixed distros there is, Debian, to create SpiralLinux. What can a new remix bring to the already-crowded table of Debian meta-distributions? (That is: distributions built from other distributions.)
SpiralLinux is to Debian what GeckoLinux is to openSUSE. They both offer easier, friendlier ways to install the upstream distro, but the final result is as close as possible to its parent. Neither adds any new components that aren't in the parent distro, and updates come direct and unmodified from upstream.
Both Debian and openSUSE offer default downloads which boot directly into an installation program. This is in contrast to the more modern Ubuntu and Fedora way of doing things, where the install image boots into a live desktop, so you can try it out and get a feel for it before you commit yourself to installing it. (We must be fair and note that both Debian and openSUSE do offer optional live-image downloads as well – but you need to know to look for them.)
Both Debian and openSUSE exclude proprietary drivers from their installation image, relegating them to optional additional repositories. This can make it difficult to get things like Wifi working. (Debian does offer optional "non-free" installation media with proprietary firmware and drivers, with scary warnings that these are unofficial.)
Both SpiralLinux and GeckoLinux are remixes, which take the upstream distro and repackage it in a more Ubuntu-like way: so, they boot directly into a live desktop environment, which you can try out – or use to recover a damaged installation.
Both include the most important non-FOSS drivers and firmware, so you have, for example, a much better chance of getting online wirelessly direct from the live image, and thus be able to install updates or extra software.
Once you've installed either Spiral or Gecko, what you end up with is, basically, a cleverly-configured copy of Debian or openSUSE, respectively.
This is very different from most other downstream Debian meta-distros, such as Linux Mint Debian Edition to pick one example. An installed copy of LMDE is distinctly – well – Minty, and it unavoidably contains components that didn't come from upstream Debian.
This is much like what Debian, in its rather Puritanical terms, calls a FrankenDebian: mixture of multiple different parent distros.
SpiralLinux offers a few improvements that installing from a Debian live image (even a "nonfree" one) doesn't.
You get Btrfs, configured with both compression (Fedora-style) and automatic snapshots (openSUSE-style), including for the kernel. You get improved font rendering. You get Flatpak support, complete with the GNOME Software app, even on non-GNOME installations.
Along with extra drivers, the Debian non-free repositories are preconfigured, so more hardware will work out of the box – including VirtualBox guest support, and HP printers and scanners – and they'll get updates in future.
Rather than a dedicated partition, it uses a swapfile on the root drive, plus ZRAM compressed swap for low-memory machines. TLP is installed and configured for better laptop battery life, too.
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Subject to the concerns about Btrfs that we have expressed before, and more than once at that, this is all good stuff. It's also worth noting that you get the best aspects of both openSUSE and Fedora's configurations of Btrfs.
We tested the Xfce version, but you can also pick Cinnamon, GNOME, KDE Plasma, MATE, Budgie or LXQt variants, plus a bare-bones "Builder" edition if you want to configure your own desktop.
The Xfce editing installed smoothly, both in VirtualBox and on bare metal. Everything worked without a hitch, and the resulting OS feels fast. It looks very much like GeckoLinux Xfce, with a dark theme and a similar wallpaper: muted but clean.
Now, to be fair, some of these things are a little controversial. Not everyone admires Btrfs, and while Snapper can be a lifesaver, you will need significantly more disk space with snapshot support than without. Not everyone likes Flatpak, either, but given Debian's rigorous guidelines about Free Software, it's by far the easiest way to install proprietary freeware such as Chrome, Skype or Steam onto a Debian box.
At the end of the installation, you are running something that accurately calls itself Debian Bullseye. It contains basically nothing else, with only one small exception, as its creator told us:
I did have to include two unpackaged Github projects for the integration of Snapper with the GRUB menu and for the rollback mechanism because there was nothing suitable in the Debian repos, but they're just simple Python scripts and they should keep working on the long term. (And in my testing they do continue to work after upgrading the system to Debian Testing or Unstable.)
So the result is vanilla Debian, and that does mean a rather dated distro in places: kernel 5.10, and a somewhat elderly version of Firefox. But to get round that, Flatpak comes built-in, or it's possible to update the whole distro to Debian Testing or Unstable… but if you want a true rolling release, there's GeckoLinux Rolling, which uses openSUSE Tumbleweed underneath.
SpiralLinux, just like GeckoLinux, is not so much a new distro as a new and improved way to install an existing distro. If you like Debian – or the idea of Debian, complete with long-term stability and a slow, careful release cadence – but you want some of the shinier bits of rival distros, SpiralLinux looks like a great option. ®
At this point, The Reg FOSS desk must confess to some confusions in the original GeckoLinux write-up. I thought it eschewed Btrfs, but I was wrong. It doesn't. As a matter of routine, I normally pre-partition destination computers with Gparted before installing – but the GeckoLinux installation program picks up existing partitions and their filesystems, and by default won't suggest changing them. Also, GeckoLinux does include firmware and non-free drivers that openSUSE doesn't. My mistakes, and my apologies.