Crunchbang++ versus Bunsen Labs: The pair turn it up to 12

Lightweight rivals, both based on Crunchbang, OpenBox, and Debian

Crunchbang++ and Bunsen Labs each aim to continue the tradition of the very lightweight Crunchbang Linux, although both distros have thickened around the waist a bit over the years.

BunsenLabs Boron is the latest release of one of the two projects developing Crunchbang's successors. This release updates BunsenLabs by rebasing it on Debian 12 "Bookworm". Which means, neatly, that it catches up with the other continuation, CrunchBang++, whose Bookworm-based version, CBPP 12 appeared in June last year.

BunsenLabs' default layout is almost as minimal, but there's a splash of color and tiny bit of decoration.

BunsenLabs' default layout is almost as minimal, but there's a splash of color and tiny bit of decoration (click to enlarge)

How come there are two?

CrunchBang Linux was a very minimalist cut-down distro from the noughties. It started out as a stripped-down version of Ubuntu, then switched over to becoming a stripped-down version of Debian instead. The Reg approvingly mentioned the Asus EEE specific version, Crunchee, back in 2009. Sadly, in 2015, developer Philip "corenominal" Newborough pulled the plug on development, saying that he felt users would be better off with vanilla Debian.

The user community disagreed. One independent continuation, Bunsen Labs, was announced within days, intentionally choosing a different name, as mentioned in the thread announcing the closure:

Philip has mentioned that, since CrunchBang has been his project from the beginning, he would like to see the name separated from any derivative that succeeds it. (Also, this is pretty much the only stipulation in the WTFPL, which Philip applied to the code he used in the CrunchBang configs and scripts.)

Another continuation was close behind: Crunchbang Plus Plus, or #!++, came right behind and actually released first, although as the forum thread shows some of the Crunchbang enthusiasts didn't like the name, feeling that it was too similar.

Crunchbang++ has a starkly monochrome main screen and main menu… if you like that sort of thing.

Crunchbang++ has a starkly monochrome main screen and main menu… if you like that sort of thing (click to enlarge)

Fast-forward nine years…

Both BunsenLabs and CrunchBang++ (or Bunsen and CB++ as we'll call them) are still going. Both have diverged a little from their shared ancestor, but they still have more in common than there are differences. We thought it was time to take a fresh look at both, and compare and contrast.

They are both still based on Debian, and as of the Boron release, that means version 12. In terms of compatibility, range of packages available, driver support, and so on, they're just Debian; enough said.

Both use the Openbox window manager rather than a full desktop environment. However, you're not left gazing at a blank screen: both use tint2, so you have a familiar, taskbar-like panel, containing a clock plus icons for battery, network and so on. Tint2 has a clever way of handling multiple desktops: the panel is split into zones, each collecting together the icons representing windows on a particular virtual screen. By default, both distros have two virtual screens, but like everything else, this is configured.

The wallpaper holds a floating system monitor thanks to Conky. As well as some performance indicators, there is a handy list of hotkeys. Some 15 years ago, CrunchBang was the first distro we saw to make significant use of the Super ("Windows") key, and its offspring still do: you press Super+T for a terminal, Super+W for a web browser, Super+F for a file manager, and so on, and the Conky display lists nine of these plus a few others.

This is especially handy because there's no Start menu on the panel. To get the main system menu, you can right-click the desktop, but Conky is always there to remind you that this isn't the quick way to launch apps. This main menu contains the usual categorized list of applications, settings and so on, but what's unusual about these distros is that rather than leading to graphical programs to adjust your system configuration, many of the submenus open the relevant text file in the default text editor. The bottom section of many submenus is titled Help and links to the program's man page, or its documentation, or both.

Both have a text-based welcome screen, which leads the first-time users through updating and installing some useful but optional components.

Both distros offer similar selections of tools: the Geany text editor, Firefox ESR browser, Thunar file manager, VLC media player, and so on. They're all pragmatic choices, and we like this attitude of making a good choice for you, rather than the antiX approach of installing half a dozen alternatives and abandoning the user to learn how to evaluate them all then remove the ones they don't want.


Despite the same overall design, though, the two distros are no longer identical twins.

The original Crunchbang was notable for its stark, minimalist look: black, white, and a some very limited shades of gray. Even its logo was just the squared-off characters #!, with no curves and no aliasing. It was very plain and simple, and the Reg FOSS desk liked that.

CB++ hews very closely to this. The sole spot of color in the default screen is the language indicator in the system tray, and those two blue letters stick out like a sore thumb as a result. Everything else is muted grays, and the only graphical elements are the volume, network and clipboard indicator icons.

It sticks to CrunchBang's original ultra-light application choices, such as the AbiWord word processor and Gnumeric spreadsheet. In places, some point to programs that aren't installed yet, so the Office menu has a sub-entry for LibreOffice which contains a single option: Install LibreOffice. This is a simple way to lead novices to additional tools that they might want, while keeping the distro small.

Bunsen has moved further from its ancestor. It is distinctly more colorful, with a default theme in shades of blue, colourful icons in the main menu, the logout dialog box, and other places. It's moved the tint2 panel to a vertical position on the left edge of the screen. LibreOffice is installed by default, along with a few extra tools, such as Xfce's App Finder.

Even so, Bunsen remains a little smaller. It's a 1.8GB download, and uses 4.2GB when installed. CB++ is 2.13GB download, and uses 5.8GB of space. Both use slightly over half a gig of RAM at idle.


Which of the two you might prefer is hard to say. Bunsen is slightly smaller, and we like the vertical panel – but this vulture prefers the minimalist, almost-monochrome look of the original Crunchbang, which CB++ retains almost intact.

Even though CB++ is also more spartan in its choice of apps, it manages to be slightly larger, which is surprising. We don't know where, but somewhere in there, there's some excess material to trim.

There's a tendency in contemporary Linux to either wrap configuration in fancy graphical tools, or – lamentably – to remove such options altogether. GNOME's removal of theme support is a visible example, but its developers also removed title bars, menu bars, desktop icons, and much more besides. The KDE team is doing similar, but less obvious, things: it's removed options such as panels spanning multiple desktops, or tabbed window title bars. Additionally, look at how two of the eight official screenshots show apps without menu bars.

Both Bunsen and CB++ lean the other way. They are very simple and clean, but not unfriendly or gratuitously minimal. You can find your way around with helpful menus and learn keyboard shortcuts at your own pace. Rather than leaving you to find config files, they're right there in the menus.

Rather than hiding or removing customization, Bunsen and CB++ both put it front and center. As a result, they're not only quite lightweight, they both represent excellent ways to learn your way around a Linux system and explore how it works, while remaining usable.

There isn't a huge amount to choose between the two distros, and as we said when comparing Debian derivatives in 2022, we'd like to see them either combine their efforts… or, if that were impossible, move further apart. As the more conservative of the two forks, we reckon CB++'s developer Ben "Computermouth" Young might consider rebasing on Devuan – we feel that there'd be additional appeal in one of the two being systemd-free.


Crunchbang got its name from a slightly alternative interpretation of the classic Unix shebang: #!, the two characters at the start of a script that tell the OS which shell to use to run it. Readers from the USA might call '#' a pound sign, but be warned, this makes other native English speakers twitch: to Brits, a pound sign is '£'. Some call # "hash", some "octothorpe", and apparently some call it "crunch". Meanwhile, "!" is usually an exclamation mark, but in the very early days of Internet email, it was used in email addresses in the bang path format.

Crunch + bang = #! = a niftily short name for a distro. CB++, meanwhile, riffs on the C language's increment operator, as do both the C++ and C# programming languages. ®

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