Desktop Consolidation Gives SparkyLinux a Clearer Focus

SparkyLinux is experiencing growing pains. You could say that this very capable Linux distribution was just too much of a great thing to last.

Users previously had access to a continuously updated list of more than a dozen different download options. Depending on which variety you selected, you could choose from a wide range of desktop environments. The SparkyLinux community released three branches; each branch issued new versions with different release numbers and different software packages.

The release lineup was a dizzying smorgasbord of flavors. The options underscored one of the most inviting benefits of using the Linux platform. All of the options had a common unifying developmental thread. No matter which desktop you chose, you got an open source platform that ran within a lightweight desktop shell.

Starting with the release earlier this month of SparkyLinux 4.8 Stable Branch, users will have only two desktop choices going forward. The developer last month announced a streamlining plan. The community has narrowed its focus to one main core that uses only Openbox based on LXQt for the rolling branch, or LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment) for the stable branch.

This change makes sense to achieve a streamlined desktop line. LXDE and LXQt are variations on the same theme. LXQt was formed from the merger of the LXDE and Razor-qt projects.

The combination makes Sparky Linux 4.8 sleek and modern. It also makes it fast and functional.

SparkyLinux 4.8 LXDE desktop

SparkyLinux 4.8 runs the LXDE desktop with a nice assortment of software that performs well in a live session, from a USB installation or as a full hard drive installation.

Work in Progress

I have followed SparkyLinux’s development over the years. Describing it as a “lightweight distro” can be misleading. This distro is modern. It runs the latest releases of the leading open source powerhouse applications. However, calling it “modern” also can be as misleading. Both terms often are misunderstood.

Under the hood, the Linux components are up to date and, in some cases, forward-looking. However, in order to run on older equipment, SparkyLinux forgoes the eye candy that the resource-intensive desktop environments employ.

The emphasis on LXDE and LXQt’s lightweight design is essential to the distro’s mission. The design lets legacy computers that limp along in Microsoft Windows run with newfound vigor. As an added benefit, power consumption is lower, so laptop batteries last longer before needing a charge.

SparkyLinux 4.8 is easy to use, but is not built specifically for Linux newcomers. Newbies will have to be comfortable with how the Linux operating system functions before they can get its full benefits, lightweight or otherwise.

The Openbox desktop base will not disappoint more seasoned Linux users. SparkyLinux offers more than ease of use. It is an ideal Linux OS that does not slow down or change your work routine on any class of computer.

Changing Times

No longer will the developers release new SparkyLinux editions with different desktop offerings, such as Enlightenment, JWM, KDE, LXQt, MATE, Xfce and a host of other newer desktops from third-party repositories. The multimedia plugins, selected sets of apps, and custom desktop tools will be no more.

Some things within the distro community will not change, though. For one, SparkyLinux users will get an operating system that is out-of-the-box ready for use.

SparkyLinux is still based on the Debian Linux distribution, featuring three different development branches: Stable, Rolling and Developmental. The latest release, codenamed “Tyche,” is the apparent new face of the distro. It is based on the Stable Debian line, and it just works. Updates occur on a planned timeline.

Rolling editions of SparkyLinux are based on the Debian Testing branch. Updates automatically roll in as new components are ready. You do not have to wait for a complete update. This approach could make for occasional instabilities.

Avoid the SparkyLinux Development edition unless you really know your way around Linux. It is the platform strictly for testers and very advanced users.

Diving In

SparkyLinux is a well-thought-out Linux OS. It has straightforward controls that let you get your work done without distractions. The user interface is friendly and intuitive.

I like its overall appearance — there is nothing to relearn. The desktop view is sparse (as in uncluttered). It has a clean and attractive main menu design.

SparkyLinux has a very obvious focus on user interface convenience. Right-click on an app’s name in the main menu to place a quick-launch icon directly on the desktop.

However, you can not place launchers on the panel bar. That is one design flaw that disrupts my accustomed workflow. I like to put launchers of frequently used programs on the panel bar for quick access. I can not do that with LXDE. Nor is there a favorites panel built into the main menu display.

Clicking the standard Show Desktop icon near the menu button is an inefficient way to reach the desktop launcher icon. Why bother?

The panel bar by default sits at the bottom of the screen. Right-click anywhere on the bar to the panel settings menu. Use it to redesign the look and feel.

For instance, you can reposition the panel bar to the top or either side of the screen You can change the bar’s dimensions and colors. You can add and remove applets.

Usage Scenarios

Similarly, open the Preferences option in the main menu at the far left of the panel bar. That exposes controls for every aspect of the desktop.

The Workspace Switcher on the panel bar is preconfigured to show two virtual desktop spaces. Changing that setting is as simple as right-clicking on the switcher and clicking the plus or minus symbol in the pop-up workspaces menu.

Follow a similar method for updating the date and time already displayed in the notifications area. When new software is available, the update system icon appears to the right of the main menu button on the panel bar.

SparkyLinux 4.8 LXDE Main Menu

The LXDE desktop is no slouch when it comes to configuring SparkyLinux Tyche. You get numerous configuration panels plus nearly one dozen individual setup menu options in the Preferences and System Tools categories within the Main Menu.

One UI feature that keeps the desktop manageable with numerous open windows puts a twist on the traditional Show Desktop icon. Left-click the windows icon to iconify all open app windows to the panel bar. Right-click to shade or condense each open window to a title bar that you can move anywhere on the screen.

Some Software Bummers

My only real disappointment is in some of the software packages. No doubt the choices were influenced heavily by the need to keep lighter weight packages as much as possible. Of course, if your hardware is up to the task, you can add what you prefer.

For instance, the bundled LibreOffice suite is still at version, which is a bit long in the tooth. Version 6.0+ has been out long enough for the developer to provide it. I have added the newer office suite release on low-capability computers running other distros and did not see any performance degradation.

The only included Web browser is Firefox ESR. It works fine, but it lacks some of the newer options in the Quantum release. I added the Chromium browser to have access to my Google niceties without adding the full weight of the Google Chrome browser.

Bottom Line

You can run SparkyLinux from a thumb drive. You also can supercharge its performance by loading it into your computer’s RAM.

However, the OS is not really as useful if you use it only for a portable computing platform. It performs best when installed on the hard drive. SparkyLinux does not use a frugal installation and special antics to provide persistent memory.

SparkyLinux is a very functional Linux OS. It is a solid choice for use as an all-purpose home edition with all the tools, codecs, plugins and drivers preinstalled.

Want to Suggest a Review?

Is there a Linux software application or distro you’d like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

Please email your ideas to me, and I’ll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.

And use the Reader Comments feature below to provide your input!

Jack M. Germain

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software.Email Jack.


  • Dear Jack,

    Thank you for the excellent review! I tried Sparky Linux sometime ago and as you article implies it went wonky so I relegated it to a VM.

    After reading your review I installed the latest version with the LXDE interface. Wow what a difference!

    All the Best!

    Tech in San Diego

  • I had tried Sparky Linux with the Mate desktop, rolling release. I found it to buggy to use. Though I hate to see the Mate desktop go, this is probably a good move by Sparky developers to build a better distro. Better to concentrate on quality than to try to please everyone.

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