Linux distribution Netrunner has a rocky past but a promising future

Jack Wallen calls Netrunner XOXO a victory for the developers of the distro. See why this Linux distribution might be in your future.

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Image: Jack Wallen

Netrunner. When I think of the name, the collectable card game of the '90s comes to mind. If you remember it, your geekdom is strong.

It was a card game where one player took on the role of a futuristic hacker and the other player was a mega corporation. The objective of the game? If you're the hacker, it was to hack the mega corporation. If you're the corporation, it was to not get hacked. It was the millennium's most underrated game. And I really enjoyed it (I still have my decks).

Netrunner the Linux distribution has nothing to do with the card game. It will not go down as the millennium's most underrated operating system. Although, like the card game, it does take me back to late '90s Linux--sort of. I'll explain. But first, a bit of a history lesson on Netrunner.

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Netrunner's past

Netrunner has a rather interesting past. Every time the Linux distribution seemed to gain some semblance of traction, it would falter and have to be relaunched. It was once a rolling release--then it was not. It was once based on Kubuntu--then it was not. It was nearly an Hawaii-themed distribution--then it was not. 

Netrunner has morphed into so many different iterations that it's hard to remember if I tried them all.

In the end, this is technology, so it's where you are and where you're going...not where you've been. And right now, Netrunner seems to have found its stride.

Netrunner's present

At the moment, Netrunner is based on Debian "Buster" and sports a customized KDE interface. The biggest customization is the desktop menu, which is actually called the Application Dashboard. This take on the KDE menu is more an amalgamation of KDE's Kickoff and the GNOME Application Overview, and it works really well.

Click the menu button to reveal a full window overview of your installed applications and widgets, as well as power controls and search (Figure A).

Figure A

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The Netrunner Application Dashboard

Some have compared the Netrunner desktop menu to that of Windows 10. I won't go that far, but I will say if you're comfortable with Windows 10, you'll be right at home with Netrunner XOXO.

Besides the Application Dashboard and a well-designed wallpaper (which reveals the name of Netrunner 20 - XOXO - Figure B), there's quite a lot to like about the latest take on this roller coaster of a Linux distribution.

Figure B

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The default Netrunner desktop

There's the fact that it's based on Debian and includes all of the latest "Buster" security updates and the activated Debian Backports repository, which provides updated Wi-Fi and ethernet firmware and includes a wider base of supported printers out of the box.

Surprisingly, Netrunner's kernel is a bit ahead of my daily driver, Pop!_OS, which runs kernel 5.8.0-7642. Netrunner ships with kernel 5.9.0-0.bpo.5-amd64. The Netrunner graphics stack includes Mesa 18.3.6 and X.Org 1.20.4.

The list of software has a few interesting bits:

  • LibreOffice

  • Firefox

  • GIMP

  • Inkscape

  • Handbrake

  • Krita

  • Pidgin

  • Skype

  • SUSE Studio Imagewriter

  • Thunderbird

  • Telegram

  • Whatsapp

  • Yakuake

Clearly, Netrunner isn't a Linux distribution for open source purists; instead, it's all about being productive right out of the box. Also, that list is a bit deceiving, as Netrunner isn't only about work. In fact, this distribution might be one of the better takes on Linux for gaming you'll find, as it ships with Steam and a few fun games. I even found one of my old favorite Linux games installed...Frozen Bubble. I hadn't played Frozen Bubble in years, so it was fun to harken back to those early 2000 days of using Linux (Figure C).

Figure C

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Getting my Frozen Bubble on!

Another aspect that makes Netrunner an outstanding desktop is how the developers have treated KDE. It's definitely KDE, but they've opted to use a mixture of parts:

  • KDE Plasma 5.14.5

  • KDE Applications 18.08.0

  • KDE Frameworks 5.54

  • Qt 5.11.3

And it all works quite well. It's fast, stable and incredibly user-friendly.

I really enjoy using this take on desktop Linux. It certainly won't replace my default Pop!_OS, but it gives me a case of the "I miss the '90s" feels. Not just because the name reminds me of my favorite card game, but because there's this exciting amalgam of old and new with Netrunner. You know you're using a modern desktop environment, but it feels like it has distinct roots in the past. And that's a good thing.

A caveat about Netrunner

One ding against Netrunner is that the Linux distribution requires over 30 Gb in size for installation. You read that right: not 30 Mb, but 30Gb. However, after the installation is complete, you'll find around 8 Gb is actually used. So if you test Netrunner out on a virtual machine, create a dynamic guest drive of about 40 Gb, knowing that it'll only eat up less than 10 when all is said and done.

Netrunner's future

Given Netrunner's past, the most important thing I could say to the developers is to stay this course. They've got a fine Linux distribution on their hands, so the best thing they can do is stick with it and let it evolve naturally. Should that be the case, the future of Netrunner is all upside.

The Netrunner Linux distribution is quite good. If you're looking for a take on the Linux desktop that will serve you well, you cannot go wrong with Netrunner.

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By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....