Bunsenlab Linux: The Rocky Balboa of Desktop Linux


The Underdog Shall Rise: Balboa Gets Ready for Apollo

This is a Linux review for Bunsenlab Linux, a lightning-fast desktop Linux distribution.

In my continuous search for the best Linux desktop, curiosity and necessity lead me to paths previously unexplored and to the road less traveled.

Sometimes I get stranded in the “Valley Of Nowhere”, where some Linux encounters become rather futile and fruitless. However, this encounter with Bunsenlab’s Linux is full of fantastic rewards and the result is self-evident.

If You are Looking for An Efficient and Fast Distribution

Bunsenlab Linux is not for you if you are looking for a flashy GUI desktop and lots of eye candy. This distribution does not get the attention that it deserves.  It’s a bit of an underdog compared to other Debian-based distributions.  Bunsenlab Linux is actually a derivative of another Linux distro called Crunchbang Linux that is directly based on Debian. Bunsenlabs Linux supports i386 (meaning 32-bit) as well as AMD64 (meaning 64-bit) CPUs.

The Decline And Dissapereance of the 32-bit CPU Architecture

Fewer distributions are willing to support 32-bit Linux these days — a bad decision I.M.H.O.

A lot of old legacy systems are going into the landfill — so much for the O.S that once promised otherwise.

Bunsenlab Linux Lineage

Here is the “genealogy tree” for Bunsenlab’s Linux:

Debian->CrunchBang Linux-> Bunsenlab Linux


Bunsenlab Linux First Impression

This particular find is a very “refreshing cocktail encounter” in which speed, simplicity, power, and elegance come together in one distribution. Let’s see what makes this Linux distribution so great.

This distro can be downloaded as an ISO of 1GB in size for either the 32-bit version of the 64-bit version. Either version comes with the options for graphical/text install and the live-boot option.

Not all distributions are this handy and allow for a live version to be included on the same ISO image.

There is even a memory diagnostics program you can run to check your system RAM before you install the O.S.


Busenlab Linux System Requirements: (chart below is a straight copy and paste from https://www.bunsenlabs.org/installation.html)

RAM (minimum) RAM (recommended) Hard Drive
256M 1G 10G

Depending on the applications and feature set you decide to use (especially if you do not run a graphical desktop), the system may run fine with fewer resources. An installation from the live ISOs uses approximately 2.1G of space on the hard drive.


The Testing Hardware

My laptop has a very odd configuration. It is an OLD laptop, probably pre-2006, with legacy hardware built into it — a Thinkpad T43 (the ones made before it became Levono).  It is well-built and very sturdy.

The specific ThinkPad T43 being reviewed here has the following specs:

IBM ThinkPad T43 Specs as Delivered

  1. Intel Pentium M 750 (1.86GHz, 2MB L2 Cache, 533MHz FSB)
  2. 14.0″ SXGA (1400 x 1050) display
  3. 60GB, 7200RPM Hard Drive  (currently removed)
  4. 512MB DDR2 SDRAM  (upgraded to 2GB RAM)
  5. CD-RW/DVD-RW (CD 24x Read, 16x Write) (DVD 3x Read, 2x Write)  (removed and replaced with caddy containing SATA SSD)
  6. Standard 6-cell battery and optional 9-cell extended life battery
  7. Ports: 2 USB 2.0, 1 ExpressCard slot, 1 PCMCIA card slot, 56K Modem, Ethernet LAN port, PS2 port, headphone jack, microphone jack, parallel port, VGA out port, Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2
  8. ATI X300 Graphics Card with 64MB RAM
  9. Intel PRO/Wireless 2915 802.11 a/b/g internal wireless card
  10. Fingerprint scanner for security

Specifics Of My Testing Computer System

Some of the specs have changed since the time I upgraded/modified/remove certain parts. The system RAM on my Thinkpad was upgraded to 2GB of RAM.  

It used to have an IDE drive that contributed to the overall heat generated by the system.

To reduce the overall heat produced, I removed the old IDE hard drive.

Swapping An IDE Drive For An SSD Drive

I removed the laptop’s removable DVD-RW drive and replaced it with a modern 128GB SATA SSD, housed in a T43 compatible SATA HD caddy adaptor I purchased on eBay. 

I reconfigured my laptop’s BIOS to boot from the SSD drive housed in the HD caddy.

The Challenges Bunsenlab Linux Must Overcome

The overall hardware configuration of this laptop makes it an excellent system to test for the efficiency and speed of the Linux distribution in question because:

  1. it is old aging legacy hardware (can this distro work on old systems reliably?)
  2. it has a rather unusual hard drive boot configuration (can it handle a less mainstream drive configuration and boot from it?)
  3. it does not have a very fast CPU; it is a single core 32-bit CPU (can this distro perform on your spare laptop equipped with a relatively underpowered CPU and hardware?)
  4. it has about 2 GB system of memory (can it run on less RAM than the average computer today and do it in an acceptable manner?) The average computer today has at least 4GB of memory — desktop or laptop
  5. it has a PCMCIA/CardBus slot (will it work with your old card/slot based add-on i/o card?)

If a distro can function with the above hardware criteria and gives us acceptable response and speed to run most of the daily applications that most people use (email, word processing, minor image editing, image scanning, net browsing, movie playing, music playing) and run some of these tasks simultaneously (let’s say about 3 of the above tasks), then we should deem the distro worthy.

What Stood Out At First Sight

Bunsenlab Linux Responsiveness

The most outstanding feature of this distro, amongst its already impressive features, is the speed. The speed of execution is the fastest I have seen of any other distros I have tried so far. It boots up really quickly.

It is faster than Slackware (Slackware runs much slower these days), faster than Bhodi Linux, and even small distros like Puppy Linux. Had it not been for the odd storage configuration on my laptop, this distro would load even faster. It literally boots up in a flash — assuming you have an SSD as your O.S drive.

Let me tell you a bit about my laptop and its configuration and you will see why I Bunsenlab Linux is FAST.

My Thinkpad’s T43 unusual configuration causes the bootup process to slow down as the kernel tries to detect and sense the presence (or lack thereof) of the IDE drive (which I removed permanently) while it prints several time-out errors on screen — the process takes almost 70 seconds.

Once the kernel is convinced that there is NO IDE drive, it continues with the boot process and loads the rest of the drivers until it shows the graphical user login in.

Timing the Boot Process

With a stopwatch, I recorded these times for the boot up all the way to the graphical user login screen:

  1. 90 seconds total boot up time (including the delay for missing IDE drive detection time-out)
  2. 20 seconds total boot up (without the IDE delay error)

For trial #1, the IDE detection timeout takes the most time out of the entire boot up process. Otherwise, the boot-up time without the IDE timeout takes only about 20 seconds.

How did I get the estimate of 20 seconds for trial #2?

For this trial, I started my stopwatch countdown for the boot process and stopped the stopwatch the moment I saw the IDE timeout error messages; then I resumed the countdown once the IDE time errors ended and then stopped the countdown again as soon as the graphical user login appeared.

My IDE timeout error took almost 1 full minute. I previously tried disabling this IDE detection from both the BIOS and the kernel with no success.

Bunsenlab Linux Performance Compared to Other Linux Distributions

The point here is that with a system as old and as underpowered as my IBM Thinkpad, the O.S boot time was just 20 seconds. Any system better equipped than my laptop should boot up in MUCH less time — a lot less!

You should also know that not many Linux distros I tried could successfully boot up my laptop right out of the box. The order in which certain distros load up the drivers has a lot to do with this.

Many of the distros I tried got stuck when they could not find the IDE drive (which was removed from my laptop) and would freeze. Bunsenlabs got past this hurdle with flying colors! I recalled trying out another 8 different distros (Bunsenlab Linux included), but only about 3 distros would boot my system properly and be fully functional — Bunselabs was 1 of the 3 that succeeded.


This is a screenshot of the boot menu with the selection to make a live-boot.

 First Impression(not a smooth start at first)

Bunsenlab’s Linux is a distribution that is all about simplicity, efficiency and is highly optimized for speed. Once I log in, I am presented with a very simple and bare looking GUI desktop.  There is no way to create a folder or shortcut on the desktop.  On the right side, there is an interesting widget (almost part of the desktop) that displays system stats for resource usage and system uptime. 

At first, the barebone GUI gives no clue as to where a menu would be located. It was frustrating trying to figure out what I had to do to start running applications because an application menu is nowhere to be seen. I click on the top bar and nothing pops up.  The top upper right corner shows all the usual icon indicators: battery percentage (for laptops), network state(wifi or wired), and time/calendar.  

An accidental click on the right mouse button reveals a floating menu that lists in detail all the applications available.

Bunsenlab GUI Accessibility

There are only 3 icons at the very top left corner that you can click to run 3 basic applications: a default text editor, a file manager (very similar to Thunar), and Terminal Icon to access the command line shell (bash). In case you are wondering, the GUI for this Linux distro is Openbox, an extremely light and efficient desktop GUI that is very well suited for a system with low system resources.

Placement of GUI Components

The desktop has a widget on the right side: it shows stats on system resource usage along with the basic keyboard commands to access features of the GUI to run applications or open a RUN dialog to run an application by name (if installed in the system).

Why did I not use the key combinations listed to get to the floating menu?

The keyboard on the Thinkpad T43 does not have a “Superkey” (the key used in MS Windows to load the main menu??). That is what the S means on the “Shortcut Keys” list displayed on the right side of the GUI desktop.

Past the Initial Learning Curve, Bunsenlab Linux Is Second To None

Once I figured out how to get the floating applications menu by clicking the right button on the mouse, life with Bunsenlab Linux was smooth sail from that point on — I could almost hear “Sailing” by Christopher Cross in the background.


Here is a screenshot of the live session with Bunsenlab Linux and the floating menu activated by clicking the RIGHT mouse button


Running Applications Simultaneously

In a previous paragraph, I mentioned that the O.S should be able to handle about 3 tasks running simultaneously to prove its “worthiness”  (I know…sounds like a Samurai challenge).  I tried different combinations of programs.  With the aforementioned laptop configuration, I could run one instance of an mp4 movie playing on VLC, run Opera with 4 tabs open(with one tab running a Youtube video of medium quality), and run a package upgrade task on a command-line terminal.

Putting Bunsenlab Linux Under Some Stress

In another instance, I tried running Chrome or Firefox with 5 to 6 tabs open in addition to either an mp4 movie playing OR playing mp3 music with another instance of VLC.  This second instance of applications running on the system was a bit more taxing because the net browsing would sometimes interfere with the movie playing.  For a laptop that is running on a single core 32-bit CPU, the performance is fairly decent considering how it is running several applications simultaneously that are designed and optimized for much newer and more powerful CPUs. 

Ease Of Use

Bunsenlab Linux is very easy to install and use once you figure out how to get to the floating application menu.

It is also very easy to customize and configure; the GUI is very minimalist but enough to give you access and navigate the desktop environment with ease and has a wealth of applications. Don’t let the simple GUI fool you.  It is not a hindrance, I promise.

There is a menu configuration tool that lets you add or change the apps available on the floating menu — or build a completely new custom floating menu from scratch. The minimalist GUI is based on Openbox, but minimalist does not mean lacking. There are plenty of features and applications (because it is Debian-based!!). 

Changing The Look And Feel

You can also easily change the wallpaper to your liking with other pictures of images that you prefer.  The Bunsenlab GUI is built with 3 main components: the Openbox windows manager, Tint2 panel and taskbar, and the Conky system monitor. 

The Tint2 panel and taskbar, as well as the Conky system monitor, can be configured to your liking but requires more extensive work to be customized. 


Speaking of MENU CONFIGURATION here is a screenshot showing the GUI menu config editor. You can change/add/remove menu items and/or create whole new menus as well as change existing menus.


Take a closer look at the menu configuration tools available (focus on the black rectangle selection)



Applications Galore

The floating menu shows already a number of application categories available that comes already from the live-boot. There are even more options for even more applications that you can get once you install Bunsenlab Linux on the hard drive.

The Entire Debian Linux Application Repository At Your Disposal

The entire Debian 8 (codenamed Jessie) application repository is at your disposal. Not only is the Debian repository available to you, the Bunsenlab distro creators have taken the trouble of including ADDITIONAL applications and backports of tools and features.

This distribution is jam-packed with programs you can use once the distribution is installed on your hard drive. It has extensive support for most hardware right out of the box. If you are already a Debian distro user, you will be right at home.

Debian Linux maintains a very large repository of applications covering a very large range of computing needs and the applications are constantly being updated. 

There are also many contributions from the Debian community in addition to the existing body of applications from the original Debian Linux repository.  Any Debian-based distro will have access to that vast default source of applications from the Debian repositories.

Looking Ahead

I am going to skip ahead and tell you a bit about what goodies are in store for you after the distro is installed on your computer.

Every time you create a new login user and log in as that newly created user, a special welcome console will automatically open asking you whether you want to update the O.S and install additional programs.

Don’t Skip The “Hello” Welcome Console Window

The first time I installed the distro, this screen showed up and I canceled it. My suggestion to you is that you say yes and make sure that your distro has a working network connection — either wifi or wired. The system will go through a major update that will include the regular updates to the Debian distribution itself and will also include the ADDITIONAL backported repository sources to Bunsenlab to give you even more programs and tools. It will even ask whether you want additional development tools and install a whole LAMP stack for you — good news for web developers.

Configuring System Preferences And Customizing The Floating Menu

The floating menu has sections that let you install many of the common bread and butter applications that you might need or find useful to have. Bunselab does not come with too many applications at first for the sake of efficiency but has enough to get you started.

Efficiency is at the top of its priorities and features. However, it offers plenty of ways to increase your arsenal of applications if want more, and the floating menu has plenty of goodies listed that are ready for you to click and install.


If you are running the live version of Bunsenlab Linux, the session might lock after a while just like the way many distros lock the screen for security reasons. Just type user for the username and live for the password to get back to the desktop.

In Conclusion

This blog that you are reading is merely a review of Bunsenlab Linux and just gives you a quick tour of the things you can do with it and some good screenshots for those of you that want a preview before even trying it. If you are interested in the INSTALLATION of this distro, check out my next blog that will focus on how to install Bunselab Linux on a computer along with the extra applications.  Bunsenlab Linux looks very simplistic on the surface but I have yet to understand its sophistication.

If this article has peaked your interest, then you might want to continue with the next article that will walk you through the installation of Bunsenlab Linux.

I highly recommend this distro and I really suggest that you try it out — you won’t regret it.





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