With Fedora 37 on the cusp of releasing I thought I'd also check in on openSUSE's MicroOS. The team has been been working diligently on improvements over the course of the year. I thought now would be a nice time to compare and contrast them directly.
I have been using MicroOS for about a year on one of my "couch" laptops, it's a similar use case to a Chromebook where you just need a machine to look up stuff while watching TV. It's quietly been working and updating itself, so I don't really have many complaints. It's nice to not care about that kind of stuff.
For comparison, I have been using Fedora Silverblue since 34 and am currently on 37. It's my "production" Linux desktop for everything on two workstations and an Asus Zephrus G14. I've logged countless hours on both systems, but the majority of it has been on Fedora.
To compare the two I am using my own personal criteria, and if you've hung out with me before you know that I am keen on how distros are bringing cloud native concepts to the Linux desktop. Increasingly these two distros are the ones pushing more aggresively than others. Some background:
Going all in on the new model
As luck would have it I spent two hours having breakfast with Colin Walters (ostree maintainer) at KubeCon where he was explaining to me where he sees stuff going and that really energized me and confirmed that we are going in the right direction.
Then I spent an hour talking to Richard Brown about what they're doing over in openSUSE and I decided to re-examine a fresh installation. It ends up MicroOS are doing things that fiercely align with what I believe, so I'm going to highlight the features that stand out to me:
Embracing Flathub as intended
The first thing MicroOS does after you install it is install the official Firefox flatpak from Flathub. It has a cute little progress window and everything.
Silverblue ships Firefox in it's base image, if you want multimedia support you need to add RPMFusion, which in my experience has severely hampered the reliability of my system, as the repos are versioned for that release of Fedora. You need to explicitly fix it as part of a major version upgrade, and that sucks, especially for newer users. So the next best option someone will tell you in chat is "Install the flatpak". Some users will find the Fedora Flatpak of Firefox, and some will find the one they really want from Flathub. The entire thing is a mess for new users, even if they're already experienced in Linux, and has been a problematic issue when I'm helping people on the Fedora Discord.
With MicroOS it installs it right away and I never have to care about my browser again, I'm getting the right bits. This picture of gnome-software is the perfect illustration of what they're shooting for:
Unlike Fedora and other distros, there's no confusing dropdown asking you to decide where to get your stuff from, it's a clean seperation from the GUI apps and the system itself. If something at this level of the stack is busted, they wanna fix it at the Flathub level, that's right up my alley.
This also means that MicroOS already gets all the "goodies" that the community has been working on in Flathub. OBS with all the hardware encoding stuff? Done. The entire gaming stack with Steam, Lutris, Bottles, and MangoHUD? It's all there already.
Sure, I bolt on any of this stuff on Ubuntu or your existing distro too, but those distros are still conflating the system and the OS so you end up with choice paralysis. Ubuntu has like 3 different ways to run Steam, I ain't got time for that.
Aggressive stance on automation and updates
By default the system is set to autoupdate once a day, at both the system level and the flatpak level, it's set to go right out of the box. The attitude here is investing in openSUSE's CI/CD pipeline to ensure quick updates and fixes. Clear Linux is the only other distro I can think of that has embraced this.
Distrobox by default
I was delighted to learn that the openSUSE team has been working with the Distrobox team to get the fixes they needed to ship it as the default toolbox in MicroOS. Distrobox will of course run on just about anything, however knowing that there's collaboration between the two is a nice bonus.
If you've put some thought into it like I have then you've probably reached the same conclusion, at some point an official distrobox image that is specifically designed to be your userspace on top of an atomic OS image is going to be the way to go. There's so much potential for UX improvements here over time, I can't wait to see what they come up with.
distrobox both use Podman under the hood, so fundamentally they're using the same technology, so this is just a matter of personal preference.
Addenum: Toolbox now has community maintained images of other distributions, thanks for the tip Timothée Ravier!
Adding things to the image
In Silverblue we do things like
rpm-ostree install fish if you want to add something to the image. MicroOS does this with
transactional-update pkg in fish, which won't be winning any CLI beauty pageants, but gets the job done.
Both are capable of adding third party repositories to add to your image, but as mentioned before, adding these removes lots of the guarantees for system reliability, so I tend to steer away from that. But it is an important feature since we are in the middle of a transition. An example:
A small thing I think is cool
A nice surprise is MicroOS has the GNOME Extension Manager instead of the stock GNOME one. This one has the added benefit of being able to grab GNOME extensions online without having to use the browser, you can install them, keep them up to date, and configure them right from the app itself.
You kinda have to have it, as installing extensions from extensions.gnome.org still doesn't work with Firefox via flatpak, though Canonical's snap now has native messaging support it's only a matter of time before this makes it's way into the Flatpak, so ultimately you might not even need or want Extension Manager.
The reason I like it is because there's been so much confusion around the default app which is called "Extensions" and the one people want to actually use, "Extensions Manager".
MicroOS and EndlessOS just swapped it out and moved on, and I have spent WAY too much of my free time over the past year explaining to new Silverblue users how to get working GNOME extensions, it's not fun. :sad smiley:
And you might like the release model
One major difference is that MicroOS doesn't really have a "release number". Fedora Silverblue 37 is based off of Fedora 37, and to upgrade from Fedora 36 you have to explicitly rebase to 37 with a command.
MicroOS instead just drops the number and keeps moving forward, there's really no concept of "freezing for release" or any of the traditional release processes for publishing a versioned release. The ISOs get updated on the regular and I've not really had to care about explicitly sitting down and doing the "It's time to upgrade this machine".
Ultimately it'll be up to you if you want a rolling release or versioned release.
But MicroOS isn't done yet
MicroOS is currently sitting at an "RC" level, and is missing some things that might be important to you. Notably, there's no full disk encryption (FDE) option during installation, which is a deal breaker for me on laptops that leave the house.
Richard mentioned where they want to go as far as modern encryption, TPM stuff, and a bunch of other stuff I barely understood so let's just say it's on their radar and I hope to see a blog post from them in the future!
EDIT: Important clarification from Richard Brown:
Just to clarify.. it’s always been available , but in a “we couldn’t find a way to gracefully disable it in YaST even though we really didn’t like the fact you had to enter your passphrase twice” kinda way
But our awesome grub maintainer got rid of one of those passphrase prompts so now it’s more aligned with what we’re going for in terms of an easy to use system.. and we may even think about making it default
Both are pushing forward
There are some things Fedora Silverblue 37 is doing that I really like. The default zstd-powered btrfs compression is nice, MicroOS doesn't do that out of the box but it's an "easy" fix if you know how to Linux. If you prefer KDE then Fedora Kinoite has made lots of progress. A year from now I think Kinoite and SteamOS will be an interesting comparison.
There are things that ostree does that are missing in MicroOS. The ability to compose new Fedora-derivatives is powerful, documentation in this area would do a bunch to help them in that regard. If you're using CoreOS in cloud and exploring the new features in ostree then this might lead you to prefer Silverblue. They are both kickass operating systems.
What you choose won't matter that much
For the things I care about like apps, gaming, and cloud-native workflow then ultimately what you choose won't matter. Your gaming experience will likely be the same, and distrobox unlocks every cloud image on whatever host it's on, so the developer experience is the same too.
Both are made by long-standing teams with proven track records of shipping good stuff, and both of them will be more reliable and performant than most of the popular distros people are using today. That's not a flex, that's just the sad state of reliability the Linux desktop suffers from today, but the past year has seen some great improvements!
Both expect you to report bugs via Bugzilla, so rest assured that there's no hope for you there.
But if you're new, MicroOS is probably the better choice
So ultimately it's what you prefer. I think for people who are just getting started in this journey then openSUSE MicroOS is a great first step.
For me personally, I modify my systems from stock Silverblue to ones that behave like MicroOS does out of the box, this is why I'll be recommending MicroOS to people who are just getting started.
Of course I'll keep using both in anger to keep talking about it, and remember there's EndlessOS, Clear Linux, and now VanillaOS, so it'll be an interesting 2023!
Ready to try?
I maintain a list of resources for people looking to get into these type of systems, check it out and feel free to PR any goodies you might find: