Intel’s Clear Linux Project has been on my radar for months, mainly because of its sheer dominance over traditional Linux distributions — and often Windows — when it comes to performance. From time to time I check in on the latest Phoronix benchmarks and think to myself “I reallyneed to install that.” Up until recently though, the installer for Clear Linux was anything but intuitive for the average user. It also looked considerably dated. Version 2.0 gives the installer a complete overhaul. Check it out:
Here’s what it looked like only a few weeks ago:
Calling that a dramatic improvement is an understatement. And as a user’s first brush with a distro, the installer is all-important.
Seemingly overnight, Intel’s Clear Linux became a distribution with an eye toward not just Cloud environments, machine learning applications, data science and power users, but the broader desktop user as well. The installer is approachable, features a live Gnome environment, and everything is contained within two tabs of options. If you’ve installed Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora or any other popular distro, you’ll feel quite comfortable here.
It also happens to look great which doesn’t hurt.
There’s another clue that Intel is beginning to reach out to the everyday user: a community forum where it’s actively soliciting feedback. They’re asking important questions like what technology they should build to further improve the installation process, and strongly hinting their goal is “broader usage and adoption.”
(The first Clear Linux OS Meetup is also taking place later this month.)
So I finally took the plunge and installed the Clear Linux Desktop ISOonto my Hades Canyon NUC and a Dell XPS 13. Obviously I got straight to benchmarking. Before we look at those preliminary results, though. . .
What The Heck Is Clear Linux OS?
In Intel’s own words: “Clear Linux OS is an open source, rolling release Linux distribution optimized for performance and security, from the Cloud to the Edge, designed for customization and manageability.”
In more specific terms, Clear Linux is built from scratch atop the GNOME desktop environment, and it’s highly tuned for Intel platforms, with all performance optimizations enabled by default. Those optimizations occur across the entire stack: kernel, libraries, middleware layers, frameworks and runtime.
Clear Linux has Flatpak support out of the box, and an included software store with more than 4000 applications and bundles. So yes, if you wanted to treat this as a traditional desktop workstation, I don’t see any major obstacles to doing that aside from a slight learning curve with regards to Intel’s custom “swupd” package manager.
Besides Flatpak support, Intel has pledged to increase the number of upstreamed components available in Clear Linux by 3x this year alone.
Clear Linux also takes a unique approach to updates. Only the updated bits of a package are downloaded as opposed to an entirely new version, leading to what should be a faster and more lightweight update process.
There’s plenty more to dig into via the About page. Or you can follow Intel’s guides to experience Clear Linux on a live desktop, installing it on bare metal or working with it inside a VM.
As an outsider looking in, Clear Linux seems to be progressing at a rapid pace. It isn’t going to become my new daily driver, but I’m certainly keeping a close eye on it.
Especially given its performance advantages on even midrange hardware. Clear Linux also gifts us with a noticeably smoother, faster web browsing experience. And there are benchmark results to prove it.
Initial Benchmarks: Ubuntu 19.04 Versus Clear Linux OS
I’m going to call this first batch of benchmarks “exploratory.” Getting the Phoronix Test Suite installed was a natural way to start learning Clear Linux’ swupd tool, and it was painless. The system I chose was a no-brainer: my Intel Hades Canyon NUC with Intel Core i7-8809G (at 4.20GHz). On the OS side — at time of publishing — Clear Linux includes GNOME Shell 3.32.1, Kernel 5.0.14-753.native, Vulkan 1.1.90 and MESA 19.1.0-devel.
I’m actually going to start with a Firefox browser benchmark, because on both systems installed Clear Linux on, it just felt faster and more responsive. I had to put that to the test.
The Selenium suite confirms this, as it shows Clear Linux flying past Ubuntu 19.04 — at least on Firefox. Michael at Phoronix also has a terrific article on this topic. By the way, Clear Linux even beats Windows 10 Pro on this front — and every single Linux distro tested.
(As always with Phoronix Test Suite, you can fire it up and test things out for yourself. Once installed, just run “phoronix-test-suite benchmark selenium” without the quotes).
Next up is compilebench, a test that ages a filesystem by simulating some of the disk IO common in creating, compiling, patching, stating and reading kernel trees. It indirectly measures how well filesystems can maintain directory locality as the disk fills up and directories age. Clear Linux pulls the majority victory here.
In 7zip compression and timed Linux kernel compilation tests, it looks like Ubuntu 19.04 and Clear Linux are mostly neck-and-neck:
In an admittedly brief Blender test (using CPU only), Clear Linux edges out Ubuntu 19.04:
Let’s wrap things up with osbench, a collection of micro-benchmarks for measuring time to create threads/processes, launching programs, creating files, and memory allocation. With the exception of memory allocation, it’s a pretty tight race. But I do wonder how the situation changes as you go higher up the Intel CPU stack, especially with 6-core or better processors. For that matter, how do things look on Ryzen Threadripper?
This is neither a review nor an endorsement of Clear Linux at this stage, but it is an open invitation to be curious about it. To explore it. Maybe to even actively contribute to it. Especially as we edge closer to Intel’s assault on the dedicated GPU market. Will we see distinct advantages on Clear Linux OS and powerful Intel graphics cards with things like Machine Learning? Gaming? Stay tuned as I’ll be keeping an eager, watchful eye on this breakout distro and doing my best to expand my testing of it in the future.