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My experiences of Valve's VR on Linux

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As the proud and excited owner of a shiny new Valve Index kit to go with my almost-new all-AMD rig, I thought I’d outline the journey to getting it all working, exclusively on Linux.

Now bear in mind that I’m not amazingly Linux-savvy. I’ve been using it since the early 2000’s, sure, and full time, exclusively, since 2013, but I’m not very interested in learning the guts of this stuff. I’m extremely technical as a network nerd, but my O/S is just a tool to let me run cool things. I want to be a “normal” consumer of that O/S and if things don’t work out of the box, I take a dim view of it and I don’t have a lot of patience for terminal hacks or “compiling my own kernel”.

Why is that important? Because  when it comes to the Valve Index on Linux, absolutely nothing works out of the box... and yet it’s still (mostly) a success story. Here are some of the hoops I had to jump through to get this stuff working (again, mostly).

My system:

  • Distribution: Mint 19.3
  • Desktop Environment: Cinnamon
  • RAM: 32GB
  • CPU Model: AMD 3900X
  • GPU Model: AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT

You can also see my specs in my profile or by clicking “View PC info” under my avatar in any of my comments, but I’ve listed them here so that this article notes them statically as those during my experience with the Index.

Edit: I'm also using Kernel 5.7.8 from Mainline here, which is important given the hardware I'm using. Also, the OIBAF PPA puts me on Mesa 20.2 at the time of writing.


It’s so pretty! The presentation and unboxing experience is very Apple-like or Google Pixel-like in that it tries to get your buy in just from opening the box! There’s a real wow-factor at play here. It’s a HUGE box, bigger than it needs to be probably, but the presentation is great.

(The HMD visor is so shiny and new that you can see me taking the photo in the third shot!)

There’s not many pictures from here on out, because trying to capture a VR experience with a screenshot (or even a video) is like trying to taste food with your nose pinched.

So, let’s get started!

First Attempt

The “Getting Started” card is pretty basic actually. In summary:

  • Basestations are plugged into a power outlet, front and back of room - check
  • Headset (HMD) is plugged into Displayport and USB3, and powered - check
  • Controllers are on - check
  • Enabled the Steam beta - check
  • SteamVR is downloaded - check

Let’s do this! In Steam, I change my “games” filter to “games and tools”, then run SteamVR. Nothing happens. But wait! I see a light from the HMD. Putting it on, I can see a basic, default, VR environment - a grid on the floor, with mountains in the distance, stars overhead and a moon hanging directly above me. Head tracking is fine, and everything is nice and clear, but I can’t actually do anything and I certainly haven’t defined my “play area”, so I’m reluctant to actually launch a VR game at this point, for fear of walking into a table, wall, or through the french windows while they’re closed!

Taking the HMD off, I can see that I have a bunch of errors on my Steam client about how “SteamVR failed to initialize”. Okay then.

The errors must have taken a few seconds to pop up, or they did so as a result of my putting the HMD on. Hmmm.

So… to Google!

Second Attempt

Well, it looks like SteamVR also has a beta branch, which you activate like any game. Go to SteamVR, right click and choose Properties, then hit the Betas tab:

Which to choose though? Well, I’m on Linux, so the answer is pretty obvious! The “temp” worries me, but it’s the only Linux entry, so I choose it anyway. It downloads, I run SteamVR again, it asks for my sudo password (surprising!), and off we go.

Much better!

Now, I get a pop up on the desktop screen asking me to step through a set up process, including defining my play area. Basically, you stand in the centre of your “space”, point your controller at the screen and pull the trigger, then lay both controllers on the ground, then finally you move the controller around the edges of your space, holding down the trigger, to form a virtual box. This box must be at least 1.5m wide and about 2m in length, otherwise the program complains that it’s too small. I had to rejig my room a bit to accommodate that! I think there’s supposed to be a way around that minimum size, but this version of SteamVR literally won’t you press the “next” button unless you hit the minimum, so that’s what I did.

Having done so, I could put on the HMD and I was back at the default landscape. But now there’s an option in the bottom bar called “SteamVR Home”. I click on it with my emulated laser-pointer controller and finally got my first taste of how absolutely incredible VR can be when it’s “done right”.

SteamVR Home is like BigPicture mode, but for VR. It emulates a room which has a balcony space outside overlooking a distant mountain range. Butterflies flutter by, and you can customise the room and the balcony/garden area in a variety of ways. You also have an “avatar” and can invite friends to your room for chat, or as a party set up for games.

I customised my avatar, drew weird shapes with my painting tool, threw the Portal companion cube around a bit, watching it bounce around. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that Steam Home seems to have a problem saving environments, which is a shame. Frankly, until that’s fixed, there’s literally no point in using Home at all. Later on, I’ll end up disabling it completely, which is pretty disappointing.

But I’m here for now, so I tried to launch a game. Any game. But no dice. I could “view details” of games, but there was no launch button. So what’s going on?

Taking off the headset, I see more errors on the desktop. Sheesh. This looks serious.

So… to Google!

Third Attempt

Looked like I already had a lot of these installed, but as the error notes, it’s the 32-bit versions I need. So after a bit of searching on the web and via Synaptic, I get this to go away with a series of apt commands. In summary:

sudo apt install libva-x11-2:i386 libva2:i386 libgdk-pixbuf2.0-0:i386 libxtst6:i386 libgtk2.0-0:i386 libbz2-1.0:i386 libvdpau1:i386

And for good measure, I also do:

sudo apt install libvulkan1:i386 mesa-vulkan-drivers:i386 vulkan-utils:i386

After all that, I’m not getting any errors anymore, which is great. And I have a “Launch game” option in SteamVR Home now! Which does… nothing. At all.

So… (surprise!) to Google!

Fourth Attempt

I’m going to quickly summarise about an hour of frustrating googling/launching/killing/launching/googling here, but ultimately, I resorted to the tried and tested “have you tried switching it off and back on again” method of nerd troubleshooting.

And it almost, kind of, worked.

I start Moss from inside SteamVR Home, and my launch button now fades the Home environment away, and I’m now in the default environment, with a floating banner that says “Up Next: Moss”.

However, after a disappointing couple of minutes, it’s clearly not doing anything.

So… (you know the drill by now) to Google!

Fifth Attempt

Okay, so it looks like the main issue is that a lot of the games I’m trying to launch are Windows only and perhaps they have to be launched directly from Steam? It looks like SteamVR on Linux doesn’t know how to handle Proton titles from “within” the SteamVR environment.

So, I fire up SteamVR, leaving it in the default environment (not SteamVR Home), then I hit the “play” button on Moss on my desktop.

It works! Almost. No sound! But the game launched and it’s my first “real” VR gaming experience. I don’t spend long with Moss though, as it’s clear that it’s a narrative-driven experience and I don’t want to ruin it by playing without sound.

So why are my Index speakers not working?

So… to Google!

Sixth Attempt

Well, this was over an hour of trying various things - mainly running

tail -f /var/log/kern.log

... and then unplugging the USB3 connector and plugging it back in, and watching the output in the terminal. It’s definitely recognising all the devices - the HMD, the twin cameras on the HMD, the microphone, the speakers… but for some reason that's not translating to an actual device in my sound control panel.

Long (really, really long, another hour or two maybe) story short - it looks like my multi-monitor set up was interfering here. I noticed that the speakers’ description is “HDMI / DP 5”, which is the same port number my second screen uses.  When I unplugged my second monitor, the Index speakers appeared in my sound’s control panel. I have sound!

Perhaps this issue is related to

Who knows? Who cares! They work!

Kind of… they’re actually crackling and hissing on certain channels. I notice this in Moss when certain music plays, on the sound effect when you push/pull objects, and most annoying of all, when the narrator speaks.

So… to Google!

Seventh Attempt

Okay, quicker fix for this one. A weird fix, but it works. All you have to do after starting SteamVR, is start the PulseAudio Volume Control (I had to install it first, of course, it’s rarely included by default, at least on Ubuntu derivatives). And, that’s it. That’s all you do. You go from hissing/crackling sound to crystal clear sound on your Index… by opening that app. I have no words.

Later on, I’ll discover that by changing my primary, now singular monitor from HDMI to DisplayPort, I seem to get pretty consistent, crystal-clear sound without resorting to opening the Pulse Audio volume control. But for now, I’m just delighted it works.

It’s time to go big. It’s time to try Half Life Alyx.

Or not. Starting the game fails almost immediately with a vriniterror_init_interfacenotfound error. You know what that means? Yep.

So… to Google!

Eighth Attempt

At this point, I’ve probably had the VR set up for around 10 hours, most of which is actually with the HMD sat on my desk as I troubleshoot what the bloody hell is wrong with it. So I’m properly gutted that one of the biggest reasons I bought a VR kit, Half-Life Alyx, doesn’t even start.

After googling for about 20 minutes, all I’ve really found is a Steam Forums post noting that they had to update SteamVR before Alyx would launch. My SteamVR is already up to date though, albeit I’m still on the Linux_Temp build.

I’m desperate though. I can force an update if I change beta tabs! I switch back to SteamVR_beta, wait for the 500Mb download to complete, restart my PC to give it a clean slate, enter my sudo password again (yeah, that’s still weird) and finally start Alyx.

It works.

Indeed, not only does Alyx now work, but my SteamVR “settings” app works too. In fact, so does the desktop reprojection option! So does “reset seating/standing position”! In fact, everything seems to be working now (except the volume slider for some reason)!

Arrival: VR

I’ve now spent around 20 hours in VR, which is a crucial tipping point for me - it took me around 10 hours of soul-destroying googling to get this far. I can’t stress enough the weird dichotomy of running VR on Linux. On one hand, I paid £900 for the full kit, only to spend over a full working day wrestling with awful, incomprehensible issues for which I had little to no context.

On the other hand, now that it’s largely up and running, it’s easily the best money I’ve spent in a long time, because when you use a high quality HMD on a powerful PC and run “built-for-VR” games and software… it’s mind blowing. Truly, literally, game changing.

It’s not perfect, by a long way. The whole “getting started” experience is, as you can see, appalling. Especially on Linux. And even then there’s stuff that just doesn’t work, either well, or at all:

  • The cameras don’t work, as they’re tied to a D3D11 interface which fails on start up. Ironically, you can run guvcview and play about with them there - they’re just standard v4l2 cameras after all! Hopefully they get this fixed soon, but they'd have to rewrite that D3D11 dependency, so I don't expect that to happen quickly.
  • The volume slider on the “Dashboard” does nothing. You have to modify the volume setting on your desktop.
  • You can’t turn off the basestations yet, so make sure you can reach a plug/switch for them.
  • Steam Home doesn’t save any settings/changes you make within it, rendering it largely useless.
  • You can’t launch games from Steam Home, because it doesn’t seem to understand Proton.
  • Two of “The Lab” experiences crash out - “Robot Repair” and “Secret Lab”. They just fail, no idea why. All the others work though. This is also common on Windows, but none of the Windows fixes seem to work on Linux.
  • I can’t use my second monitor any more. This is probably my biggest gripe right now.
  • The Index head phones crackle until you launch pavucontrol (although this appears to be fixed by not using any HDMI on my system at all).
  • Finally, when you run SteamVR, the sound device appears in your sound panel, but it doesn’t switch to that output. Pulseaudio does has an option to auto-switch to “newly detected devices”, but something about the way that SteamVR creates the output channel seems to bypass this. After starting SteamVR, you have to switch the sound output manually.

But in the grand scheme of things, I’m finally really pleased with the overall result. In fact, there’s only one thing that still annoys me (other than losing my multi-monitor set up), and it’s the noise the basestations make when they’re on. It’s a high pitch, and apparently not everyone can hear it, but I appear to be one of the “lucky” few who not only hears it, but can easily hear it from about 3m away. For me it’s not subtle and only starting a game would distract you from the noise they make. So, basestations definitely off while not in use, sadly, which is a bit of a pain given the lack of remote power options on Linux. I have to literally unplug them.

Do I have any regrets? None at all now that I’m “here”. But good god, Valve have a long, long road before this stuff is mainstream. I’m thinking years, given their rate of progress so far. The out of box experience is just simply diabolically poor.

Is this the future of gaming? Yes and no. Yes, once you’ve experienced VR first hand, you’ll realise how fundamentally important and immersive it is. But no, not at this price, and certainly not with this level of hassle from a technical perspective. Also, arguably headsets need to get lighter, and potentially lose the wires too, which is still the biggest restriction/annoyance you’ll face in VR.

The jury is still out on whether VR could be good in an FPS environment too. Apparently Killing Floor 2 has VR support? I’ll maybe give that a shot. Or Dying Light, perhaps? I haven’t tried anything in VR that features traditional movement yet - it’s all jump-based movement, which isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. But I suspect that traditional movement might cause motion sickness, so we’ll see.

But other games work amazingly well in VR. Moss, for example, is just spellbinding. And Elite Dangerous feels like a completely different game in VR.

I just can’t stress it enough, the difference VR makes. You know when you start an FPS game it’s stuck on 1024x768, 70 FOV and with motion blur? Then you figure out how to get 1920x1080, 100 FOV with no motion blur and you’ve gone from a game you literally can’t play to a really beautiful, engaging experience?

Imagine that, but multiplied by a hundred. The idea of playing “flat” Elite Dangerous is now utterly laughable. Like, why would you restrict yourself so needlessly?? I’m being facetious to hammer home the point, because it’s hard to put into words otherwise. It’s THAT spectacular a jump.

To sum up, if you:

  1. Have the money
  2. Have the PC
  3. Have the technical skill
  4. Have the patience

...then VR is a fantastic experience when it’s all working. But you have to have all four, I think, before it’s a sure fire recommendation.

Here's the games I've tried that work near-enough perfectly:

  • Half-life: Alyx
  • Beat Saber
  • Moss
  • Smashbox Arena
  • The Lab (although noting that two experiments crash)
  • Elite Dangerous
  • Space Pirate Trainer
  • Superhot VR
  • Gorn
  • Waltz of the Wizard
  • Sheaf - Together EP

And a couple of games that don't work:

  • Project Cars 2 doesn't recognise the HMD at all.
  • Overload doesn't recognise the HMD at all.
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About the author -
author picture
I'm a Scottish Ubuntu user since 2006 and an Ubuntu-only gamer since 2013. I used to contribute to GOL's Funding Crowd articles, but now contribute the odd article directly, most recently the Play It Now series.

I also dabble a bit in Python, I do Internet Security for a living and finally, I'm a big fan of Neil Degrasse Tyson. And not just because he has a cool first name.
See more from me
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scaine 26 Jul
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Quoting: Purple Library Guy
Quoting: scaineOf course, such a ridiculous argument. But somehow Canonical aren't allowed to do it. Only everyone else.
Well, two things about that. First, I think it's the case that there are bits and bits, and some things it really is problematic if there's more than one of them, while others it really isn't. If half of Linux used Wayland and half used Mir, I think that would cause problems.
The other thing is that Canonical do have the tendency when they go with some alternate technology to be saying "This will now be the standard, replacing other existing things"--even when it comes to the stuff that everyone normally agrees it's OK if it comes in multiple flavours. The name "Unity" along with some of the rhetoric around it definitely gave people the impression that they wanted Unity to be the One Desktop To Rule Them All, that everyone should, well, Unite on. Cinnamon on the other hand was just "So, we don't like Gnome 3 much, we preferred for instance Gnome 2, we're gonna make a desktop that does things the way we like".
I think you're reading a little bit too much into a name, especially considering how abysmal Unity was when it launched. It took two years to "git gud" and by then, its reputation was in the gutter. As for messaging, Canonical have always been divisive, which is why I think they get the NIH slur so often. Not because NIH is bad, but because people fell out with "the benevolent dictator for life" and decided that Canonical devs were just the "new gnome devs" - arrogant and offensive. Not true in the slightest, to be honest. Mark Shuttleworth did come across that way quite a lot, but again - bad for him to do it, but good for, say, Steve Jobs to do it. It's annoying double standards. Love both, or hate both, but don't apply the same argument to both and come to different conclusions (I'm simplifying a bit here, but you get the idea).

Quoting: Purple Library Guy
Quoting: scaineCould Canonical have contributed to Wayland? Nope. They tried to, and their patches were rejected. What were they supposed to do?
I dunno, not contribute to Wayland? There's plenty of stuff Canonical don't contribute to, what makes it corporate suicide in this case?
Or perhaps contribute different patches.
They couldn't not contribute to Wayland, because they needed Mir to be a joint phone/desktop display server. For reasons they explained in detail, X wouldn't cut it, and Wayland were rejecting their patches. So again, what were they supposed to do?

"Not innovate" is the answer most people seem to be implying.

You know, I said I was "mildly riled", but obviously I care about this stuff, cos I keep responding.

I'm not even an Ubuntu fanboi particularly - sure, I contributed to Ubuntu HUGELY until about 2015, but I didn't necessarily agree with everything they did. Buttons on the left was particularly egregious, for example, such a pointless "change for change's sake". Snaps too - I'm not a fan, despite them being a better flatpak than flatpak. Or, well, flatpak+ if you prefer (flatpaks are awesome, but snaps can do way more).

But my point is, for some reason people constantly tear down Canonical and Ubuntu... but with arguments that often apply to everyone else... but aren't applied to everyone else.

It's irritating.

Last edited by scaine on 26 July 2021 at 7:16 pm UTC
scaine 26 Jul
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Quoting: whizse
Quoting: scaineI mean, why does Debian get a pass for using apt, when RPM was available the year before? Sounds like NIH syndrome to me, right? Hell, they went with Gnome instead of XFCE, which had been around for three years by that time.
I know you're ranting here and probably shooting from the hip but...

XFCE actually used a proprietary toolkit at the time (XForms), KDE was in a similar predicament with Qt. Hence the popularity of GTK.

Also, rpm probably predates the apt tool, but dpkg and the .deb format is older.

...I shall now hastily make my exit from the thread hoping to not get hit by the crossfire.

Haha! Apt learned from RPMs mistakes to avoid "RPM hell". This is what makes Linux, all Linux, so awesome. Everyone is "standing on the shoulders of giants".

Meanwhile, Microsoft is dragging the corpses of its enemies behind it, becoming more and more weighed down as it progresses. What a couple of months for MS - PrintNightmare RCE, SeriousSAM Local PrivEsc, and most recently now we have PetitPotam Remote PrivEsc. They're just the worst.
Eike 27 Jul
Quoting: scaineHaha! Apt learned from RPMs mistakes to avoid "RPM hell". This is what makes Linux, all Linux, so awesome. Everyone is "standing on the shoulders of giants".

Meanwhile, Microsoft is dragging the corpses of its enemies behind it, becoming more and more weighed down as it progresses. What a couple of months for MS - PrintNightmare RCE, SeriousSAM Local PrivEsc, and most recently now we have PetitPotam Remote PrivEsc. They're just the worst.

Microsoft made a command line package manager lately... :D
slaapliedje 27 Jul
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Quoting: scaineStandard? What standard? Linux doesn't have a standard. It has choice.
Yes, standards are the things that pretty much every Linux distro decides should be the way forward. Like systemd, libc, openssl, etc. Sure there can be alternate libraries for things, but in general why not try to improve the one everyone uses instead of trying to 'do it your own way'? Most projects are very much open to new help.

Quoting: scaineThis is such weird mixed messages. Mint seems to get a pass, which does its own desktop (Cinnamon), but you don't like Ubuntu, because it did its own desktop (Unity)?

Cinnamon is a continuation of Gnome 2. Unity is some bastardized Gnome shell based thing, that even Canonical eventually killed because no one else wanted to use it. Cinnamon I can install in Debian just as easily as I can install Mate (which is what I thought Mint used?) or KDE or Enlightenment, etc. Can't install Unity in it. I think someone attempted to package Unity for Arch for some reason, but I don't think it got very far.

Quoting: scaineCould Canonical have contributed to Wayland? Nope. They tried to, and their patches were rejected. What were they supposed to do?
If their patches were rejected, there's likely a very good reason this happened. Maybe their code sucked? Or they insisted on attaching any of their agreements to the code?

Quoting: scaineYou don't like Ubuntu because it did Mir, but back when it did Mir, Wayland wasn't even a thing, and everyone was using X. In fact, Mir was announced three YEARS before any distribution ever tried to use it. In fact, outside of Fedora, the only other distributions to go near didn't do so until 2019.
Ha, well in my mind Wayland still isn't even a thing. But Wayland for sure was being worked on before Ubuntu popped up and said they had Mir. Wayland has been in development for a very very long time. Of course distributions didn't try to use it yet, it wasn't ready (and still isn't in many user's minds). The point really was that while everyone else saw Wayland as the way forward, Canonical wanted to go their own way, potentially making an incompatibility between distributions, so you'd end up with having to package for Ubuntu, and then everything else. Also potentially making some just package for Ubuntu and no one else... Doesn't leave much choice in that scenario, now does it?

Quoting: scaineI mean, why does Debian get a pass for using apt, when RPM was available the year before? Sounds like NIH syndrome to me, right? Hell, they went with Gnome instead of XFCE, which had been around for three years by that time.

Ha, This was literally the wild west back when Debian and Red Hat came about. There were so many different package managers. We're left now with mostly tar ball, deb and rpm. With the 'universal' packaging of Flatpak, AppImage and Snap (Ubuntu controls all the repos). Apt is still better than dnf / yum. But .rpm is still better than .deb (at least from my experience. .debs are close, though .rpm has a nice feature I wish they'd snag, where you can have a dependency on a library as well as a package).

There is just other shady things Canonical have done over the years, like implement Amazon search within the Desktop Environment that was an opt out thing... But sure, I can give Mint a pass because they do just use the repositories, and try to undo all of the Canonical stuff. I just tend to think they'd do better if they just based off the source instead of having that added layer of Ubuntu. And they do try to maintain that as a possibility in the future with LMDE. Smart. Being held to the shifts of a company that has historically shown that their interest is more in becoming the defacto distribution of choice for everyone, and incompatibilities with other distributions be damned. You already, in general, can't take an Ubuntu package and install it in Debian without some sort of issues that'll creep up along the way.
scaine 27 Jul
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So choice is good, but not when Canonical provide it. Because... reasons, or something. Gotcha.
Cybolic 28 Jul
Quoting: scaine[...]but I didn't necessarily agree with everything [Ubuntu] did. Buttons on the left was particularly egregious, for example, such a pointless "change for change's sake". [...]
I think this discussion is turning heavily into forum material, but I just have to jump in and mention that I was one of the ones who loved the "buttons on the left" choice for no other reason than it put the close button where it belongs - the same place as on AmigaOS :D
beko 28 Jul
Quoting: CybolicI think this discussion is turning heavily into forum material, but I just have to jump in and mention that I was one of the ones who loved the "buttons on the left" choice for no other reason than it put the close button where it belongs - the same place as on AmigaOS :D

On _your_ Workbench perhaps :P

*runs for cover
Cyba.Cowboy 28 Jul
Quoting: bekoAnd VR on Linux is a niche in a niche.

Not really. At least in the commercial space.

Until a little over a year ago, I worked in the largest family entertainment center ("arcade") in the Southern Hemisphere and approximately 80% of their machines - including their ~AU$150,000 VR systems (they had two different systems, from two unrelated companies, during my tenure) - ran a Linux-based operating system... It was almost always Ubuntu, though occasionally you'd see Red Hat, Linux Mint or Debian.

On a side note, even Microsoft's "Halo" arcade machine ran a Linux-based operating system... It runs Ubuntu, I'm not even kidding! Looking back, I wish to god I had recorded footage of the boot-up proving this on my iPhone, because this is one of those facts that people would hear and be like "There's no way that's true!"

Last edited by Cyba.Cowboy on 28 July 2021 at 8:13 pm UTC
slaapliedje 28 Jul
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Quoting: scaineSo choice is good, but not when Canonical provide it. Because... reasons, or something. Gotcha.
That's like the the drug dealer in the dark alley offers you some drugs... but no one else has those drugs. So you get addicted to it, and it's such a bad addiction that if it goes away, your way of life will change. Then that drug dealer decides out of the blue to no longer provide those drugs, so your life has to change to suit their whim.

Yeah, I'm talking specifically about Snap. There is no alternative 'store' for it. So you're stuck using Canonical's for those specific pieces of software that no one else wants to package / distribute elsewhere.

But hey, if you don't want to look at any reasons people have for not using it or for using it, that's not on me to point them all out. I'm not the only one who feels this way about Ubuntu. Otherwise all the different 'based on' systems would only change the DE instead of dropping things that are very Ubuntu specific (like snap).
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