Once upon a time there was a small, lightweight distribution based on Slackware. It wasn’t all that different from any of a number of small, lightweight distros designed to work on older hardware though it seemed to be well thought out. That was Vector Linux 1.8 six years ago. Since then VL has grown into a full featured distribution available in several different configurations. The latest release, Vector Linux 5.8, appeared on December 18th and it is clearly the most mature yet, in many ways equaling or even surpassing more popular distributions like Ubuntu, Fedora, and Mandriva. If the developers manage to smooth out the few remaining rough edges they may find themselves with a distro that is as popular as any of those.
Vector Linux comes in four flavors: Standard, Deluxe, SOHO, and Live. SOHO, with KDE as the default desktop and all the most popular applications, is the full featured version. Standard is the descendant of the original Vector Linux and is designed to be fast and lightweight. It is based on the Xfce4 desktop and provides superior speed and performance especially on older hardware. Both are freely downloadable. Deluxe, available for purchase, is Standard plus a second CD with additional applications as well as Gnome and Enlightenment DR17, the latter packaged from a recent CVS build. Live, as the name implies, is a live CD version of Standard. So far only new Standard and Deluxe versions have been released.
Much like Xubuntu Edgy which I reviewed three weeks ago, Vector is built around the Xfce4 desktop and mostly uses applications that don’t have KDE or Gnome dependencies. The Standard version of Vector Linux is polished enough to be used almost anywhere, not just on older hardware, provided you get through some potential installation and configuration issues.
I’ve used Vector Linux 5.8 Standard on two systems so far. The first is my general purpose laptop, a four year old Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204 (1 GHz Celeron processor, 512MB RAM). Though this system has adequate memory for any current Linux distro it’s sufficiently challenged in terms of processing power for KDE to be sluggish and for Gnome to be noticeably slower than Xfce4. The second system is a tiny little Toshiba Libretto SS1010, a machine barely larger than a paperback book. This is an old Libretto model with just a mobile Pentium 266MHz MMX processor, 96MB of RAM, and a puny 2.1GB hard drive. The published system requirements claim that 128MB of RAM is a minimum for VL 5.8 but I found that with the exception of the absolutely heaviest applications included that performance is crisp and smooth on the little Libretto.
Installation and Configuration
Vector Linux 5.8 Standard is available for download as a single iso image. I’ve used both supported installation methods: a conventional installation booted from CD-ROM and a hosted installation booted from another Linux distribution already running on the system. There are two scripts provided for hosted installs: one which runs from an iso image on a mounted filesystem and one which runs from a CD-ROM that isn’t bootable. I used the latter, albeit slightly modified, running under Damn Small Linux 3.1 to load VL 5.8 on my Libretto from an Addonics PCMCIA CD-ROM drive.
Directions and all the tools needed for a hosted installation from DOS or Windows are also provided. Installation across a network and automated installations, such as Red Hat’s kickstart, are not supported unless I’ve missed something somewhere.
Installation and configuration is one area where Vector Linux really falls down compared to almost all the more popular distributions. I have no problem with an old fashioned text based installer and even praised the one included in Xubuntu. The issue is that the VL installer is rather inflexible and lacks some basic sanity checking to prevent it from failing and leaving the user with a system that may not even boot. If you try to install your root filesystem into a partition that’s too small the installer will merrily go ahead until it fills the available space and then it starts spitting out errors, eventually crashing. The amount of space the installer claims it needs (about 1.6MB for a base install with X) is actually inadequate. The real number, which is correctly stated in the documentation, is 1.8MB. I found this out the hard way the first time I tried to load VL on my Libretto.
Another potential pitfall for someone who doesn’t know Linux well is in choosing the type of filesystem to install the root partition into. The Vector Linux installer supports ext2, ext3, reiserfs, and xfs. Here’s the catch: Vector Linux still uses lilo and only lilo for the bootloader. Up until fairly recently poor old lilo could only read ext2 and ext3 partitions. While lilo now works with xfs I still ran into a problem when I tried to install lilo on my MBR — it failed. If this happens you are just plain stuck unless you already have grub installed on a dual or multi boot system. It would be nice if Vector Linux offered the more modern and more robust grub as an option.
Strangely the installer only supports xfs on the root partition, not anywhere else.
Hardware detection is relatively poor compared to other distributions as well. For example when I booted up to the GUI for the first time I learned that X had been poorly configured for my Toshiba Satellite laptop. I was left with a small display in the middle of my screen surrounded by lots of black space. No amount of fiddling with X configuration in vasm (the GUI configuration tool) could make it work the way it should. I ended up copying the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file from my Xubuntu installation to fix the problem. By comparison recent versions of Fedora, Mandriva, Red Hat Enterprise, Xubuntu, and Ehad Linux have all been installed on this laptop and have all automagically configured X with no problems whatsoever. On my Libretto once again X configuration failed. This time VL couldn’t come up with a working X configuration at all. I manually edited the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file to get it working.
One very clever installation option is to put /tmp as tmpfs in RAM. This is recommended by the installer if you have >192MB of RAM on your system and it really does improve performance by eliminating a lot of disk I/O. However, as I learned the hard way under Vector Linux 5.1, this is a really bad idea if you ever want to compile anything rather large. The compiler will hum along until it fills your /tmp space in RAM and then crash and burn. If you do any significant development or compiling of large applications from source this is one option I do NOT recommend. This option can be enabled or disabled from vasm with the change taking effect at the next reboot.
Printing and wireless networking aren’t handled by the installer at all and have to be configured after the system boots up for the first time. Expect to go into vasm to choose what services to start at boot as well. A very clear, very well written, and significantly outdated installation guide for Vector Linux 5.0 is included. Finally, both the installer and the documentation are in English, period. No other languages are supported which I find very strange for a distribution that calls itself “truly an international endeavor”.
Changes Since Vector Linux 5.1
There have been a large number of changes in the applications offered since version 5.1 was released over a year ago. Seamonkey is now the default broswer, though Firefox and Dillo both remain available as optional packages at install time. Opera is also available as an option. The default e-mail client is now Seamonkey Mail. Sylpheed has been dropped but an updated version is available for download. AbiWord has been upgraded to version 2.4.6 and Gnumeric 1.7.4 has been added. Xara LX has been added as an optional package for vector graphics.
Xfce 4.3.99 RC2 is now the default and only desktop provided. Both Fluxbox and IceWM have been dropped but are available for download. All the packages for a complete installation of KDE 3.5.5 are also available for download. Thunar is now the default file manager and ROX Filer is no longer included. Xfe is still also installed by default. I was disappointed by the fact that many of the Xfce applets available in Xubuntu were not originally included in VL 5.8. Most have now been added to the testing repository.
The biggest steps forward are the tools to manage and configure the system. vasm, the graphical system configuration tool, still isn’t the prettiest out there but it has a lot of added functionality and works flawlessly. vl-hot is a new graphical manager for removable media. It correctly automounts not only USB and Firewire media but PCMCIA as well, popping up icons for both access via Thunar and unmounting the media on the desktop. No other distribution I’ve seen so far automounts and correctly handles PCMCIA media such as a compact flash to PCMCIA adapter. In handling removable media Vector Linux 5.8 is second to none in terms of ease of use. The new, graphical wifi-radar application for finding and managing wireless connections is also excellent.
Under the hood Vector Linux now runs on a patched 2.6.18 kernel. Kernel level support for popular laptops works as expected. However, tools for included in Xubuntu and other distributions, such as the Toshiba utilities and toshset for my laptops, are still not included and not offered.
Multimedia applications including XMMS, Xine, and optionally MPlayer have all been updated. Canada has no equivalent to the DMCA so all the libraries and Win32 codecs are installed by default. Vector Linux is ready to play your mp3 files and DVDs right out of the (virtual) box. People in the United States will need to remove some packages after installation, particularly libdvdcss and w32codecs, in order to comply with the law.
A new optional games package has been added. It consists mainly of graphic intensive arcade style games many of which require significantly better video cards and much more processing power than either laptop I’ve installed on. There were a few games which ran just fine on my Satellite and the story of Don Ceferino Hazana definitely is worth a chuckle.
Running Vector Linux 5.8 Standard
Unlike Xubuntu the VL installer doesn’t leave you with a stripped down system to build on. It takes the approach used by larger distributions (i.e.: Fedora, SuSe, Mandriva) and gives you a system with a fairly comprehensive set of applications immediately available after installation and configuration. Vector also provides more truly useful lightweight applications, some of which aren’t packaged for Ubuntu as of yet.
One of the main reasons I ran Vector Linux 5.1 was that it was clearly the fastest distribution with a decent set of applications and features for my older hardware, particularly the aforementioned Toshiba Libretto SS1010. Vector Linux 5.8 and Xubuntu 6.10 (Edgy Eft) are now the two fastest current distributions and I notice no significant performance difference between them. Once you get past installation and configuration I’d give Vector Linux a slight edge in terms of a user friendly, well thought out desktop, owing largely to their handling of wireless connections and removable media.
One bug I did run into was that while cups was installed by default on my systems the libraries it depends on were not. Once those libraries are downloaded and installed you can then start and configure cups. While Xubuntu disables the cups web interface there is an option to enable it in vasm and that is the preferred printer management tool in Vector Linux.
The Vector Linux 5.8 repositories, both the main one and extra, include far more packages than ever before. Still, they fall far short of what is available for distributions like Debian, Mandriva, and Ubuntu or what is offered in Fedora Extras. The Vector Linux Forum shows more packages being added constantly so this may become a non-issue very quickly. Also, VL 5.8 is based on Slackware 11 and any Slackware packages, including those from third party sources like linuxpackages.net, should work on Vector with one caveat: no dependency checking will be done. It’s pretty easy to end up in dependency hell with third party packages if you aren’t careful.
As I described in my previous reviews of Xubuntu Edgy and Dapper, Xfce4 is highly configurable and quite intuitive and user friendly. It’s features are just a subset of what you get with Gnome or KDE. Although some things are quite sophisticated overall Xfce4 stresses simplicity and ease of use over lots of gee whiz bells and whistles. For those who find Xfce4 lacking it’s a simple matter to install the KDE 3.5.5 packages under Vector Linux Standard.
For many years one of the major weaknesses in Slackware and it’s derivative distributions, including Vector Linux, was a total lack of sane package management. There was nothing like apt or rpm and dependency issues were common. Vector Linux started tackling this with vlapt a few releases back, which has since been replaced with slapt (Slackware apt). slapt is designed to work almost exactly the same way apt works on a Debian based system. Dependency checking, however, is still limited to installation. If you install a package from a VL repository with slapt-get or gslapt (the equivalent to Synaptic on a Debian or Ubuntu system) it will correctly identify and install any dependencies. What slapt still can’t do is check for impacts on already installed packages or check what might break when you remove a package.
Running Vector Linux 5.1 and treating slapt like apt caused major headaches. In recent months if you decided to close any potential security holes and get the latest and greatest apps by running
slapt-get --update slapt-get --upgrade
or by using gslapt you probably ended up with a rather broken system. For example, upgrading gimp also upgraded to a newer version of pango, a dependency. Upgrading pango broke Xfce 4.2.x. That was just one of a bunch of problems. I felt like I had been slapt upside the head.
The good news is that so far there is no problem upgrading Vector Linux 5.8 the way you might upgrade Debian or Ubuntu. It works. Due to the limitations still inherent in slapt keeping upgrades working properly is going to require a lot of testing and caution from Vector Linux packagers and repository maintainers. VL clearly has some very sharp developers so I am hopeful. My one note of caution to end users is that you keep the testing repository out of your configuration.
I should also note that VL 5.8 also comes with scripts to unpackage and/or install both rpm and deb packages. It also provides the tools necessary to convert them to Slackware packages. Once again, no dependency checking is available for third party software, but for the knowledgeable user this may be more convenient that compiling from source for software not in the VL repositories, especially on older, slow hardware where compilation can be quite time consuming.
Internationalization and Localization
Support for languages other than English is the other area where Vector Linux is weak compared to other distributions. The developers have begun to address this in the 5.x releases. KDE i18n packages are in the main repository. In Vector Linux 5.8 Cyrillic fonts are installed for the first time. fribidi, the software at the core of support for languages written right to left such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Thai, is installed by default. The Xfce4 keyboard switching applet is also included.
Spell checkers, dictionaries, and fonts for languages using other than Latin or Cyrillic characters are all not included and not available in the VL repositories. In order to have reasonable support for any language other than English you will need to get Slackware packages or sources directly from the developers. After hunting down and installing the necessary packages you should have basic internationalization done. I can now read web pages and create documents in French and Hebrew in addition to English with no problem. Still, it would be nice if these packages were somewhere in the Vector Linux repositories. How-tos for adding Japanese and Korean language support are available in the Vector Linux forum.
If your goal is a truly localized system, not just a system running in English with support for other languages, you need to do significant work to make it happen in Vector Linux Standard. No localized applications are provided at all. In addition, the default display manager is kdm-small. Language switching at login is not supported. If you want to change the default language or locale you have to do it at the command line and by editing appropriate configuration files. There is a how-to published for French language localization.
Once you have Vector Linux installed, configured, and customized to your needs it’s an absolute pleasure to run. It’s fast and sleek and well thought out. Some features, such as those for managing WiFi connections and removable hardware, are absolutely second to none.
Unfortunately the installer still needs work. In my experience once initial installation is done you have a lot more configuration and customization left to do than with other distributions. vasm, the main GUI configuration tool, is very powerful but assumes you know what you are doing. It isn’t dumbed down at all. While experienced users and those willing to role up their sleeves and learn will likely appreciate this, newcomers and anyone else who just wants things to work after a simple installation may find Vector Linux 5.8 exceedingly frustrating. Those whose primary language is something other than English are likely better served with another distribution unless they are ready to do some significant work.
Despite some complaints and caveats Vector Linux remains a favorite distribution of mine. Vector Linux 5.8 is by far their best release yet. I always grumble at VL for several days after installing a new version but once I get everything just right it is actually pretty hard to beat. It just isn’t for everyone. I guess what bothers me is that Vector Linux is about 90% of the way to being about the best distro out there. I’d just like to see the developers conquer the other 10%.