Back in January I wrote a review of Vector Linux 5.8 Standard. The fact that as I write this, over five months later, that review is still in the O’Reillynet Blogs Hot 25 says a lot about just how much interest there is in this up and coming Canadian distribution, a user friendly derivative of Slackware. Back when I wrote that review I talked about the three different flavors of Vector Linux. Standard, with a default Xfce desktop, can be compared to Xubuntu in some ways while SOHO, it’s big brother with a default KDE desktop, is more directly comparable to Kubuntu. The implication is that the same code base is used in both. That was true for all versions prior to 5.8. This time, however, there was a really long gap, as in almost five full months, between the two releases and a lot of bugfixes and upgrades were put in. The new SOHO even sports a newer kernel under the hood: 126.96.36.199. Vector Linux SOHO resembles a next release rather than a different build of the same release. It probably should have been numbered 5.9 rather than 5.8 and it does deserve a separate review.
Generally I’d want to do a review of a distro with a KDE desktop on a fairly powerful machine. As I’ve written before KDE tends to be quite sluggish on my aging laptop, a four and a half year old Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204 (1 GHz Celeron processor, 512MB RAM). Heck, even GNOME is a bit slower than I’d like, hence my recent interest in Xfce as an alternate desktop environment. This has been true of Mandriva 2007, SuSe 10.2, Fedora Core 6, and Ubunutu/Kubuntu right up through Feisty. I have always assumed this is because KDE does consume more memory than GNOME or Xfce and because it always needs the dcop-server running in the background. Guess what? I was wrong. Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO proves that KDE can be built for speed. There is no sluggishness at all on the old Toshiba. If it’s fast on this old notebook it’ll positively scream on an up-to-date system.
While I’ve found my share of little bugs and annoyances my overall take on Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO is that it is far more polished than any previous Vector Linux release, 5.8 Standard included. A lot of the issues I raised in my January review have been addressed and while some new bugs have cropped up they’ve been minor. I certainly have a whole lot less to complain about than I did when I reviewed Xubuntu Feisty Fawn last month. Indeed, with this release I finally feel Vector Linux is almost to the point where it can seriously considered by almost any user, not just someone experienced with Linux, as most things finally do work as they should out of the virtual box. A few issues may still require manually editing configuration files.
Installation and Configuration
Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO is downloaded as a single CD .iso image. There are two supported installation methods: a conventional installation booted from CD-ROM and a hosted, scripted installation booted from another Linux distribution already running on the system. While I’ve only done a conventional installation with VL 5.8 SOHO the scripts provided for Standard worked well and I doubt they have been changed for SOHO. They allow for installation from an .iso image on a mounted filesystem or from a CD-ROM drive that isn’t bootable. 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.
I had far fewer problems with the installer provided with SOHO though there were still some issues. It’s still an old fashioned text-based installer, which is fine as far as I am concerned. A new, snazzy graphical installer is in testing right now and shuld be available for Vector Linux 6.
I didn’t test to see if the installer now checks for adequate disk space. Fair warning: you need at least 3.3GB for a basic SOHO installation. This isn’t for systems with puny hard drives or very limited free space. One new bug I did run into was in kernel selection. When you boot from CD you are given the option of pressing the F1 key to select an alternate kernel. The selections linux2 and scsi2 are holdovers from VL 5.8 Standard when two different initrd files (old and new) were offered. linux2 and scsi2 are still there but they don’t do anything and don’t work.
The problems I described in the Standard installer with the bootloader and disk partitioning have all been corrected. The SOHO installer will let you choose ext3, xfs, reiserfs, or ext2 for any partition and will give you the choice of installing grub or lilo.
Hardware detection, at least for my Toshiba laptop, remains problematic. Once again on my first boot into X I saw a small display in the middle of my screen surrounded by lots of black space. Once again I ended up copying the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file from my a previous installation to fix the problem. By comparison recent versions of Fedora, SuSe, 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.
In addition the installer doesn’t setup the system to load the kernel module needed to support my laptop at boot. I had to manually add:
to my /etc/rc.d/rc.modules file to correct this. On a plain vanilla desktop system this wouldn’t be an issue, of course, but I suspect other laptop users, not just those of us with Toshiba machines, will need to do some tweaking by hand to get their laptops to be 100% functional under Vector Linux.
In my review of Vector Linux 5.8 Standard I described a very clever installation option which allowed you to put /tmp as tmpfs in RAM. This is done automagically in Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO and it really does improve performance by eliminating a lot of disk I/O. This is still a really bad idea if you ever want to compile anything 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 you probably want to turn this off and go with a conventional /tmp partition. This option can be disabled from vasm, the semi-graphical configuration tool, with the change taking effect at the next reboot.
Free Software Foundation purists will be absolutely livid as updated binary NVidia and ATI drivers are included with Vector Linux and are installed automatically if you need them, as was the madwifi driver for my Atheros chipset based wireless card. Folks who just want their systems to work out of the box will be pleased. The good news for the purists is that all the non-free bits and pieces are all packaged separately and can be ripped out easily.
OpenOffice and alternate browsers (Firefox, Opera, and Dillo) are offered as options during installation. If you don’t select OpenOffice you don’t get an office suite installed at all. Koffice is available from the repository after installation, as are AbiWord and Gnumeric. Seamonkey is the default browser.
Printing and wireless are not handled by the installer. However, the CUPS web interface and KDE tools for configuring printers are both available and are quite user friendly. wifi-radar remains the default tool for finding and configuring wireless networks and it’s very easy to use. With the stock version, 1.9.6, I did have to hand edit the /etc/wifi-radar/wifi-radar.conf file to let the software know that my Atheros chipset based wireless card was ath0 rather than eth1. A new version, wifi-radar 1.9.8, is currently in the Vector Linux testing repository and offers more configuration options from the GUI, making it unnecessary to edit anything by hand.
Changes Since Vector Linux 5.8 Standard and Vector Linux 5.1 SOHO
The majority of applications have been updated since Vector Linux 5.8 Stardard was released and there have been huge steps forward since Vector Linux 5.1 SOHO. Out of the virtual box Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO sports KDE 3.5.6. (Version 3.5.7 is going into testing as I write this.) OpenOffice 2.2, GIMP 2.2.14, Seamonkey 1.1.1, and Firefox 188.8.131.52 are all included in the .iso. GNOME 2.18.0 and Xfce 4.4.0 as well as a nice selection of lightweight window managers are available as options from the repository if you want a desktop other than KDE. Koffice 1.6.2 and kdewebdev 3.5.6 (including Quanta Plus) are not installed by default but are available for download.
As I reported in my review of Vector Linux 5.8 Standard, the graphical tools for systems administration have moved light years forward since the 5.1 series of releases. vasm, the somewhat graphical general administration tool still isn’t pretty but it’s very functional. VL-Hot, the graphical manager for removable media, has been updated to version 1.01 in SOHO. There are some reported problems with old FAT12 memory cards in this and prior versions but a new release, version 1.03, is in the repository for anyone who has those cards. I’ve found the stock version flawlessly automounts not only USB and Firewire media but PCMCIA as well, popping up icons for both access and unmounting the media on the desktop. The aforementioned wifi-radar is also new to the 5.8 series of Vector Linux releases and is very nice indeed. I’ve taken to installing it in other distros (i.e.: Xubuntu) because it works so well.
Multimedia applications including Amarok, Xine, and 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. People in the United States will need to remove some packages after installation, particularly libdvdcss and codecs-win32, in order to comply with the law. k3b, the KDE tool for burning CDs and DVDs, is the nicest of its kind for any platform and is far superior to the rather buggy Graveman included in Vector Linux 5.8 Standard. For those who prefer xcdroast it remains available in the repository.
The usual variety of KDE games are included with SOHO. Interestingly the various rather intense games included with VL 5.8 Standard are not included, probably for lack of space in the .iso. All of those games can be downloaded from the repository.
Running Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO
I haven’t been this impressed with a new version of a distro, any distro, in a very long time. Unless I very heavily load my system and do a major amount of multitasking there is very little difference in performance between Vector Linux 5.8 Standard and SOHO despite the KDE desktop. Under heavy load conditions the extra memory consumed by KDE still does make a difference. Still, in terms of speed, VL 5.8 SOHO leaves Kubuntu, Fedora, Mandriva, and SuSe in the dust. I simply have never seen a recent KDE release move so smoothly and swiftly on my hardware.
The desktop looks very much like it does in any distribution with KDE. The default graphics and theme are comfortable enough though I immediately customized mine.
I’ve found some truly minor bugs. For example, I chose to have the system use the graphical boot at 1024×786 resolution. Each step in the boot process overwrites the previous one so that nothing is readable. If I hit the ESC key I get a console window which shows me each step of the boot process. This is, at best, a minor annoyance but it should have been caught before release.
I also found some minor errors in packages for the SOHO repositories. For example I initially couldn’t install AbiWord because it claimed it needed a newer version of X. I installed from the command line with:
slapt-get --install --no-dep abiword
and it worked just fine. The dependency list in the package is where the error is located and it’s being corrected by one of the developers as I write this. One thing I have found is that the Vector Linux developers are incredibly responsive to user feedback and correct problems, however small, amazingly quickly. The good news is that I haven’t found any big problems with 5.8 SOHO at all.
If you haven’t looked at the Vector Linux repositories in the last six months a look now will be a revelation. The number of available “Extra” packages has grown exponentially. The selection still isn’t anywhere near as large as the Ubuntu Universe or Fedora Extras but it is rapidly getting there. The pace of packaging isn’t slowing, either. The Vector Linux Forum shows new packages being announced pretty much every day of the week.
In my review of Vector Linux 5.8 Standard I devoted a lot of space to package management, specifically the fact that for the first time in a distribution derivative of Slackware packages could be handled much the same way as they can in Debian based distributions using slapt-get and gslapt. gslapt is very similar in look and feel to synaptic and works in much the same way. slapt-get is similar to apt-get though the command syntax is different. After six months there has been only one problem with doing a system-wide upgrade, i.e.:
slapt-get --update slapt-get --upgrade
In order to make GNOME 2.18.0 available for VL 5.8 the developers had to allow a major upgrade of gtk+ from 2.8.x to 2.10.11 without a new release cycle. That is a rather daring move that most distributions wouldn’t try. Vector Linux pulled it off with only one package breaking: wifi-radar. The new version of wifi-radar currently in testing which I mentioned earlier is built against gtk+ 2.10.11. That has been the only hiccup so far. For a distribution that is only six months into the sort of package management most major distributions offer that is one heck of an accomplishment.
In summary anyone who is comfortable with how software is installed and managed under Ubuntu or Debian won’t find Vector Linux all that different. Those who like to work from the GUI will find gslapt user friendly and pretty much problem free.
Internationalization and Localization
Support for languages other than English has improved in Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO but still is relatively primitive compared to major Linux distributions. The installer and documentation are still entirely in English. The installer gives the option of adding KDE support for Spanish, Dutch, and/or Hebrew. I was very surprised to see Hebrew and Dutch among the top four languages but I guess that’s what the VL user community demanded. The good news is that pretty much any KDE internationalization files you may need for a wide variety of languages are in the repository and can be added after installation. fribidi is installed by default for bidirectional language support, which is essential for languages like Arabic, Thai, and Hebrew.
The bad news is that there is no GUI tool or option in vasm for setting the default system language and locale or any of the users’ defaults. It has to be done by editing the relevant text files and setting appropriate variables. Latin and Cyrillic fonts are installed by default and Hebrew fonts are available in the repository. Fonts for other non-Latin character sets have to be obtained from third parties and aren’t offered as of yet. aspell dictionaries for about a dozen languages are in the repository though some important ones, including Spanish, Portuguese, and German, have to be retrieved from the testing repository at this point. The good news is that more are being added regularly.
There are a few applications for Hebrew language speakers now packaged and a Dutch version of OpenOffice has been added to the repository. Other than that fully localized applications are generally not available in Vector Linux, nor are language packs for popular applications. They have to be obtained from third party sources.
Believe it or not the state of affairs I report is a big step forward from six months ago when internationalization and localization support was almost nil. The problem at this point seems to be a lack of volunteers working on internationalization, localization, and most importantly for VL-specific apps and documents, translation. Hopefully as the user community around Vector Linux continues to grow this issue will gradually get sorted out.
Most of the issues I complained about in my January review of Vector Linux 5.8 Standard were fixed in the SOHO release. The installer still has some issues with hardware detection on my laptop. I had to do only minor configuration tweaking after installation and I was up and running — a first for Vector Linux. Internationalization and localization are still not up to par.
Having said all of that I am tremendously impressed with Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO. I never imagined KDE could run smoothly or quickly on my laptop. Every other Linux distribution I’ve tried gave me sluggish performance and forced me to look at lightweight desktop environments like Xfce. Vector Linux offers speed and stability combined with a KDE desktop and user friendly tools. Is Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO perfect? Heck, no! There are some caveats, especially for new users, and I’ve done my best to lay those out. For the experienced user or the new user who isn’t afraid to ask questions I don’t think you can find a better Linux full-featured distribution than Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO. You certainly can’t find a faster one.