Back in my January review of Vector Linux 5.8 Standard, the version with the Xfce desktop, I touted Vector Linux as the fastest distro with a reasonable feature set and selection of software that I had used at the time. It took a while but I finally found a distribution that’s at least Vector’s equal: Wolvix 1.1.0.
I’ve tested Wolvix on two laptops: a not quite two year old Gateway MX2676 (AMD Athlon 4000+ mobile processor, 1GB RAM) and a nearly five year old Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204 (1 GHz Celeron processor, 512MB RAM). The Gateway’s processor is 64-bit but Wolvix, at least so far, is only available for 32-bit x86 architecture. Performance was impressive on both machines but Wolvix truly shined on the older Toshiba.
Much like Ubuntu, Wolvix is provided as a single iso image of a Live CD with a graphical installer. Wolvix also offers the option to run entirely cached in RAM provided you have enough memory. Wolvix also offers a frugal install where the iso image is installed directly to the hard drive and is booted read-only. You are then effectively running the Live CD with the speed of a conventional hard drive. With four different ways it can be run Wolvix is a very flexible animal indeed, a distro which can be easily tailored to a number of specialized uses and yet is still brilliant as an ordinary distro installed to your hard drive.
Wolvix 1.1.0 is a user friendly distro based on Slackware. The code base appears to be a heavily updated Slackware 11 rather than the current Slackware 12. Previous versions were actually remasters of Slax, a small live CD built from Slackware with the Linux Live scripts, but with version 1.1.0 Wolvix has struck out on it’s own path and is no longer built from Slax. The improvements since version 1.0.5 are dramatic. While it’s still not perfect by any means the new version of Wolvix is relatively user friendly and easy to use.
Running As a Live CD
Wolvix 1.1.0 is available in two versions, the standard Hunter and the smaller Cub. For a live CD or hard drive user the only real difference between the two is that Hunter has a lot more applications to choose from, including larger, heavyweight apps like OpenOffice.
When booting into either Hunter or Cub you are told that you can press F1 for help and that is recommended, for good reason. The first screen gives you the root password. Screen two, accessed by pressing F2, starts a series of screens giving you most all of the cheatcodes Wolvix can use. Anyone who is familiar with Knoppix and it’s derivatives or pretty much anything built with the Linux-Live scripts knows about cheatcodes, parameters which can be passed to control what is or is not loaded when the system boots. Some cheatcodes allow hardware detection to be turned off in part, which is important if your system locks up on a given step. Other cheatcodes let you set screen resolution or choose non-standard modules to load. The good news for newcomers to Linux is that most of this can be safely ignored on most systems and you can just hit enter.
Once Wolvix boots it runs SLiM, the small lightweight boot manager, by default. You can use F1 to toggle between the standard Xfce desktop or the alternate, Fluxbox. Once you login you get the desktop of your choice.
My personal experience with live CDs is that I just can’t use most of them on my old Toshiba. Up until recently I’ve always blamed the hardware. I figured the DVD-ROM drive in the old beast was just plain too slow. When I tried various live CDs in the past, such as Xubuntu Feisty Fawn, a supposedly lightweight version of Ubuntu, my system was slower than molasses running uphill in the wintertime. It was painful. Wolvix 1.0.5 taught me the problem wasn’t my hardware and that is still true with 1.1.0. Sure, Live CDs are always slower than running from a hard drive, but with Wolvix my system performance remains perfectly reasonable. With 512MB of RAM I don’t do that much reading from the CD, just mainly when opening a new application. The live CD is perfectly acceptable for giving Wolvix a try.
It gets better: Wolvix correctly detected all of my hardware. Everything worked. Vector Linux 5.8 and Slackware 12 both had issues configuring X for my Toshiba laptop display. Wolvix got it right the first time with no intervention by me. Wireless was correctly configured on the Gateway laptop which uses a Broadcom chipset. On the Toshiba the madwifi driver for my Atheros chipset PCMCIA wireless card was correctly loaded at boot. However, getting Wifi-radar going did require me to manually edit the /etc/wifi-radar.conf file to set my interface to ath0. I was disappointed that Wifi-Radar 1.9.7 was installed rather than the newer 1.9.8 which allows for configuring the interface from within the GUI. Still, wifi was up and running in no time. Opening Firefox revealed that a nearly complete set of plugins was already installed.
Sound worked fine. Removable media, whether a USB stick or a compact flash card in a PCMCIA-CF adapter, were detected correctly and an icon popped up on the desktop when they were inserted. If I unmounted the media the icons disappeared as they should. Very few distros, live or installed, have pulled everything off as gracefully, particularly on two very different laptops.
The only other minor quibble, and that was only on the Toshiba, is that the proper ACPI module and the Toshiba laptop support module weren’t loaded into the kernel. I had to:
modprobe toshiba modprobe toshiba_acpi
from a terminal window. Of course most things on my laptop do work without those modules, but I like everything to be 100%.
Installation and Configuration
I chose to do my installation on the older Toshiba laptop. There is no desktop icon for installation. You click on the crossed tools on the bottom panel in Xfce or else go into the System menu and choose Wolvix Control Panel. The Control Panel then has a number of tabs for various system administration tools, most of which are graphical, easy to use, and well thought out, a real plus over vanilla Slackware or even Vector Linux’s highly functional but ugly and overly complex VASM.
HD-Install is the second tab. Once you click on that you are presented with a number of icons which allow you to choose the type of installation you want. Full Install is a conventional installation to a hard drive: what you get with most distros. The Wolvix installer is graphical, straightforward, and asks surprisingly few questions. You do get a fairly nasty disclaimer when you start installation:
Thankfully Wolvix didn’t harm anything but the message is an excellent reminder to do a backup before attempting an OS install regardless of what distribution you use.
Wolvix uses the very nice and graphical gparted to repartition a hard drive. My hard drive was already partitioned so I thought I could just select an existing XFS partition, a swap partition, an existing /home partition, and I’d be off to the races. Silly me. First, the Wolvix installer doesn’t support XFS. My choice of filesystems was limited to reiserfs, ext3, and ext2. Second, Wolvix was kind enough to warn me that it was going to format my /home directory. Yikes! I told it I didn’t need a separate /home directory. Very wrong. Finally, the Wolvix installer had no provision for setting up other directories, like a separate /var. This part of the installation still needs a lot of work. I almost gave up at this point. I checked the “Install GRUB” box, crossed my fingers, and let Wolvix reformat my selected partition and install.
After copying files for a relatively short period of time Wolvix asked if I wanted to login at the command line or have a GUI login prompt. I chose the latter. Wolvix offered me no opportunity to configure or test X but since it had worked so well as a live CD I decided to risk it. I was also given the choice of setting the resolution of the frame buffer console. For a laptop user this is a really nice touch. For a newcomer to Linux they can almost always safely choose a standard console and ignore this. I chose 1024×768x65k, which always works well on my Toshiba.
The installer also correctly recognized that I had two other Linux distros installed and prompted me to name them for the Grub menu. The Grub menu list it created successfully allowed me to boot into my choice of Vector Linux, Slackware, or Wolvix.
After a reboot I logged into my new installation and once again everything worked, albeit faster than before. I still had to manually edit my /etc/wifi-radar.conf file and add the kernel modules for my Toshiba. I also added the modprobe statements to my /etc/rc.d/rc.modules as this is the Slackware way of insuring those modules are loaded at boot.
Unlike many (most?) other distros Wolvix doesn’t setup a user account during the install process. The Wolvix Control Panel offers a very easy, graphical way to do this for those uncomfortable with the command line. I moved /home to an XFS partition and manually edited my /etc/fstab file. I also needed to setup a static IP address for my home wired network. The graphical tool for this is also straightforward and easy to use for anyone with a basic understanding of networking. If you use DHCP as the majority of people do then you won’t even need to go through this step.
Another tab in the Control Panel allowed me to configure and start CUPS. Wolvix uses the stock CUPS web based administration which is just fine. Putting it in the Control Panel allows a newcomer to Linux easy access without having to know about port 631.
I also discovered that my keyboard layout wasn’t quite right. Wolvix has it’s own keyboard switching applet with national flags. Guess what wasn’t there? Yep, no American or Canadian flag. Another trip into the Control Panel, a click on the X Windows tag, and a click on the icon to change keyboard showed me that the default for Wolvix is gb (British keyboard). I changed it to en_US, told Wolvix to make the change permanent, and I was done. This is the one piece of the Control Panel that isn’t pretty and assumes you know which locale is which.
Bottom line: I was up, running, and configured with minimal effort in record time. There are still a few rough edges in the installation process, though.
Running Wolvix Hunter 1.1.0
What I really like about Slackware based distros is that if they’re done right they tend to be really fast. A couple of the graphical configuration tools, especially the network tool, are a bit slow on the Toshiba but they are still quite usable. On the newer Gateway system they just fly. That’s to be expected.
Out of the box Wolvix 1.1.0 gives you the choice of an Xfce 4.4.1 desktop or Fluxbox 1.0rc3 with fbpager 0.1.4. Office applications in Hunter include OpenOffice 2.2.1, AbiWord 2.4.6, Gnumeric 1.7.10, Planner 0.14.2, and GNUCash 2.1.1. Graphics applications include GIMP 2.2.15, Inkscape 0.45.1, Blender 2.4.3, and GTKam 0.14.1.
When it comes to multimedia the array of applications squeezed onto one CD is truly impressive. Codecs for just about everything are included and most any multimedia file will play with the right app in Wolvix right out of the box. CD burning is handled by GnomeBaker. Xine, gXine, and MPlayer are all installed to play your video files and DVDs. DVD ripper and encoder software is also included.
Firefox and Thunderbird, both at 126.96.36.199, are included, as are the lightweight alternatives Dillo and Claws Mail. For instant messaging Pidgin 2.1.0 is included, as is XChat 2.8.4 for an IRC client.
If you’re looking for gee whiz 3D desktop effects then Wolvix is not the distribution for you. It’s Slackware 11 roots show as X.org is only at version 6.9.0. Installing compiz-fusion (or older compiz or beryl packages) would require upgrading X. Under the hood Wolvix sports a rather up to date 188.8.131.52 kernel.
Managing packages is easy using either slapt-get at the command line or the very nice graphical tool gslapt. Wolvix, however, has a very small repository of extra packages. By default Wolvix enables Slackware repositories as well. It’s easy enough to add repositories from third party sources like Linuxpackages.net or Slacky.eu. The problem is that many packages will be duplicated and triplicated. In addition there very well could and likely will be dependency issues. You can seriously forget about automated system upgrades when using multiple sources. So… Wolvix has wonderful package management tools but little that can be counted on back-ending those tools.
After using Wolvix 1.1.0 almost since the day it was released I simply don’t have bugs or broken bits to report. Wolvix works amazingly well right out of the box. The one known bug, relating to icons on the Fluxbox desktop (which I don’t use) is fixed by an upgrade to the wolvixscripts package, available in the Wolvix repository.
A frugal install, either to hard drive or to a USB stick, is also available. The frugal installation script is a modified version of the one used by Damn Small Linux front ended by the Wolvix installer GUI. If you read the help (this bit is NOT intuitive) it works very well indeed. I tried installing Wolvix Cub into a 1.5GB partition. Cub took up all of 274MB. I also allowed for a Wolvix save file a place to save settings permanently and made it a truly huge and probably wasteful 100MB. The install went very quickly indeed and once again permitted me to set the resolution of the frame buffer console. It also correctly configured Grub for my now quadruple boot system.
After reboot I could make my usual configuration changes and they were properly retained from boot to boot. The frugal install didn’t seem any slower than the conventionally installed instance of Wolvix to me.
Running Entirely From RAM
One of the cheatcodes available when booting the livecd is copy2ram. This does precisely what it implies: it caches the entirety of Wolvix in available memory. I tried to do this with Hunter on the Gateway laptop but 1GB of RAM just wasn’t enough to make it work. However, Cub fit neatly into less than 512MB of RAM. Suddenly with almost no disk I/O and everything working from memory my Toshiba laptop was running virtually silently. It was also incredibly fast as in I’ve never seen it so responsive.
Even better, copy2ram can be passed as a boot parameter in Grub when booting to a frugal installation on a hard drive. This is incredibly useful when using a Memory Technology Device (MTD) in lieu of a hard drive, such as an IDE Flash RAM card or a USB stick. MTDs have limited lifespan and the more I/O you do the sooner they will fail.
Manufacturers of Mini-ITX and Nano-ITX “green” systems often use MTDs to create silent systems with no moving parts that consume very little energy. It’s a great concept. Unfortunately they typically load either Windows XP or popular Linux distros like Fedora, Ubuntu, Mandriva, or Gentoo on the Flash RAM and do nothing to limit I/O. The only exception I’ve seen is the Damn Small Machine which comes with a frugal install of Damn Small Linux on an MTD (USB stick of Flash RAM, your choice) with absolutely puny capacity. With 4GB or even larger cards now very reasonably priced a more full featured distro that can cache entirely into RAM makes a whole lot more sense. Wolvix Cub is the perfect distribution for such a system.
What Wolvix Isn’t
Wolvix is clearly designed to be used as a desktop or laptop OS by individuals. There is no support for network installation or automated installation with kickstart or a similar tool to mass produce systems. There are precious few server applications.
Internationalization and Localization
In order to fit so many applications on the iso something had to go. One thing that went was any and all support for languages other than English. I set up a user account and set all the appropriate variables in the .bashrc file for French (France). I logged in to the new user account and used commands like
echo $LANG echo $LC_MESSAGES echo $LC_ALL
to see that everything was set correctly for the new user to have a system en francais and yet everything was still in English. Minimal internationalization (i.e.: keyboard support) is there, and adding font sets, dictionaries, and language packs will effectively support the use of another language. Localization is completely absent. Translations to actually have the menus, help, etc… in another language are all missing.
For an English speaking desktop or laptop user with even a small amount of previous Linux experience Wolvix is one of the best distributions I’ve seen. It’s fast, it’s nearly bug free, it’s well thought out, and is generally excellent. A newcomer to Linux may still run into a situation that requires editing a text file for configuration and that, coupled with a lack of documentation of such issues, might make getting going with Wolvix a less than rewarding experience. With a little help with configuration (which may not even be necessary) a newcomer to Linux would find using Wolvix to be no more challenging than any other distro and, once they’ve gotten through the learning curve, an entirely excellent distro to work with.
Wolvix also offers some outstanding installation options making it truly ideal for use on a USB stick, Flash RAM device, or running entirely from RAM. For those with specialized desktop or laptop applications Wolvix really shines.
If you keep in mind what Wolvix is designed to do and don’t try to make it something it isn’t you’ll probably be as impressed with this little distro as I am.