Over the past 14 months I’ve reviewed two previous releases of Vector Linux: Vector Linux 5.8 Standard and Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO. Anyone who has run those versions of Vector Linux would find the new version quite familiar. In reality the changes between 5.8 and 5.9, which was released in December, are like day and night. For starters up until now Vector Linux was a 32-bit distro. A 64-bit version of Vector Linux 5.9 Standard is currently in beta and looks very promising. However, since it is still beta code I’m restricting my review to the 32-bit version.
Last year Vector Linux came in four flavors. The list has now been expanded to seven different variations on the distribution: Standard, Deluxe, SOHO, Live, Light, Mini, and Light Live. SOHO, with KDE as the default desktop and all the most popular applications, is the full featured version. Standard is based on the Xfce4 desktop and provides superior speed and performance. Both are freely downloadable. Deluxe, available for purchase, is Standard plus a second CD with additional applications including KDE and OpenOffice. Live, as the name implies, is a live CD version of Standard. Light is a paired down, extremely lightweight version designed to run on older systems with as little as 64MB of RAM. In reality it will run with less than that. Light is built around either a JWM or Fluxbox desktop and lightweight applications. Mini is a further reduced version of Light that fits on a 5cm/3″ mini CD and requires only 1.1GB of disk space. Finally, Light Live is, as you’d expect, the live CD version of Light. So far only new Standard and Deluxe versions have been released but the others, all in various stages of development and testing, can already be sampled. This review will stick strictly with the Standard version from here on out.
My main box for testing Vector Linux 5.9 Standard my aging general purpose laptop, a five 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 in most distros.
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 do work as they should out of the virtual box. Some issues still require manually editing configuration files. I had hoped that by this point VL would be as user friendly as any distro out there but it isn’t there yet.
Installation and Configuration
Vector Linux 5.9 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. 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.
Vector Linux still uses an old fashioned text-based installer similar to Slackware, which is fine as far as I am concerned. A new, snazzy graphical installer is still promised for Vector Linux 6. I didn’t test to see if the installer now checks for adequate disk space, a problem with the VL 5.8 Standard installer. You need at least 3.2GB for a reasonably complete installation.
Disk partitioning is handled smoothly in VL 5.9. ext3, reiserfs, jfs, xfs, and trusty old ext2 are all supported. A list of common mount points is provided but the ability to define a non-standard mount point for a partition is lacking. Much like Slackware, Vector Linux still uses lilo and only lilo for the bootloader. Grub is available in the repository and can be installed after installation.
Video hardware detection remains relatively poor compared to other distributions and has not improved since 5.8. For example when I booted up to the GUI I was once again 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) can make it work the way it should. It turns out the Monitor section of the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file doesn’t have proper horizontal and vertical refresh rates set and you are warned about this possibility by the installer. In addition, some options required by my laptop screen aren’t set. This problem has shown up for other users of Toshiba laptops with similar chipsets as well. Most major distributions simply don’t have problems like this in 2008.
In addition the installer doesn’t setup the system to load the kernel module needed to fully 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.
Printing and wireless networking aren’t handled by the installer and have to be configured after the system boots up for the first time. Expect to go into vasm or vasmCC to choose what services to start at boot as well.
One unique option in the Vector Linux installer is the ability to chose between HAL and VL-Hot for managing removable media. HAL, used by most distributions, continually polls the hardware and can have a performance impact on slower machines. VL-Hot is triggered by udev events and offers faster performance. It also uses rather long mount point paths which can be annoying if you work at the command line a lot. VL-Hot uses a second desktop icon for unmounting removable media which might be confusing to some. This is typical of many of the innovations found in Vector Linux: power users will love the flexibility and newcomers will wonder what it all means. I think most newcomers to Linux will find HAL easier to deal with.
Seamonkey is the default browser in Vector Linux. Alternate browsers (Firefox, Opera, and Dillo) are offered as options during installation. OpenOffice is not included in the iso but it is available from the repository after installation. AbiWord and Gnumeric are installed by default and Scribus, a desktop publisher, is an installer option. GIMP is also no longer included on the iso but rather is part of the new Multimedia Bonus Disc.
The installer and the documentation are in English, period. No other languages are supported despite huge progress in other areas of internationalization and localization.
Changes Since Vector Linux 5.8
There have been a huge number of changes in the latest release, both in applications and in configuration tools. Xfce 4.4.2 is the default desktop but VL has returned to the practice of offering alternative, lightweight desktops during the initial installation. This was dropped in 5.8. The alternate choices are JWM 2.0.1 and Fluxbox 1.0.0. KDE 3.5.9 is available in the repository as are a nice selection of lightweight window managers. If you choose Xfce you’ll find a much larger selection of panel applets available compared to 5.8. It’s still not the full selection from Xfce Goodies but I suspect most users will find what they want. Thunar is now the only fine manager installed by default but a number of others, including Xfe and pcmanfm, are available in the 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 functionality and works flawlessly. It’s now joined by vasmCC. The new Control Center is a fully graphical, pretty, and very functional tool for system configuration with most but not quite all the functionality of vasm. It’s reasonably easy to use and generally quite intuitive. OK, it would be more obvious for newcomers if an icon in the Network section was labeled “Network Configuration” instead of “Netconf”, but that’s a minor quibble. Once you get to below the second level of icons things look suspiciously like vasm but that’s to be expected and everything still works flawlessly.
WiFi-Radar now allows changing configuration settings within the GUI with a new preferences tab. You no longer a need to manually edit a configuration file to setup a wireless network interface. In addition, the semi-graphical alternative, vwifi, also works flawlessly. gslapt, the graphical package manager, now correctly displays dependencies for most packages. All in all configuring Vector Linux is now easier than in any previous release in most cases.
Under the hood Vector Linux now runs on a 22.214.171.124 kernel. An updated 126.96.36.199 kernel is currently in testing. It’s worked flawlessly for me so far but I did have to compile an updated madwifi driver to work with it. That should be included in the final package. Users who stick with the default kernel are well advised to install the novmsplice module to close a significant security vulnerability which came to light after VL 5.9 was released.
Kernel level support for popular laptops works as expected. Tools for my laptop, such as toshset, are in the repository.
Multimedia applications including XMMS, Xine, and optionally MPlayer have all been updated. Canada, the home of Vector Linux, 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 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 now available as an option during install. KDE does not have to be installed to use k3b in VL, but a number of required KDE libraries are automatically included if you choose this option. The alternative is xfburn, a rather simplistic and limited CD burner designed to integrate with Xfce. Graveman, which I found to be horribly buggy, is no longer included.
The number of games included in the iso image have been greatly reduced. The repository does contain a large selection of games that more than makes up for this.
One of the most interesting new tools included in Vector Linux 5.9 is vpackager, a remarkably easy to use graphical tool to build packages from source. I suspect a lot of relatively new Linux users who looked at compiling software from source code as a daunting task will be surprised at just how easy it can be with vpackager. vpackager is also designed to work with CruxPorts4Slax but unfortunately that functionality isn’t quite ready from prime time just yet. When everything works properly there will be a truly easy way to install software directly from source. A How-To for wriiting ports for CruxPorts4Slack is included in the Vector Linux Wiki.
Running Vector Linux 5.9 Standard
Unlike Ubuntu (or Xubuntu or Kubuntu) 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.
One of the main reasons I keep coming back to Vector Linux after trying other distributions is because it clearly is the fastest distribution with a decent set of applications and features for my older hardware Once you get past installation and configuration I still give Vector Linux a slight edge over most other distributions in terms of a user friendly, well thought out desktop.
I did run into a few bugs. As I previously reported Vetcor Linux 5.9 installs a full set of fonts for X by default but only enables the TrueType and OpenType fonts. Installing a package called fontfix, currently in the testing repository, resolved this problem.
Another annoying but minor issue is a display problem in AbiWord. Vector Linux developers chose to go with the latest bleeding edge development version, 2.5.2, rather than the latest stable release. 2.5.2 generally works but I often get a floating part of the toolbar about halfway down my screen. It’s always on top and doesn’t go away when I change instances of AbiWord or even switch to another application window. It only disappears when I close the instance of AbiWord that caused the problem. I’ve also had some interesting (OK, weird) fonts and spacing magically appear in documents.
The Vector Linux 5.9 repositories include far more packages than ever before. Unfortunately there is currently a large backlog of packages in the testing repository that haven’t made it to extra just yet. Users may need to enable the testing repository to find applications they want and then disable it again before doing a system upgrade. While the number of packaged applications for Vector Linux continues to grow rapidly it still falls far short of what is available for distributions like Debian, Mandriva, Ubuntu, or Fedora. VL 5.9 is based on Slackware 12 and any Slackware packages, including those from third party sources like linuxpackages.net or slacky.eu, should work on Vector with one caveat: dependency checking may not work correctly. It’s pretty easy to end up in dependency hell if you enable third party repositories.
Multimedia and graphics software, as well as software of interest to musicians, are not going to be an issue. The selection for Vector Linux is now truly up to par thanks to the new Multimedia Bonus Disc, which deserves a review of its own.
Security Concerns and Package Management
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. Other distributions, i.e.: Wolvix 1.1.0, have followed suit.
The good news is that throughout the lifecycle of Vector Linux 5.8 and now 5.9 doing a:
slapt-get --update slapt-get --upgrade
does precisely what you’d expect it to: cleanly upgrade your system by finding all the latest patches and updates and installing them. The bad news is that in Vector Linux 5.9 this functionality has been disabled from gslapt, the graphical alternative. Writing in the Vector Linux forum, one user who calls herself GrannyGeek put it this way:
I’m not glad at all that the Mark All Upgrades and View Marked have been disabled. This is nannyism at its worst. I *like* to be able to see what upgrades are available in a way that’s less laborious than going through the whole lengthy list of packages. Marking upgrades and viewing what’s marked was a convenient way to do this.
Disabling that feature was a really bad idea because it makes keeping a system secure difficult for a Linux newcomer. There is now no automated method within the GUI to determine what patches are out there and install them.
It’s worse than that. While the Vector Linux developers have been lightning fast at getting new packages out to close security vulnerabilities since the release of 5.9, there is no set method to inform users that a patch is available or even necessary. A security section exists within the forum but it isn’t used. This wasn’t a big issue in VL 5.8 because one quick check of gslapt would show you what’s out there. That simply isn’t true any longer for users who aren’t knowledgeable and comfortable on the command line.
Internationalization and Localization
Support for languages other than English has always been an area where Vector Linux was weak compared to other distributions. There has been tremendous improvement in VL 5.9 in terms of providing the tools necessary for supporting a large variety of languages. What is still lacking are graphical configuration tools to allow a newcomer to change language, locale, and keyboard settings for the system default, individual users, or on a session by session bases.
A wide variety of international font sets for languages that use non-Latin character sets are now installed by default. One one hand I’m not sure how many Vector Linux users are likely to need the Syriac or Ethiopic fonts which are installed. On the other hand Vector Linux is probably the only distro where probably every web page in the world will likely be displayed correctly out of the box. Whether a user can read what’s displayed is another matter. I should note that the full set of Cyrillic fonts for X is installed by default but not enabled. The fontfix package I referred to earlier does remedy this. In addition the selection of fonts for a given set of non-Latin glyphs is generally small. Additional font packages are beginning to show up in the repository.
KDE i18n packages are in the main repository. 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. That applet doesn’t alter the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file, though, so if you don’t have KDE installed you still have to manually edit that file to add support for additional keyboard layouts other than your chosen default.
A full set of aspell dictionaries are now in the repository as are language packs for Mozilla Firefox, Thunderbird, and Sunbird. This is a huge step forward. Strangely langauge packs for Seamonkey, the default browser in VL, aren’t there yet. Open Office internationalization packages and dictionaries are also still missing.
If your goal is a truly localized system, not just a system running in English with support for other languages, you still need to do significant work to make it happen in Vector Linux Standard. Most all packages are now built with whatever translations are available. However, the default display manager is a rebuilt, trimmed down version of kdm. As previously noted 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/or by editing appropriate configuration files.
Many of the issues I complained about in my previous review of Vector Linux 5.8 were fixed in 5.9. 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. Someone with well supported desktop hardware might find the Vector Linux “just works” for them. Internationalization and localization are vastly improved in VL 5.9 but there still is a long way to go to make it user friendly and some packages are still lacking.
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. Experienced Linux users and those willing to roll up their sleeves and learn will likely find Vector Linux to be one of the best desktop distributions out there. Newcomers and anyone else who just wants things to work after a simple installation may still find that getting Vector Linux 5.9 is still an exercise in frustration if there is anything that isn’t vanilla in their system. Those whose primary language is something other than English and aren’t bothered by the lack of GUI tools may find that Vector Linux 5.9 finally meets there needs. Newcomers to Linux and anyone uncomfortable with manually editing configuration files will find that getting VL to work for them in their own language is more than they bargained for.
Vector Linux 5.9 is their best release yet. It just isn’t for everyone. Vector Linux was about 90% of the way to being about the best distro out there a year ago. While tremendous progress has been made in some areas in other areas, like keeping a system upgraded and secure, VL actually took a step backwards with this release. With a little more attention to the needs of newcomers Vector Linux could become the next big Linux distribution.
I have yet to find a perfect Linux distribution and I have never written a review where I didn’t find something to complain about. Even with the issues I’ve raised Vector Linux is still my favorite distribution for the desktop or laptop.