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.
I finally broke down and ordered a LapGenie. I would have bought one a long time ago, but at $139 my inner cheapskate just couldn’t quite take the plunge. Well I finally did, and I’m glad. It’s lightweight, sturdy, and comfortable. It supports the weight of my laptop, adjusts to a useful range of heights and angles, and I can squirm and fidget all I want to without upsetting the computer. I use it all over the place- couch, bed, and outside chair when the weather permits.
It seems to be well-made, so I expect many years of service. They have a 30-day money-back policy and a good warranty. It showed up five days after I placed the order- many thumbs up for the LapGenie.
Over the past year or two I’ve been drifting away from Fedora, Ubuntu, and Mandriva towards distros derived from Slackware for desktop use. The reason is simple: these distributions tend to have the best performance I’ve found, particularly on older or limited hardware. Slackware itself lacks some graphical tools and user friendly features that more popular distros have but is outstanding in terms of stability and reliability. A number of Slackware derived distros retain those benefits while offering the ease of use many of us have come to expect. AliXe is such a distro, albeit one designed to be small and compact, making it particularly suitable for older hardware. True to it’s Canadian heritage, AliXe also offers full support for both French and English despite it’s small size.
AliXe is designed to be run as a live CD. Those burdened with slow connections will be pleased to see that the iso image is less than 340MB in size. An optional installer (not included in the iso) is available for a conventional hard drive installation. The AliXe website warns that this is for “experts only”, in part due to an utter lack of documentation. AliXe also offers the option to run entirely cached in RAM provided you have enough memory. AliXe is built with the Linux Live scripts so a frugal install, similar to Damn Small Linux, where the iso image is installed directly to the hard drive and is booted read-only, is also possible. You are then effectively running the Live CD with the speed of a conventional hard drive.
The AliXe code base is a heavily modified version of Slax 6rc6, which in turn is based on Slackware 12. Unlike Slax, which uses KDE for the desktop environment, AliXe uses the smaller, lighter, but still powerful Xfce. In order to remain small AliXe offers just one of each type of application it provides, including the desktop. I tested AliXe on my five year old Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204, which has a 1GHz Intel Celeron processor and 512MB of RAM.
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.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been able to borrow a friend’s laptop: a Gateway Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been able to borrow a friend’s laptop: a Gateway MX7626, model W730-K8X (Athlon Mobile 4000+ processor, ATI X600 graphics, 1024 RAM). She has the 64-bit version of Ubuntu Feisty Fawn installed. I’ve installed and worked with 64-bit Linux on servers over the past couple of years, mainly running Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4, but this is my first chance to play with 64-bit Linux extensively on a laptop.
First, the machine is wonderfully fast at everything I’ve tried to do with it. 64-bit Ubuntu does have some minor quirks. The most noticeable one is that sometimes sound works and sometimes it doesn’t. If I don’t hear anything when GNOME starts then I won’t have sound until I reboot. She obviously has ALSA configured correctly since there is sound more often than not. I also noticed that some graphical apps don’t have .desktop files in /usr/share/applications and consequently don’t show up in the menu. When it comes to anything truly important, though, 64-bit Feisty does seem to work very well.
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: 18.104.22.168. 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.
The third release of Xubuntu, the variant of Ubuntu with the lightweight Xfce desktop, appeared last month. Feisty Fawn (version 7.04) uses the final gold code of Xfce 4.4.0 rather than the release candidates in Edgy Eft (version 6.10) and Dapper Drake (version 6.06). I had very positive experiences with both Edgy and Dapper so I had very high expectations for Xubuntu Feisty Fawn. In some ways the new release does take a step forward but in some truly important areas it took a couple of steps backwards and has been something of a disappointment.
Once again my test bed for Xubuntu has been my four and a half year old Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204 laptop which has a 1 GHz Celeron processor and 512MB of RAM. With this relatively slow processor KDE is sluggish. Xfce is also noticeably faster than a recent release of Gnome when doing significant work. Two Xfce based distributions, Xubuntu and Vector Linux, perform very well on this laptop. I really like Xfce 4.4.x. It strikes the right balance between brisk performance and features. I feel that Xubuntu is a good candidate for newer, more powerful systems as well. Having said that I’m not at all sure that upgrading from Edgy Eft to Feisty Fawn is a terribly good idea while Edgy is still well supported.
Ten Tec is an American manufacturer of all sorts of radio equipment based in Tennessee. They make a neat little black box which attaches to any PC via a serial port. The box, called the RX-320D, is a shortwave (general coverage) receiver that works very well indeed with performance rivaling more expensive desktop receivers. If you read Ten Tec’s advertising you’d think you need Windows based software to use this radio. Think again.
Hector Peraza has written Linux software which offers the same functionality as the Windows software provided by Ten Tec when you buy an RX-320D. The current version of his rx320 software is version 0.6.2, with source code available on his Sourceforge web page. I’ve used my RX-320D with Mr. Peraza’s code for quite a while now and I’ve been extremely satisfied. I also maintain the rx320 package in the Vector Linux Extra repository. I’ve also built Ubuntu packages which work well under Edgy Eft and should work under Feisty Fawn as well. For some reason my serial port stopped working under Feisty and I need to take the time to do some troubleshooting to find out why.
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.
Edgy Eft (version 6.10), the second release of Xubuntu, a variant of Ubuntu Linux built around the Xfce4 desktop and designed to be lightweight, was released in October. I’ve been using it since then and I’ve been impressed. The bugs and rough edges seen in the first release, Dapper Drake (6.06) are gone and the end result is a solid, reliable distribution that’s a pleasure to use. The introduction to the Xubuntu Desktop Guide says, in part:
You may want to think of Xfce as the BMW MINI of Linux Desktops. Combining it with Ubuntu gives you the full power and ease of use that Ubuntu is known for, while providing a snappy desktop even for those using older hardware
Xubuntu generally uses GTK+ 2 apps that don’t have KDE and Gnome dependencies and, in general, performance is definitely improved compared to the heavier desktop environments. In my opinion Xubuntu is not just for older equipment that needs a more lightweight distribution. It’s polished enough for use anywhere.
Last month a new update of SIAG Office, version 3.6.1 was released. It’s a minor update, mainly bugfixes. Still, it was an update I was very glad to see since it had been nearly a year since the previous release.
Why is this release important? In addition to fixing a few bugs and unbundling antiword it showed that SIAG is still being maintained and developed. OK, so you’re probably asking why SIAG is important at all. It’s feature poor when compared to OpenOffice or even AbiWord and Gnumeric.
Where SIAG scores over it’s more capable competition is in size and speed. The SIAG spreadsheet is included in a number of lightweight Linux distributions including Damn Small Linux. Granted the support for Microsoft Excel spreadsheets is limited but for stand alone use it has a very decent feature set that includes the functions that are most used in popular spreadsheet software. The suite’s word processor, PW, short for Pathetic Writer, is anything but pathetic. It’s certainly has a nice interface and is at least as capable as other lightweight word processors like Ted and FLWriter. I haven’t used Egon Animator so I really can’t comment on that piece.
Lightweight apps aren’t just for the sort of Atticware (old systems) I’ve written about from time to time. Keeping things small is also critical for embedded devices. It’s important for systems using compact flash cards and other RAM devices in lieu of hard drives where it’s highly desirable to cache the OS and as much of the applications as possible in traditional RAM to reduce read-write I/O and extend the lifespan of the storage device. One company I consulted for wanted truly silent point of sale systems with no moving parts. They wanted the OS, lightweight apps including a word processor and spreadsheet, and store data all on a single CF card. At the time in 2005 the spec called for 512MB cards. SIAG Office is perfect for their application. Something huge like OpenOffice simply wouldn’t do.
SIAG Office clearly has a place. It’s fits a growing and increasingly important niche in the Linux world. Seeing it continue to improve is important. By unbundling antiword version 3.6.1 offers those deploying SIAG Office the possibility of an even smaller footprint. Thanks to Ulric Eriksson and anyone else involved in the development of SIAG Office for your ongoing work. It is appreciated.
I’ve been a big fan of Firefox since practically the beginning, back when it was called Phoenix or Firebird. I like the way Firefox does things. It’s feature rich and the UI is well thought out. Sadly, lately, for me Firefox has become unusable.
I’m currently running Firefox 22.214.171.124 on three Linux distributions: Vector Linux 5.1, Fedora Core 5, and Xubuntu Dapper 6.06. On all three the browser crashes frequently on all sorts of web sites seemingly at random. I’ve had it happen on a diverse variety of sites, generally fairly complex ones, ranging from eBay to the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahranot. There is one website, one I use all the time, that will always cause Firefox to crash: Yahoo! Mail. Any attempt to read mail on the Yahoo! website generates a crash. Yes, the Mozilla Quality Feedback Agent pops up and yes, I dutifully send in my report. I’ve talked to friends who run Firefox on Windows and it’s stable on that platform, even on Yahoo! Mail. On Linux, however, it is totally unstable to the point of unusable. This wasn’t true of the 1.0.x releases but has been the case, and has seemingly gotten worse, with each 1.5.x release.
The net result is that I find myself using either Opera or Konqueror. They work just fine. Other browsers based on Mozilla’s gecko engine do not. Flock crashes the same way Firefox does while Epiphany and Seamonkey just hang. It’s frequent enough and annoying enough that I’ve all but abandoned all of these browsers.
So… what is going on? Is Mozilla working on this? Do they still care about us relatively few Linux folk or is a stable Windows platform good enough for them?
I’d like to say “good-bye and thanks for the fun,”, but it wasn’t fun.
On 1 June Ubuntu 6.06 (Dapper Drake) was released. New versions of Kubuntu (Ubuntu with a KDE desktop) and Edubuntu (a version for young people) were also unveiled. Perhaps the most interesting release was the newest member of the Ubuntu family, Xubuntu, a derivative distro based on the forthcoming XFCE 4.4 desktop. In this review I am going to focus heavily on the desktop since that is really the only thing that sets Xubuntu apart from Ubuntu.
In the article where I renewed my complaints about Gnome I touted XFCE 4.4 as an up and coming challenger to both KDE and Gnome on the desktop. The 4.4 version includes a new file manager, Thunar, added panel functionality to rival what KDE and Gnome users are accustomed to, new applets, and greater configurability. The release of Xubuntu is actually built on a beta of the new XFCE, version 126.96.36.199. While I was originally a bit concerned about this it turns out that Xubuntu has relatively few bugs and a very polished look and feel.
One of the claims made on the Xubuntu web page is:
It’s lighter, and more efficient than Ubuntu with GNOME or KDE, since it uses the Xfce Desktop environment, which makes it ideal for old or low-end machines, as well as thin-client networks.
I decided to put this to the test, installing Xubunu onto a Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204, a laptop with a 1 GHz Celeron processor and 512MB of RAM. This was one of the systems I used to evaluate and review Fedora Core 5. At the time I found FC5 to be substantially faster on this somewhat dated laptop that Ubuntu 5.10 (Breezy Badger). Over a roughly two month period I used this laptop running Fedora with an XFCE 188.8.131.52 desktop and my usual favorite applications so my comparison of Xubuntu 6.06 to Fedora 5 is apples-to-apples.
I upgraded two of my home systems from Breezy to Dapper Kubuntu. One is AMD-64, one is i386. I write about this stuff for a living, and would rather tinker than work anyday, so it here we are. The upgrade went OK, but not nearly as well as a plain-vanilla Debian installation. And the K/Ubuntu devs seem determined to make printing painful.
TurboPrint users be warned- you need to upgrade.
Last December I blogged about the uproar Linux creator Linus Torvalds had caused by posting on the gnome.org Usability list his extreme dislike for the direction the Gnome developers had taken with the UI. For those of you who may have missed his original post the high point follows:This “users are idiots, and are confused by functionality” mentality of Gnome is a disease. If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it. I don’t use Gnome, because in striving to be simple, it has long since reached the point where it simply doesn’t do what I need it to do.Please, just tell people to use KDE.
As the thread went on Linus became even more colorful in his criticism, calling the Gnome developers “interface Nazis” and citing examples of how Gnome’s UI makes it take longer to do things. At the time I agreed with the eminent Mr. Torvalds wholeheartedly.
Why rehash this now? A number of people have written to me about the wonders of Gnome 2.14. One reader of my review of Fedora Core 5 here on O’Reillynet went so far as to suggest that the performance improvements I was seeing were because of the wonderful new Gnome code. They aren’t. Carla Schroder, the author of the absolutely wonderful Linux Cookbook, was one of two people to praise the alacarte menu editor. Carla is usually right on about all things Linux so I tried it. Sadly, on my systems running Fedora it seems very broken. I really wanted to like the new Gnome. Honestly, I did. Gnome generally consumes less resources and memory than KDE and that, combined with excellent internationalization and localization, made it worth another long look. Sadly, I came away feeling every bit as frustrated with Gnome as I had been with previous versions.
The good news is that in Fedora Core 5 the performance improvements do result is a snappier, crisper KDE. On a modern system with significant resources I will repeat Linus’ sage advice: Just use KDE. For those of us dealing with embedded systems, nano-ITX technology, or older systems with limited resources, KDE may not be an option. The good news is that other alternatives just keep improving. Some are reaching the point where they are worth looking at even on a well equipped high end system. The idea that the “desktop wars” are strictly a Gnome vs. KDE battle may be a bit passé.
Kids these days, with their lo-fi iTunes and iPods and ringtones (that they pay money for!!) and mp3 collections. Why, I remember the early days of the Diamond Rio, one of the first portable digital music players, and even then I stuck my nose in the air and scoffed. If I want to listen to horrid low-quality low-fidelity tunes, I said to myself, I’ll go fire up the 8-track in my antique Datsun. Lossy formats and crappy little tiny speakers, bah.
I’m still not into lo-fi music players, or trying to make my poor little PC do everything in the world. I have all these nice electronics in my living room for playing music and movies with good-quality sound and video. But there is one newfangled method of delivering music that I have come to like a lot- Internet radio. (I know it’s not radio, but since we still dial our touch-tone phones, I am comfortable with saying “Internet radio.”)
Broadcast radio long ago ceased to be interesting or relevant. Or, to put it in terms suitable for us cranky old audiophiles, it became a poo-ridden wasteland. I swear if I hear “Stairway to Heaven” one more time I’m going to go nukular. Nothing ruins a good song like playing it to death, then flogging its poor little corpse to the end of time.
Last week I installed Fedora Core 5 on two aging but serviceable systems: my eMachines desktop (2GHz Celeron, 768MB RAM) and a Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204 notebook (1GHz Celeron, 512MB PC100 RAM). The desktop had previously run Fedora Core 4 while the laptop had been running Ubuntu 5.10 (Breezy Badger) for a few months and Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 4 Update 1 prior to that.
One of the claims made for Fedora Core 5 is that it was built to boot faster and run faster than the previous release. I’m very pleased to say that it’s true and the difference on my laptop is especially noticeable. Those of you who are running older, slower hardware or tend to heavily load you systems will definitely be happy with FC5. It is significantly crisper and more responsive than Ubuntu Breezy Badger and RHEL 4 as well.
I’ve never been happy with anaconda, the Red Hat installer. The new version of the graphical installation is certainly prettier but it still lacks the fine grained control of what software packages are to be installed that other distributions do offer as an option to experienced users. Also, as I quickly learned installing to my laptop, there is no “minimal” installation and, as with previous versions, no matter how much I strip down the installation anaconda will add cruft. Things that are not truly needed which I didn’t ask for do get installed. I still have to list my installed packages when I’m done and remove things. I know that corporate customers who build single purpose servers generally are unhappy about this and Red Hat may want to look at allowing a truly minimal build in the next release and/or in RHEL 5. The good news is that for the less experienced user building a typical desktop the anaconda installation is straightforward and downright easy. Hardware detection is certainly excellent and other than my printer (easily added) everything was correctly recognized and installed by anaconda.
The new Fedora offers two options for the desktop: Gnome and KDE. Gnome remains the default choice. The totally minimal twm is available as part of the X installation and you can just install that and then add other window managers or desktop environments from Fedora Extras after the initial installation. Note that anaconda will install significant parts of Gnome if you install any of the graphical system administration tools in any case, Choices in Extras are pretty limited too, but XFCE 4 and a handful of lightweight window managers are offered and will be recognized by gdm or kdm (the graphical login) session choices after they are installed.
I was cruising through the Linux books in O’Reilly’s catalog and ran across this little gem:
Understanding Linux Network Internals, by Christian Benvenuti. I think I have to call this my all-time favorite networking book. At over 1000 pages it’s an amazing accomlishment for a single author. The writing is clear and lucid, and Mr. Benvenuti writes with a depth and clarity you just don’t find in networking books.
Windows network admins should study this book as well- you’ll get an education you won’t find anywhere else, and all of those mysterious Windows networking behaviors will actually make sense. Or at least be understandable, since Microsoft’s habit of borking standard protocols never makes sense.
There aren’t too many computing books that I get excited about; this one goes on my Top 5 list.