Hey folks sorry for the delay, I seem to say that at the start of every article but the festive season has caused havoc lately. Anyway, I’ve been running Zenwalk 4.8 almost a week now and it did give some me more time to get a feel for it. I’d been told it was Slackware without the hassle, I’d even been told it was good for new users. Could this be true? Here’s how I got on in my week with Zenwalk…
Distro Base – Slackware
Packaging – .tgz (managed by Netpkg)
Linux Kernel – 126.96.36.199
Default Desktop – XFCE 4.4.1
I made a familiar mistake for me lately in downloading the Live version of Zenwalk thinking I’d be able to install it and discovering I couldn’t. Still, it booted up fine and seemed to work pretty well out of the box which was cool. I looked on the distro website and couldn’t see any warnings about the liveCD not having an installer but I probably should have done some research I suppose, it’s a good job CD-Rs are so cheap these days. After downloading the install version of Zenwalk 4.8 I was ready to begin my install again in earnest.
I was greeted by a text boot prompt and I recognised the Slackware installer instantly. A few people seem to think I have a problem with text-based installers because of my comments about Slackware but I don’t really. I’ve installed many operating systems with text installers, even Windows so I don’t have a thing against the medium in general just the implementation sometimes. This was exactly the same as the Slackware 12 installer and I navigated through the text screens pretty quickly until I hit the disk partitioning section.
I’d tangled with Slackware a bit on this and in my opinion the partitioner is a little confusing at times. I was able to get used to it but it put doubts my mind early on of how friendly this distro would be to new users. It does offer complete control of the system and I imagine this is why so many people like it, if you know what you’re doing then it’s great but for new users that power can be confusing and slightly dangerous. It only took me a few minutes to select all the options I needed and overall the install was very fast. It took about 15mins from putting the CD into the machine to rebooting after the install, that includes partitioning and formatting of a 200gb hard disk. Very impressive in that department it has to be said.
There is a good screen by screen guide to installation on the Zenwalk website, this could possibly mitigate some of the complexity problems for new users. Check it out to see the full blow by blow install process –
The Zenwalk manual also covers installation – http://manual.zenwalk.org/en/
Configuring The System:
On the initial boot the ASLA sound configuration tool ran automatically, I’d had to run this manually on Slackware 12. I also had to spend quite a while setting up the root user and a normal user account to log in with, this is quite common with a lot of distros requiring set up on the first boot. Not a problem but it did take me a while setting things as they needed to be and I’m not sure a novice user would find it easy at all without following the manual. This is an interesting point because I’m sure many of you will say “They should be following the manual, that is easy! What’s wrong with you?” but to me I’m sorry it’s not. A novice friendly system shouldn’t require a 200 page manual just to install it in my book, no pun intended 😉 Maybe I’m just too impatient but I prefer to have a go and if I break it only then will I look for the manual. I suppose it depends on your ethos.
Everything seemed to go fiine and then I was prompted that the X server was about to start. This is also an improvement on Slackware in which you have to manually start X, nothing major but novice users wouldn’t like that either I don’t think. At this point the relatively smooth experience so far got more than a little bumpy. I was prompted that the X server had failed and after reading the details I was left with a blank screen, not even a command prompt. This was a little annoying and after another reboot I had the same problem and the same blank screen. It seemed the x server wasn’t configured properly, so this is where I had to get a bit geeky. I used the ALT+SHIFT+F2 command to switch to run level 3 which allowed me to get a command prompt up. From their I was able to log into the system as root and edit the xorg.conf file with the VI text editor. I changed the video driver name from “vga” to “nv” in the config file and saved the changes. I was then able to start the GUI by using the command “startx” and thankfully it worked. It was a great rush fixing this problem and it makes you feel good when something works but it’s really not something that most people want to do with their system. I can see why people enjoy the challenge and fulfilment of it but so far Zenwalk was feeling pretty similar to Slackware for me.
The next problem I ran across was the lack of a network connection after logging in. I was a little confused by this at first, I hadn’t been asked for any network details during the installation though and it occurred to me I’d probably have to set this up. I opened the network manager tool from ZenPanel and discovered that DHCP networking was disabled on the connection. I ticked the appropriate boxes to enable DHCP and then asked it to reconnect. Luckily it worked but this was a strange oversight I thought in the installation process. Most distros ask you about using DCHP during install and I think this could be improved. I don’t want to flog a dead horse but it’s another thing that breaks the “easy for novice users” argument in my eyes.
I found that the screen resolution was tiny at 1024×768 on my 1440×900 monitor. I knew I’d have to install the binary Nvidia drivers to fix this as I do on most systems. Unlike Slackware it seems Zenwalk does at least come with a package manager installed for you. Netpkg works in a similar way to most package managers in allowing you to search online repositories for software. It’s quite basic though and for some reason it will only search one repo at a time which I found annoying, I had to manually change the repo to search different ones. I looked online for some help with Nvidia drivers and found a useful guide in the Zenwalk wiki. The documentation of Zenwalk is very good and the community seems pretty helpful, that’s worth noting.
I used this guide to install my Nvidia drivers –
It involved downloading the binary installer and running it from the terminal at “init 3” as I’d done before but the instructions were good. I then had to edit my xorg.conf file again to change the “nv” driver to “nvidia”. I also added the option “1440×900” under my screen settings to get the right resolution. I fired up the x server and it all worked, I was really happy and satisfied that I’d learnt something. In the back of my mind though was the nagging thought “I could have done this in a few clicks in Ubuntu or something similar”. There’s no doubt you learn more this way and I realise that but most people just want things to work as easily as possible. I don’t think Linux can conquer the average desktop with this kind of attitude. A lot of people I know have this kind of experience of Linux from a few years back and it seems first impressions really do count. They think Linux has to be a lot of hard work and the reality these days couldn’t be further from the truth, I wish I could show them Linux Mint or Mandriva but once they’ve made up their minds it’s hard to convince people.
So with my video drivers working and my desktop looking pretty good I was able to get into using the system a little. Zenwalk does come with a lot more software installed that Slackware and it’s preconfigured to do a lot of things like multimedia support, NTFS support, Samba file sharing and more. It uses XFCE as the window manager but mixes in some bits of Gnome and KDE which works well. I hadn’t used XFCE too much before this but I knew it was famed for it’s light resource footprint and simplicity. I like the Thunar file manager immensely and it’s almost on a par with Nautilus for me. In comparison to my experience with the Enlightenment E17 file manager, this is light years ahead.
Zenwalk comes with the IceWeasel web browser which I knew well from Debian. I like it and it’s always worked exactly like Firefox for me, there’s virtually no difference in everyday use, all my favourite extensions worked a treat. I installed Amarok from Netpkg to give me a decent music player but it refused to work, I found it was missing something called “libtunepimp” which I installed but it didn’t fix the problem. At this point I searched the net and found a good site to get prebuilt packages at www.linuxpackages.net where I downloaded another version of Amarok and tried that, again it failed and in the end I just downloaded Exaile which thankfully worked for me. I was able to get a build of the Skype 2.0 beta off LinuxPackages and install it with the “installpkg” command. I also installed OpenOffice and a few other things to get the desktop as I wanted it. I was able to find pretty much everything I needed but it was a lot more effort than some other distros and possibly not for everyone.
The Compiz Conundrum:
I had my desktop working as I wanted now and it was pretty comfortable but I decided that I should install the Compiz Fusion 3D desktop, I’d already gone to the trouble of installing my 3D video drivers so I should make use of them. I found a decent guide again on the Zenwalk wiki.
I edited my xorg.conf to make sure all the required options were enabled and then downloaded all the packages required from this repository. http://www.rapidrabbit.de/jj/zenwalk/packages/unofficial/compiz/
I manually downloaded the packages into a folder in my home directory named Compiz (I’m so original) and was then able to install them all in one go with a little trick I learned. I navigated to the compiz directory with the terminal and used the command “installpkg *” to install everything at once. The * wild card operator just selects everything in the current directory. It may save you some time. I fired up compiz but all my window decorators disappeared meaning I couldn’t drag windows around or maximise and minimise. Luckily I knew enough keyboard commands for this not to matter. I searched around for help on this problem but didn’t really find too much relevant material. I found on restarting the x server that the window decorators didn’t return, this was a problem I would have to fix. I deduced that the Emerald window decorator which comes with Compiz was obviously not starting, so I tried to work out why. I assumed missing dependencies were the culprit and I was right. I tried to load emerald in the terminal with the following command “emerald -replace” and I got this error.
“Error: Unable to find libwnck”
I went to Netpkg and searched for “libwnck” which luckily it found and after installing the package I was able to start emerald with window decorators woo hoo I was spinning the cube in not time 🙂 I now had my desktop fully working but it had been a long battle over 2 or 3 days and I can’t pretend it was easy, though the joy of Slackware systems (if the word joy can be used) is the stability and low maintenance they offer once configured. Is this initial overhead worth it? I suppose it depends on the user and the situation.
Ease Of Installation & Setup: 2/5
Community & Documentation: 3/5
Overall I found Zenwalk was a little easier to get set up than Slackware and did come with more software. If the X server hadn’t failed on my card then it would have been a lot easier. I don’t know if this was a known issue with my card but it wasn’t very impressive, other distributions have worked fine with my video card and some of them even installed all the drivers and 3D support right from the LiveCD, mentioning no names… (Mandriva I’m looking in your direction). The fact that Zenwalk is a bit easier than Slackware is why some people say it’s good for new users, I think what they should say is “it’s better for new users than Slackware”. It is, I wouldn’t argue with that but to me that’s the equivalent of saying “climbing K2 is easier than climbing Everest”, it probably is but that doesn’t make it easy.
Zenwalk has some strengths that I would like to highlight in case you think this is a negative review because it isn’t. The stability of the system is amazing because of the Slackware base, this is to be expected and like so many things in life you only get out what you put in. There’s a lot of work to do upfront in setting up the system but this overhead is recouped by the lack of security issues and the stability later. A lot of Slackware enthusiasts say what they love about it is that once it’s set up it will run for years without problems. I can see the advantages of that but for me on a desktop machine this doesn’t outweigh the amount of work required. On a server it probably would but that’s a personal opinion. The other major thing people often say about Zenware is that it’s very fast because of the solid base and lightweight XFCE window manager. I can’t say I noticed this too much on my system but I have a powerful machine that can handle heavier software very easily, that may be why the difference didn’t stand out. I timed the system boot from powering on to getting a usable login prompt and it came out at 50 seconds, this is pretty quick but I’ve had the same results with many other distributions. I think on older or lower spec hardware Zenwalk might come into it’s own and that’s worth keeping in mind.
I really liked XFCE but not enough to use it on a machine that can handle Gnome happily, on a lower spec system it’s great and well worth a look. I also liked Thunar a lot for managing files, very intuitive and easy to use. If I were to choose Zenwalk as my main OS it would have to in one of 2 situations, if I had a low spec machine or if I wanted a challenge and something I could learn from without jumping right into Slackware. If either of those apply to you then definitely take a look at Zenwalk, it has a certain charm and I’ve learnt a lot from it but I don’t think I would use it day to day. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone wanting to get a first taste of Linux with a machine capable of handling a heavier distro, I still think Mint and Mandriva rule where it comes to complete novice users.
I like the name Zenwalk but I’m not sure how it applies to this system, my experience was anything but Zen, maybe the link between Zen and Zenwalk is that both of them can be an exercise in patience.
So where will I go next? I’m not sure right now to be honest with Christmas looming we’ll have to see. I’ve downloaded Foresight 1.4.1 and Wolvix 1.1.0 Hunter and I’m also waiting for the release of a new distro Pyro Linux which has been delayed. I’ll probably checkout Foresight next and see where it takes me. If you have any suggestions then please feel free to let me know. As usual you are all invited along for the ride 😉