August 31, 2007

Personal Computing, served up BSD Style!

Filed under: bsd,google,thetao — SiKing @ 10:17 am

First up in my BSD review I tackled PC-BSD, version 1.3.01. Actually, it was an article specifically about this distro that got me thinking about this whole BSD trial run thing in the first place.

First impressions: serious looking website geared toward the user, no torrent download, several download mirrors, derived from FreeBSD, discussion fora seem to be active.

The installer

The base distro comes on one CD, with at least one optional CD full of additional packages. Download, burn, boot: the installer was a breeze – just a few, straightforward, obvious questions. Auto-detect correctly detected my video resolution; my video card is slightly odd – it needs a lower refresh rate to get the maximum resolution that I prefer – which causes problems for some auto-detecting programs. The installer even has an option for advanced stuff, none of which was overwhelming. One of the advanced options is to turn off the firewall; since I am already behind a firewall, I disabled it, but again, very straightforward regarding what you want to allow or not.

5 minutes worth of questions, 30 minutes worth of install, one reboot, and I am greeted with a familiar looking KDE desktop. Hey, is it just me or does the default window dressing look like Windows Media Player series 10 – naw, p’wably just my imagination acting up.

I did encounter one small issue. I have two komps hooked up through a KVM switch. If I started the boot switched to the other komp while the auto-detect was going on, it had problems finding my mouse. This required me to reboot the computer, and watch the auto-detection in order to have a fully functional mouse. Not a big deal, but since this problem persists even after the install, it is more than a minor nuisance.

Anyway, top marks for the installer!

Package management

PC-BSD has three (documented) options for installing new applications: PBI Installer (the easy and recommended way), Packages (the quick FreeBSD way), and Ports (the traditional FreeBSD way).

You download a PBI from their website. You then run it on your end, and a wizard guides you through the whole install process. According the PC-BSD website: “Since PBI programs are created from traditional FreeBSD ports and packages, they are fewer and less up to date than ports.” I could not get an exact count, but there are certainly several hundred PBIs, maybe even a thousand available. Most of the stuff that a casual user would want is available through the PBIs. There is also a graphical manager that keeps track of all your installed PBIs, through which you can easily uninstall (but not update) any of them.

Installing packages is done through the command line, and the packages come from the FreeBSD Ports server, which (at the time of this writing) holds over 17,500 packages. FreeBSD Ports is what inspired the Gentoo/Portage. They are both systems where you can tell it what you want, and it will download all the sources it needs (keeping track of dependencies) from the Internet, and build the requested application from scratch right on your system.

The Ports and Packages are two different ways of getting at the same thing. Ports keeps track of all available packages right on your system; the synchronization of this takes quite a while, especially the first time. With Packages, you have to know a little more of what you are doing, as it does not keep track of dependencies for you. All software that comes pre-installed with PC-BSD is managed as Ports.

A casual user should be scared away from the system by this. A geek (like me) will probably like the Ports system.

Software support

PC-BSD does not come with either of the Mozilla packages, relying instead on the KDE equivalent: Konqueror and Kmail. I downloaded the Firefox and Thunderbird PBIs and both installed without a problem. Installation required the root password, as it should. I even installed the Browser Sync plugin (which I now somehow coaxed into working on the first try). Everything seems to be working fine. All good stuff so far. Oddly enough, I noticed some differences in rendering of pages between FF/BSD and FF/anything else. Not sure what to make of this.

While looking for the Firefox PBI, I noticed there is also a Flash plugin PBI. While not part of my stated requirements, I thought I would try it out. The package reported that it installed properly, however it failed to work. Afterwards I found out there is a post-install procedure that apparently fixes this. Negative point as a home desktop. PBI also installed without a problem, and runs just fine – I am writing this entry in it. For some reason (I am sure there must be a reason), the “Install new dictionaries” wizard is missing?!?! I know how to hack up OOo to manually accept new dictionaries, but I anticipate problems. Negative point as a home desktop.

As for my other required applications, I do not have a preference for those two, so I will go with the available default: Kopete, and Kaffeine or Kaboodle. Again, Kaffeine requires a post-install procedure to get all the media codecs into the system; unfortunately, the codecs PBI that is linked from the docs is not available. So Kaffeine disappointed, but Kaboodle saved the day. When downloading an audio file, FF crashes every time it tries to launch Kaffeine; haven’t bothered to try and convince it to launch Kaboodle. More negative points as a home desktop.

The distribution was missing the GNU-awk. Now admittedly the casual user will never, never, ever notice this or even need this. Unfortunately, I need specifically this flavour of the tool for my work. No big deal, I can test run the Ports. I used the graphical front-end to sync my Ports tree, which first time takes quite a while. After that, it’s command line only with no problems.

Even thought I was able to write this blog entry on the system, I was not able to publish it from this system! Neither Konqueror nor Firefox were able to display the Yahoo! blog composition page correctly. For comparison’s sake, the page displays perfectly fine under both FF/Windows and FF/Linux.

Software support is good enough for a workstation, but I would have definite reservations for a home machine.

Browsing shares

Browsing Windows shares was accomplished using Samba in Konqueror, without any problems. There was no setup required, it worked out of the box – major points! Mental note: still have to find where to store passwords in Samba, like I could in LISa.

External devices

When I connected my Seagate USB drive only the first (ext3) partition was found, however, the system failed to mount this partition.

My Nokia faired a little better. The system did find it, and it did mount it properly. I was able to both browse the (fat32) file system, and store / retrieve files to / from it. Unfortunately, the system was not able to unmount it properly. When I tried the “Safely remove” option, the icon quickly flashed as if it did get unmounted but it immediately came back.

As I stated before, this is no a KO criteria, but negative points in this area.


Added my printer as a Network TCP printer, using the KDE wizard. Afterwards I could print, however, single-sided only. The printer does have a double-sided capability, which is normally accessible from Linux. However, good enough.

Brownie points

I have to admit that I am slightly biased toward the KDE desktop, so that choice by the PC-BSD team definitely resonated well with me. The default window theme is nice, but I would be making personal changes to the dressing as well as the behaviour if this becomes my first choice…

PC-BSD does not do that whole sudo thing. I don’t know if this is a BSD-wide choice (will see with the other distros), or just a PC- choice. This means that if you want to perform tasks with elevated privileges, you actually have to become root. This is neither positive or negative for me, I am just mentioning it for the sake of completeness.

Overall, I could see myself getting work done on this system, but it will not be able obsolete my Windows box at work, and I will not be letting it anywhere near my home machine.


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