October 5, 2007

A desktop operating system that’s easy to use.

Filed under: bsd,thetao — SiKing @ 3:04 pm

The last planned system to evaluate is DesktopBSD, version 1.6RC2. It is the only one out of the list that is non-production ready. I want to stress: there is no particular reason why this one is last it just came out that way.

First impressions: not a very original name , easy to navigate website with the user in mind, “a customized FreeBSD installation not a fork”, forums are active and people actually contribute, several mirrors and bittorrents available.

The installer

Number one item: I first tried version 1.6RC3, but that one could not get past “X server configured successfully”. After a recommendation I downgraded to RC2.

Download, burn, boot. Came up the first time into a fully graphical environment. Not only that, it was able to get a better resolution out of my graphics card than I had been able to get out of any other distro, Linux or otherwise. Like WOW! 30 seconds worth of straight-forward simple questions, followed by 30 minute install (I did not actually time it, it’s just my impression). There was even “use some sensible default in all available free space” disk partitioning option. After reboot, there is a bit of configuration: new users, root password, etc. Not one mention anywhere of network configuration (DHCP in my case), but the machine does come up Internet-ready.

So far, I am in awe.

Package management

“With its graphical package manager, DesktopBSD offers a simple way to install, upgrade and uninstall software using FreeBSD’s package collection (called “ports”). There are about 16.000 packages currently available.”

It took me a moment to find the graphical package manager – built into the KDE Control Center. Only afterwards I noticed the obvious icon labelled “Software” on the desktop. It asked me for the root password, as it should, which tells me that DesktopBSD also does not do sudo. First time I ran it, it told me a whole bunch of information explained in plain-English terms, and updated the portsnap. After starting up, it automatically first checks for current security issues.

One of the ports that is not installed right off the CD is – a sensible decision considering the thing’s size: a good first test for the package manager. To start I boldly ignored all the warnings and advice the package manager was telling me, and jumped straight into installing OpenOffice. My first few attempts (OOo-2-RC, OOo-2, and lastly ooo-build) were all met with failures. OK, so what was it it was actually telling me: update all installed packages, install security updates. Right. Most of the packages updated correctly, some failed since they are apparently no longer available!?!? OOo was among the failures. Update package list, and try again. Same result. I am not familiar enough with the Ports system to be able to resolve this right now. But at least the graphical package manager seems to be a good app. About the only complain that I have, is that it has to restart every time it completes an update of anything – it would be nice if it had to restart only if it updates pieces of itself.

If I switch to this system this is definitely going to take some getting used to, but I shall be brave.

Software support

First off my *NIX tools. Default and industry standard user shell is bash! Points there for D-BSD. I don’t get what is with all the other *BSD guys pushing all the [c-z]sh; they are interesting alternatives but not a choice default. D-BSD was missing GNU-awk (it has nawk), but all my other *NIX tools that I need were there.

D-BSD comes with Firefox preinstalled and working with no configuration. Oddly, I noticed some (but not all!) of the same rendering problems that I saw with FF/PC-BSD. One thing that I ran into a little later, which is not immediately obvious, is that it comes with the American version, which uses inches when defining things like print settings. This is gonna hafta change, if I am going to use this as my full-time system.

Thunderbird had to be installed extra. During the install I noticed the description in the package manager told me the latest is, but it downloaded, and complained that it is not the latest. No idea how to convince it to download the latest. Again, I am dismissing this as user-error. But TBird worked just fine after the install for all my stuff: IMAP, POP3, SMTP, and NNTP.

Gaim, preinstalled, worked with no problems.

For toonz, D-BSD comes preinstalled with Noatun and Kaboodle. The only difference between the two, as far as I could tell, is that Noatun could play MP3s (or anything else) even over smb:, whereas Kaboodle had to have them served up locally.

As I mentioned before failed to install. I will blindly assume that the problem in this case is on my end, specifically with my serious lack of knowledge of the Ports system.

Overall, major points in this area!

Browsing shares

As was already mentioned, browsing my Windows shares worked and it worked with no configuration. I even found where to store my Windows login credentials so that Samba does not bother me with it every time.

External devices

My Seagate disk (two partitions: ext3 and fat32) worked … sorta. D-BSD detected my ext3 partition as type ext2; from what little I know about this, I think this should work. I was able to read / write to both partitions.

DesktopBSD could not, unfortunately, figure out my Nokia. It thought it found four partitions, which there aren’t, none of which could be mounted, of course.

Good enough for my work.


As mentioned, I have access only to a network printer. I went through the KDE Printer Wizard, set it up as a TCP printer, and the test page got dumped out. I did not mess around with all the double sided, booklet printing. That is more of a KDE / drivers type of thing, rather than BSD type of thing. Also, it’s Friday, and I’m feeling lazy.

Good enough for my work.


Guys, what is with the Windows XP look-alike dressing? That is gonna have to be the first thing to go!

One curious thing that I did notice: I found the system rather unresponsive on-par with a liveCD, but that could be just my perception.

Final thought: I found my next workstation OS!

September 20, 2007

Fred is one mean looking insect

Filed under: bsd,thetao — SiKing @ 3:22 pm

The next one that gets a shot at it is DragonFly BSD, version 1.10.1. This distro has been making waves, especially in the BSD world, with its intent “to develop a radically different approach to concurrency, SMP, and most other kernel subsystems.”

First impressions: spunky mascot, they have documentation, branched (forked?) from FreeBSD 4, heavily modified kernel, several mirrors, no bittorrents.

The installer

“DragonFly CDs are ‘live’, meaning these CDs will boot your system and let you log in as root.” Unfortunately, there is no graphical desktop for this liveCD. “To activate the installer, boot the CD and login as ‘installer’.” What you get is a menu-driven Microsoftesque installer (asks for info as it needs it, rather than asking all the questions up front). It has a predefined disk layout, if you are willing to dedicate the entire disk to the distro. If you want anything else, you need to do it manually, using a 3rd-party distro. The installer could be improved by filtering out certain nonsense; for example: it searches for all disks, and then builds a menu that lets you chose which you want to install on. This offers nonsense like the floppy disk or the CD itself to install onto…

After installing the base system, comes the configuration. Bunch of questions, bunch of guesses, until I froze the system on configuring the ethernet for DHCP (command '/sbin/dhclient -1 lo0' if you want to know). Trying to fix it from the command line totally hosed the system.

Second install. Let see how much this thing can do without any connectivity? Apparently not much. Installing whatever packages come on the CD all failed, but the last message declared: “Packages were successfully installed!” Obviously I did not get to try any of them, but I did not see anything relating to X or any other graphical system. Another system, where you have to really know what you’re doing in order to get it to work. Sorry, I don’t have that much time on my hands.

Final thoughts: I am sure the kernel modification are very kick ass, in an ubergeek sorta way, I just don’t get why a whole new distro? Why not just make it a kernel patch set for one of the existing distros … or maybe I just don’t get the whole thing.

September 12, 2007

The BSD for Everyone

Filed under: bsd,thetao — SiKing @ 10:42 am

Up next: MidnightBSD, version 0.1.

First impressions: last stable version (as of this writing) is 0.1-RELEASE (zero-dot-one), some documentation, a FreeBSD fork, no torrents available, download mirrors, like the sound of their direction.

The installer

This being a beta release (at least that is how I interpret zero-dot-something versions), add to that the warning on their website “currently installation is too difficult for beginners”, I was going into this not expecting much. However, I was very pleasantly surprised!

The install CD boots up, auto-detects everything it needs, and comes up with sysinstall. The installer is semi-interactive: asks you a few questions, does some work, asks you some more, … It also has plenty of suggestions and reasonable defaults, including a default disk layout. From the available “distributions”, I chose X-User. To format the disks and install the system took surprisingly little time. Configuring the system was a separate step. Basically a series of questions of type “do you want to bother with this”, followed by “what do you want to do with it”. I got through enough of it to have the machine connected to the outside world.

Package management

MidnightBSD has the FreeBSD standard Ports, managed through the command line. It does mention there are over 13,300 MidnightBSD ports available.

Software support

The base installation does not come with a window manager – not counting twm. In the package selection I could not find KDE anywhere. Although I did find something about GNOME support utilities, I could not find GNOME itself. The manager that I attempted to install was the only available choice: WindowMaker. Unfortunately, I am not familiar enough with the workings to be able to get any of these configured and working automatically.

After this step, I did not bother struggling through anymore.

So far going through this BSD evaluation, I am slowly finding out that without a graphical interface and wizards guiding me along, I am actually quite incompetent. Damn you Microsoft!

Final thoughts: This version is not going on my desktop (work or home), but I will be definitely keeping an eye out for future developments.

September 6, 2007

A wonderful operating system for a world of peace

Filed under: bsd,thetao — SiKing @ 3:32 pm

Next up on the chopping block is MirOS, version #9.

First impressions: .de domain, no documentation other than man pages, a blend of Open- and Net- BSDs, torrents available, but no download mirrors.

From the first go, I got the impression that this project hates users! First time I went to the website, the download link was a dead end (it is working ever since). No big deal, that’s why there is Google; this led me to some mirror in the wild that hosts the images. Download, Burn, Boot. The autodetect seemed to have detected everything it needed, and surprised me with the text-only prompt-driven Microsoft-esque installer: it asks questions as it needs the information, rather than asking everything up-front and then doing it’s thing while I go for a coffee.

I went through the installer once, just to see what it can do on its own merit. Some of the questions I plainly guessed at, having no idea of what it wants. After the reboot, I got a single-user mode login prompt. After loging in, startx gives you twm, which has been described as “an ugly, loathsome, repulsive, deformed window manager”. The most important command that you need to know is exit! This can’t possibly be right.

I noticed during the install that one of the early prompts wisely reminded me that it would be a good idea to have a printed version of the install guide handy. Unfortunately, there isn’t one anywhere on the site! Back to Google, which this time led me to the MirOS Project newsite! WTF, newsite? Well, at least this site has documentation … or so I thought. There is a FAQ, where one of the first questions (not surprisingly) is “How do I install MirOS?” The answer, mockingly, states: why don’t you read the manpage, with a dead link. (For anyone reading this, born after the 80’s: man pages were the standard way of documenting original UNIX, that went out of style sometime around the 90’s!) Well at least the URL gives a hint, which you can then follow from the oldsite to the official install manpage.

Second install. I thought I was dreaming previously when the thing was bothering me with a prompt-driven application to partition my disk. I was not! Two (separate) quarters of the install manpage talk about partitioning your disk. Guys, if you’re reading this, for a desktop system gimme some sensible default and stop screwing around. Second time through I could not make it out of the endless loop of: Do you want to use the entire disk? Yes. Starting disklabel. Use the suggested b<return>0<return>*<return> to use the entire disk, followed by q. Repeat… Game over!

Conclusion: I think I made a mistake and missed the “members only” sign at the door somewhere. There is no way this distro is trying to compete for a piece of the user (even developer) desktop market.

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.

August 27, 2007

To boldly go …

Filed under: bsd,thetao — SiKing @ 10:34 am


So at work, they have this negative attitude toward anything not-Windows on the desktop. Since we all have admin access to our own machines, several geeks here have installed Linux on their box. I have dabbled in this also, but since I am the only one that has managed to scrounge up a second physical machine and leave my primary one in a state that is still completely supported by our IT – that is running Windows – I did not really have the proper encouragement to get my Linux box fully working and more importantly keep it that way. It basically became my play machine. Well, apparently installing Gentoo wasn’t enough of a challenge for me, or maybe because I always have this thing about rooting for the underdog, or maybe a good friend of mine had just too much influence on me, I decided to go BSD! However, this time I have a purpose in mind.

I’m gonna test-drive several BSD distros, give each one about a week, and see if I could do all my work (like work-work) on it. I have some criteria, none of which is unreasonable I think, that must be met:

  1. Easy installer – From my Gentoo experience, I decided that I am just too lazy to install stuff by hand through the command line. The installer does not need to be graphical, but it does need to be intuitive and easy to follow without the use of a printed manual.
  2. Easy package management – See #1.
  3. Supported software – Primarily this is going to be a work machine, so it must have all the basic UNIX things that I use: ssh, cvs, bash, awk, grep, etc., etc., etc. all of which should be a no brainer for BSD. But, I also need to have: Thunderbird, Firefox,, something for chat that can connect to the Y!Chat network, and something (simple) to play music on.
  4. Browse Windows shares – Yes, I do need to get stuff off my and several other Windows boxes, and I do not want to need to resort to ftp, scp, or such.
  5. Support for USB devices – While this is not a KO criteria, it would be really nice. The first one is a Nokia N91 – only in the mass storage mode, I do not realistically expect to have support for the other two modes. The second is my Seagate external drive that currently has two partitions: first one is ext3, and the second one is fat32.
  6. Printing – Everything that I have access to right now, is on a Windows network.
  7. Anything else is (appreciated) brownie points.

I am going to be testing this on thetao, which is an Intel D815EEA motherboard with a P3 processor – nothing fancy, and fairly ancient by today’s standards.

The players

A quick search at turns up 12 BSD-based active distros. I have sorted them like so:

  • The big three: FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD. While I have the utmost respect for these players, from my (admittedly limited) knowledge, they are mainly aimed at the server market. I will therefore not be looking at these specifically. Well, maybe later…
  • Server systems: m0n0wall, pfSense. These distros are self-described as aimed at the server market also. Again, I will not be looking at these.
  • Live CDs: FreeSBIE, OliveBSD. These distros are primarily meant as a live CD. I am looking for a desktop system, so maybe as a last resort…
  • That leaves under consideration: DesktopBSD, DragonFly BSD, MidnightBSD, MirOS Project, and PC-BSD.

I am not going to resort to childish things like “Windows does it, so why can’t you,” but I will admit that my judgment may be skewed by my experience with Knoppix. The ultimate achievement of this exercise would be for one of these to blow me away so much so, that it will actually become my desktop of choice even at home.

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