It was about a decade ago when I first gave Slackware a go. Back then most every Linux was far more of a challenge than were other operating systems, but Slackware offered challenges even other Linux variations didn't. So when I set out to try the latest iteration of Slackware, I wondered how far it had advanced in that decade. Needless to say, I was excited about what I would find.
So this review will take a bit different of an approach than many other reviews. Instead of just pointing out what Slackware has or does not have (verses the competition), what I want to focus on is where Slackware has changed and where it hasn't changed. Naturally, along the way, I will highlight the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the distribution, but this review comes from the assumption that ten years have past in the history of this flavor of Linux so just how has it changed?
A funny thing happened as I was installing Slackware on one of my test machines. During the installation my wife came into my office and yelled "Oh my God that is so old!" She then asked "Is that DOS?" I laughed and informed her it was the latest release of a Linux distribution called Slackware.
The one thing about Slackware I always assumed was if you make the choice to install this particular distribution, you knew what you were getting into. There are no pretty, GUI installers. Instead the ncurses-based installer will happily guide you along the path of installation. For those who have never experienced an ncurses-installation, it's quite simple — just don't bother moving your mouse. Instead, the keyboard will handle the navigation. That has not changed one iota. In fact, I felt as if I were back in the early-to-mid-90's, installing something terribly exciting that would break me away from the confines of the frustrating, proprietary operating systems of the day. It felt good, familiar, like an old friend.
Eventually, during the installation, the package screen will appear where the shining stars called graphical desktops can be chosen (along side numerous server, development, and other packages.) I opted for KDE and, to be honest, expected to be greeted by KDE 3.5 when boot up was complete. Fortunately I was quite surprised./p>
When the boot up was complete, I found myself at a command prompt. Fortunately I was weened very early on in the world of Linux, so the
startx command has been my companion for quite some time. With the command entered I sat back and waited to behold a KDE desktop of days gone by. Don't get me wrong, I really liked KDE 3.5, but with the release of 4.6 all thought of wanting to go back in time has quietly disappeared.
When I KDE 4.5 appeared on the desktop, I have to say I let out a laugh. My presumption was way off and based on what? Misguided assumption. I assumed that, Slackware never being one to focus on 'latest-greatest' (or even the desktop for that matter), KDE would be out of date upon install. Well it is a bit behind, but not by much. And, after all, Slackware is a server distribution right?
To assume Slackware a server-only distribution is a mistake. Yes, it is quite simple, during installation, to install as many server components as required to set up an incredibly powerful, reliable server; but that doesn't mean Slackware turns a blind eye to the desktop. And, sure, at a point earlier in it's life, Slackware was thought of as a distribution used only for servers. My how things have changed. In fact, the installer allows for the installation of more desktops than any other distribution. So if the desktop is the name of the game, Slackware is up to the task. And oh boy is it up to the task. It's hard to say who shares the bulk of the credit, but a Slackware/KDE 4 desktop machine is about as rock-solid a machine as can be found. I was joking with a colleague of mine saying the Slackware desktop could be tossed into the road, run over by a few cars, and the thing would still work!
Who's Slackware For?
I can talk up the strengths and weaknesses of Slackware 13.37 all day. But ultimately, the heart of the matter is who is this distribution for? Who would benefit most from using such a steady, power-house? Let's take a look at some of the facts:
- Installation isn't nearly as easy as most Linux distributions (and there is not Live CD to try.)
- Slackware has no graphical package manager. It is assumed users will install everything from source and build all necessary dependencies manually.
- Slackware installs a lot of software. I mean a lot! Just plunge through the Applications menu and see how many tools are installed. It's quite impressive.
- Slackware is no slouch with graphics. I had KDE desktop effects working by default - something Kubuntu 11.04 didn't do.
I am inclined to say that Slackware is the best distribution for developers I have come across in years. Not only does it live in a much healthier state of distribution neutrality, it installs with quite a lot of development tools. And since the developer isn't working with a package manager, all development will go to source — again, a more neutral path.
But I can not, with good conscience, say that Slackware is a developer-only distribution. I can, however, say that Slackware would work very well with the following user-types:
- Security-conscious users.
- Those that require stability over convenience.
- Lovers of a simplistic design philosophy.
- Anyone who wants to really learn Linux.
The final entry in the above list is crucial. Why? When Slackware is the distribution of choice, it is necessary to have a full understanding of how Linux works. This means understanding the directory structure, understanding the init processes, cron, building packages, and so on. This philosophy was part of the foundation of what Slackware was built upon and, like every tenet Slackware has held close to the heart, it hasn't changed. To understand Slackware is to truly understand Linux and to truly understand Linux is to truly understand Slackware.
What is there not to love about that?
An Old, Best Friend
The way I see Slackware is like an old, best friend. No matter how much time has past since you last saw each other, it's as if you could pick up right where you left off. That is Slackware. Not only does Slackware hold true to distribution neutrality more so than others, it refrains from change when that change goes against the very heart and soul of Linux and open source.
If you are looking for a Linux distribution that's not going to pull the carpet out from under your feet, Slackware is precisely what you're looking for. Not only does it still enjoy the reputation of being one of the most dependable distributions available, it also now offers that dependability wrapped up in the incredibly user-friendliness and eye-candy rich package of KDE 4. That is a powerful combination for any type or level of user. In honor of its twentieth anniversary, give Slackware 13.37 a try. You might find, as did I, you'll want to keep it around and use it for as many things as you would use Ubuntu, Fedora, or any other distribution.
Congratulations Slackware! You've deserved every kudos, huzzah, and hooray the computing world has to offer you.