August 7, 2007

Absolute Linux is an absolute winner

Author: Susan Linton

Absolute, a lightweight Linux operating system based on the respected Slackware Linux distribution, just released version 12.0. It features kernel version 2.6.21.5, IceWM and Fluxbox window managers, and many graphical and ncurses-based configuration tools. Its goal is to provide a lighter, easier-to-use Slackware appropriate for newcomers and experienced Linux users alike. It is built for speed and performance but doesn't neglect stability or security.

For Linux newcomers, Slackware installation and configuration can be intimidating. Absolute attempts to alleviate some of the complexity by providing documentation and easy configuration tools. The Absolute download is a zipped package of the ISO, a How-to text file, and an installing directory containing a walkthrough with instructions and screenshots on how to install Absolute (and Slackware) to your hard drive. Some of the instructions are a bit sketchy (such as the cfdisk step) and they haven't yet been updated to reflect the new version, but the process is the same -- just ignore references to version numbers. This wonderful documentation could go a long way toward relieving some of the anxiety a newcomer might experience.

Absolute's install process is the same as the interactive graphical Slackware ncurses installer, with the same basic steps found in any Linux installer. It adds an upgrade option that should be convenient for anyone who's running an earlier version. It also removes the tedious package and kernel selection steps, instead installing all the software bundled with the distro and the only kernel included. During the first boot, Absolute configures the video card and screen resolution; for me the process amounted to little more than confirming the auto-detection.

After booting the new system, I was brought to a terminal login. Starting X brings up the default IceWM window manager, for which Absolute includes more than a dozen nice themes and wallpapers for personalization.

Usually after installing a new operating system, the first step would be to set up a user account. You can add users by employing a quick, easy graphical configuration in the System Tools menu.

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The root desktop has a customized wallpaper embossed with the words "whoami=root" in the upper right corner. It also displays a Getting Started icon that opens a directory of various help files on subjects such as User_Login, USB_Stuff, and Audio_Help. The root menu contains links to system configuration tools not found in the users' menus, such as Package Tool, Create a new user, Configure Xorg, Software Updating, and Configure Network.

I found it inconvenient to have the system configuration tools available only in the root menu. They should be available in the user menu as well, but requiring root password. As it is, to use them, you have to log out of the user desktop, su to root, then log in to the root desktop, then go back to your user account again when you're done. Absolute should also provide the Getting Started documentation on the user desktop too.

Absolute Linux ships with applications for all the different tasks one might expect. Firefox 2.0.0.4 is the browser, Slypheed is the mail client, and Pidgin is the instant messaging application. Also installed by default are Abiword for word processing, the GIMP for image manipulation, and KTorrent for peer-to-peer file sharing, along with SMPlayer, K3b, and Audacious for multimedia. The menu contains several games, calculators, search tools, development apps, file managers, and a planner/calendar. There's also plenty of documentation, such as a Slackware book, an intro to Linux, and the IceWM manual, as well as information on specialized areas such as development, graphics, and multimedia. Linux-2.6.21-5, Xorg 7.2.0, and GCC 4.1.2 form the distro's foundation. It's an impressive and well-rounded collection.

Package management is one area in which Absolute aims to simplify Slackware. The distribution includes a graphical front end to Slackware's pkgtool called XPKGTOOL that can be used to install and uninstall applications. For a more advanced package management solution, Absolute bundles Gslapt, which can install, upgrade, and uninstall packages from a local or remote repository. It's a graphical front end to slapt-get, which works very much like Debian's apt-get.

Absolute also tries to make it easier to work with portable devices by including dbus, HAL, and DevTray to auto-mount removable media. DevTray is a panel application that resides below the regular Icewm panel; you have to click on the panel arrow to retract it in order to see the DevTray. From there if you click on a device of interest, DevTray will auto-mount it and open Rox-filer in that directory. Right-clicking the icons for these devices opens a menu with options to umount and eject. DevTray works really well except that regular users don't have write permissions to some devices -- and another little problem.

For DevTray to work, an automount daemon must be enabled, as it is by default. As a result, upon second boot when the daemon is started, the /etc/fstab file is overwritten with entries for only removable media devices, such as the CD-ROM drive. This renders the system unbootable because it removes references to the permanent drives. After my first reboot, I was dropped to a maintenance shell. The standard output indicated the superblock wasn't readable and suggested running fsck. This error would definitely be the end of Absolute for most newcomers. In fact, it took me several minutes, another installed system, and a few boots to find and fix the problem. To avoid this issue I suggest disabling the Automount option upon first boot by going in as the root user to System Tools -> Configuration -> Run Services Menu, or you'll find your system unbootable when you next boot.

I had to boot into another system for another reason too. Modprobing the version of Ndiswrapper shipped with Absolute resulted in the fatal "Invalid module format" error. I downloaded the latest stable version from SourceForge.net and installed it with no problems. I was then able to use my Windows-dependent wireless Ethernet chip.

I was able to get CPU scaling (the adjustment the CPU speed in order to decrease power consumption) to work by modprobing the generic governing and my CPU-specific modules and inserting the desired governor into the /sys/devices/system/cpu/cpu0/cpufreq/scaling_governor file. There was no graphic monitoring app for battery life, but I could check on it by peeking into the /proc/acpi/battery/BAT0/state file. However, I wasn't able to get suspend or hibernate to work.

The remainder of my testing experience went well. I installed Absolute Linux on my Hewlett-Packard dv6105 laptop, as I know if it can pass my laptop test it will probably do fine on most desktops. Absolute auto-detected and configured my graphics, sound, and touchpad hardware. The system and applications were stable and fast. Firefox came with all the plugins I needed, such as Flash, Java, and video support. SMPlayer played all the video formats I tested. The system has lots of nice little touches, such as customized application splashes, Roadrunner "Beep Beep" startup sound, complete and functional menu, graphical configuration tools, and lots of great documentation.

Add up all the pros and cons, and the pros win. I really like Absolute Linux. I feel like its developers are reaching most of their goals. It is light, fast, and stable. The configuration tools are handy, the included documentation is impressive, and including gslapt is a real plus. On the minus side, I'd like to see better ACPI support in the form of userspace tools, and I can't understand how such a serious bug as I found with the automounter was allowed to ship, unless it was just something isolated to my system.

Absolute is definitely on the right track. If you like Slackware but find KDE to be a bit too heavy, or if you find Slackware difficult to configure, then Absolute might be the distro for you.

 

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