September 11, 2006

DesktopBSD 1.0: FreeBSD for the desktop

Author: Stefan Vrabie

DesktopBSD is version of FreeBSD customized for the desktop. Building upon FreeBSD 5.5-PRERELEASE, DesktopBSD 1.0 comes packed with desktop-oriented features such as KDE 3.5.1 and the DesktopBSD Tools, which include a graphical interface to the FreeBSD ports system.

Underneath the familiar KDE desktop, DesktopBSD is still FreeBSD; in fact, you will find more references to "FreeBSD" than "DesktopBSD" throughout the system. That's because, as the DesktopBSD FAQ says, "DesktopBSD isn't a 'fork' [of FreeBSD] -- it's a customized FreeBSD installation that mainly consists of the DesktopBSD Tools and a collection of configuration files and software for desktop use."

FreeBSD is a great operating system, but it does not match Linux in the "ease of use for new desktop users" department. DesktopBSD, however, is well-suited for both experienced and new BSD users.

The DesktopBSD experience

The first thing you notice with DesktopBSD is the graphical installer -- simple, efficient, and easy to use. The partitioning process is a cinch -- all you have to do is create a new partition (also referred to as a slice) on your hard drive, and DesktopBSD will automatically divide that partition into everything it needs for proper operation, without your having to fiddle with creating a root, home, boot, and swap partition.

After you have DesktopBSD installed, an Initial Configuration Wizard allows you to create users, and offers you an introduction to DesktopBSD and how to best make use of it. Once you get past the login screen, you will be greeted with a typical KDE interface. The only thing that gives away the fact this isn't a Linux distro is the wallpaper.

You will find in DesktopBSD about the same assortment of software as you would expect to find in any current mainstream KDE-based distribution, including FireFox, KMail, 2.0, K3b, amaroK, Gaim, and KDevelop.

Click to enlarge

DesktopBSD takes advantage of the FreeBSD ports system, a source-based package management system that's also capable of installing pre-compiled packages. The ports system is so named because it mainly consists of applications ported from Linux to FreeBSD. It's arguably the best package management system in existence, but being extremely powerful means it's also extremely confusing to new users. Command-line work isn't really appealing to newbies, and one could easily get lost into all the available commands. Thus DesktopBSD's excellent Package Manager (part of the DesktopBSD Tools package), which takes all the work from the command line and puts it in an easy-to-use GUI, is a great plus.

Among the DesktopBSD Tools, you will find utilities such as the Tray Mounter, which allows you to mount and unmount partitions from the system tray. This is especially useful for USB drives, since FreeBSD is somewhat lacking in this department. There's also the Disk Partitioner, which lets you repartition your hard drive, neatly integrated into the standard KDE Control Center. The User Manager, to add, remove, and edit users, is also offered as a KDE Control Center module.

If you're already a FreeBSD user, I highly recommend you install these tools, even if you don't install DesktopBSD. You can find them in the sysutils/desktopbsd-tools port.

Having FreeBSD as a base means having the Linux binary compatibility layer, which gives you the ability to run Linux applications, though you might not have much success with really complex applications, such as Cedega. No Cedega means no Windows games under DesktopBSD (or FreeBSD for that matter).

Nothing is perfect


DesktopBSD isn't the only effort to make FreeBSD more usable as a desktop system; PC-BSD is another alternative. While DesktopBSD takes a FreeBSD base and adds tools to make for a better desktop experience, PC-BSD drops the excellent FreeBSD ports system in favor of a custom package management system.

All in all, as far as FreeBSD on a desktop system goes, DesktopBSD is your best bet. However, nothing is perfect, and DesktopBSD has its faults as well. For starters, you might argue that DesktopBSD is based on the FreeBSD 5.5 PRERELEASE version as opposed to the latest FreeBSD 6.1. While experienced users could upgrade the FreeBSD base within DesktopBSD to the latest version, novice users will just have to settle for what comes bundled.

On the other hand, the kernel panic bug is a problem. It happens only on computers that run motherboards powered by Intel chipsets (particularly affected chipsets seem to be 845/865). Attempting to boot DesktopBSD for the first time from the DVD will crash affected computers with a kernel panic, most likely caused by the performance tweaks added to the standard FreeBSD kernel by the DesktopBSD team. While FreeBSD will run on such systems, DesktopBSD will not. This happened on one of my test systems. The solution, until the problem gets fixed, is to install the latest FreeBSD and then the DesktopBSD tools, as noted above.

While it's not perfect, DesktopBSD provides the best BSD on the desktop experience for users to date.


  • BSD
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