January 30, 2007

E is for elegant with Elive live CD

Author: Preston St. Pierre

Elive is a live CD Linux distribution based on Debian that uses the Enlightenment
window manager. Elive aims to provide an aesthetically pleasing environment with a full suite of desktop applications that runs efficiently on older systems. Its developers aren't finished yet, but they've come a long way with Elive since the release of 0.3 more than a year ago. This CD shows how beautiful distributions can become without being bloated.

When I first tried to use the latest test release of Elive (0.6.1) I was disappointed to have it hang at the loading screen. A check of the console revealed that it was having trouble mounting the NTFS partition; the exact error message was "Windows broking Elive with his NTFS." Despite the claim that the startup script disabled the partition so it wouldn't break Elive, I still couldn't boot on numerous desktop systems. Finally, I disabled my SATA controller in the BIOS, and Elive booted properly.

At boot time Elive offers a selection of keymaps, but this selection did not include the Dvorak map, which I use, so I had to use QWERTY. I chose to start with the default Elive theme over the Night theme that is also offered, and I logged in to a beautiful, calming light blue desktop.

The first thing I did was open Firefox -- and received a "page could not be displayed" error. Investigation revealed that my network card was detected properly but the eth0 interface was not enabled. Once I brought up eth0 manually and specified my default gateway the Internet worked properly.

I began to look through the applications menu and was amazed at the breadth of programs I found. There were movie/sound players (MPlayer and XMMS by default), video editors (Kino and Cinelerra), sound editors (ReZound, ZynAddSubFx, and Hydrogen), office programs (Abiword, Xpdf, and Gnumeric), 2-D/3-D graphics editors (the GIMP and Blender), and more. When I first tried to play some movie trailers I found that the rendering engine had some problems with my system. I had to change the video output settings in MPlayer before it would work properly. The sound worked flawlessly from the start.

While looking through the audio menu I found a shortcut labeled "Elive Essence," which started a stream of ambient music playing in XMMS. I kept it running through most of the time I was using Elive and heard one advertisement, after about an hour of play. The rest of the time it was calming and unintrusive -- a welcome extra, considering how much time I usually spend figuring out which songs won't distract me from work. Elive also includes the streamtuner program, which allows you to select from a wide variety of streaming music from many different sources. With my hard drives disabled, this was a blessing. Unfortunately, some of the streams required RealPlayer which, as one might expect, could not be included on the CD due to conflicts with the liberties granted by the respective licenses.

Click to enlarge

The applications menu also offers a few demonstrations of features included on the CD. One of these demos opened five MPlayer windows -- four smaller ones around the outside with one large main screen -- which played an ad for Linux by IBM. Another opened a QEMU instance that loaded a copy of the live CD. While it was quite slow, having a copy of the live CD running emulated on that same live CD was impressive. Also, despite having no hard drive enabled, I was able to store my settings on a flash drive using scripts I'd made previously for Tao Linux.

Elive includes a few programs that I hadn't used before, such as Brasero and GnomeBaker
for CD/DVD burning. Brasero, while designed for use with GNOME, matches the elegance of the Enlightenment environment well. Elive also includes LinNeighborhood for browsing network shares, but it failed to work with my network.

The most notable of the programs I hadn't used before, however, was the Elive Panel, an attractive interactive control panel that handles many of the settings available in Elive. Though it looked nice, it was difficult to understand all of its icons. The icons are not accompanied by text labels; the only way to find out what they do is to hold your mouse over them and read what scrolls across the bottom of the panel. It takes quite some time to go through all the options one by one to find what you need.

After using Elive for a while I noticed that several times when I had tried to close a window I maximized it instead. At first I didn't think anything of it, but after it happened a few times I did some testing. It turns out that the area for the functionality of the maximize button extends beyond the drawn container and a few pixels onto the close button. This, coupled with the fact that moving the mouse to the very right of the screen changes the virtual desktop in Enlightenment, made closing programs difficult at first. Once I got used to it, however, I didn't notice it anymore.

I tried Elive's Night theme a few times. While I like the look of it, most programs aren't designed to work with a dark background. Browsing Web pages with white backgrounds made for an unpleasant contrast. Many of the menus and controls were hard to read in the Night theme. The Elive team did seem to do a lot of work trying to make things match, but there were enough problems to cause me to stick with the default look.

I found several problems with this release of Elive, but since it is only a development release that is only to be expected. If you need help getting it working there are active forums and a community wiki where you can request assistance or make suggestions. The makers of Elive seem to be hard at work creating new features and making sure everything looks good.

Some distributions lack an underlying reason to use them; Elive stands out as an exceptional live CD with its wide selection of programs, beautiful interface, and low hardware requirements. You can probably count on a few problems if you try the current development releases, but you won't be disappointed by how elegant and rich in features Elive is.

Preston St. Pierre is a computer information systems student at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, Canada.


  • Linux
Click Here!