May 4, 2006

First look: Dropline GNOME 2.14.0

Author: Glen Journeay

Dropline 2.14.0, released last month, lets you add the GNOME desktop environment to Slackware. It consists of 271 compressed package format files on a single CD. Using dropline on top of Slackware is like putting icing on a cake.

I am a mechanical engineer with more than 20 years' experience in data acquisition, automated testing, and process control. Ten years ago I decided that Linux was the best choice for a home desktop computer, and I have used it almost exclusively since then at home. There were not a wide number of distributions to pick from in 1996; the best was Slackware. I have installed and used a couple of other Linux distributions over the years, but Slackware remains my distribution of choice.

In March 2005, Pat Volkerding, Slackware's creator, decided to drop the GNOME desktop from Slackware, and suggested GNOME fans replace it with one of three projects that added the GNOME desktop to Slackware. Of the three, dropline GNOME offered the most complete GNOME desktop at that time -- the other two, Freerock GNOME and GWARE, were just getting started -- so I downloaded and installed it.

The software's dropline-installer script functions much like the Slackware installer, but installing dropline is much easier than installing Slackware because all of the low-level configuration required during the Slackware install is behind you. Dropline replaces some Slackware packages, most notably all of the x11 packages, and it installs Pluggable Authentication Modules (PAM). The installer allows for a network install or a local install for CD or pre-downloaded files. The installer also performs network upgrades to keep dropline GNOME spiffy fresh. Dropline, unlike Slackware, is compiled for an i686 machine (x86_64 is now also available), so the minimal hardware requirements are a little more stringent than Slackware's. The dropline team recommends a 300MHz Pentium Pro, 128MB RAM, 1GB of hard drive space, and a video card supported by Linux. Dropline GNOME works with the default Slackware 2.4 series kernel, but the project recommends installing and using the 2.6.16 series kernel so that auto-mounting works.

Most of the difficulties I ran into with 2.14.0 seemed to be due to the changes in configuration files. Automounting did not work until I removed the fstab entries used by fstab-sync, which was part of the automounting mechanism on the last release. The Esound daemon, gnome-session-properties, and gnome-power-manager didn't work until I deleted much of my GNOME settings (which is not something I recommend unless you have it all backed up). A couple of applications are not yet released, because they don't use the latest versions of the many libraries required for GNOME, but in general, I like what I see. I may have to poke around underneath the hood finding and fixing problems, but to me, this has always been a large part of what Linux is all about -- getting into the code and seeing how it all works.

Once installed, dropline provides a nice, usable GNOME desktop. All the applications required for an average desktop user are on the menu: Firefox and Epiphany Web browsers, Evolution groupware suite, Thunderbird email, AbiWord word processor, the Gnumeric spreadsheet, and the GIMP graphics program. It offers a good selection of Internet programs, such as Gaim, Drivel, Liferea, gFTP, and Gnomemeeting; multimedia tools such as Totem, Gnomebaker, Rythmbox, and Soundjuicer; and graphics tools such as gThumb and Inkscape. Underneath it all I still have Slackware providing Apache, sendmail, Samba, and CUPS, so my PC is also the email, data storage, and printing server, and the Internet gateway/firewall for the rest of the computers at home.

My workplace remains dominated by Windows and Microsoft Office for office paperwork. AbiWord and Gnumeric work well on the limited number of Microsoft Word and Excel documents I have brought home from work. is available as an extra package via the project's online forum, along with other extras. This keeps the size of dropline GNOME small, but allows users to download packages specifically compiled for dropline GNOME if they want them.

Would I set my grandmother up with a dropline GNOME desktop? Well, I would, but only after letting the developers hammer out the few bugs found with each new release. It's been my experience that the XX.0 releases will contain a few bugs, not major bugs, and these generally get sorted out by the time XX.1 is released -- and 2.14.1 is now out. Even in an XX.0 release, auto-mounting works well with CDs, DVDs, memory sticks, many cameras, and other devices. HAL, DBUS, hotplug and a newer 2.6 kernel are required in order to implement all of this, but it's rare that you have to do more than just the install. I had to tweak the configuration file for hotplug only once a couple of releases ago to get a camera recognized. Each new release seems to handle more devices automagically.

I have to admit that dropline GNOME satisfies a very basic itch. I get to keep using Slackware, a distribution I have come to rely on to provide a fast, stable, and full-featured Linux, and I get a cutting-edge GNOME desktop. This allows me to see where GNOME is heading, and since it's still Slackware, I can easily add all the programs I want by downloading and compiling the source. Dropline GNOME is not Ubuntu, but then Slackware is not Ubuntu. It's not the easiest distribution to install or configure, but it just works. Dropline GNOME too works well for everything I ask of it.


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