April 8, 2004

A first look at Vector Linux 4.0, SOHO edition

Author: Preston St. Pierre

Vector Linux has always interested me because of its purpose and origin: a simplified distribution from a Slackware base. Last month Vector's developers announced the first release candidate for Vector Linux 4.0 SOHO edition. Since, to quote Vector's main page, Slackware Linux has always been "about as user-friendly as a coiled rattlesnake," I was curious to see how Vector Linux addressed these issues for home users while still keeping the Slackware reliability and speed. I'm sorry to report that their efforts have not been especially successful.

I downloaded an ISO from the Vector Linux site and burned it to CD. Normally I run an install of a new distro under VMWare first to familiarize myself with the installation, but since this is supposed to be a friendly install, who needs practice, right? I inserted the CD and restarted my computer.

Vector Linux brought me to a text-based installer that almost immediately asked me if I wanted to set the keyboard layout, in a manner similar to Slackware. This is somewhat important to me as I don't type on the regular QWERTY keyboard if I can help it; I use Dvorak. However, when choosing a keyboard map I discovered that Dvorak wasn't an option! I opted for the regular QWERTY map, but I was disappointed -- after all, Vector is Slackware-based, and Slackware has Dvorak in its list.

Once past this small problem, the install was largely uneventful. It required very little user intervention, and asked questions only when absolutely necessary. Everything that could be auto-detected was -- or so it claimed. The time it took to copy and install files was higher than I would have expected for one CD, but the whole reason Vector can fit its distro on one CD is because of the extreme compression it uses. One pleasant surprise for me was an additional keyboard map configuration question at the end of the install with many more options. I chose Dvorak. The installer told me that loading the keymap had failed and that I should choose another. After scrolling around a little bit, I found ANSI-dvorak, which is slightly different but similar enough for me to get by.

One thing that kept the installation so short was a lack of any questions about the packages that were installed. Vector decided for me what needed to be installed and didn't trouble me with the task of choosing. While many Linux users argue that this approach is "Windows-like" and evil, the fact is that most users don't care what packages are installed on their computers, they only care that they work.

Vector's developers chose to give users the K Desktop Environment (KDE). I would have liked to have some choice to install Gnome and the Gnome libraries, but I'm not the target audience of this distro. Gnome takes up extra room, and a distribution released on only one CD has to make choices on which programs to include. Nothing is stopping power-users from installing the programs they want after the initial install.

First boot

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When I booted Vector Linux for the first time the system asked me a few more questions about the configuration, but most of the stuff had been auto-configured by Vector. A nice looking color ASCII graphic greeted me at the login, [can we get a screen shot?] which added to the user-friendly feel of the operating system. When I logged in, I was able to choose options regarding the configuration of my computer with a configuration program that appeared nearly identical to the initial install program. I found a downside to this when, after attempting to reconfigure my keyboard map (I wanted us-dvorak, not ANSI-dvorak), the script demanded that I reconfigure all the other options that were subsequent to keyboard configuration on the initial install. Needless to say, this would have been a huge waste of time, so I simply killed the configuration process.

My next step was to get X11 up and running. I typed startx, thinking that after all the auto-detection done by Vector my X server would work properly upon first try. It did not -- X started at a resolution and frequency too high for my monitor, and I had to force a kill before it did damage. No user new to Linux would be able to do what I then did: I edited the XF86config file to set up X properly. There were many options in this X config file that I did not recognize from other distributions, and though many of them were commented out, lines I don't understand in my config files don't please me. After I set X to run at a proper resolution and frequency, startx booted (surprisingly quickly) to a KDE desktop.

While loading, KDE informed me that it could not start the sound server as my sound card could not be found and that it would output my sound to /dev/null. I'm sure most people reading this understand that, but users new to Linux won't know what /dev/null is. Perhaps Vector Linux should consider editing that error message to read "Sound will not be activated" instead of "Sound will use /dev/null." This error surprised me, as the hardware auto-detection had properly detected both my onboard sound and my SoundBlaster Live X-Gamer. Neither of these worked without my intervention.

After this one error, KDE loaded without problems to a desktop customized with a united look for Vector Linux.

The applications

No distribution is complete without a set of base applications to suit users' needs, including configuration wizards, office utilities, games, system tools, multimedia programs, e-mail clients and chat clients. Because it comes on one CD, Vector Linux does not have the space to let users choose among different programs in most of these categories.

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I tested all the built-in GUI applications I could find to attempt to configure my sound properly. None of these applications worked, and I was forced to modprobe the module myself, edit the configuration files, and restart ALSA. That made two aspects of my hardware that Vector failed to auto-configure -- sound and video.

After configuration, the first priority in my testing was an office suite. With the lack of space on one CD for Vector Linux, I expected a relatively small (space-wise) set of tools. To my surprise, KOffice, the KDE-based office application, was not included in Vector. Instead, the distro comes with the more powerful OpenOffice.org. I question Vector's decision to use such a bloated suite when space is so limited. KOffice suits the needs of most individuals, and OpenOffice.org is an easy download/install for those who need it.

Being a music/movie junkie, I next tested the multimedia utilities included in Vector. The Xine movie player and XMMS music player worked as expected. There were a surprising number of other choices for media applications, including one to manage your Web cam. (Although I have a Web cam, it was not detected or configured by Vector, nor has it been by any other Linux distribution.) This variety, again, was surprising from a distro with limited space. I'd rather the developers had saved room for other, more important software, such as Gnome.

A shortcut on the taskbar called Mail Client launches KMail. For instant messenging, Vector provides KDE's Kopete client, which I used to connect to the MSN network. I primarily use the MSN protocol, though I have active accounts on most of the major networks, and Kopete serves me well for all my needs. Other popular instant messenger clients, such as Gaim and Avalaro's Messenger, did not make the cut.

Vector includes the default KDE Games suite, giving a wide variety of simple games in various stages of development. While much better than the built-in Windows entertainment packs, for the most part these games are not very complex in terms of gameplay. Serious games will want to add commercial games.

Vector also includes a host of programs to cover other desktop needs, including XCam to run a Web cam (which I could not get working); K3b for CD/DVD burning (I can't attest to the DVD burning features, but I burned a Knoppix CD and it worked perfectly); Noatun, Kaboodle, XMMS, and JuK for music; Xine for video, and various others. Leaving out Gnome but including four media playing applications is a strange way of doing things.

Vector Linux also provides a strong suite of development software. KDevelop is used as the main IDE, and also included are the Cervisia frontend for CVS, Kompare as a frontend for patches, Qt Designer for interface design, KBugBuster for bug management, and the KCacheGrind profiler. Two other useful tools include the Quanta Web development application and the kjscmd Javascript command interpreter.


Vector Linux is fast, secure, and up to date, but I'm afraid that it doesn't yet meet its goal of being friendly enough for home and small office users. While there was nothing major wrong with Vector Linux, there was nothing to distinguish it from any other distro either. If you know what you are doing and want a reasonably secure, fast, base operating system, Vector Linux is for you. I, however, will stick with Slackware.

Preston St. Pierre is a computer science student at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Colombia, Canada.


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