July 10, 2004

First look: Vidalinux

Author: Jem Matzan

Vidalinux is a promising new GNU/Linux distribution based on Gentoo Linux and developed in Puerto Rico. It's currently in beta pending the first release -- and as such is full of bugs and problems. However, there's a bright future for this distro with its OS X-like GNOME interface and the new graphical front end for Gentoo's Portage system, Porthole.

Gentoo X

Many people rave about OS X's interface, from the colorful Aqua theme to the layout of the menus and icons. Vidalinux does its best to mimic OS X's look and feel, even to the point of including gDesklets, an applet that adds a desktop-based quicklaunch icon bar identical to the dock in OS X. On the other hand, if you despise OS X's interface, you'll still be able to change GNOME around to resemble a KDE or Windows style.

The dock is handy in OS X because most Macintosh programs don't have a background shell like graphical programs in GNU/Linux, BSD or proprietary Unix. In Vidalinux, the gDesklets applet is only useful when you don't have programs running in front of it. Open one program and the gDesklet icons are hidden from view until you close, minimize, or hide the program with the Show Desktop button.

Vidalinux uses Red Hat's Anaconda installer to copy a stage 3 (all binary) Gentoo installation set, a precompiled kernel, and XFree86 to your hard drive. In Gentoo the stage 3 installation is done manually at the command line by using the tar utility, the kernel is compiled manually, and all other programs are installed from source through Portage. Anaconda uses RPMs to get the job done, then installs the rest of the software as binary packages (stored on the CD) through Portage. This isn't a problem so much as it is strange -- one of the main reasons why people use Gentoo is to get away from RPMs and all-binary installations.

The many problems of Vidalinux

Even though it's technically still in some stage of beta testing, Vidalinux was officially announced on June 24. The beta status is only mentioned near the bottom of the Vidalinux Web site; if it is accurate, the version tested for this review was beta 1. The bugs and problems that I found were beyond what you'd normally expect in a beta release; realistically this is more of an alpha as it seems to still be in development.

Throughout the entire installation process, the name "Red Hat" has consistently been left in place, except where it has been replaced here and there by "Gentoo." Even the boot loader lists Red Hat Linux by default.

The Vidalinux GNOME desktop looks and acts much like OS X

The kernel is, sadly, a relic: 2.4.20 with Gentoo's patchset. That means that hardware support is greatly reduced, which is especially detrimental to a Gentoo-based desktop distribution because it is geared toward performance seekers. The system requirements listed are for a Pentium2 or better, and the recommended system is a Pentium3 or better, but with a computer of that era you'll be waiting all day (or several days) just to update your system because every update must be compiled from source. While the software is updating, even on a very fast computer (Athlon 64 3200+ or Pentium 4 3.2E, 1GB RAM), the system slows to a crawl, killing all productivity while the updated programs compile. Realistically, you're likely to be dissatisfied with Vidalinux on anything less than a 2ghz+ Pentium4 or equivalent Athlon XP, and even then your best bet is to spend the time to upgrade to the 2.6 kernel before you do anything else.

No proprietary video drivers are installed by default, and the Nvidia driver in the Portage database doesn't compile with the stock kernel. Updating the kernel to a more recent version of either the 2.4 or 2.6 kernels takes much time and effort; if you're thinking about Vidalinux, you will almost certainly be spending a lot of time compiling and configuring before the system becomes fully functional. Of course you'd also have to go through a lot of trouble to get Gentoo installed and configured properly, but going into the Gentoo installation, a user is definitely aware of the task ahead of them. Vidalinux tricks you into thinking it's a quick and painless way to bypass Gentoo's lengthy and time-consuming installation and setup process, but in reality all it does is copy a stage 3 set to your hard drive along with a precompiled kernel, XFree86 4.3, an unknown number of binary packages for other programs, and a customized GUI. Some or all of the manual configuration must still be done after the software is installed.

The real Gentoo?

Vidalinux is based on Gentoo
Linux
, the most popular source-based distribution in production
according to Distrowatch.
Source-based means that part or all of the userland, kernel,
and ancillary programs are compiled from source on the user's machine.
Other source-based distributions include Source Mage, ROCK Linux, Onebase Linux, Lunar Linux, Sorcerer, and Linux From
Scratch
, although LFS is more of a do-it-yourself project than a
distribution.

Gentoo's traditional installation procedure involves booting
from a live CD and doing everything by hand: network configuration, hard
drive paritioning and formatting, and then choosing one of three
"stages" of installation sets. Stage 1 is what's known as a bootstrap,
or compiling the entire userland from source. Stage 2 already has some
of that compiled for you, so you copy over some binaries and then
compile the rest. Stage 3 is a totally precompiled userland that you
simply copy over to your new, empty filesystem. Vidalinux uses a Gentoo
stage 3 base along with a precompiled kernel (in Gentoo you still have
to compile your kernel even if you choose stage 3), so the installation
procedure is fairly speedy. A Gentoo stage 1 or 2 installation by itself
can take hours or days to complete. Vidalinux can install in less than
an hour with no initial configuration from the command line.

The Soundblaster Live/Audigy module (emu101k1) is non-functional. In fact, all efforts to get sound to work with Vidalinux were met with disappointment and failure; coincidentally, I noticed that all of the screenshots on the Vidalinux site also show nonfunctioning sound capabilities. The Syskonnect/Marvel Yukon gigabit LAN module has to be loaded (or added to the modules.autoload file) manually, and the Intel Pro 1000 (e1000) LAN module failed to load. DHCP is not set up by default, so if you have a standard broadband Internet connection, you'll have to first load the LAN card module (assuming you know which one it is), run the dhcpcd script, then run ifconfig for your Ethernet device. In addition to these desktop hardware debacles, Vidalinux flat out refused to install or run on a Dell Inspiron 3800 laptop system.

The documentation is nonexistent, except for some stray pages on the Vidalinux site. I haven't read through them all, but this guide on updating the kernel would be an excellent resource if it weren't for the fact that the part that deals with GRUB configuration is wrong. (Make sure that GRUB is pointed to the correct kernel name. The document tells you to build a kernel called bzImage, but then it instructs you to name it differently in grub.conf; plus, the paths are wrong if you're using a /boot partition, which is the default configuration in Vidalinux).

Vidalinux is totally unsuitable for use on a production machine or as a server. Aside from the fact that it will still need an unreasonable amount of post-install configuration, there is no method of selecting or deselecting packages that are installed by default during installation. The installer does not allow you to set up any user accounts, so initially you have to log in as root. In general the system begins in a nonworking, unstable state and you must work to fix it, and achieving maximum security is difficult at best. While desktop power users may enjoy taking the time to mess with it, Vidalinux is definitely not dependable enough to be used for real work.

Next: It's not all bad

It's not all bad

Just after installation -- a 30 to 45-minute process -- you end up with a nice, fully functional, and well-equipped desktop with GNOME 2.6; Ximian's customized OpenOffice.org 1.1; Mozilla 1.6 with the Blackdown JDK 1.4.1, Flash, Realplayer, Acroread, and QuickTime plug-ins; and several other mostly current desktop applications. Aside from the hardware difficulties I had, the software does look and operate nicely.

Porthole is the new graphical front end for Portage

Porthole is the open source GTK-based front end for the Gentoo Portage software management system. The first downside to it is that, even though it's a GUI, you need to have a basic understanding of Portage to know how to use it. The second downside to it -- if you already know Portage well -- is that the GUI will just get in your way. I found it easier to simply use Portage from the command line, especially since Porthole only covers a small number of Portage functions (albeit the most common ones). Still, Porthole is good for doing standard system updates.

If nothing else, Vidalinux is easy to install and use, and installing new software is a snap with Porthole. Services and servers are set up through the command line mainly, just as in Gentoo. From a command-line perspective, Vidalinux is Gentoo Linux, complete with such Gentooisms as the requirement for the deprecated devfs in the kernel and the customized update scripts (etc-update, rc-update, modules-update) for your config files and startup options. The tough part of a Gentoo system is not using it; it's installing and configuring it. Vidalinux takes away some of that hassle.

Conclusions

This distribution needs a lot of work before it can be a usable desktop operating system. It looks nice and has some promising new features and utilities, but it's plagued by bugs and mistakes. To sum up:

  • The kernel is old and should be updated for better performance, security, and hardware support
  • Porthole needs more powerful options and a more intuitive interface (or instructions) for those not familiar with Gentoo
  • AMD64 and SPARC support would be nice
  • The installer needs an overhaul: the ability to add a user account, set up the network, deselect certain packages, and use a stage 1 or 2 Gentoo set for those who want more customization without all of the typing and manual-reading. The distribution names should also be corrected
  • Fix the documentation that exists (hint: actually follow the procedure before you post it), and offer an installation guide to cover the post-install configuration

I'm not confident that the first release of Vidalinux will be at all on par with a more mature desktop distribution, or even with a standard Gentoo installation by the time of its official release. If development continues, however, Vidalinux will definitely be a force on the desktop.

Purpose Desktop operating system
Manufacturer Vidalinux (Spanish)
Architectures i386
License GNU General Public License
Market Advanced desktop users
Price (retail) Free
Previous version N/A
Product website Click here for the English version

Jem Matzan is the author of three books, a freelance journalist and the editor-in-chief of The Jem Report.

Click Here!