March 4, 2008

Latest Slax release needs more time in the oven

Author: Susan Linton

Slax, a Slackware-based modular Linux distribution, released version 6.0 last month. This release brings a new tar install format along with a new donation request, but also includes some noticeable bugs.

One of the new interesting developments with Slax since the 5.x releases is the availability of a 190MB tar image as well as the more traditional ISO install file. The tar file is for use primarily on USB media, but you can use it to perform a hard drive install as well. Installing the archive onto a memory stick was easy. I used a 512MB pen drive with one partition formatted with the VFAT filesystem. I mounted and navigated to the partition and untarred the Slax-6.0.0.tar. Then I changed directory into /boot and ran the bootinst.sh script. I was then able to boot Slax from the pen drive without any trouble, and any changes I made to the pen drive install were retained after I shut down the operating system, just as if Slax were installed onto a hard drive.

The Slax boot menu offers some handy options. The default boot option is Graphics mode into KDE, but others include Copy to Ram, Always Fresh, Vesa Mode, Text Mode, and Run Memtest. In Default Graphics Mode, Slax tries to detect your graphics chip and start with the best configuration. Copy to Ram loads the system into your system memory and provides improved performance, which is most noticeable when you're booting from CD-ROM media. Always Fresh starts the system in read-only mode and doesn't load any previous changes or save any new ones. Vesa Mode can be likened to Safe Video mode, as most any graphics chip will run on Vesa drivers. Memtest tests your system RAM.

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The Slax KDE 3.5.8 desktop appearance is unimpressive. The developers have updated the wallpaper, but it's still the same tired pair of sneakers from earlier versions. The remaining theme elements are pretty much KDE default. With the Linux landscape today full of beautiful desktops, Slax does little to compete.

Slax and hardware support

I had mixed feelings about Slax's hardware support at first. Slax booted into the optimal resolution for my Hewlett-Packard Pavilion dv6105us laptop of 1280x800 using the "nv" Xorg driver, but the startup sound was very distorted even at very low volume levels. Fortunately, it only occurred at startup, and I never learned why. Application and system sounds worked as well as expected at all other times.

I soon found that Ndiswrapper wouldn't work for my Broadcom BCM94311MCG wireless Ethernet chip. I checked the logs to see if there was any clue as to why Ndiswrapper wasn't bringing my wireless network card to life and saw the suggestion to use the firmware from linuxwireless.org. Despite reservations, I connected an RJ-45 cable to my machine to visit the site. I found a link to the b43 driver and instructions for utilizing fw-cutter to extract it. After following the instructions, to my surprise, my NIC was activated next boot. Since Slax doesn't come with wpa_supplicant, the component that negotiates passkey authentication for Wi-Fi Protected Access, I had to download and build it from source. Then, finally, I could connect.

You can enable many power-saving features in Slax. I had to load specific modules for my hardware, such as powernow-k8 and cpufreq_ondemand, but once I had done that I could enable power-saving through the included Klaptop program. In the applet menu under Performance Profile I could adjust the CPU Frequency Scaling to lower the processor speed to reduce heat and conserve the battery charge. Suspend was available, but didn't function well for my laptop. It would go to sleep, but couldn't wake back up. Hibernate never did show up in the menu options.

Software with Slax

Under the hood Slax uses Linux 2.6.24, Xorg Server 1.4.0.90, and GCC 4.1.2. Even deeper, the developers have utilized LZMA with squashfs to make Slax and its modules smaller and blocks larger in order to deliver more software in a smaller package. Slax also uses AUFS to allow users to save their changes. However, the higher compression seems to hinder the overall performance of Slax compared to the last release, as evidenced by a delay in opening and navigating the menu, slower startup of system and apps, and some multimedia issues I'll get to in a moment.

The software lineup of Slax hasn't changed much since the 5.x releases. As a 300MB installed KDE system, it comprises almost entirely KDE applications.

Games start the menu and include KBattleship, KBounce, and Patience. The Graphics applications are Kuickshow, KolourPaint, KSnapshot, and KColorChooser. Office applications include KWord, KPresenter, KSpread, KPDF, and Kontact. KCalc, Kjots, KWrite, Ark, KNotes, and Klipper are found in Utilities. It is a bit inconvenient that Slax doesn't include a console editor.

The System menu contains KInfoCenter, KSysGuard, and the KDE Printer configuration module, as well as the Slax Module Manager, which is Slax' package management system. Unfortunately, the Slax site is in flux and there don't seem to be too many modules for it available at this time. If you find one you need, however, you can download it and use the manager to install it.

As an alternative you might be able to "use it online" with Slax's implementation of klik, call slik, though it did not work for me. After clicking the "use it online" link to install Firefox, I received a desktop dialog cloud informing me that it was being installed. Afterwards a link appeared in the menu, but clicking it did nothing, and after the next reboot the menu item was gone. I tried to download and install Firefox through the graphical module manager, but I received an error stating that module was already activated despite it not being listed in Slax Module manager with the other installed modules. Using deactivate firefox-2.0.0.12.lzm and activate firefox-2.0.0.12.lzm at the command line fixed things, and I was able to use Firefox. These commands replace the old uselivemod and unuselivemod commands. As an aside, I was able to install and use several Slackware 12.0 packages using the Slackware package management system, pkgtool, which is retained in Slax.

Like the other menus, the Internet menu is also dominated by KDE apps, such as Konqueror, KMail, Kopete, Akregator, Krdc (for remote desktop connections), Krfb (desktop sharing), and KNetAttach (network folder configuration). This menu also contains entries for Network Configurator, KPPP, and KWiFiManager. The Network Configurator helps you define very basic static settings, and KPPP sets up and executes a dial-up modem connection. KWiFiManager is designed to be used to scan and connect to wireless access points. This tool works well for scanning, but it couldn't establish a connection. The most troubling application in this menu was Konqueror. It would freeze, crash, or be reduced to a phantom window with any ordinary use. At times it would render the entire system unusable. I soon discovered that it had to do with the nspluginviewer bugs that have been plaguing Konqueror for quite a while. Disabling plugins in the Konqueror settings worked around the instability, but made installing Firefox a necessity.

For multimedia tasks Slax includes KPlayer, JuK, KsCD, K3b, KAudioCreator, and KMix. With KPlayer I was able to any view video filetypes I had on hand, including encrypted DVDs, but I experienced too many dropped frames for the experience to be enjoyable. Slax doesn't activate a swap partition, and my doing so didn't help. Neither selecting "performance" for the CPU speed scaling nor adjusting the player settings helped either. Online Flash video in Firefox appeared to have the same playback issue, and the libraries for QuickTime video aren't included. Music files and CDs played as desired.

Conclusion

Slax could be a fun hobby OS, but I can't recommend it to the average user. It has gone through some significant infrastructure changes since 5.x and the project's Web site is still under construction. Hardware support is acceptable but not exceptional, multimedia performance is a big disappointment, and the lack of available add-on modules is limiting. The site has little documentation, but the forum is back online.

Slax 6.0 feels as if it's still in transition. All in all, this release seems more like a beta than a final.

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