February 4, 2005

My workstation OS: Libranet

Author: John Knight

All I really want in a desktop operating system is a standard KDE desktop (not heavily modified like Mandrakelinux and Red Hat), decent packaging, and a filesystem hierarchy that makes sense. Libranet fits my exact needs.

Libranet is based upon Debian, which has a great packaging system. While Debian used to be known for having a horrible installer, Libranet's installation is very smooth and quick. It begins with a text-based installer for a few little tasks like partitioning, but it's one of those semi-GUI-style interfaces rather than a straight command line. Once you've answered a few questions, the installer moves to a GUI stage for package installation. While I've spent a good 20 minutes tweaking my package selections with other distros, I only ever spend around two minutes choosing Libranet packages. It's not as if there's lots missing either; it's a full-featured desktop.

A small criticism is that there's no progress bar when the system is installing, and you'll want to make lunch or watch a video while the installation procedure does its work. Once the base is installed, the procedure asks some questions, such as which CD-ROM drives do you want SCSI emulation on, and do you want to add people to a Windows group so that they can all access the Windows partition? Finally comes network, video, and sound configuration, plus a nice APT setup program that can add Libranet's server as a host. I especially appreciated the Nvidia setup utility; if you have an Nvidia card, it'll automatically set up binary drivers for you.

Once the system is installed, you can jump into a GUI that's just right. Many distros seem to take KDE or GNOME, change it into something unrecognisable, and remove the tools that come with it and replace them with their own. Libranet simply adds a few tasteful, unobtrusive icons.

If, however, you log in without choosing a window manager, you'll get Libranet's own WM, a heavily modified version of IceWM. If you're used to a standard IceWM desktop, you won't like this. It's IceWM with plenty of added icons and menus, plus it starts up Nautilus to give you a desktop with icons, for a Windows 9x feel. Unless you're fond of Libranet's WM, I suggest sticking with GNOME or KDE.

Long-time Libranet users know that what makes Libranet unique and powerful is its Adminmenu tool. Adminmenu has a large number of utilities that not only include the basics and the required, but also the downright handy. For primary needs, there are setup utilities for sound, video, users, networking, and packages. For handiness' sake, there are utilities for configuring the time and APT sources, and scanning for SCSI and SCSI emulation devices and Zip drives. There are all kinds of shortcut applications for installing browser plug-ins and RealPlayer, changing the monitor resolution and mouse cursors, and more.

However, these are all secondary to the real strength of Adminmenu, the kernel options. Anyone who's ever had to compile the kernel just to get a driver working knows how difficult it can be and how many pitfalls exist, especially with modules and bootloaders. With Libranet, it becomes easy.

If I want to re-compile my kernel, all I have to do is run the application, choose the processor type, and let it do the rest. Of course, you can turn off options in the kernel if you wish. The app compiles the kernel while you wait, after which time it informs you that you will need to restart your computer. When you do, you'll be greeted with new bootloader entries on startup.

Libranet has a very strong selection of applications for everyday use, especially when it comes to the Internet. Included are email apps like KMail, Sylpheed, Balsa, and Mozilla Mail. Browsers also get a fair go with not only the ubiquitous Mozilla, but also the likes of Galeon, Opera, Epiphany, and Netscape Communicator 4.77. Office users will be happy too with not only GNOME and KDE's office apps, but also a full OpenOffice.org suite. As their 2.8.1 release is getting long-in-the-tooth however, I'd recommend grabbing the latest releases of Firefox and OpenOffice.org.

Anyone who dislikes the non-standard desktops of many distributions will feel right at home with Libranet, and the .deb packaging system will keep the Debian nerds happy. Those of you searching for a server-oriented distribution should look elsewhere, but if you're searching for a strong desktop/multimedia distribution, Libranet is one of the best choices available.

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