September 14, 2005

Review: Buffalo Linux

Author: Preston St. Pierre

Buffalo Linux is a relatively new GNU/Linux distribution based on Debian and the Linux-Live scripts. It includes many commonly used and essential programs on a live CD with the ability to easily install to hard disk. I ran into a few problems, but found Buffalo is worth looking into.

The Buffalo live CD takes quite some time to boot -- longer than MEPIS or Knoppix on the same machine (an AMD Athlon XP 1600+ with 512MB of RAM and a 128MB video card). Once at the desktop, however, the install was as simple as double-clicking the Install button on the top left and selecting the partition I wished to use. There were downsides to the apparent simplicity, however. To start with, the software gave no indication as to how far along the install process was. Secondly, Buffalo wiped out my master boot record and installed its own bootloader (LILO). I wasn't given any choice about it, either -- it was just done. It was actually the only indication the installer ever gave that anything was done: You could see the output of LILO being installed. After that, nothing happened. The terminal acted as though the program was still running, but nothing was happening and my hard drive wasn't spinning. So I just rebooted with Ctrl-Alt-Del, and it seemed to boot fine.

When Buffalo loaded at first boot it displayed a simple reminder of the usual administrative tasks that people forget to perform after a new install, such as changing the root password (which is blank by default, so be sure to follow the directions). Some of these tasks are done by most distros' installer, but not Buffalo's. I completed those tasks quickly and had a working desktop system a mere 45 minutes after I burned the CD. Not only was it a working system, but almost all the programs I needed were already installed.

One of the first things I noticed after I started using Buffalo is that while clicking the scroll wheel on my mouse worked, scrolling with the wheel didn't. I'm not certain if the window manager (IceWM) couldn't handle it or if it wasn't properly configured, but I had to use the scroll bar. It has been a long time since I've had to use one, and I had forgotten what a pain they are. A small matter, but a large annoyance. Another annoyance came about when a quick check of the menu revealed that there were no programs installed to watch movies with besides RealPlayer. RealPlayer, however, wasn't able to play a single one of the video files I have. Buffalo seems to have failed to include many codecs.

Video player aside, Buffalo came with a wide selection of programs, including:

Firefox 1.0.4 Thunderbird 1.0.2
NEdit 5.5 The GIMP 2.2.4
Opera 8.0 Scribus 1.2.1
Bluefish 1.0.1 AbiWord 2.2.7

There was also a curious shortcut labelled "Ftp" that opened a program I'd never seen before. After a little bit of playing around with arguments I got it to spit out the reason I didn't recognize it: It was simply the regular ftp program wrapped in Xdialog to make use of a GUI. It worked, but I didn't see the major advantage to having it when gFTP, a much better graphical client, is also included.

The Buffalo Linux Desktop - click to enlarge

Open applications, Buffalo update - click to enlarge

Despite these few minor problems, Buffalo was easy to install and mostly just worked. Aside from a movie player, the installed programs were all that I needed. I was a little surprised to see Opera as the default browser, but my preferred Firefox was also included.

I was anxious to see how Buffalo fared when I began installing new software. Since I'm a Debian fan and Buffalo is Debian-based, my first inclination was to use apt-get. This basic command, however, proved to be missing. So I downloaded the .deb package myself and attempted to install it with dpkg, which I thought must be included. It wasn't -- or at least, not under that name. I looked through the menu until I found a shortcut labelled "Buffalo Software." Clicking on that opened a list of all the packages that were currently installed as well as packages available to be installed. The .deb I had downloaded was the only package available to be installed, but I hadn't told it the location. The program must have searched my home directory to find it. I selected the package, clicked OK, and it worked.

I tested a range of different installation packages: Red Hat RPMs, Debian debs and Slackware tgzs. For the most part, everything worked as expected, but several RPM packages failed to install even when their Debian and Slackware counterparts worked.

One worrisome aspect of Buffalo package management is that there is no dependency checking at all, or so it would seem. I installed a great deal many packages that depended on other packages that were not installed. The installer claimed they'd been installed properly, but the programs didn't work until I found and installed all the proper dependencies manually. This is one area that clearly needs work. The ability to handle the different package types is nice, but dependency checking is essential. With installation utilities such as apt, yum, and swaret, the days of having to manually handle dependencies should be in the past.

Despite there being several small problems with Buffalo, my overall experience was positive. It was a fun distribution to install and use, as well as being one of the easiest to get working. Doubtless if you try you'll run into a problem or two, as I did, but with a little effort you can have a nice Debian-based distribution.

Preston St. Pierre studies computer information systems at the University of the Fraser Valley in Chilliwack, BC, Canada.


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