Review: Dyne:bolic 1.4.1 live CD


Author: Nathan Willis

Dyne:bolic is a multimedia-centric Linux distribution on live CD. Recording, mixing, streaming, and broadcasting audio and video content is its stock in trade. It has been nearly two years since NewsForge first reviewed the Dyne:bolic 1.0 alpha release. The distro has matured considerably in the intervening time. This is a look at the 1.4.1 release.

In practical terms, multimedia-centric means two things. First, the audio and video applications are first class and configured correctly to run out of the box. Second, a bare minimum of other apps are installed — no, no development tools. This does not make the distro difficult to use; it does includes a hand-picked subset of the graphics, Internet, and office tools found in a general-purpose distribution. If you need to write a letter, AbiWord is included. If you need to create some graphics, the GIMP and Inkscape are right at your fingertips.

But while a full-blown desktop system might senselessly supply Eye of Gnome, F-Spot, gThumb, GQView, Gwenview, Kimdaba, Kuickshow, KView, and more all under the “image viewer” category, Dyne:bolic includes only GQView — the best of the batch, and space-saving to boot. Dyne:bolic also ships with a lightweight window manager, WindowMaker, rather than KDE or GNOME, which leaves more room for applications and is less resource intensive.

The video and audio tools are also hand-picked, of course, and include heavy-hitters like multi-track recorder Ardour, sequencer SoundTracker, and editors Audacity, Cinelerra, and Jahshaka.

Additional apps geared towards live performance and broadcasting include drum machine Hydrogen, turntable synthesizer TerminatorX, video mixer FreeJ, and the Icecast and MuSE streaming audio servers. Under the hood, Dyne:bolic uses the 2.4.26 kernel with low-latency patches, and includes the JACK audio server built-in.

Dyne:bolic automatically detects hard disk partitions and mounts them when it’s booted as a live CD, letting you access files on the host computer. Without this ability, of course, your live CD operating system would have little audio and video content to work with. For Windows machines, Dyne:bolic can use FAT32 or read-only NTFS; for Linux machines any filesystem supported by the 2.4.26 kernel should be available.

You have two options for turning the live CD into something more permanent, even though Dyne:bolic doesn’t have a regular installer, as such. For retaining data and settings, you can create a “nest” on the hard disk or a USB key. A nest is a writable image containing /home and /etc filesystem hierarchies securable with Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption.

To run the entire distribution from hard disk, you can create a “dock” or bootable system image simply by copying the dyne/ folder from the CD to disk.

Dyne:bolic claims to have been the first distro to implement nesting, though others are doing it now. The docking concept is shared with a handful of other live CD distributions.

Press play to begin

I tested Dyne:bolic on three machines. The newest had SATA hard drives only, which Dyne:bolic did not detect and mount, and the oldest used an integrated Ethernet card, which Dyne:bolic did not correctly configure on startup. Both problems are significant drawbacks; the live CD format is by its nature designed to be portable, and hardware detection is mission-critical when you may move from machine to machine.

I can happily report, however, that I downloaded and tested the still-in-development Dyne:II preview, the planned successor to Dyne:bolic, and it detected all of my hardware correctly — but make note, DyneII is not yet at the beta stage. It offers fewer applications than Dyne:bolic and it is in no shape to be run as an everyday distro. It does give me hope, though, that Dyne:II will improve hardware support.

Dyne:bolic did manage to detect all of the hardware correctly one machine. On that system, the only problem I found with Dyne:bolic’s applications was flaky OpenGL behavior in some of the games.

This is particularly impressive with Cinelerra, a feature-filled nonlinear video editor fraught with flaky behavior and difficult installation (even the official install guide recommends using the --force and --nodeps flags with RPM). I had no difficulty creating a nest or docking the installation in Windows.

Once booted, the application software runs smoothly; though I am not a sound engineer or DJ, I have used the multimedia-centric PlanetCCRMA and AGNULA distributions in the past, and Dyne:bolic is the easiest of the three to use. JACK and Video4Linux are set up correctly; within seconds of booting, you can be creating your own mediocre, arrhythmic drum loops in Hydrogen and inflicting them on the world.

From a usability standpoint, there is one glaring problem with Dyne:bolic 1.4.1’s collateral material. The MuSE streaming tool is designed to pipe an MP3 stream from Dyne:bolic to a remote streaming server. Originally this was designed to work hand-in-hand with, a free streaming network that has since disappeared. Unfortunately, references to still populate the documentation, HOWTOs, and Web browser bookmarks. This may cause confusion for new users, and leave them without directions to find an alternative.

Dyne:bolic’s release cycle is relatively slow; Dyne:bolic uses a 2.4 series kernel, and many of the core applications have seen major updates since the last update to the distro. As I alluded to above, Dyne:II is being reworked from the ground up. If you cannot decide whether to dive in now or wait for the next upgrade, the mailing list is the best way to get a feel for the progress of Dyne:II, since the project does not publish a roadmap.

Sound advice

I liked working with a distribution built around getting a particular kind of work done. I used to regard single-purpose distros with some skepticism, but Dyne:bolic (among others) has altered my viewpoint.

Although it is never explicitly stated, the mindset that guides a single-purpose distro like Dyne:bolic could be characterized as task-oriented (i.e., “The user is here to accomplish these specific tasks”), whereas the general-purpose distros have no such focus and tend to expend more of their time working on esoteric things like the “new-user acceptance factor.” That may lead to a neatly organized system, but it may be one that’s less fluid and harder to work with.

Allow me to elaborate with one micro-example. The most frequently used applications are faster to find in Dyne:bolic than in a general-purpose OS like Ubuntu or Fedora. Dyne:bolic’s application menu consists of (in order):

  • Video
  • Audio
  • Image
  • Text
  • Net
  • Files
  • Games
  • XUtils
  • System

Moreover, the Video and Audio menus are broken into sub menus named Deejay, Play, Record, Edit, and Stream. In Ubuntu Breezy Badger, the operating system of the machine on which I’m writing this article, Sound & Video is one menu with more than two dozen entries, sorted alphabetically. The Dyne:bolic menu structure is much easier to use.

Even if you don’t intend to quit your day job and embark on a career as a DJ, Dyne:bolic is worth looking at. The fact that several difficult-to-install applications (Cinelerra and Jahshaka, for example) work out-of-the-box in Dyne:bolic is impressive and reason enough to keep the distro around. I would dearly like to use Cinelerra on a regular basis, but the recommended installation procedure would jeopardize my system’s stability, something I am hesitant to do for the sake of one app. Docking Dyne:bolic 1.4.1 on my hard disk, on the other hand, makes it completely painless.