May 10, 2006

Review: Frugalware Linux

Author: Preston St. Pierre

The recent release of Frugalware version 0.4 has the makings of a fine Linux distribution. It aims to be as simple as possible while still providing the user with a comfortable, enjoyable experience -- and it is well on its way to achieving that goal.

The Nvidia nForce4 chipset on my motherboard is new and doesn't offer good Linux support, which forced me to test Frugalware by installing it on a VMware virtual machine. But I don't fault Frugalware -- Debian and Slackware also failed to install on my bare machine.

Frugalware offers several installation options. The first is a network install based off a small, bootable ISO (x64 edition). All the program files you select are installed via Judd Vinet's pacman package manager and the Internet. The second installation option is to download one or both of the CD ISOs (not available for x64). You only need the first, but the second provides extra software. The third option is the DVD ISO (x64 edition), which is the route I took. It's a hefty download, but it comes jam-packed with software. If you want to help out a bit with server load, check out some of the torrents available.

The installer itself is an ncurses-based program that guides you step by step through the installation. I was able to select the Dvorak keyboard layout and use it during the installation, but once I got to the X Window System, it was a different story, as I'll explain later.

The installer gives you the option of using either cfdisk or fdisk to partition your drive. Curiously, though, the two options when selecting a drive are OK and Continue. OK partitions the disk, and Continue means you've already partitioned the disks. It's a little confusing in a step-by-step installer where each time you hit OK, you're used to it moving on to the next step, and suddenly Continue shows up where Cancel used to be. When you're done, you hit Continue, which asks you which swap partition you want to use. Keep in mind, it doesn't tell you that you'll need a swap partition. If you either didn't know you needed one or you have enough memory that you don't need one, then you're out of luck. Pressing Cancel exits the installer and shuts down the system. This is nothing major to those who want to get down and dirty with the operating system, but it's not user-friendly. Where oh where did the Back button go?

These few twists aside, the installation is easy and fast. Installing more than 3.5GB worth of packages took a little while, but that's only to be expected. The installation doesn't require any user intervention.

A few issues

My use of the Dvorak keyboard layout has led to problems for me in the past, but in recent years, support for this alternate keyboard has been good, and I haven't had any reason to complain. When I tried to switch my keyboard layout in Frugalware release candidates, however, I found no alternate layouts available in the GNOME Keyboard Layouts panel. I eventually brought everything down to runlevel 3, unpacked the Dvorak layout (which was there but not decompressed), and altered the configuration file manually. I emailed Frugalware, which replied quickly, saying that the current branch included a fix which would be in the final release. Unfortunately, it isn't -- in the final release, the layout is unpacked and can be used from the console, but it's not selectable among the other keyboard layouts that have been added since the release candidates. However, I located a mailing list post showing a fix for Dvorak support, so it looks like it's working, but it didn't quite make the cut for the 0.4 final release.

Other than the keyboard layout issue, I haven't yet found any overt bugs in the Frugalware 0.4 final release. Mozilla Firefox crashed on me once, but I can't be sure whether it was a Frugalware issue or a Firefox issue. Getting used to Frugalware's version of pacman took a bit of reading, but once I got used to its idiosyncrasies, it was quite pleasant to use. It handled dependencies fairly well, although I did run into a few minor problems with version numbers. Frugalware's repository, while no match for Debian's, is of good size for a distribution with a relatively small following. Rarely did I try to install a package I wanted and find it not there. Even then, it was a simple task to use pacman to install the development tools I needed to install packages from source.

You can select only the packages you want during the installation, but you get a great deal of software if you select them all. Most things are quite up to date. Frugalware uses the Linux kernel version 2.6.16 and includes GNOME 2.14 and KDE 3.5.1. As you can see in the screenshot, the default desktop is a modified KDE. I prefer GNOME, which, along with Blackbox, Enlightenment, FVWM, IceWM, MWM, Metacity, Openbox, ratpoison, twm, Window Maker, and Xfce 4, is available via the Session Type drop-down menu at login time. This kind of selection means almost anyone can find a suitable desktop environment. I didn't go through them all, but as far as I can see, only KDE has a nice Frugalware theme -- although the loading splash screen for GNOME is a Frugalware design. I don't fault Frugalware for that, however -- it would be a waste of time to skin all those window managers, and quite a few of them don't skin well anyway.

Frugalware includes the general "base" software packages you might expect to see on most distributions: the Firefox Web browser, the suite, the Totem movie player, X Multimedia System (XMMS) for music, the GIMP for graphics, Evolution for email, K3b for burning CDs and DVDs, and much more. If you need a certain program, check the distro's package search function.

Though I had problems with the Dvorak support, most of you won't notice that when you when you download the final release. Frugalware is a good distribution for anyone who wants to learn more about GNU/Linux.

Preston St. Pierre is a computer information systems student at the University College of the Fraser Valley.


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