May 10, 2005

Review: Kate OS 2.0

Author: Preston St. Pierre

Kate is a lightweight, free GNU/Linux distribution from Poland released with the goal of allowing people to play games, watch movies, listen to music, and surf the Web. While it does do these tasks, it requires a lot of handholding, manual configuration, and knowledge on a user's part. A single-CD install (with an optional second CD) is all it takes to get you up and running with Kate, but you may need to have a computer nerd handy for the setup.

I burned both CDs before installing Kate, as I wanted the development packages included on the second CD. Most people won't need this CD, but if you are interested in compiling your own programs you should burn it to make life easier. When I booted from the first CD I found it to be much like the Slackware install. It even has a bug I found in Slackware where selecting the Dvorak keyboard layout would fail but ANSI-Dvorak (slightly different) would work. This has been fixed in the latest version of Slackware, but not in Kate.

While the Slackware installer isn't as difficult and time-intensive as source-based distributions like Gentoo, it isn't exactly the most user-friendly interface in the world. The installer isn't graphical and requires a user to do a lot of hands-on work, such as manual drive partitioning, from the console. Users new to GNU/Linux or computers in general could easily get lost in the details. There is a fair amount of information provided for users, but some of it is simply too technical for most users to understand.

I seemed to have no problems installing Kate, but I found out after the reboot that I was mistaken. Kate wouldn't boot. I had installed the Kate bootloader on the superblock of its partition and chainloaded it from GRUB (Grand Unified Boot Loader) on the master boot record, but the kernel failed to mount the root partition. I tried to fix it, unsuccessfully, despite my experience fixing similar problems before. To make a long story short, in the end I destroyed my entire extended partition and reinstalled a lot more operating systems than I had intended. I've installed Slackware before with no such difficulties, and I also installed Kate on a friend's machine without the same problem, but I warn anyone installing it to be careful.

After recreating my partition table I reinstalled Kate for the sixth time. This time, thankfully, the system loaded to a shell. I logged in as root, created a new user for myself (which the installer didn't prompt me to do), and typed startx to start the GUI. It brought me to an Xfce desktop, the default environment (KDE and GNOME aren't offered), which looked quite nice. I was impressed by the look of Kate's default desktop -- it was simple and easy to understand. Sadly, this was one of the only parts about Kate I found to be that way.

Usability problems

To begin playing with the operating system, I mounted a second drive and double-clicked a movie to watch. The movie opened in MPlayer, but there was no sound. "That's odd," I thought. "Maybe the volume is down." I checked in the XFCE settings but there was nothing that made my sound work, so I switched to "experienced user" mode and ran alsaconfig, the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture configuration program, which enabled my sound. This step should not have been necessary. There is excellent free hardware detection software available that detects and configures my card (a SoundBlaster Live) properly.

With my sound now configured, playing movies and listening to music worked fine. However, when browsing the Internet, Mozilla refuses to start via the shortcut without creating another profile if there is currently a copy running. This can easily be bypassed by replacing the shortcut to Mozilla with a shell script that first checks to see if Mozilla is running and, if so, runs the command mozilla -remote "openURL(about:blank,new-window)" instead of just mozilla. This fixes the problem completely. I'm sure the developers of Kate have run into the problem themselves, so why haven't they implemented this simple change?

The same problem came up when checking my mail. The default mail program is Mozilla mail, and when I try to launch it with Mozilla open the same error occurs. Most new users wouldn't know how to fix this frustrating problem. The Mozilla mail and browser suite is certainly a good combination, but a simple change to the shortcut would make all the difference in the world for users.

Kate Desktop - Click to enlarge Kate Applications - Click to enlarge

Kate software

After using Kate for a while I found that the project's claim to come with a minimal amount of well-integrated packages was partly right -- it did come with a minimal amount of packages, but I couldn't find the integration they spoke of. The Mozilla browser and mail are integrated, of course, but MPlayer and XMMS weren't integrated with each other or Mozilla -- there was no MPlayer plug-in for Mozilla or XMMS. Certainly well-integrated applications would include the ability to watch movies in one using a plug-in freely available and based on the other.

Although these packages may not have been quite as well-integrated as claimed, the standard package set was enough to do all the tasks the developers outlined as their goals. Kate comes with programs to handle Web browsing, email, music, movies, instant messaging (GAIM), FTP (gFTP), chat (X-Chat), graphics (the GIMP), and word processing (AbiWord). The default desktop environment, Xfce, is easy to use, fast, and looks nice. Once up and running Kate works well and handles everything it claims to.

I may sound a bit harsh on Kate throughout this review, so let me clarify: Kate is not a bad distribution. There are a few things that the developers could change to make it better, and there are a few problems with hardware detection, as is true of many distributions. Kate does what it claims to do and does it quickly. I don't think beginners should attempt an install themselves, but anyone with a bit of experience shouldn't have problems. Kate is a solid distribution with a solid base (Slackware, though they claim otherwise for version 2.0) but there are still a few issues to be worked out before it can be marketed to the masses.

Preston St. Pierre is a computer information systems student at the University of the Fraser Valley in B.C., Canada.

Category:

  • Linux