April 28, 2003

Review: Morphix 0.3.4

- by Norbert Cartagena -

To be honest, I haven't enjoyed using many
Debian-based Linux distributions. The same goes for LiveCD versions of
Linux, which let you boot and run the operating system directly from the
CD-ROM without repartitioning your hard drive. As with Debian-based
distros, I usually can't get LiveCD distros working right. So it was
with some caution I approached Morphix
0.3.4, a Debian-based LiveCD distribution out of Holland. To my
surprise, I actually like it, because it actually worked -- mostly.
It's good enough to be used by home users who just want to surf the
'net, write some papers, and play games.The equipment

I tested Morphix on the following systems:

Computer Name: Tower I Tower II
Processor: 450MHz Pentium III Athlon 2100 XP
RAM: 192MB PC100 SDRAM 1GB 2700 DDR
Monitor: KDS AV-195T AOC 9Glr
Hard Disks: Western Digital 40GB (swappable) 2x Western Digital 40GB
(swappable) Western Digital 10GB
Video Card: ATI All-In-Wonder 128 8MB 3DForce4 Ti4200 128MB DDR (8xAGP, GeForce4 compatible)
Sound Card: Creative Labs Live! Value 5.1 On-board Intel AC'97 2.2 compatible.
Network Card: Realtek RT8029(AS) On-board  VT6103 10/100 LAN
3Com 10/100 PCI
Modem: Generic WinModem none
CD/CD-RW/DVD: Creative Blaster CD 52X
CenDyne 24x10x40 CD-RW
Samsung SW-248F 48x24x48 CD-RW
Samsung 16X DVD
Printer: HP DeskJet 832C None

I also attempted to use Morphix on my Dell Inspiron 8000 (650MHz
Pentium III, ATI Rage 128 Mobility MF), but it failed on boot, citing
an inability to find a monitor. This was the first time I've had this
problem with Linux on this laptop, although I've had it on others.
After talking to the developers, they admitted some frustration with
Dell's BIOS.

Installation

There are four downloadable ISO modules currently available at the Morphix.org site: LightGUI,
HeavyGUI, KDE, and Game. Practically speaking, all but Morphix Game do
the same thing, serving as home desktop solutions. The question of
which one you use is really a matter of what you prefer. Do you want
speed or pretty graphics? Do you prefer KDE, GNOME, or IceWM? What about
OpenOffice, KOffice, and GNOME Office?

As with all LiveCD distributions, installation consisted of me placing
the program disk in the automatic cup holder and rebooting. After a couple of
minutes, I was ready to go.

Once I was up and running, it was pretty smooth sailing. Still, in
addition to the laptop errors, I also encountered the following error
after the boot up of Tower II: "/dev/dsp not found." In other words, my
sound card wasn't being recognized, so I couldn't listen to CDs, MPGs
or Ogg Vorbis files. That annoyance aside, everything else seemed in
order.

Besides just being a LiveCD distribution, you can use Morphix's
"Install to Hard Disk" feature to run Morphix like any other
distribution. Oddly enough, the installation feature is only available
once you're up and running. Be careful, though -- the installer is so
complex that it may require you to consult your local Linux guru. This
feature could use a complete overhaul, with an easy-to-use graphical
user interface to better match the rest of the tools on the disk.

Morphix
LightGUI

I had only a limited amount of RAM to deal with, so I decided to start
with LightGUI, which includes a number of basic tools and aims at
being fast even on older hardware. With a total ISO footprint of
187.13MB, the distribution is small enough to fit on a Mini-CD. It uses
IceWM as its graphical user environment, Rox as its file manager,
Phoenix as its Web browser, Sylpheed as its e-mail client, and includes
a number of other necessities: MPlayer, AbiWord, Gnumeric, XMMS, Gaim,
gFTP, and more.

The one thing that stuck with me about LightGUI was its sheer working
speed, even on Tower I, which had only 192MB of RAM. At one point I was
viewing a movie straight from CD with MPlayer, browsing the Web with
Phoenix, testing AbiWord, and trying to acquire a screenshot with the
GIMP, having already downloaded four files from Vorbis.com, all the while
experiencing very little lag in the way of application functionality.
Sure, there was some latency when I tried to open another application,
but that's to be expected, given all that I was doing.

I was so impressed by LightGUI that I decided to use the GIMP to take a
screenshot of all the stuff that was going on. Sadly, I was unable to
get it due to a system error, which only occurred in this module.
Previously, there had also been a printing system error which at first
I thought was in AbiWord ("Font data file... cannot be opened for
reading!"). I couldn't print through any other method, including
command-line tools. It became apparent later that printing was a
problem with all of the modules.

The major downside of the LightGUI is the general user un-friendliness
of IceWM. The Morphix team has done a marvelous job of taking IceWM and
Rox, neither of which is particularly famous for its ease of use, and
making a distribution almost anyone with a computer can use without
much help. Still, there is room for improvement. You can check out the wikiroad map
to see where they're going.

LightGUI is fine for anyone interested in trying out Linux, but who
doesn't have access to a very powerful system. Those who do have access
to something with a bit more muscle should try one of the modules with
a more developed user interface a try.

Morphix HeavyGUI

HeavyGUI is where I spent most of my time. In fact, as I write
this, I'm using the Mozilla Composer included in HeavyGUI, running on
Tower II. Instead of using the IceWM/Rox combination, HeavyGUI uses
GNOME 2.2 as its desktop environment with Metacity as its window
manager. The tools included are the standard GNOME tools plus a few
extra toys that make the package complete. The module includes both the
Galeon Web browser and the Mozilla suite, Ximian's Evolution mail
client, OpenOffice, XMMS, Xine, the GIMP, WINE, a bunch of GNOME games,
and a ton of other general-purpose software.

As part of the review I decided to have my family, a group of mostly
quasi-computer-literate people, give Morphix HeavyGUI a try. Not only
were they impressed with the tools (especially the number of games),
they were also amazed by the speed of the system which, although slower
than LightGUI, was surprisingly fast. Generally speaking, they didn't
really notice the software they were using, which is a
big plus. They just did what they wanted to do.

One of the biggest advantages of using GNOME or KDE, as opposed to
IceWM, is the fact that both desktop environments are so well developed
that they smooth out whatever the developers don't. After all, why
re-invent the automount when you can just have GNOME or KDE do it for
you? Unfortunately, both KDE and GNOME are resource-intensive, which is
why most people with less than 256MB of RAM will probably find LightGUI
more usable.

Morphix KDE

On the other side of the resource-hungry GUI spectrum is KDE. Although
I'm not a big KDE fan I was impressed with what I saw. The Morphix team
did a great job of setting up KDE to be comfortable to the eye and easy
to use. As you might guess, this module comes with KDE 3.1.0 as its
default desktop environment. Included also are the myriad tools in the
"K" world: Konqueror Web browser, KOffice (Kword, Kpresenter, Kchart,
etc.), and the "K" games. Also included were the Mozilla suite, Gaim,
Quanta, and a few more non-"K" tools. I was surprised to find no native
KDE e-mail client included with this module. For that, the Mozilla Mail
program is available.

Although both GNOME and KDE are resource-hungry, KDE was the slower of
the two. I couldn't tell the difference in Tower II, but it was clear
once I started using KDE on Tower I. Mind you, the system ran fast
enough for what I was doing, but I noticed a little jumpiness when I
started doing too many things at a time, like listen to an Ogg with
XMMS and opening up Konqueror. It was about this time that I began to
appreciate LightGUI.

Morphix Game

Finally, there is the oddball in the bunch: Morphix Game. This
module isn't meant to be a home use distribution so much as it is a
portable game box. The window manager is IceWM and it has no file
manager, just to keep things light. Its bulk comes from the sheer number
of included games: demos of Quiake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament 2003,
various versions of Doom, Tux Racer, LinCity, XBill, TuxPaint, and
about fifty others. Other than games, the only things you'll find are a
couple of system configuration tools, Mozilla (just the browser), and
Galeon.

What surprised me most about this module was how well it ran on Tower
I's ATI All-In-Wonder 128 with only 8MB of on-board RAM, and how badly
it ran on Tower II's nVidia-compatible 3DForce4 with 128MB of on-board
DDR. On Tower I, the Quake demo ran better than I could have hoped, as
did Tux Racer and the game console emulators. On Tower II, Tux Racer
ran too slowly to be playable and the Quake demo wouldn't even start.
Unreal Tournament was out of the question on both -- it would crash on
both after loading. Other games where 3D came into play were generally
unusable in Tower II, yet ran well on Tower I.

Summary and suggestions

I was impressed with what I saw in Morphix -- a LiveCD distribution
that could be used not only by curious home users and Linux evangelists,
but by businesses wishing to set up ultra-cheap workstations. Imagine
having the workstations at your office loaded up with RAM, not needing
a hard drive, and having everyone able to carry their systems around on
a CD-ROM. You'd need only a file server, while all the applications ran
safely from the desktops of users. As soon as the users powered off
their systems, all the unnecessary information would be erased,
eliminating wasted local storage space while safely keeping users'
information on a secured central server. Users could move to any
desktop with their disk and get up and running as if they had never
moved. With the distribution being Debian-based, licensing issues
wouldn't be a problem. Just don't expect to run an Apache server or
firewall with Morphix just yet (though a server module is planned for
Morphix 0.4).

Morphix has a number of bugs the developers need to work out. I had
trouble printing, burning CDs, and using USB peripherals. And there are
still a number of very rough edges; for instance, to mount a CD-RW you
have to go to the command line and type:

sudo mount -t iso9660 /dev/sdr1 /mnt/cdrom

At the same time, certain recently added features show Morphix's
potential. A screen resolution tool allows you to quickly switch between
resolutions, while the session save feature allows you to save your
personal settings on a hard drive or diskette for future sessions. In
time, innovative features like these will make Morphix one heck of a
distribution.

Is Morphix up to par yet with SuSE, Red Hat, or Debian? No, although it
beat Debian in the one way that mattered most, by not erasing my hard
drive. I don't expect brand new users to be living in Morphix just yet,
but it is a good way for casual users to get familiar with Linux
operating environments.

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