January 10, 2007

Review: PC-BSD 1.3

Author: JT Smith

Last week iXsystems announced the release of PC-BSD 1.3. The operating system has made some progress and changed ownership since we reviewed version 1.0 last year, but it still has a way to go.

The PC-BSD 1.3 release is based on KDE 3.5.5 and FreeBSD 6.1. PC-BSD's system requirements are modest: You'll need a Pentium II or better, 256MB of RAM, 4GB of hard drive space, and a network card and sound card. I ran PC-BSD using the supplied VMware image, with 512MB of RAM, and installed it on a Pentium 4 laptop with 1GB of RAM.

PC-BSD's installer is easy to use, and requires very little user interaction. Using the basic setup routine, a user only needs to pick the type of install (server or desktop), the user's name, password, and shell, and the root password. If you choose the advanced setup, you can have additional control over disk partitioning, network setup, and firewall settings. You can also choose to encrypt the system's swap space, if you're paranoid about security.

PC-BSD's hardware support is good, but not quite on par with that of some Linux distributions. Part of this may be that BSD lacks some of the drivers available for Linux, and part of it seems to be related to the configuration utilities for PC-BSD. For example, PC-BSD seems to see my wireless card, but doesn't provide any tools (at least that I could find) to manage the card, supply a WEP password, or otherwise change the card's configuration.

In general, I'm not crazy about PC-BSD's network configuration tools. You have two configuration tools, Network Devices and Network Settings, but if you actually want to configure a specific device you need to use Network Settings. To make matters worse, when I was trying to configure my laptop's wireless network connection and went looking for the documentation, I found it's non-existent. Clicking on the help button in the Network Settings tool brings up a KDE Help Center window with the message "There is no documentation available for /index.html" -- not exactly useful for folks trying to get a device up and running.

The PC-BSD desktop - click to view

On my Ubuntu desktop, I can plug in a USB soundcard and configure it to handle certain tasks (such as running Skype) and use my system soundcard for other tasks. I didn't see any way to manage multiple soundcards through the tools provided by PC-BSD.

In short, PC-BSD is a bit behind Linux in hardware support. For standard desktops, its hardware support is probably sufficient. For some laptops or more complex hardware scenarios (such as multiple soundcards) it may require some advanced configuration.

The PC-BSD desktop

The sparse PC-BSD desktop displays a single KDE Taskbar at the bottom and a minimal selection of software pre-installed, if you start from the PC-BSD installer disk. All of the apps that ship with PC-BSD are of the KDE variety. That means no GIMP, Gaim, OpenOffice.org, or Firefox, for example.

I have a nagging suspicion that the PC-BSD folks ship their release a few apps short of useful just to show off the PC-BSD Installer (PBI). Quite a few applications are packaged as PBI files, which just require the user to download the file, double-click it, and provide the root password, to run the installer. A few seconds later the application is installed.

Still, many of the typical desktop tasks are covered. PC-BSD includes KMail for email, Konqueror for Web browsing, the Kontact PIM applications, KPDF for reading PDFs, and so on. However, the package selection is a bit weird.

It's not surprising that OpenOffice.org is not installed by default, but it would be nice to have KOffice installed by default. The PBI available for KOffice lags behind the upstream version by a bit. KOffice 1.6 was released in December, but the most recent version of KOffice available via the pbiDIR is KOffice 1.5.2.

No office suite is installed, but the OS does ship KPovModeler -- which makes me wonder how many users have need for an office suite versus the number of users who plan to do 3-D modeling.

Last time I looked at PC-BSD, I dinged it for lacking multimedia applications. This time around, Kaffeine is installed by default, which can handle most media that you'd throw at it. Unfortunately, Kaffeine isn't a great music player, so I tried downloading Amarok, my music player of choice.

Amarok is in the PBI directory, but it's an outdated version; the PBI file is Amarok 1.4.1, while the Amarok folks released 1.4.4 back in October. After installation, Amarok failed every time I tried to start it, saying that xine could not initialize any audio drivers.

I had better luck with K3b. After installing K3b from a PBI, I plopped a CD-R into the laptop's CD burner and successfully made a few test CDs. PC-BSD was also well set up for ripping CDs -- I dropped in music CD, which was automatically mounted, and then PC-BSD launched the KAudioCreator utility. The first time out, you have to choose which format you want to rip to, but all the encoders (including Lame) are installed by default.

I also installed Firefox, OpenOffice.org, and the GIMP, and browsed through the directory to see how current the packages are. For the most part, the PBIs I looked at are up-to-date with the upstream version, though the GIMP lags behind a few versions, and the localized versions of OpenOffice.org are also a bit behind -- though the English release is at 2.1.

Packages installed via PBIs are put in a PBI menu, rather than being listed under the appropriate KDE menu. For instance, if you install the GIMP, it will be found under PBI Programs, rather than under the KDE Graphics menu. You can remove PBIs by going to Settings -> System Administration -> PC-BSD Software Manager. If you want to update PBIs, you need to go to Settings -> System Administration -> PBI Update Manager. To update the system in general, go to Settings -> System Administration -> PC-BSD Online Update. While you can get things done in this manner, the PC-BSD folks really need to consolidate software management into one application.

The online update utility is simple enough to use, though no updates were available when I tried the check for updates function. The default for the update manager utility is to not check for updates, so if you install PC-BSD you might want to make sure that you change the settings to check automatically; I changed mine to daily.

One of the features touted with the 1.3 release is the inclusion of Packet Filter, the BSD firewall. At install time you can configure PF rules for incoming connections, but as far as I can tell there's no GUI admin tool for dealing with firewall rules after installation. Firewall Builder is available as a PBI, a couple of versions behind the upstream, but it'd be nice if you could use the same interface that it uses during advanced setup to configure the Packet Filter firewall.

Final thoughts

If I wanted to run a BSD-based desktop, PC-BSD would probably be a good choice. However, it's still rough around the edges, and lacking in functionality in a lot of ways compared to distros like Ubuntu and Fedora Core. It's a good OS for die-hard BSD users who want a simplified BSD-based desktop, but not so much for users who are seeking ease of use and hardware compatibility.

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