August 5, 2005

Review: Slax 5.0.6

Author: Bill Yanelli

The first time I used it, Slax restored my faith in my old clunker of a Toshiba laptop. The distribution ran (and even booted) faster from the CD-ROM drive than Windows did from the hard disk. But as I began to get a feel for Slax and use it to browse the Web, listen to music, and the like, I didn't feel like Slax had sacrificed usability for agility. This fine balance alone would make Slax an interesting and noteworthy distro, but it has even more tricks up its sleeve.Slax is a live CD distribution based on the venerable and time-tested Slackware Linux. Its claim to fame is twofold. First, despite containing the KDE desktop and many common KDE applications, it fits nicely on a 185MB mini CD. (There's also a version for 128MB USB flash memory drives that uses the XFCE desktop.) Second, it's easy to "remix" Slax by adding downloadable modules for new programs and features. Once booted, the CD will automatically load the new features.

Other distributions, such as Knoppix and Damn Small Linux, have used modules for some time, but Slax loads the entire system, down to the kernel and core utilities, from modules. And Slax arguably makes it easier for users to add, change, and create their own modules than these two distributions do.

Slax boots quickly, especially for a live CD. New Linux users will probably be intimidated by the text-based log-on screen and the need to type startx at the command prompt to enter a graphical environment, but aside from that, the startup process is as smooth as I've seen it. Slax detected and configured all my hardware just as I expected it to, with the exception of my Hewlett-Packard PSC 1315 printer.

The desktop

The Slax desktop, uncluttered and clean - click to enlarge

I find KDE's K menu atrocious; in most distributions, it's a mess of cheesy-looking icons cramped into a tiny space and marked with equally tiny text. Fortunately, Slax sidesteps this quandary, because it has relatively few programs in each group in the menu. Even in the normally cluttered "System" group, there are only seven programs -- just enough visual information for so small a space to avoid making it look cluttered. Slax cuts down on clutter even more by not displaying mounted media (such as hard disk partitions and CDs) on the desktop. Instead, the desktop features only the "Home" and "System" icons. Media are two double-clicks away, tucked inside the System window.

Other than that, the Desktop is just what you would expect from KDE 3.4.1, down to the large icons to the right of the K menu, and the blue Plastik theme. Slax adds a clever blue wallpaper that complements the theme nicely.

Applications and features

Under the hood, Slax is based on all the latest technology: kernel version, KDE 3.4.1, udev, and the latest drivers for graphics, sound, and Wi-Fi hardware.

Slax includes three components of KOffice -- the KWord word processor, the KSpread spreadsheet, and the KPresenter slideshow program. I used KWord to write parts of this review, and it performed well. It also proved extremely interoperable, as I successfully used it to open files from Microsoft Word, AbiWord, and (both .sxw and .odt formats). KSpread also did a good job opening and editing Excel spreadsheets, even preserving the formulas exactly as they were in the original documents.

Slax also employs JuK and KPlayer for audio and video media, respectively. A true jack of all trades, JuK combines the playlist focus of media players such as XMMS and Winamp with the "media library" view of amaroK and iTunes. KPlayer did not play MPEG-4, but handled older video codecs well. I give it low marks for its counterintuitive interface, however: no playlist window is displayed by default, and the pause/play/stop buttons are inexplicably to the left of the video instead of below it.

Remixing Slax
Having grasped the strengths and weaknesses of Slax's default configuration, I proceeded to tweak it to my liking. I set out to make a custom live CD with programs I wish the developers had included -- AbiWord, Firefox, amaroK, and the GIMP. I browsed to and downloaded the latest modules for these programs.

To remix Slax from inside Slax, you need to: (1) copy the contents of the Slax CD to a new folder so that you can modify them; (2) copy the modules into this new folder; and (3) compile this folder into a new ISO.

I did the first step from a root terminal (the default in Slax):

mkdir /root/newiso
cp -r /boot/* /root/newiso

After the command completed, I had a writable copy of the Slax filesystem in /root/newiso. I then used Konqueror to browse to /root/newiso. I copied the modules I downloaded into the modules folder. Returning to the terminal, I entered the commands:

cd /root/newiso
./ /root/slax_new.iso

To complete the process, I burned /root/slax_new.iso with K3b. Upon rebooting -- lo and behold! -- the new programs were all there and working. After a few minutes with my new system, I felt that this was the Linux distribution I wanted Slax to be.

There were a few glitches, though. AbiWord crashed when I changed fonts in a certain document. And Slax's KDE-centric configuration really showed; non-KDE apps like AbiWord and Firefox stuck out like a sore thumb.

Other remixing methods

As previously covered on NewsForge, you can also remix Slax from Windows with My Slax Creator. The ISO image, if mounted in a Windows environment, also includes a DOS equivalent of, and you can use a similar process to the one I described above to make a new Slax ISO from Windows.

Slax also supports adding modules on the fly to the live system by double-clicking the modules from Konqueror or running the uselivemod command. In my tests, this process worked occasionally, but was often buggy and unreliable, especially with certain modules.

Konqueror is the only included Web browser, and since it's also KDE's file manager, using it exclusively probably made Slax considerably smaller. But this compromise left a bad taste in my mouth -- it's a decent browser, but for my everyday Web activities, I prefer Mozilla Firefox for its wide variety of themes and extensions, as well as its compatibility with GMail and Google Maps.

Other K apps, such as K3b, Kopete, and aKregator, performed as expected. I also generally approved of the default configuration, except I found that a few file associations were not set properly in Konqueror. (And to nitpick, the default volume for ALSA was set really, really loud.)

Productivity and perfomance

Slax passed a crucial test by mounting all my partitions as soon as the system booted, and by instantly recognizing my USB flash drive when I inserted it. With no extra configuration on my part, I could be productive even in a temporary live CD environment. Within a minute or two, I had loaded an AbiWord document from my FAT32 partition into KWord, and some MP3 background music into JuK. (Everything worked flawlessly except for a minor configuration error with JuK: it wouldn't let me load music from "media:/", KDE's convenient shortcut for accessing mounted drives, and forced me instead to browse to browse through the /mnt directory to access my MP3 files.) Meanwhile, I copied files from my USB drive to my FAT32 partition in order to make space for the USB-bootable version of Slax. Even with all this multitasking, the system hummed along and didn't miss a beat.

Performance did stall the first time I tried to access the Slax hard disk install program, and, as is typical for live CDs, opening some large applications was slow. I ironed out these speed bumps, however, by rebooting Slax with the "slax copy2ram" boot option, which loads the entire operating system into RAM, and, to drive that point home, ejects the CD, leaving the drive free for music listening or CD burning.

I also used the hard disk installer to copy Slax to a free partition. Unfortunately, the installer includes no partitioning tools and gives the user no information whatsoever about his filesystem. In fact, it doesn't seem to know much about the filesystem it handles; as I tested it, I found that it would indiscriminately attempt to copy Slax's files to any partition, even one with an OS already installed! It made no attempt to format or erase the partitions it installed Slax onto, and it didn't think to inform the user that such steps might be necessary. Finally, when it installs LILO (which boots Linux) onto the hard drive's master boot record, it doesn't first perform a check for other operating systems installed on that drive. Thus, if there are any other operating systems, they become useless, as LILO always boots directly into Slax.

This install utility is at best poorly implemented, and at worst dangerous.

Kill Bill Edition

The Slax Web site features two prepackaged customizations of Slax. The first of these is the Kill Bill Edition, a dual reference to Quentin Tarantino's brash anti-hero and to a certain Mr. Gates -- appropriate because Kill Bill includes Wine, the Windows Emulator.

I tried Wine on various programs in my Windows partition. To my surprise, some of my favorites, including Winamp and IrfanView, worked, but many other common Windows programs, such as iTunes and Microsoft Word, didn't run at all. Still, Wine is an interesting novelty that may one day wean some technical users off of Windows.

Kill Bill Slax, running WinAmp and other Windows applications - click to enlarge

Popcorn Edition

A recent tutorial on NewsForge walked me through the setup process for Slax's USB-bootable Popcorn Edition. After some hacking around I had a working Slax distribution on my 128MB drive. By default, this edition includes the quick and capable XFCE desktop, as well as Firefox, AbiWord, and Gaim, so I felt right at home. MPlayer and Beep Media Player (an updated version of XMMS) proved to be good replacements for KPlayer and JuK, respectively.

Popcorn has some significant negatives: The productivity-minded might bemoan the lack of a spreadsheet in this version. XFCE's file manager, xffm, is clunky, slow, and ugly. And when I tried to run MPlayer and Beep simultaneously, they fought over sound driver resources.

Those interested in the Popcorn Edition should also note that a live CD might make more sense for general use, because booting from USB drives can be difficult to set up. Since the standards involved are so new, even a properly configured USB drive simply will not boot on many computers.

Slax has generated strong interest among Linux users, so we may eventually see several Slax-based distros. The first of these is Whax, a network security and penetration testing distribution. It includes tools such as aircrack for cracking the much-maligned WEP security on Wi-Fi wireless networks, and Metasploit, which can take advantage of many vulnerabilities in many different kinds of software.

It's interesting that such a specialized distribution could be made from the framework of Slax modules. That Whax used to be based on Knoppix, and dropped Knoppix specifically for the sake of Slax's modular nature, shows Slax's potential influence.


Slax is an ambitious distribution, so it's no surprise that it needs fine-tuning in some areas, such as the hard disk installer and "on the fly" module loading. Overall, though, I found these flaws to be relatively minor, and I enjoyed my Slax experience.

But perhaps even more important than the default configuration of Slax is its modularity, which could have broad implications about the way Linux is packaged and distributed in the future. Slax could put an end to much of the "forking" that continues to happen among Linux distributions.

Whax and Kill Bill could have been two more needless standalone distro forks. Not to belittle the work put into these distros, but there's not much special about them except for the few interesting extra features they offer. Recognizing this, their developers have made the bold decision not to reinvent the wheel, but to use Slax instead. These and other remixes will add to the popularity of the Slax base, which has the potential to grow from solid to exceptional.


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