August 23, 2005

Review: Underground Desktop

Author: Preston St. Pierre

Underground Desktop is a GNU/Linux distribution, based on Debian-unstable, that touts itself as being fast and easy to install. Certainly, it attains the former goal better than many distributions, but this beta software remains very rough around the edges.

As a Debian user, I'm always curious to see who has improved on Debian and in what ways. Before Sarge, Debian wasn't known for its easy install. Would Underground solve the install problem? Since Underground is free, I decided to download it and give it a try. I discovered that the developers had indeed solved the old Debian installation problem, not by using the new Sarge installer, but rather by porting Anaconda, the Red Hat/Fedora installer, to work with their Debian base. Anaconda has long been known for its easy installations. It was certainly no harder to install Underground Desktop than Fedora, and I was impressed by how smoothly the install went.

After the install and a reboot, I found myself at a typical desktop, and I assumed that, since I added a user during the install, they logged me in automatically. But the standard procedure for Underground Desktop after an install is to boot straight to a full-blown
K Desktop Environment -- as root. I was nearly in shock. Haven't we seen enough security problems with Windows users running as Administrator all the time? Didn't we learn our lesson? Apparently the Underground team did not, because I was sitting at a desktop with full access to all the system files on my computer.

Eventually, the shock wore off, allowing me to log off root and log back on as a regular user. With potential disaster averted, I began to test out the distribution.

The Underground Desktop - click to enlarge

The first thing I noticed was Underground Desktop's XP window themes and menu transparency. I'm not saying that they take up a lot of processor time, but whatever happened to speed as being a main goal? And since when do these frills make the desktop easier to use? "Perhaps I'm passing judgment too quickly," I thought. The transparency of a menu doesn't matter as long as everything works, right?

The distro detected my hardware beautifully, and the Nvidia graphics drivers were automatically installed. Sound certainly worked -- every time I so much as clicked or moved the mouse, KDE would make an annoying noise to indicate what I had done. I quickly located the KDE Control Center and disabled sounds so I wasn't continually irritated.

Next, I tried playing some music and movies. Nothing would work. This is where I found the next big problem -- how can I play music without a music player? I though I must be mistaken. A desktop distribution with no music player? It couldn't be. I tried to check Underground's Web site -- and learned that despite my network card being correctly detected, my network was not yet set up. I had to bring the network up manually, even though my router offers DHCP services. A quick check of the Frequently Asked Questions on the Underground Web site showed that many people using Underground have had the same problems, of both the network and multimedia variety. Underground Desktop comes with no multimedia support whatsoever. The network is left with no configuration by default. The FAQ was less of a frequently asked questions list and more of a "How do I make my Underground Desktop function properly?" list. Nearly the entire list described how to install different programs that the developers left out. I would think that with so many users asking how to install these programs they'd have them installed by default.

One thing you'll notice in the FAQ is that when you install something, you have to add the APT server, update, and then install the program. There are no APT servers selected by default, but a few that are commented out and must be enabled to work. In the process of installing new programs, I had to add APT sources as needed. Users are also required to check the Web site to get their network running (unless they previously know how as I did), which you can't do without a network -- not exactly user-friendly.

Transparency and Hardship - click to enlarge

It took some time, but eventually I installed all the programs I needed for a functional desktop. It reminded me of doing a net-install of Debian and working with a clean slate. Very few programs that I use were included with Underground (Firefox was one of the only programs I use regularly that's included by default). Once I had my own programs installed, using Underground was remarkably like Debian -- go figure. There were, however, a few other annoyances.


Whenever I tried to close a maximized window, the rightmost toolbar would pop above the window I had selected. I'm not sure whether the developers thought this would be helpful, but it made closing windows much more time-consuming. Instead of simply running the mouse to the top corner and then back a little, I had to slowly move to the X without touching the side of the screen. Touched the side by accident? You have to move the mouse back to the program, click to bring it forward, and then try again. I put up with this for about five minutes before editing the options on the menu to tell it to stop doing that.

Another annoyance involved Abiword. I like to write my reviews on the distribution I'm reviewing -- it helps keep my memory fresh. However, after I installed and opened Abiword (using Synaptic), I was greeted with many different errors involving dictionaries and character sets. Abiword couldn't seem to write any characters to the screen. I couldn't use it at all. I tried installing different packages related to Abiword that seemed as though they might help, but nothing would work. What eventually worked? I rebooted. Not to fix the problem -- fixing problems by rebooting is something I try only in Windows. Nevertheless, one of the problems was fixed the next time I opened Abiword after the reboot. However, to this day Abiword will not run spell check for me. Even the fixes I used on my Debian system to enable spell check didn't work on Underground, leaving me without a spelling checker.

In my experience, Underground Desktop is far from being user-friendly, and it contains numerous problems that need solving. It was no joy ride to get working, and it wasn't significantly faster than other distributions.

Preston St. Pierre is majoring in computer information systems at the
University of the Fraser Valley in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada.

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