August 23, 2005

Review: Underground Desktop

Author: Marcel Gommans

Underground Desktop (UD) 012 is a Debian-based i686-optimized distro, using Debian's unstable branch. I like the fact that is uses the Anaconda installer, which makes it attractive to people new to Linux and easy to get a basic Debian installation running quickly. I found Underground has some potential. Though it's not yet on the level of other Debian-based distros such as MEPIS or Ubuntu, development is still only in beta stage.

I installed and tested Underground on a 2.53GHz Pentium 4 with 512MB RAM, GeForce 4 TI4200 video adapter, SIS7012 soundchip, 40GB hard drive, and DVD-ROM and DVD-RW drives.

The installation went smoothly. After selecting things like the language and keyboard layout, I chose to automatically partition the hard drive. I had to enter a root password, and I created a user account. I selected the GRUB bootloader, then clicked Next, after which Anaconda started formatting and copying the files to my disk.

Underground does not let you select the packages you want to install, but uses a small selection of packages to get you going. Underground installs a 2.6.11 kernel, the KDE 3.4.0 desktop environment, K3b 0.11.20 for CD/DVD burning, Abiword 2.2.4 word processor, Kontact Personal Information Manager, Kmail, Konqueror and Firefox 1.0.2 Web browsers, and the firestarter firewall. That's a pretty small list. The only applications in the Multimedia menu are Kmix and Krec. There are no media players, no instant messenging or IRC clients, and no office suites. Of course one of the benefits of being Debian-based is that installing additional software is easy, because many packages are available. But I would have added a few more packages to make the default installation more complete.

After creating and formatting partitions Anaconda started installing the packages from the CD. About 40 minutes later the installer asked me if it had selected the right video card. I accepted the generic Nvidia driver, and specified a screen resolution and color depth. After that it was time to reboot.

During the first startup, Underground built a few drivers (linux-wlan-ng and ndiswrapper) for wireless, but because I do not have a wireless network, I did not pay too much attention to that. Underground detected all my partitions. It did not mount them automatically, but that is exactly the way I like it. Sound worked out of the box too, something that is not always the case with the SIS7012 chipset.

When X started, I had my first look at the initial screen of Underground Desktop. I expected to see the KDE Display Manager's login screen, but for some reason the distro's creators thought it was a good idea to run the operating system as root -- a clear security problem. Although there is an option called Switch User in the K menu, I do not think most people will use it. My suggestion to anyone that uses UD is to start the Control Center in the K menu and switch off auto-login.

One of the first things I noticed is that Underground Desktop is fast, as it is i686-optimized. The fact that UD is fast makes it possible to run it on older hardware, but of course an i686 processor is a minimum requirement, and you wouldn't want to run KDE on an old Pentium Pro or Pentium II. If you want to use a different window manager, you have to get one from the Debian repositories.

I was disappointed to find that my DSL connection was inactive. Fortunately I remembered I could consult the FAQ list on the distribution's Web site. I started the Network Configuration utility in the Internet section of the K menu and specified that UD should use DHCP and start it at boot time. After that, my Internet connection worked perfectly.

When you write a review, you need a tool to make screenshots. To test UD's ability to install new applications, I started Synaptic to install KSnapshot. I first added all the repositories I found in the settings menu, and after reloading the package information, I installed KSnapshot without a hitch.


While I liked many things about UD, I found a few things I was not too happy about. In addition to the problem of defaulting to a root login, I found some software that was not installed the way I like it. For instance, K3b lacked the dvd+rw-tools package, and the browsers lacked several plugins, such as the ones for Flash and Java, after the installation. I wanted to use my Canon printer, but had to install the drivers first.

One little thing that irritated me was the sidebar on the right of the desktop, which contains the clock, Klipper, a KOrganiser button, and a connection status icon. Every time I moved my cursor too far to the right, part of the active window disappeared.

I tried to install and Inkscape, but neither worked because of unresolvable dependencies. I have encountered this problem before with Debian-based distros that added newer versions of packages to become more appealing for users. Besides that, Abiword crashed frequently; I had to use Kwrite to write this review. Of course, this is still a test version of the distribution; I hope most of these problem will be solved in the ultimate version.

UD is a free distribution to download, and is licensed under the GPL.

If you have questions about UD, you can visit the distro's forum, though at the moment there is not much activity there.

Underground Desktop is a nice distribution that has a lot of potential. It uses KDE, which will make this distro interesting for both people new to Linux and people who want a fast way to get a Debian installation. Anaconda is, in my opinion, a huge improvement compared to the Debian installer.

Is UD as good as MEPIS or Ubuntu? Not yet, but it could be someday. It is fast and not bloated, and it looks great. Its developers have done a good job selecting a nice collection of software. Another thing I find a big plus: I have not used the command line even once to install or tailor this distro.

Marcel Gommans is an IT manager who has been working with desktop computers for more than 20 years, and a Linux desktop user for more than five.

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