August 26, 2005

Review: VidaLinux 1.2

Author: Jem Matzan

Version 1.2 is the third official release of the Gentoo-based VidaLinux OS (VLOS). The changes and enhancements to this edition are significant, but not good enough to save this conceptually astute operating system from failure. VidaLinux 1.2 is nice to play with, but don't expect a comfortable, complete desktop experience a la SUSE or Mandriva.

VidaLinux is based on a stage 3 Gentoo installation, which is a collection of precompiled binary packages. Usually people associate Gentoo Linux with bootstrapping an entire operating system from source code, but that's only one way to do it. By installing an entire binary operating system and desktop software, VidaLinux sets up a Gentoo system with an attractive look and feel, and a number of relevant desktop applications, in about two hours. A similar configuration compiled from source could take two days on the same machine.

VidaLinux uses the Anaconda installer to simplify and expedite the installation procedure. Gentoo by itself is usually installed by hand.

VLOS uses the GNOME desktop environment by default, so most of the included applications are GTK-based. The default theme for VidaLinux used to look much like Apple's Aqua, but in the previous release it was changed to more of a brushed metal look, which still prevails in version 1.2.

Gentoo Linux usually updates, installs, and removes software packages via the Portage software management framework. Portage is and has always been manipulated from the command line, although there are a handful of programs that provide a graphical interface for it. Originally, VLOS used Porthole, but as of 1.2, it has switched over to Yukiyu. At a glance, there is little difference between the two programs. Neither of them worked very well for me.

New in 1.2

There are dozens of changes in VidaLinux 1.2. For a complete list of changes since 1.1, see the release notes. Here are the highlights of the technical modifications and improvements:

  • The Linux kernel is now at 2.6.12.
  • PPC support has been added.
  • The Anaconda installer has been upgraded to the Fedora Core 4 release.
  • GNOME is now at 2.10.1, and KDE is now at 3.4.1.
  • Yukiyu has replaced Porthole as the Portage front end.
  • Samba support has been added to GNOME, making it possible to browse Windows networks.

Using VidaLinux 1.2

There are two versions of VidaLinux: the commercial version and the free version. I tested only the two-CD commercial edition. The test machine was an IBM ThinkPad T40, which I used because I wanted to test VLOS's ability to detect wireless PC Card LAN adapters and ACPI functions.

Installation was lengthy -- more than two hours on a 1.3GHz Pentium M machine. Once the system was installed, it immediately proceeded to kernel panic on first boot. Disabling the onboard Intel wireless LAN solved that problem, and by using my wired network card I was able to get online. I had to run ifconfig eth0 up && dhcpcd eth0 to get the network connection going, however.

I checked out some of the included programs -- all good choices, such as OpenOffice.org 2.0 beta, Firefox as the default browser, Evolution for email and contacts, and all of the other desktop standards that GNU/Linux users have come to depend on. VLOS includes the gDesklets program launcher, which adds OS X dock-like support to the desktop. Since nearly every X11-based program requires a background graphical shell, gDesklets is out of sight after you open the first program. I thought that reduced its usefulness to practically nothing, as your desktop has to be visible to use it.

Click to enlarge

The Yukiyu package management utility was not in the quicklaunch area or the gDesklets applet, so I fished through the GNOME menu to find it. It certainly wasn't prominently displayed, which led me to believe that the developers didn't want users to update the software. After giving it a try myself, I could understand why.

There isn't much need to add more software to the distribution, but if you need to, you can use Portage from the command line or the Yukiyu utility. Adding software worked well. Updating software via Yukiyu was a different story. Several updated packages I tried updating would not compile. I restarted the computer to see if the updates would be properly applied after the first round were up and running. Alas, X.org would not start due to configuration errors brought on by the updates. Running etc-update did not fix this problem.

Hoping to be able to get back to GNOME without editing config files by hand, I ran emerge -puD world from the command line, which identified all possible software updates and their dependencies. This revealed that there were several dozen more packages that needed updates than what the GUI utility had flagged. I had to remove the slmodem, nvidia-kernel, and nvidia-glx packages (none of which would compile) to complete the update process. I didn't really understand why the Nvidia packages were installed in the first place, as the computer has an ATI video chip.

ACPI support wasn't on par with other commercial distributions. VidaLinux did not go into sleep or suspend mode when the lid of the computer was shut. There were no power-saving functions enabled as far as I could tell.

The Ndiswrapper wireless network driver framework was advertised as being included with VidaLinux 1.2. While it may have been there in the background, there was no GUI utility or automatic configuration program to assist users in setting up Ndiswrapper-dependent wireless cards. That more or less sums up the VidaLinux experience: you have to do a lot of configuring on your own.

Conclusions

This is its third major release, so it's time to start treating VidaLinux like an established desktop distro. As such, VidaLinux does not stand up to more polished desktop distributions like SUSE, Fedora Core, Xandros, Linspire, or Mandriva. It's not even close. While you might get through the installation easily enough, and while it's no trouble to use the preinstalled applications, you'll run into problems trying to update current packages or install new software through Yukiyu. Don't count on Ndiswrapper, either, unless you like playing in the command line.

Gentoo Linux may never make an easy-to-use, easy-to-update desktop distribution. It takes time and effort to install, configure, and maintain it. It was designed for GNU/Linux experts, and I don't think GUI front ends and installers are going to change that.

VidaLinux is great for people who want to ease into a Gentoo Linux environment and don't want to do a lot of typing and surrender a lot of their time for the installation. You start out with a working desktop environment and can work from there -- and if you screw everything up beyond your ability to repair, you can more quickly reinstall VidaLinux than plain Gentoo.

Seekers of user-friendly desktop distros, beware: VidaLinux 1.2 probably isn't for you.

Purpose Operating system
Manufacturer Vidalinux.com
Architectures x86 (optimized for i686, P4, and AthlonXP), AMD64 (commercial version only), and PowerPC (PPC)
License GNU General Public License, although some included packages are proprietary
Market Desktop users
Price (retail) There is a free edition with fewer packages and less glitz, but the full commercial version is $35 for the download edition, and $40 for the CD or DVD set.
Previous version Vidalinux 1.1
Product website Click here
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