October 16, 2006

Sabayon Linux miniEdition looks sharp on the bleeding edge

Author: Nathan Willis

Last week the Sabayon Linux project released ISO images of its miniEdition 3.1 live CD Linux distro. Sabayon has earned a reputation for running right on the cutting edge; it is the first distro to deploy a live CD using the Beryl compositing engine and Nvidia's newest beta video drivers. The only reason I tested the miniEdition instead of the full DVD ISO is that the DVD torrent estimated three days to complete the download. Seeing how much there is in the miniEdition, perhaps I should be glad.

The Sabayon miniEdition is available via torrent from sabayonlinux.org. "Mini" is relative -- only when compared to the DVD-sized main releases does a 700MB ISO clock in as small. Sabayon packs in everything under the sun on its DVD releases, so I was curious to see what made it onto the miniEdition.

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As advertised on the site's front page, you can boot into a Beryl-powered OpenGL-rendered desktop environment, but that's not the default setup. Booting from the CD's boot: prompt launches a conservative X server configuration without hardware acceleration.

In order to launch a Beryl session, you must enter either sabayon xgl or sabayon aiglx at the boot prompt. When I tried this, the system launched X with a paltry 960x529 display resolution, which was not only comically small, but actually too small for several non-shrinkable windows (including KDE control center and Beryl Settings Manager) to fit on screen. To fix this, append a better resolution to your boot command with the res= option. I went with sabayon aiglx res=1400x1050.

Whether you prefer Xgl or AIGLX for your OpenGL rendering is a personal matter, but it is noteworthy that Sabayon includes the latest (9xxx-series) beta of Nvidia's proprietary driver for the X.org X server. This driver introduces the GLX_EXT_texture_from_pixmap extension, thus allowing AIGLX support. The upshot is that, for the first time, regardless of your video chipset (Nvidia, ATI, or Intel), you can now choose either method (Xgl or AIGLX) and achieve the same results.

And you certainly have a lot of results to play with. Sabayon miniEdition leaves out the smorgasbord of desktop environments shipped with its bigger brother, but KDE comes loaded with more than 40 window manager themes and almost as many Beryl effects plugins.

Test driving Beryl

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When you tire of wiggling your wobbling windows around on a rotating cube (and probably that will be soon), you can experiment with the newly released Beryl Settings Manager. The left pane lists all available plugins, with a check box to toggle loading of each. The right pane holds a tabbed window of settings that vary for each plugin. Some use sliders to adjust variables, some use check boxes, and most have tabs for keyboard- and mouse-activation shortcuts.

The total number of options is staggering; while you probably will not get lost clicking through them, you can easily get confused and make a mistake.

Trying to remember which keyboard shortcuts are already bound, for example, is nearly impossible, because each plugin has a separate tab with all of the options available. You can enter the same keyboard or mouse shortcut in multiple tabs and trigger no warning.

Some people might consider that a feature; I am not convinced. While it may occasionally be desirable to bind multiple actions to one keystroke, doing so without notification is risky.

Beryl Settings Manager has one other weak point: the "more info" buttons next to each configuration option often supply no such info, but just echo the name of the configuration option itself. On the other hand, Beryl scores major points for making all changes instantaneous -- no restarting X, no restarting Beryl, no "Apply" button necessary.

Under the hood

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I don't want to give the impression that Sabayon Linux is a Beryl demo disc; it is far more. But the inclusion of Beryl so quickly after its first public release on September 29 illustrates the distribution's bleeding-edge stance on package inclusion. Apps and updates make their way into Sabayon alarmingly fast. Consequently, the distro's live CD is a great way to try out packages that may not be stable enough to risk installing on your production hardware.

Sabayon also trades on volume; the DVD edition includes everything but the kitchen sink. And for its part, the miniEdition packs in an impressive suite of applications, including several I had never gotten around to trying before, such as NoMachine. It also includes a number of proprietary applications and libraries in addition to the Nvidia drivers mentioned above.

Sabayon is Gentoo-based, and although the desktop experience on miniEdition centers around KDE, you have an array of interesting boot-time options -- including "Internet kiosk" mode and the GeeXboX media center front end. As was true with Beryl specifically, in general you should be wary of the risk inherent in running experimental and beta-quality software. I encountered a number of crashes over the course of my test drive -- the kind that are acceptable on a live CD but that I would not tolerate in everyday usage.

All in all, the Sabayon Linux miniEdition 3.1 packs a wallop into its 700 megabytes. There are fresh releases like Beryl and the Nvidia beta drivers, and more options than you'll have time to experiment with.


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