July 10, 2007

Venerable Slackware 12 gets a sporty new wardrobe

Author: Susan Linton

Slackware Linux is the oldest surviving Linux distribution, and still one of the most popular. Last week's release of version 12.0 is a milestone for the Slackware team, as it marks Slackware's first use of a default 2.6.x kernel. Other new components include KDE 3.5.7, Xfce 4.4.1, Xorg 7.2.0, and GCC 4.1.2. Slackware is now nearing the bleeding edge without sacrificing stability, making this truly an exciting release.

I downloaded the first three CD-ROM images as torrents. They came in suprisingly fast for torrents, indicating many seeders.

Slackware's installer has remained largely unchanged -- a menu-driven interactive ncurses installer. The basic steps include partitioning the drive if necessary, activating a swap partition, designating a root partition, choosing software, setting up a root password, and installing LILO (or not). Slackware provides four kernel choices: the generic kernel, generic-smp (for multiprocessor/multicore machines), huge (built with about every driver in kernel), and huge-smp. I used a huge kernel for my Hewlett-Packard dv6105 notebook. With a 2.0GHz AMD Turion CPU and 512MB RAM, it boots in an impressive 30 seconds. One new option available during install is the choice of making a USB boot stick instead of a boot diskette, but that option didn't do anything for me -- it didn't format the media or write anything.

Slackware has been a long-time favorite of mine because of its simplicity in hardware configuration. Now with Linux, udev, and HAL, hardware configuration is supposed to be even easier, but I still had to do some manual setup. Most of my common hardware was functional at boot, but I had to add support for my wireless chipset, ACPI, and CPU scaling. It was refreshing to find I could still easily enable these by manually editing the /etc/rc.d/rc.modules file. Users should be able to automount removable media if they are members of the cdrom and plugdev groups, but that didn't seem to work for me; I receive an error with USB sticks and saw an empty window with CD-ROMS and DVDs.

Slackware doesn't ship with Ndiswrapper, which I needed to get my network adapter working. I downloaded the latest stable version from SourceForge.net and easily compiled it and brought up my Internet connection. This is another reason Slackware has found its way into my heart and onto my disks; I can't remember having a source package that would not compile in Slackware.

On the other hand, you don't really have to do very much compiling. Slackware comes with an impressive list of software.

As in Slackwares past, KDE is delivered just as KDE developers packaged it. I visited kde-look.org for a background and window decoration. After five minutes and three or four tweaks, Slackware looked as pretty as any distro.

Besides the complete suite of KDE, including Accesssibility, Games, Edutainment, and Development applications, Slackware also ships with KOffice, K3b for CD burning, Amarok music player, Firefox and Seamonkey for Web browsing, Thunderbird for email, Pan for newsgroup reading, and XChat for IRC. For image viewing and manipulation it offers GQView and the GIMP, and for multimedia needs it has Audacious, Juk, Xine, and Gxine. Browser plugins include support for Java and video formats. Xine includes support for all the video formats I tested, including AVI and MP4, but the audio apps lacked support for the Ogg Vorbis format, and Gxine froze when it started up.

Slackware doesn't ship with a lot of graphical configuration utilities. Some of what isn't automatically configured can be handled by the desktop environments. For example, after loading the correct kernel modules, I used KLaptop to set up my laptop battery monitoring and CPU performance profiles. They worked fairly well, although the suspend and hibernate options weren't available. Slackware provides the CUPS browser interface for printers. I had to use standard configuration files or the command line for other tasks, such as for setting up my wireless connection using Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) or making adjustments to my screen resolution.

You can use KDE's Kpackage to assist with package management, but Slackware's primary software manager is pkgtool, a menu-driven console tool to add, remove, and upgrade Slackware packages. Unfortunately, it still won't download packages from a remote location. At one time one could install slapt-get or swaret for that functionality, but it looks like those projects haven't been updated in a while. To install software using pkgtool you'll need to download Slackware packages to your local machine and navigate to their location. Beside Slackware's repositories, there are third-party collection such as Linuxpackages, and many individual projects offer Slackware packages. You can also use pkgtool to make your own Slackware packages out of source directories, to ease in management.

This release also gives users the ability to upgrade 11.0 to 12.0 using the slackpkg tool. You can find instructions on how to use it in the CHANGES_AND_HINTS.TXT file. The procedure looks long and complicated; I think it would be easier and faster to back up all needed files and start with a fresh install. However, the option is available for those who wish to use it.

If KDE isn't your first choice in a desktop environment, Slackware offers others. Xfce 4.4.1, for instance, like KDE, is delivered as the original developers intended. Xfce is easier than ever to customize, as it provides graphical configurations for backgrounds, icons, themes, window behavior, and much more. Fluxbox, another available option, is a wonderful choice for anyone needing a lightweight desktop environment. Still others are WindowMaker, Blackbox, and FWMV. Third-party GNOME packages for Slackware were available for operating system versions past, but I found no 12.0 support as of yet.

With all the improvements in the new version, Slackware is better than ever. Hardware support and autoconfiguration are about on par with most other Linux distros. The software included is the latest versions available, yet Slackware remains one of the most stable systems I have used. Limited package management, a complicated upgrade procedure, buggy removable media support, and a lack of graphical configuration tools are some of the drawbacks I found in using Slackware.

In the end, Slackware 12.0 is still Slackware -- steeped in nostalgia, patriarch to a whole generation of distros, and still trying to keep it simple.


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