January 14, 2005

VidaLinux 1.1: better, but still not perfect

Author: Preston St. Pierre

Back in July we took a look at the first public release of Vidalinux, a Gentoo-based GNU/Linux distribution developed in Puerto Rico. Since then, Vidalinux OS has fixed a lot of its problems and undergone a graphical overhaul. It's also been broken up into two distributions: a "lite" version that is free to download, and a paid version that includes more applications and support from the developers. In all, Vidalinux OS is still making progress, but isn't quite "there" yet.

Improvements over 1.0

The first major improvement to Vidalinux OS 1.1 is the revamped installer. It still uses Red Hat's Anaconda tool, but all of the stray references to Red Hat and Gentoo are gone, replaced by Vidalinux and their excellent logos and graphics. In the previous version we had some problems with VLOS's implementation of Anaconda, but it seems as though the developers have spent time and effort fixing most of the problems and bugs. There is now a package selection screen where you can deselect certain packages that you might not want, and you can create users and set passwords during the installation rather than after the system is up and running. On a fast system, total install time is about 20 minutes.

The kernel has been upgraded from the 2.4 series to 2.6.9 with special patches from the Vidalinux developers to "enhance desktop performance." Although we didn't notice any revolutionary gains in performance over a standard Gentoo system, the kernel as supplied by the VLOS team supported everything except the sound chip on an Intel D915GUX motherboard -- a real challenge for modern distributions because of the novelty of the onboard components. We did have some trouble with our Dell Inspiron 3800 laptop system, which, during installation, popped up dozens of warning messages pertaining to the disk_dos.c file. Despite those problems, the operating system did install and ended up working quite nicely on that system.

Available builds

The VLOS Web site claims that there is a downloadable AMD64 edition, but no torrents were offered for this build in the download area. There is, however, a commercial AMD64 edition available for purchase. Other editions include i686, Pentium4, and AthlonXP. We tested the i686 edition, as the laptop test system is only a Pentium 3, and the only problem we found with it was in /etc/make.conf, which incorrectly listed the processor architecture as P4.

There are only a handful of ISO mirrors for VLOS 1.1. The project tries to push bittorrent as the primary method of acquiring the download edition, but every time we tried to download the torrents, the tracker was unavailable. Even leaving our bittorrent client open for an entire day yielded no download progress. Fortunately the ISO mirrors were responsive and quick; just the same, we'd like to see the VLOS team pay better attention to their bittorrent seed count.

The commercial version has no governing license restriction preventing it from being redistributed, but it is not available for download from the Vidalinux Web site. Buying the commercial version gets you a CD copy of the full operating system, extra programs, and support directly from the developers through their Club Vidalinux Web site and private IM server. The commercial version does contain proprietary software in the form of browser plug-ins for Flash, Java, and RealPlayer.

The Porthole utility

Porthole is a GTK-based frontend for Gentoo's Portage software management system, very much like (and nearly identical to) Debian's Synaptic. Portage by itself is very easy to learn and use, but it must be run from the command line. The assumption is that VLOS is aiming to avoid all command line interaction and become as user friendly as possible. Despite that goal, we found the Porthole utility to be more difficult to use than plain Portage. In the previous edition of Vidalinux, Porthole would request the root password in order to use Porthole -- a necessary step, due to restricted permissions on the use of Portage. VLOS 1.1 has removed the GNOME su tool, so the only message a user gets is one that informs them that they won't be able to sync the Portage tree or install or remove any programs. The way around this is to open up a command line shell, su to root, and run Porthole from there. Alternately you can log into GNOME as root and run Porthole from the GNOME menu. Neither of these solutions is particularly user friendly, and they more or less negate the need for Porthole at all. You can still use Portage from the command line, if you prefer.

On both test systems, Porthole failed to correctly update all of the installed packages. It could sync properly, but it had trouble with everything else we tried to do with it. By the time we were done messing with Porthole, the laptop system was unbootable and nearly unfixable, still did not have all of the updated programs, and somehow managed to install an old 2.4 kernel source tree without our permission. All this from trying to upgrade the system and install the proprietary ATI video drivers. We were able to fix most of the damage from the command line, but we're fairly convinced that this debacle would not have happened (or have been as bad) if we'd used plain Portage to begin with.

Porthole still needs a lot of work to make it a relevant tool for newer users. Gentoo veterans probably won't find any value in Porthole, as it's far easier to type emerge -puD world than it is to select the requisite options from a drop-down menu and click a button. If we have any suggestions as to how to fix this, they are:

  • Put the GNOME su utility (or some reasonable equivalent) back in and prompt users for the root password so that the command line is totally out of the equation
  • Make a common upgrade setup (preferably emerge -uD --newuse world, as recommended by a Gentoo developer) instead of making users select emerge options
  • More buttons, less menu interaction
  • Integrate the terminal output into the utility, or make it impossible to close the window while Porthole is running -- closing this window messes up the whole program until it is restarted
  • We found some command line errors relating to pycrash and gpm

Included programs

The download edition is pretty slim -- aside from the standard GNOME ancillary programs, the only major applications it includes are Novell Evolution and Mozilla. You can certainly add more programs through Porthole, but some of the builds (such as the Ximian edition of OpenOffice.org, which was included in the previous version of VLOS) take a long time to complete, even on a fast system.

The answer to this hassle is the commercial edition, which includes such GNU/Linux desktop standards as The GIMP, Audacity, OpenOffice.org, and the neat little Gdesklets applet that adds OS X-like dock functionality to the GNOME desktop.

GNOME 2.8 is the only desktop environment included with the download edition of Vidalinux OS 1.1, and all of the graphical applications that come with it are GTK-based. Qt-dependent programs can of course be added manually through Porthole. KDE 3.3.1 and some Qt-based programs such as K3b are included with the commercial edition of VLOS 1.1.

The GNOME and Anaconda themes are beautifully designed, although they don't look quite as much like Apple OS X's Aqua as the previous version of VLOS did.

Summary

If you're interested in Gentoo but decidedly against long compile times and a lengthy, text-based manual installation procedure, Vidalinux OS 1.1 is the operating system for you. It looks nice, installs quickly, and although the download edition doesn't include many desktop applications, you can add any of Gentoo's more than 8300 packages through Porthole.

Aside from the difficulties with the laptop system, the failure to install the proper sound module for the (very state-of-the-art) Intel motherboard, and the inconvenience of Porthole, we didn't experience any major bugs, stability issues, or problems with Vidalinux OS 1.1. If you're a moderately experienced GNU/Linux user looking to switch to a modern, upgradable, GNOME-based distribution that does not involve RPMs, or if you want to get into Gentoo without the steep learning curve, Vidalinux OS 1.1 is worth trying.

Purpose Operating system
Manufacturer Vidalinux.com (Spanish language)
Architectures x86 (optimized for i686, P4, and AthlonXP), AMD64 (commercial version only)
License GNU General Public License, although some included packages may be proprietary
Market Desktop users
Price (retail) Download edition is free, the full commercial version is U.S. $30
Previous version Vidalinux 1.0
Product website Click here
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