October 26, 2007

Vixta: Nice concept, incomplete execution

Author: Susan Linton

Vixta is a new Linux distribution, first released only last month, based on the not-yet-released Fedora 8. Its main objective is to emulate the visual aspects of Microsoft Vista. Version 095 contains the newest, and sometimes unstable, versions of software. The project's goals include being free in every sense, requiring absolutely no configuration, and being user-friendly, eye-catching, and familiar. Too bad the goals don't include feature-complete and stable.

Vixta comes on an installable live CD, available in either English or Portuguese. The live CD's rather plain boot screen and verbose boot output aren't especially impressive, but about halfway through the boot process a splash screen appears to hide the rest of the output.

Bypassing the login screen, a scaled-down KDE 3.5.7 desktop appears. With a large blue flower and folliage dominating the wallpaper, the desktop already feels a bit busy by the time an analog clock and calendar appear. The clock and calendar are locked in their positions, making them too centered at some resolutions and off-screen on others. You can unlock and move the widgets to another position, but at the next login they've moved right back. The whole desktop doesn't scale well and seems optimized for 1280x1024.

The glossy and uncluttered black panel contains a pretty menu start button that invokes a menu that looks very much like the Vista menu, thanks to a customized KBFX theme. A similar theme is available at kde-look.org.

The menu consists of two panes. The area on the right contains menu headings such as Internet or Settings, and the one on the left shows the applications available under each heading. If the application list overflows the given area, scroll bars appear at the top and bottom of pane. Under the application headings, the KDE control panel main modules are listed. I find this much easier to navigate than the flipping back and forth of the typical KDE Kickoff menu. Another nice touch is the search box at the bottom of the menu below the panes. It will isolate a specified search term or launch an application if it's not in the menu, as long as it's installed on the system.

All these visual elements come together to make a pretty and unique desktop.

On the desktop is a Vixta installer, which is the Fedora live CD installer with no customizations or changes. It walks the user through configuration steps such as partitioning and setting up filesystems. It installs a standard system -- no package selection is offered. There are some options for the bootloader, and after a reboot you set up a user account, root password, firewall, and SELinux options. The installer appeared to work well, although I was to find out later it had at least one problem.

Vixta comes with a software manager and system updater, which have uncluttered interfaces with Fedora repositories set up. I found both worked well for installing extra software and applying Fedora updates. Some of the updates, unfortunately, broke a few things, such as the network configuration and setup tool. After the updates, I had to start my network connection manually.

Also included are Firefox 2.0.0.6 and elements of OpenOffice.org 2.3.0.

Not so pretty

Unfortunately, there weren't many applications in the menu other than a few KDE apps, such as Konquerer, Kate, Kolorpaint, and KTorrent, but no KMail or Kontact.

However, there are lots of handy system tools and settings in the menu. One of the most notable is the sound card configuration. Vixta detects most sound chips automatically, but if not, there is a drop-down list containing a few sound card choices. The utility offers a test function for the sound card. I wasn't sure mine was working until I used this test, as KDE system notifications are turned off by default. You can turn them back on, but if you do, Vixta's aRts server seems to lock the device so other applications can't use it. On the other hand, that doesn't matter much because Vixta fails to include any audio CD or video players, or even recognize the audiocd protocol.

Before the Fedora updates, my wired network was activated at boot time. I used the configuration tool to set up my hostname, but otherwise the network was available at login. However, my wireless Ethernet chip isn't supported by Linux without using Ndiswrapper, which was neither included nor available from Fedora. I attempted to compile it from source, but though I was able to install the compiler I was still missing the kernel sources, which weren't available.

Vixta's kernel was compiled to save space and doesn't include the modules needed by modern machines to activate CPU scaling (the process of slowing a processor's CPU cycles, commonly used to save battery life or lower temperatures). At the full processor speed my laptop seemed to run much warmer in Vixta than in other systems when I used its full capacity, such as when compiling software. There is a battery monitor applet in the system tray, but full support for suspend features aren't included.

Another annoying glitch was the disappearing or blinking panel. Sometimes, especially when the system was trying to do some CPU- and memory-intensive task, the panel would just disappear from the desktop. It would return after a few seconds, but it caused the windows to move position.

No solution in sight

Since the kernel was limited in support and no matching sources could be found, I attempted to install other kernels. First I used the software manager to install another Fedora kernel, but it would not boot. I found a kernel update available when I ran the system updater, but it too would not boot. I even tried to install my own vanilla 2.6.23.1 kernel, but it ran into the same problem that plagued every kernel I attempted to use. When the kernel was installing, new-kernel-pkg would crash with a floating point exception. This explains why the kernel installed by the system installer would not work. I could not boot into my newly installed Vixta system unless I used the kernel from the live CD.

Vixta provides a community discussion forum, but there aren't many exchanges. Many questions are answered in a short "read-the-documentation" manner.

No Vixta source code has been made available, but some on the forum suggested that since the distribution is based on Fedora core, whose source is readily available, it isn't necessary -- though this is not true.

Conclusion

All in all, Vixta has a welcome concept. Having a system familiar in appearance to their current system might ease users' pangs of migration. Vixta is nice-looking, but I found the system to be very limited, even in the realm of live CD environments. In addition, it has lots of bugs and is just not ready for everyday use.

Granted, this is a young project using an unstable branch of software for its base, but there is a air of secrecy about the project that casts an ominous shadow. The Web pages provide limited information, and no matter how closely any distro is based on another, source code must be made available, according to the GPL.

Vixta is a nice idea, but the execution needs work.

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