Category Archives: Distro Reviews

Slackware vs Kubuntu: A Subjective Review

Long time fans of this space will be aware that I’m a Slacker.  However, when something wasn’t working as easily as it could, I installed Kubuntu to see what the latest version (Hardy Heron) was like and whether it could tempt me to switch permanently.Slackware & Kubuntu Logos

Firstly, even though all Linux distros are pretty identical at heart (largely the same commands, file structures and so on) there are a number of differences that can make one set of users argue incessantly with another set.  Firstly, Slackware is now the oldest distro still in use – Slackware first began in 1993, followed by Debian, followed by Red Hat.  You will notice that I have left off Suse, that’s because it started life using a Slackware base and then used a Red Hat base.  So in terms of “pure” distros, Slackware was first, followed closely by Debian, followed closely by Red Hat.  In fact, almost all Linux distros use one of those three as their base, as shown on the graphical timeline.  And to wind this paragraph up, Kubuntu is the KDE variant of Ubuntu, which is based on Debian.  There may be a large number of available distributions out there, but there are very few distros to base them off.

In terms of approach and use, Kubuntu and Slackware are very different.  The Slackware methodology is that almost everything should be done by hand: installing programs, configuring programs and so on.  Kubuntu focuses on ease of use: installation of programs is via the Adept Package Manager and using the apt command.  There are also wizards and you know when updates are available by the icon in your system tray.  It is also notable that Slackware come with plain vanilla KDE whereas Kubuntu has a very attractive configuration of KDE installed.

The biggest difference, for me, has been in the sheer amount of hand holding Kubuntu does for you – you are told when a package has a new update and are prompted to install it, the wireless network configuring is largely done for you, if a kernel update is available the update is installed and configured along the lines of the existing kernel.  As well, when you first go to your home folder, you are given a number of pre-created directories – for Documents, Pictures, Templates and Music, for example – and really you could quite happily start using it without having to make any sort of major change yourself.  And that is not a bad thing.  Most Linux users were, or are, Windows users and having something familiar is a great way to ease them into using an entirely different operating system.

Slackware users, on the other hand, are largely left to their own devices.  Slackware, on install, drops you directly into a command prompt.  There are no obvious instructions and you are left to figure it out on your own.  This is entirely by design – if you are expecting to be shown a graphical desktop on first boot and don’t get it, many users would be very stuck and unable to continue.  Slackers know how to get from command line to GUI and so are not stuck.  In Slackware, if you want something to run you have to install it and hand configure it.  If you want a new kernel, you can either download a new one from the mirrors or go to http://www.kernel.org and get it yourself.  The only pre-created directories available are the ones KDE creates by default.

In a lot of ways, comparing the two distros is like comparing apples and oranges.  Both have a different target audience, both do things differently by design.  However, that is not to say that one can’t go from one to the other. The desktop environment in both is KDE and so a lot of things are done the same.  If you spend enough time using Kubuntu, you will be able to use Slackware – the directories available are similar and many of the commands available are distro-agnostic.

But with all that said, I am a Slacker.  Kubuntu is an excellent distribution of Linux and there are many reviews of it on the internet to give you an idea of what it can do.  I will say that it’s very stable and has a great range of default programs available.  However, I am constantly finding myself hitting the same barrier I always hit when I use a distro like this: I am reluctant to hand configure or install things for fear of breaking the install.  This is a problem that I have hit when using Fedora and Debian (to an extent) and any other distribution with a package manager or that uses wizards to do anything.  At the finish, I like hand configuring and I like to install programs from scratch.  Finally, the old saying applies: once you go Slack, you’ll never go back.

Test Driving Kubuntu 8.04

For all of my love of control and the other great stuff that comes with my usual distro, I also like to try out new thingsThe Kubuntu Logo and see what’s going on elsewhere. To that end I decided to give Kubuntu a go. And I have been pleasantly surprised.

Firstly, the install itself. When you first boot up the build disk you are given several options, the one to use the disk as a live disk is still there, but you can choose to install directly from boot (as with other distros), I chose that and it went very quickly, as you would expect. I won’t go through the steps here as there were only a small number. Kubuntu installs a limited number of apps on first install, leaving you to use them or add to them as you wish.

The basic Kubuntu desktop with DVD inserted

All of my hardware was detected and installed, even my wireless card, with no tweaking from me. On first boot you are presented with an empty KDE 3.5.9 desktop – the trash icon is down by the clock. Very clean, very attractive. All the apps (where possible) are KDE apps – Kopete for IM, Konqueror for browsing, digiKam for photo management and so on. Oddly, the office suite is OpenOffice.org rather than KOffice – probably because OO.o is the most well known. Loooking through Adept (rather than Synaptic) you can also choose to install Firefox 3 instead of (or as well as) Firefox 2.0.0.14. The software is new enough without being totally bleeding edge and seems very stable.

As I’m a laptop user, I have the suspend/hibernate options available and so far have briefly tested suspend. It works absolutely fine with no tweaking – though it should be said that I am on a Thinkpad R40 which is old enough that it should work: there are no brand new bits of kit to get used to. I suspended for a few seconds and it came back with only one problem: randomly keys repeat even though I only press quickly. This may not be down to Kubuntu, though I haven’t seen it in either Debian or Slackware. Small gripe number 2: my wireless card had to be removed and reseated as hibernation disabled it. It’s PCMCIA though, so a matter of a second to get it redetected. Otherwise, suspend seems to work well and with minimal problems. To compare with a well known OS, I have known of Windows laptops to also have great issues with suspend and hibernate, so it shouldn’t be taken as a showstopper or that Kubuntu is left wanting.

For those of us who find sick pleasure in having to search for solutions to things that you would expect to work well, Kubuntu comes up trumps. I wanted to test playback of commercial DVDs and so assumed that they would work out of the box. Not so. Because of legal limitations on libdvdcss in various countries, you need to install that seperately. This is a 2 step process as I have learned: first you install the Medibuntu repositories. Medibuntu stands for “Multimedia, Entertainment & Distractions In Ubuntu” and provides for all the codecs you need to play various multimedia files but are restricted from doing so in various countries. This will give you win32 codecs and libdvdcss – among others. The latest version of libdvdcss is 1.2.9 and does not work. Instead, you need 1.2.5 and everything works fine. Unfortunately, when Kaffeine loads up it tries to find this itself and looks to http://kubuntu.org/packages which doesn’t have the required files. Hopefully this will be fixed in future releases because it gave me a frustrating time. Instead you should run /usr/lib/kaffeine/install-codecs and, after accepting the legal warning, it installs the older version and gets things running.

Kaffeine playing

(click for better quality)

In previous versions of Kubuntu, I have fallen foul of the root user/password restriction. Some programs require root rather than sudo access. So far, this hasn’t been an issue. Frankly 8.04 seems, within the first 24 hours of usage, to be the first version I could envisage keeping on my system for more than few days. It seems stable and doesn’t have any long term quirks that would prompt me to remove it.

A good first system for the average computer user and a decent system for someone who doesn’t want to have to delve too deeply into the inner workings of the OS.

Download the current version here. Get the KDE 4 Remix version here.

What Gael Did Next – Ulteo Online Desktop

Gael Duval is the creator of Mandrake Linux (now Mandriva, since the merger with Connectiva Linux). Gael left Mandriva in March 2006 and went on to start a new project called Ulteo. Mandrake was the first distro I persuaded to install and was, for some time, my alternate work PC. Interestingly, he was fairly quiet on the whole Ulteo project for some time – I guess he wanted to concentrate on setting it up and getting it working before talking about it. So what’s it all about?

I am going to assume that everyone who reads this blog is savvy enough to know about Google apps and to have, at least, tried them out for at least a few minutes. This is similar but bigger. Ulteo is an entire desktop available via your internet browser. It’s based on Ubuntu and gives you everything you need to be fairly productive as long as you have access to an internet connected PC. In the spirit of Linux, you can create an account and use it for no cost. So what does it look like? It looks like this:

Basic Desktop (click for bigger)

As you can see from the desktop, the whole thing is designed to help you be productive from the beginning – you have a shortcut to Konversation (for instant messaging), Thunderbird (for email), Firefox (for internet browsing) and to 3 of the most used OpenOffice.org programs. Ulteo saves your settings so that, no matter where you log on, your desktop will be as you left it. You are also given 1Gb of storage space, so if you absolutely need to work on a document you can. Duval has also come up with a great idea for printing: when you hit print a pdf copy of your document is created allowing you to send it to a print enabled machine, to a colleague or to a USB key.

The product is dependent on the PC having Sun Java installed, other versions will produce errors and problems. Usage speed also seems to be dependent on your connection speed, as with any remote desktop. I will admit that I haven’t played with it that much, so this review is a bit limited. That said, if you are away from your home machine, your office machine or even your home country, you can be working fairly quickly whether you carry a laptop or not.

If you are interested, go to the Ulteo homepage and sign up and try it out. It’s still in it’s relatively early stages (the software included in the desktop is not current) but already you can see that you have much more than Google are offering.

More screenshots:

Office_OptionsGraphics AppsMultimedia AppsFirefox within Firefox!

Picking the Best Open Source Project

I’m pretty sure I’ve addressed this before in some way or another, but I think it bears repeating. I’ve been seeing a new influx of posts on “which is the best distro?” and frankly it’s getting a bit dull.

Newsflash: there is no “best” distro. Every one has their strengths and their weaknesses and every one of them appeals to a slightly different audience. The 3 “daddies” of Linux are Slackware, Debian and Gentoo. Each one has a reputation for being hard to install and administer – wrongly, as over time they have all taken steps to make things easier. I have tried all three and, in my opinion, Slackware is the preferred option. Note those words: in my opinion. Speak to another Linux user and they will disagree – I know people who prefer Debian, Gentoo, Fedora, Ubuntu and so on. It is purely down to personal choice. I have tried a large number of different distros and have settled on Slackware. One is no less or more a Linux user because of the distro they use.

While we’re at it, Gnome and KDE are equally as good as each other, depending on what you want. KDE has more options but Gnome is designed to be more intuitive and easy to use. Oh, Vi/Vim and Emacs? It doesn’t matter which one you use. They both can do pretty much whatever you want them to do. Personally, I use KDE and Vi – though I use Nano more than Vi.

Are we getting the message yet?  Not only does it not matter which you use, no one actually cares.  Use what you want, for the reasons you want to use them.  Or don’t.  I use them and I use the ones I like, don’t care if you disagree or not.

So the next time someone asks you which is best, point them to this.  Or don’t, doesn’t bother me either way.

Slackware 12 in Da House

Having tried a number of different distros over the years, I always enjoy reinstalling and running Slackware. For a number of reasons, I was running Kubuntu for a while – if you need to be up and running in little time and have a fully functional and straightforward desktop, you could do a lot worse than use one of the *buntus.

However, Pat released Slackware 12.0 and I had to have it. One of the reasons that I was using Kubuntu was that 12.0 was a release candidate (meaning it was almost finished) and the pain of going from 11.0 to 12.0 via the upgrade route just seemed a bit too much like hard work.

So, what did I do? Well Drew kindly suggested a download site for the .iso (since my torrent download seemed corrupt). I tried getting just CD1 and it wouldn’t work. I even installed the USB boot disk to an old Dell 64mb USB stick I had lying around and still no go. I eventually obtained the full DVD iso file form belnet.de – it was fast, just 4 hours for a full download and the file worked. And lo, I was ready to rock and roll.

So, what’s it like then? Pat has cut down on the number of kernels in this release – in fact, there are just 3 kernels available: speakup, huge and hugesmp. All are 2.6.21.5 kernels and none are acpi enabled. Which is a shame because I liked the old 2.4 bareacpi kernel. Maybe in the next release eh?

KDE is at version 3.5.7 and Pat has moved it out of /opt and into /usr. This will take a little getting used to but is a minor annoyance. X is now far more modular, so there are a lot more packages to choose from than before. Again, fairly minor, but future updates should be quicker as the whole X system is split across many smaller packages. XMMS is gone and replaced by Audacious – no biggie for me as I didn’t use XMMS. And Pidgin is in this release – – I think (though don’t quote me) that this is the first Linux distro to include the new name in the install. Others still have Gaim. As I said, don’t quote me. Also, you are no longer prompted to make a boot floppy, you are now prompted to make a boot USB disk.

The install is very quick and as easy and straightforward as ever. If you dislike the options in the kernel supplied with 12.0 either recompile it or grab the latest kernel (like what I did) and compile it instead. If you wish to take the latter route, the latest kernel is 2.6.22 and Alien Bob has a very easy to follow article on his wiki about compiling a kernel for Slackware. He also has a large number of Slackbuilds and are, I believe, recompiled for 12.0. If that’s not enough, Slackbuilds.org had 12.0 compatible slackbuilds available within hours of 12.0 being released. Incidentally, Alien Bob and at least one of the nice people at Slackbuilds.org post on Linuxquestions.org (the Slackware sub-forum is the official Slackware forum – accept no substitutes – and Pat has endorsed it) and I am one of the moderaters there, so you have no excuse for not believing either of us.

Anyone who has run Slackware before will know what to expect – a lightweight, very configurable system that has most things you need out of the box. Hunt down my post here on installing MPlayer and the mplayer-plugin and you really can’t go wrong. If you are new to Slackware, you are most definitely in for a treat.

Part 3

Get me, I’m a Debian user.

Who would have thought that, around a month ago when I decided to try a different distro, that it would stick. I tried installed PC Linux OS to try it out, but something went wrong during a large set of updates and I realised that I had no inclination to fix the problem. Normally I’d have whacked Slack back on, but Debian sits nicely between Ubuntu and Slackware – the easiness of Ubuntu and the control of Slackware. Very Cool. Especially since Debian always had a reputation for being hard to install.

And now, as of today, Debian Etch is out of Testing and is now the Stable release (Lenny is the new Testing), there really is no excuse for not running it.

Incidentally, am I the only one who thinks that the Debian naming convention has run it’s course? Ok, the original names were fairly obvious, but even with the spaces between each release they have run out of the better known names. Until I grabbed the naming convention link, I had no idea of the origin of Lenny.

Incidentally (2), to celebrate Etch being Stable and this going back on my desktop, I have changed my wallpaper from the Amarok logo to:

Life on Mars desktop

You can get the desktop wallpaper (and other downloads) here. Bonus Youtube link to the part of the show that this refers to is here. I may well post about this series sometime, but as a taster, go to the BBC site for the programme to see what’s what. Anyway, enough derailment.

Listen to me. I can just about handle you, driving like a pissed-up crackhead and treating women like beanbags, but I’m going to say this once and once only, Gene: stay out of Camberwick Green!