Zenwalk: A Slackware desktop alternative
Zenwalk is a lightweight desktop oriented Slackware based GNU/Linux distribution that aims to be fast and user friendly. It is still quite new, but the growth, as well as the progress of development, has been pretty fast so far. I've taken a hike with the latest release, Zenwalk 4.0, and here's what I can say about it.
Installation reminds of slackware which is not unexpected considering that Zenwalk is a Slackware derivate. It is text based, probably not too suited for those who never installed an OS before, especially GNU/Linux, but for intermediary users who know what are partitions and how to manage them via cfdisk, this will do quite fine. Installation is started by entering "keymap" configuration (which is first in the installation menu) and will then lead you on through the rest of the process. Install is quite fast and finishes in around 15 minutes.
Zenwalk still uses lilo as its bootloader while grub isn't yet provided as a choice. This again reflects its Slackware ancestry considering that Slackware too still uses lilo even though most distributions today are on a more powerful and advanced grub (though arguably also more complex than lilo). Upon initiating the first boot after install, we are presented with a few more configuration screens, notably the alsa (audio) setup and Xorg (video) setup which detected my ATI Radeon 9600 card correctly and suggested a Xorg "ati" driver to use with it. Among other configuration screens that come afterwards we are asked to set a root password, add new user and set up some network settings. New users will likely be a bit confused by some of these settings (especially networking) which apparently requires some knowledge on how it all works. We are also asked whether we want a text login or a graphical login to the new desktop. After this is finished, the installer says we can restart by pressing ctrl-alt-del in order for new settings to fully take effect.
After restarting and a quick boot I am presented with a very nice looking GDM login screen which then logs me into a nice Xfce desktop. There are a few desktop icons visible pointing to home (which opens a thunar file manager in your home directory), trash, file system, link to Zenwalk.org and moutpoints. The last one displays a few device mount points which usually just appear empty, but if you put the CD or DVD its content will be automatically "mounted" on the corresponding mount point for easy access. Other distributions usually show a desktop CD icon (and even open a file manager window with the CD content).
Some of the things I wanted to do first in order to fully test the out of the box capability of Zenwalk system was to mount a data partition where my music is. I noticed Zenwalk comes with audacious which is from what I've heard an improved version of beep-media-player which was my favourite music player. Being used to sudo command I wanted to mount by giving myself superuser powers through sudo rather than logging in as root, but the normal user isn't added to the /etc/sudoers file by default. To remedy this I wanted to edit it using a command line nano editor, but this command isn't immediately available. Zenwalk has some of these tools put in /sbin and /nano/sbin, but does not have them added to the bash environment paths by default, which could have been useful and less confusing.
After mounting my data partition and loading some music into the audacious playlist, music played without a hitch. Zenwalk plays both OGG and MP3 files out of the box and it also plays most video files (such as DivX) with gxine. All of the software that support this are Free Software, except possibly w32 codecs that may be built in xine.
I've skipped most of the networking configurations at first boot because I use something more exotic for my internet connection, an EDGE USB modem and a satellite connection through my DVB card. Most distributions detect this and put proper device nodes in /dev. Zenwalk properly detected and created a device node only for the USB modem in /dev/tts/USB0 (same place as in Arch). However, the node for a DVB card is missing and as I learned later on Zenwalk forums it is not supported by default. The reason for this is that Zenwalk is using a kernel as close to vanilla (original unmodified version from kernel.org) as possible where the DVB modules are not compiled in by default. In future versions the kernel may be compiled with DVB support after all though. It is possible to add support for this DVB card (and other hardware that may not be supported by default) by reconfiguring and recompiling a kernel, though that's a not something we'd expect from a new user.
My ATI card was properly detected and enabled with a free Xorg driver and working direct rendering. 3D screensavers work well which should mean that there shouldn't be problems with other 3D programs and games as well.
One of the high points of Zenwalk are the applications included. What I find so good about it is that all the applications are simple, lightweight yet quite powerful for a desktop user. I don't think it lacks much behind Ubuntu even though its arsenal is much more lightweight. We have mousepad for a light text editor, geany as a more featureful text editor which also serves as a programming IDE, Bluefish web programming editor, Dia diagram editor (which is an interesting and rare application to include), evince for PDF reading, gqview for image viewing, the obligatory gimp for graphics editing, audacious music player, graveman cd burner, grip cd ripper, gxine multimedia player, streamtuner internet radio player (an awesome application) and AbiWord and Gnumeric making up a nice light office suite.
Especially interesting and novel is the choice of networking applications which includes some things I've never heard of like urlgfe whose purpose I am yet to discover. It also includes transmission, tightvnc client and server, FuseSmbTool, NmapFE, gFTP, EtherApe graphical network browser, WifiRadar and of course Firefox, Gaim and Thunderbird.
The system menu also includes some GUI configuration tools which seem to be mostly a complete interface copy of equivalent ncurses tools, but in GTK2. Still, it might help people who like to point and click through a GUI than do it within a terminal window. Zenwalk package manager GUI (netpkg) used to be such a GUI version of ncurses tool, but this time it is revamped into something that provides for a much more similar experience to that of synaptic on Debian based distros.
While Zenwalk comes with almost the full basic productivity suite one desktop user would expect every user may have specific needs and desires and it is always a big plus if installing new software is easy and convenient. Zenwalk uses netpkg as its package manager, which is basically very similar to Slackware's pkgtools, uses a similar package format with the same .tgz extension, but more advanced and with package dependencies resolution. To install a new program using netpkg the basic command is
netpkg name-of-the-program. If you'd like to edit the settings for it manually the configuration file is in /etc/netpkg.conf. The GUI front-end to netpkg is also available and has had a major revamp in this release making it much more easier to use for searching, selecting and installing packages, though in all fairness still a bit lacking behind synaptic.
Another hurdle is that netpkg repositories may not have every package you want in it, which is rather normal for a smaller distribution. Since they do, however, grow quite fast, the number of available packages should be increasing rapidly as well.
However, in addition to netpkg, the old pkgtools are also available which makes it possible to install any slackware package on Zenwalk, which significantly broadens the pool of software available in an installable binary format. The tools are, notably, the installpkg for installing and removepkg for removing packages (there are also other tools like makepkg for creating new packages).
Maybe it would be apt to call Zenwalk a Slackware with a more advanced package manager and the light, thought out package selection. It should definitely appeal to Slackware fans who would like a distro that comes on just one CD (not even a full CD actually), provides a basic producitvity set of software and allows for easy extending of the system.
My overall experience leans more towards good than bad. Once they add support for my DVB card I would definitely consider trying it out again and possibly choosing it as my primary distribution. I like speed, simplicity, extendability and fair ease of use, and that's what Zenwalk can offer.
Need help with Zenwalk? Ask here (select appropriate forum and tag as "zenwalk").