Saturday 24th June 2006
Zenwalk is perhaps a lesser known distribution - it certainly does not appear in the news as often as Ubuntu, Fedora or SUSE. However, it does seem to be reasonably popular - at the time of writing, it sits at number 21 on distrowatch.com.
So, what is Zenwalk? Much like the other popular distributions, Zenwalk is designed to be able to do many things. On its website, it claims to be complete (full development/desktop/multimedia environment), not dissimilar to the big three distributions already mentioned. However, what does make it different is that, while managing to be a complete distribution, it does not weigh in at several CDs, like Fedora or SUSE. It doesn't even fill the one CD it comes on, taking up just 420MB. It achieves this through the idea of one application per task - that means one web browser, one word processor, one spreadsheet program, and so on.
Anyway, enough of that - let's get started properly. Under scrutiny today is Zenwalk 2.6, which was released a month ago.
No LiveCD here - just straight into the installation. Users new to Linux may struggle with Zenwalk - not because it is a text based installation, but because it simply isn't as friendly as many modern distributions. Having said that, anybody particularly competent with Linux should be able to get through the installation. There is nothing especially complex here - you just need a small bit of knowledge about computers.
One of the first tasks to complete is the partitioning, which you are expected to do by yourself. Although most distributions guide you through how to partition your hard drive, or even do it for you, Zenwalk simply gives you the utility cfdisk (or, if you prefer, fdisk). If you'd be more comfortable with a GUI or nicer interface, then you might want to try the GParted LiveCD first.
Once into the installation itself, things are relatively straightforward. The questions are mainly very basic, such as setting up the keyboard, selecting partitions, setting up the bootloader, networking, users, the locale, ALSA, users...
Interestingly, the default filesystem is XFS - a change from the usual ext3 or ReiserFS. Another uncommon occurrence is the use of LILO as the bootloader. I would have preferred GRUB, but purely because I am more familiar with it. Unfortunately, Zenwalk was completely oblivious to the existence of Debian on another partition.
Unsurprisingly, there is no package selection. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good thing if you agree with the choices that Zenwalk has made for each application, but otherwise you'll have to install your personal favourites once the installation has finished. Overall, however, the selection of packages is sane, and so few packages are installed in the first place that adding some doesn't really cause any bloat to your system.
I have to say that Zenwalk's installation was probably the quickest I had ever seen - a testament to just how little you really need in a distribution. From start to finish took around twenty minutes, including setting all the options and getting to a logon screen.
Overall, Zenwalk's installation does the job. It will scare off those that have never touched Linux before, but other users with some experience should be able to cope, especially after a quick look at the installation manual. There are not a huge amount of options to tweak, but there's nothing major missing - you can set the networking up as you want, you can pass extra commands to the kernel, you can set up LILO yourself, etc., so power users should be satisfied by the choices on offer. While I'm sure some people could find plenty of options to add, these options would probably be easy enough to add post-installation anyway. I could complain about the package selection, or lack of it, but considering Zenwalk's aims, it would be rather pointless. A perfectly adequate, although not necessarily beginner friendly, installation. Which is rather quick.