10. The number one cause of computer problems is computer solutions. - Murphy's Laws of Computing

Zenwalk 2.6

Saturday 24th June 2006

Categories: Reviews, GNU/Linux, FLOSS

Logging On

After logging on as a normal user, I was presented with XFCE 4.3 (the beta for 4.4). Considering Zenwalk is supposed to be avoiding the bloat of larger distributions while retaining the features, XFCE is an obvious choice. It preserves the usability of GNOME and KDE, while slimming down the RAM usage. The effect is something more streamlined and speedy, while remaining stable.

Unfortunately, networking didn't work out of the box - I couldn't see my Debian machine nor any of the other Windows machines, although sambaclient was installed, using LinNeighborhood. Curiously, you have to log in as root to use LinNeighborhood - Zenwalk has been set up such that an ordinary user doesn't have the privileges to mount a network share, presumably for security reasons. Somewhat annoyingly, you can't browse the network in Thunar, XFCE's new file manager - at least, I couldn't find any way of doing it. I looked through menus, tried entering smb://, network:// and IPs into the location bar - nothing. After a couple of minutes, I then remembered that LinNeighborhood requires some configuration to get working - namely, setting the workgroup and samba port. A stupid mistake, perhaps, but one that Zenwalk could have easily let me avoid by putting in some working defaults.

Also, no machines on the network could see Zenwalk, but in this case the right package was missing - samba (the server) was not installed. A quick fiddle later, and the network was working. Nothing too hard for somebody who has done it before, but hardly an easy task for a complete newcomer to Linux. To get my machine visibly on the network, I had to:

  1. Install samba (more on that later)
  2. Get SWAT working by uncommenting in /etc/inetd.conf (at which point I found out there was no nano, meaning I had to learn a bit of vim)
  3. Make a user in SWAT
  4. Restart the appropriate services

That meant that, by default, the home directories were now available on the network, and, using SWAT, it should be easy enough to set things up how you want them.

Going back to Thunar for a moment, another slight annoyance was setting permissions. Although you can select whether to allow reading or writing for the owner/group/others, you can't set whether it is executable, meaning a quick trip to the command line is required every time you want to change this.

SSH works without any sort of fiddling - I can access my computer from Zenwalk, and I can access Zenwalk, although using GUIs requires the line X11Forwarding yes to be added. I did not see any sign of VNC, but, once again, this would probably be superfluous in Zenwalk. SSH does the job nicely, while VNC can be quite demanding in terms of bandwidth required.

Things in Zenwalk generally make sense; again, this is probably the benefit of having so few applications - with a smaller distribution, it should be easier to keep things tighter (although that doesn't make running an entire distribution easy!). The menu is laid out sensibly , with the inclusion of a menu editor that should be plenty powerful enough. There are plenty of other settings to keep you busy, as can be seen by the screenshots.

You probably won't need to touch very many of these settings [screenshots of Zenwalk's menu of settings] - Zenwalk does a good job of having things running fine when you start. Most of the settings I played with were more to do with customisation, rather than having to change system settings to get things running. It even managed to choose my monitor resolution correctly without asking me. However, there a couple of things missing that might be useful, both relating to disk partitions. The first is any sort of graphical disk partioner, such as GParted. Although not crucial, it would make, for example, installation of a new hard drive much easier. Instead, you are required to delve into cfdisk, which is much less user-friendly. Secondly, there is no application to edit fstab - that means no way to mount extra hard drive partitions without having to delve into /etc/fstab yourself. This obviously puts new Linux users at a disadvantage.

The other programs in Zenwalk are much as you'd expect - Firefox, Thunderbird, the GIMP, GnomeBaker, GAIM, Evince, Bluefish and BitTorrent (the actual program). OpenOffice.org is absent, as you'd expect - as far as OpenOffice.org has gotten, it is still somewhat sluggish on slower systems, especially when pushed for RAM. As such, we find Abiword and Gnumeric instead, which both serve as more than adequate alternatives. Azureus is also missing as a BitTorrent client, probably due to the extra requirements of Java. Everything was perfectly stable, and there are some nice touches - such as the Zenwalk branding on the GIMP splash screen.

You can choose to have netfilter as a firewall, but there is no fancy GUI to help you along. Personally, I'm not a fan of delving into firewall rules (I'm much too lazy for that!), so a decent interface wouldn't go amiss - since we're using GTK2, Firestarter might be a good solution, and one that I use regularly.

Another positive is the support of audio and video. Although I didn't get the chance to test this fully, from other writings on the Internet, the support of different formats on Zenwalk seems to be good, and, as another bonus, it uses the same backend as me - xine.

However, this support does not extend to Java or Flash, two crucial formats for some people. The latter is especially important to the ordinary user, who often expects to be able to view the majority of things on the Internet - a significant part of which is Flash. Fortunately, a quick search on the forum shows some solutions to these problems, meaning that getting round this shouldn't be too difficult. For example, people point to Slackware's Java package, showing not only that there is a helpful community, but that Zenwalk is still compatible with Slackware, meaning a myriad of packages are available for the Zenwalk user.

Although Zenwalk obviously doesn't have the userbase of, say, Ubuntu, the forums seem full of decent advice and helpful posters. However, some questions will go unanswered, leaving people without a solution. This does perhaps make it more troublesome for new users to get over difficulties.

One such difficulty, at least for those from Windows, may be in mounting CDs. While my trusty USB stick mounted without a problem, a CD did not. However, the process is not difficult - simple double click the Mountpoints icon on the desktop, right click the CD, and choose the mount option. Conveniently, the USB stick also includes the option to sync, so that you can remove it without fear of corruption.