"The problem with computers is they do what you tell them."

Zenwalk 2.6

Zenwalk 2.6

Saturday 24th June 2006

Categories: Reviews, GNU/Linux, FLOSS

More Packages, More Programs

Installation of packages takes place through netpkg [screenshot of netpkg], which is both a graphical utility and command line program. Unfortunately, the graphical method doesn't seem to be particularly useful seeing as some packages would cause netpkg to stop suddenly in the middle of installation. The graphical version of netpkg is quite spartan, a far cry from what many people might expect or be used to, such as Synaptic. The command line, on the other hand, worked smoothly, albeit slightly slow. Dependencies and whatnot all worked, while pkgtool allows you to control packages on an individual basis - the main use probably being to remove a package.

There are no automatic updates provided, although netpkg does have an option to show all the packages installed that have new versions in the repository. Without a 'select all' button though, it can get tedious having to click every box. Some kind of automatic updates would also have been helpful, especially for when those vulnerabilities get patched.

So, what shall I try? I've already got Samba up and running, so lets get Apache, PHP and MySQL running and working. Handily, some kind soul on the Zenwalk forums has already written a guide to installing Apache, PHP and MySQL, again showing the usefulness of the forum.

Anyway, back to installing a server. Following those instructions is simple enough, with setting up some basic pages being the usual doddle. Although there was some extra configuration necessary, I suspect that for most packages, such as web browsers, it would work without having to touch anything. There are some interesting default settings, such as short tags being on and error messages off, which did cause some minor hassle. However, I couldn't get PHP and MySQL to talk to each other properly, and I do not seem to be the only person with that problem.

However, things went a little better with installing Seamonkey and Realplayer from the binaries provided by upstream themselves, rather than Zenwalk's repositories - both installations worked flawlessly without having to install any additional packages.

Finally, let's try Azureus, which also means trying out Java. The compatibility with Slackware makes getting those other packages much easier, including the hefty 60MB download for Java. However, using pkgtool to install the package was relatively straightforward (although a browse button when choosing a directory would make things go more smoothly), while Azureus itself can be installed simply by extracting its archive. Both seemed to work in perfect harmony, meaning that Java would appear to work fine on Zenwalk.

Conclusion

In my opinion, there are just a few areas where a distribution can be judged:

  1. Installation
  2. Default settings - does everything work out of the box, smoothly and sensibly?
  3. User friendliness - does the distribution accommodate those less experienced with GNU/Linux?
  4. Programs and packages - the choice of these can determine how usable people find a distribution, and package management is critical

I didn't mind the installation, but some fresh users probably will. Most things worked out of the box, and nothing seems out of place or ill thought out. Zenwalk is fine for anybody to use so long as they don't want to fiddle with much of the system. However, there are certain areas that inexperienced users will likely get stuck - for example, mounting extra partitions.

Then we have the packages of Zenwalk, simultaneously one of its strengths, and one of its downfalls. The number of applications seems to be perfectly balanced - enough to get anything done, but not enough to get in your way. The problem arises when you disagree with the choices of what should be included, and install something yourself. netpkg (the GUI) is hardly a pleasant tool to use, and doesn't always seem to work. For me, this was the biggest letdown of an otherwise very good distribution. The command line tool, in conjunction with pkgtool, allows you to control the packages on your system, but other distributions seem to fare much better in this respect.

Most of my other complaints were because of the lack of pleasant GUIs to control certain aspects of Zenwalk - the firewall, partitions, and so forth. The question is: where do you draw the line with these GUIs? Clearly, Zenwalk aims to keep itself slimmed down, but I feel that these GUIs are comparatively small (often less than 1MB), and can make certain tasks much less demanding.

On the whole, Zenwalk is a refreshing change from some of the behemoths of distributions that exist at the moment, let down by its package management. If installation can be made a little less intimidating, some parts more user-friendly, and its package management a little more reliable and usable, then Zenwalk could become a truly excellent distribution.

Useful Links

Replies

Feedback is always an excellent thing to have (so long as it is contructive!), and here is the reply from Zenwalk (or, more accurately, one of their testers (according to their site)) themselves:

Nice review, that includes explanations for the criticism. Generally your taste for GUI setups is accepted - I wish you had mentioned more about the Zenwalk specific GUI setups (localeconfig, networkconfig and so on).

Your critique about the "netpkg" package handling is a surprise - generally there are no problems with netpkg, it just works. In my experience the only thing that can loose netpkg is a lost network connection - which is understandable.

The netpkg program is a fairly new development (a 1 year life) for Zenwalk and your desire for more automatic / "no-brainer" usage is also a desire for me, although we haven't found the recipe for it yet (and don't feel that other, more automatic, package managers have found their way either). Until a good solution has been found, user interaction will continue to be required.

Best regards,
Claus

I'll be perfectly honest and say that the reasons I didn't mention the Zenwalk specific setups was because 1) I didn't have to use them that much due to the decent initial setup, and 2) I'm not familiar with the setups of XFCE itself (especially XFCE 4.4). However, having just revisited them, I can say that they are definitely a useful addition, although I would just take a moment to comment on the way they are implemented.

Take, for example, networkconfig. When I clicked the OK button, I expected that to mean I accept any changes I have made, and for the settings to be updated appropriately. Instead, it is the same as double clicking on any of the options, while Exit is an option in the list. To me, this appears to be counter-intiutive. Most utilities have an OK button to close the window and apply any changes, and a Cancel button to exit without any changes.

An example of this in action would be GNOME's networking tool [screenshots of networking and similar utilities]. Obviously, there is no need for a complete replica, but I believe that GNOME's version agrees more with user expectations, as well as being easier to use.

As for netpkg, I got couldn't install some packages - it would get to the same place every time, and then crash with no warning. Using netpkg on the command line to do the exact same operation would work perfectly.

One other point that has been raised is the speed of Zenwalk. Although I didn't really mention it in the article, Zenwalk is among the fastest distributions I've tested, with a slim bootup time. It is fast enough that I can even run it smoothly within QEMU, something which caused Ubuntu to slow right down!

Regardless of my moaning, I believe that Zenwalk is a promising distribution, and it is one of a few that I will be keeping an eye on. If Zenwalk continues the way it has done (and I see no reason why it won't), we might just see it creeping up the Distrowatch rankings.