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Zenwalk 2.6

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

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.

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). is absent, as you'd expect - as far as 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.

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.


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


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,

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.