Sunday 24th September 2006
Zenwalk is a relatively uncommon distribution, with Ubuntu and Fedora appearing far more often in the news. However, its popularity seems to have steadily risen, accompanied by an extremely short distance between releases. While this means that new releases tend to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, it helps them to constantly move forward. So, just how far has Zenwalk moved in the time between Zenwalk 2.6 and Zenwalk 3.0?
Last time, I found Zenwalk to be lightweight and well designed, but suffering particularly when it came to package management. Let's see how this new version fares.
The installation is pretty much unchanged from the last time. I did notice a few problems, beyond that of being not particularly user friendly (how does the beginner know what the framebuffer is!) and having to do the partitioning separately from choosing what partitions to use as what (my advice: use GParted before you start). Firstly, there is a section to select which swap partitions you want to use. I only wanted to use one, but deselecting it didn't make the slightest bit of difference - Zenwalk still mounted both. Another minor complaint is that CUPS is not enabled by default, which can make setting up printers more difficult if you're not too familiar with GNU/Linux. If you do want to use a printer, be sure to enable CUPS during the installation.
Overall, the installation is solid, and relatively quick, but there's plenty of room for improvement - simplifying and streamlining the installation, while adding a nice partitioner, would make the experience more pleasant.
Zenwalk is one of the few distributions to currently use LILO, although it performs its jobs without a problem. While not necessarily a bad thing, using LILO over GRUB means that I, and probably quite a few other users, are less familiar with the bootloader. I wouldn't have minded, but Debian was not added to the boot list, meaning that I can't access one of my partitions. Heigh ho!
Zenwalk remains among the fastest distributions I've tried, and certainly the fastest to be reviewed. Not only does it boot up quickly, but the desktop always feels responsive and nippy - this is on an old Athlon 1.2GHz with 384MB of RAM. Besides the various optimisations, one of the main factors in Zenwalk's speed is the use of XFCE 4.3.99 - that is, the release candidate for XFCE 4.4.
The applications are virtually unchanged from before - you get one application for each task to cut down on the bloat. Here's a short list:
- Firefox - web browser
- Thunderbird - e-mail client
- GAIM - instant messenger
- gxine - media player
- Bluefish - advanced editor
- The GIMP - graphics editor
- Evince - document viewer
- Abiword - word processor
- Gnumeric - spreadsheet program
- gFTP - FTP program
- Mousepad - text editor
- vim - text editor
This spread should cover most people's needs, and the choices should mean that many users are already comfortable with most of the applications.
Thunar, which is Zenwalk's file manager, behaves eerily similarly to Nautilus. It is quicker, but lacks some useful features, such as the ability to browse the network over smb. Instead, you get LinNeighborhood. While this tool works - indeed, it is my preferred method of accessing network shares - I doubt that it will be as useful to those who don't even know what mounting is. For instance, in GNOME, if a user wishes to browse the network, you simply go to Places / Network Servers, and you'll get a nice list of computers on the network. Simple, and familiar to those from Windows. In Zenwalk, on the other hand, you must figure out that LinNeighborhood is the program you want, and then work out how to get it working (answer: go to the options and set the workgroup), and then work out what it actually does. LinNeighborhood is an excellent program, but I'm not sure that its suitable for all.
Fortunately, there is an alternative in the form of FuseSMBtool. All it does is mount the entire network under a certain directory, and you can then browse any computer from there. Apparently, it only actually mounts the shares themselves when requested - if this weren't true, then mounting large, or even moderate, networks could be difficult and time consuming. There are a couple of minor problems, however. Firstly, the configuration. When starting FuseSMBtool, you get complaints about missing configuration files, although this does not affect functionality. Also, the default directory for browsing the shares does not exist, so you have to create it yourself.
A slightly larger problem is that you're logged on as the same user for every share. Sometimes, you need to be different users for different computers, and this particular GUI does not facilitate that. In order to change user, you would have to disconnect as the current user first, making life a little more difficult than it needs to be.
Of course, yet another problem is that the user has to work out that FuseSMBtool is what they want in order to access their network. My suggestion is this: add an entry to the menu called Network Shares, or similar, which opens Thunar at /mnt/Network Shares, or similar, with the appropriate rights. This entry could then check whether FuseSMBtool had connected or not, and if it is not, it can connect automatically or prompt the user to connect. I'll admit that I'm not sure how to do this, but I'm sure its not beyond the capability of a script.
To its great credit, Zenwalk, through gxine, managed to play every video file I threw at it - this included: WMV8, WMV9, .MOVs, Matroska and DivX. In fact, Zenwalk should be able to play any format under the sun thanks to inclusion of both the ffmpeg and win32 codecs. The only minor criticism that I had was that, regardless of the file extension (.wmv, .mov, .mkv or .avi), Zenwalk asked me to pick an application to open that file with the first time around - it would be of being nice if Zenwalk could set the file associations for videos without any user interaction. It's easy enough to do so long as you know what the media player is, but there's nothing wrong with a bit of polish.
My USB stick is automatically mounted, and accessed through the desktop icon called Mountpoints (perhaps Removable Media would be a more intuitive name?). The downside is that the right click menu has no option to unmount or eject the drive, which tend to prove useful. Instead, you get a Sync option, which, although reducing the risk of data loss, I feel it is inferior to actually ejecting the drive, thereby ensuring no data loss.
CDs are also automounted, and can be ejected from the relevant right hand menu from within Mountpoints.
Zenwalk uses gnome-cups-manager to deal with printers, making adding and managing them generally quite easy, not to mention the fact that it automatically added a network printer.