Thursday, September 24, 2009

Zenwalk - Gnome Edition

  I am a fan of lightweight Linux distributions, mostly because my motley crew of computers mostly consists of older, usually outdated machines that just aren't up to the task of running full blown (and bloated distros) like Ubuntu or Fedora.  It seems like lots of folks rave about Zenwalk, and having never played with it, I thought I might give it a try and see what the fuss was all about. 

  Zenwalk is a lightweight, primarily Xfce based distro with a focus on keeping it simple by providing just one mainstream application for each task.  I was sure that the standard Xfce based edition was fast and powerful, so I decided to look at something a little different, the GNOME based edition of Zenwalk.  In my experience, GNOME based distros tend to tax the resources of my older, slower hardware, and I wanted to see how well Zenwalk would run under GNOME on my machine.

  Here is my review of Zenwalk GNU/Linux - Gnome Edition. The test machine I used is the same computer as I used for the SAM Linux 2009 review, a AMD Athlon 2400+ with 512MB and a 4X AGP 128MB ATI Radeon 9200.  Please note that for the purpose of this review, when I mention Zenwalk, I am speaking of Zenwalk Gnome Edition.

Booting and Installation

  The CD boots directly to a simple menu with options that include preparing a partition for the install, installing Zenwalk automatically, or doing a manual install.  I had a partition already prepared for the installation, but I did want to control where Zenwalk got installed, so I chose the manual installation.

  After selecting the swap partition and the partitions to be used for "/" and any other folders (/home, etc.) and choosing continue, the installation from the CD begins.  One of the unique things I liked about the install was that as each package was installed, a brief synopsis of what the package does is displayed.

  After the installation completed, I was given an opportunity to install a bootloader (LILO).  Since I already had GRUB installed to boot Wolvix, I opted to skip the installation of LILO. After rebooting the computer into Wolvix and editing GRUB to include an entry for Zenwalk, I rebooted again and booted Zenwalk.

  My first boot into Zenwalk presented me with several license agreements (the GNU Public License among them) that I agreed to, then followed up with a series of screens where I set the root password and created a user.  

  At this point I experienced the first real problem during the install, videoconfig failed to properly configure X for my graphics card.  As a result, I was unable to start X and had to reboot the computer into Wolvix again, where I simply mounted the Zenwalk partition and copied the xorg.conf file from the Wolvix partition to Zenwalk.  Rebooted again into Zenwalk, X stared with no problem, and I was presented the GDM login.  The install ended up using just over 2GB of disk space.  Not bad at all for a GNOME based distro.

Overall Look and Layout

  True to it's philsophy, Zenwalk presented me with a nice basic desktop after loggin in from GDM.  At first glance I thought maybe I had accidentally installed the standard Xfce edition.  I was expecting a menubar similar to what one usually sees in a GNOME environment, with a drop-down menu in the upper left corner much like Ubuntu, but what loaded was a desktop that looked very much like what one would expect when using Xfce.  The menubar is centered at the bottom, with icons for common applications. 

  Clicking on the Zenwalk logo opened the familiar GNOME menu, with the options arranged pretty much in the order one would expect from GNOME.  The list of installed applications is pretty basic, with one mainstream application provided for each task.

  Being a fan of lightweight distributions, I really liked the streamlined look of the desktop, and had no problems locating any applications in the well thought out menu structure.  The Zenwalk Gnome Edition implements the GNOME 2.26.0 desktop, with new features like a tabbed interface in Nautilus.

Installed Applications

  Applications are provided for just about anything a standard computer user would need, with an emphasis on keeping it simple.  Iceweasel, LeafPad, Icedove, GIMP, Pidgin, Exaile, Brasero, Totem, and Open Office are all included.  There is a HUGE repository of packages available, and I have trouble imagining that there would be any difficulty in locating a specific application that isn't installed.

  Iceweasel opened and displayed YouTube videos with no problems, and other Flash based sites like and opened and ran with no difficulties. 

  I was surprised that GParted wasn't on the list of installed applications, and I prefer GnomeBaker to Brasero for CD burning, but the netpkg package manager is easy and straightforward to use and any application one might want or need can be easily installed.


  Zenwalk boots extremely fast, less than a minute and a half on my test system.  I was actually pretty surprised by this, considering that GNOME is being used as the windows manager.  Individual applications load fast even on my archaic hardware with limited RAM, even large programs like GIMP.

  I did run into some minor issues getting the NFS shares from my server mounted.  Portmapper wasn't enabled by default, and I had to enable the Portmapper Daemon in the Control Panel - Startup Services and reboot to be able to successfully mount the NFS shares from the command line. 

  I tried to add the NFS shares to /etc/fstab so the shares would mount at boot, and discovered that the default Network Manager (WiCD) was GUI based.  This prevented my shares from being mounted at boot because the newwork was still down when /etc/fstab was parsed.  Again, pretty easy fix; I disabled WiCD in the Startup Services, and edited /etc/rc.d/rc.inet1.conf to use DHCP.  This allowed the network to be up and a local IP to be assigned BEFORE /etc/fstab was parsed at boot.

  The only other real issue I experienced was related to the version of Pidgin installed by default.  Versions previous to 2.5.7 (Zenwalk has Pidgin 2.5.5 installed) won't connect to Yahoo's IM server due to a change in the protocol used by Yahoo.  I found an easy work-around that allowed me to connect to Yahoo IM by providing Pidgin with an alternative server, so there again, a pretty easy fix.

Straightforward, basic installation process.
Small footprint: Entire installation occupies just over 2GB.
Elegant and simple desktop enviroment without a lot of clutter and redundant applications.
Nice library of installed applications.
Easy to use package manager with a large repository of available packages.
Runs well even on older less capable hardware like my test system.

No option to install GRUB rather than LILO during install:  If you have another distro already installed using GRUB as the bootloader, you are forced to manually edit GRUB to add Zenwalk to the boot menu.  Might be an issue for someone less familiar with installing a second distro on their system.
X did not get properly configured on my test system:  Perhaps due to my older graphics card, but considering that Zenwalk is intended as a lightweight system suitable for older hardware, I would have expected it to recognize the hardware and get properly configured.


  I spent a good two days or so playing with Zenwalk Gnome Edition on my system now, and overall I am pretty satisfied.  The problems I had during install and initial setup were relatively minor, and I managed to resolve them without much fuss.  The system is fast even on my older hardware, and runs smoothly even with only 512MB of RAM.

  I'm not sure that someone less familiar with Linux could have overcome the problems I had as easily as I did, and I think there is a risk that someone totally new to Linux could overwrite their Windows partition during the install process if they didn't know what they were doing.

  Overall, a really nice distro that easily meets the needs of a basic computer user, and is easily expanded to include any additional tools or applications a more experienced user might need or want.

I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Clonezilla Live - A Live CD Based Open Source Disk/Partition Cloning Tool

   Clonezilla Live is an Open Source tool that  provides an easy and direct method for copying (cloning) the entire contents of one hard drive or partition to another.  Whether you need to backup a partition containing important data (for example, your /home partition, or perhaps a valuable SQL database), or copy an entire hard drive to another, Clonezilla Live makes it a snap.  Clonezilla will copy GNU/Linux,  MS Windows and Intel-based Mac OS partitions.

  My working day-to-day Wolvix install occupies about 4.5GB of the 7GB on the hard drive in my system, with another 1.5GB partitioned as swap, which only leaves me about 1GB of available space.  That seemed like plenty of space left until I had occaision to download an 700MB ISO image.  That left me with only 300MB free on the hard drive.  Time to find a bigger drive.

  I scrounged a 16GB drive out of one of the old systems in my computer boneyard (I knew I was saving all that junk for something!) and installed it as a second drive in the system.  At this point I realized I had a problem; how to get my working Wolvix installation onto the bigger drive without completely re-installing everything?  The answer?  Clonezilla Live!

  After downloading the just over 100MB ISO and verifying the MD5 checksum,  I burned the ISO to a 200MB mini CD (I love those things!).  I booted the LiveCD, stepped through the simple menus, and within 15 minutes had completely cloned my Wolvix install on the new drive.

  A quick edit to GRUB's menu.lst file to point to the install on the new drive, and an edit to /etc/fstab to move the filesystem root and swap to the new drive, and my existing install was now up and running on the new hard drive.

  After some testing to make sure everything was working properly,  I deleted the Wolvix and swap partitions completely from the old 7GB drive.   The entire operation took less than an hour.

  Clonezilla made the operation simple and easy.  I'm not sure that someone new to Linux would want to attempt something similar without some assistance from someone more knowlegeable, but it really was pretty simple and anyone with a basic understanding of GRUB, disk partitioning, and mounting could accomplish it without any problems.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

SAM Linux 2009

  My first experience with SAM Linux was in 2007, with SAM Linux 2007.  I downloaded and burned a LiveCD (SAM Linux is primarily a LiveCD distro), and spent about 15 hours or so playing around with it.  I was fairly impressed at the time, both with the pre-installed applications and the general usability of the distro.  I even wrote a review of SAM Linux 2007, which I posted to the Ubuntu Forums. 

  While perusing DistroWatch the other day, I discovered that SAM Linux 2009 was recently released.  I remembered having been fairly impressed with SAM Linux 2007, so I thought I might download the latest release and see what was new. 

Overall Look and Layout
  The Live CD boots to a nice GDM based login screen, with both a guest and root user already setup.  After logging in, the desktop (SAM Linux is Xfce based) is clean and uncluttered.  Only a few basic icons appear on the desktop, and the bottom panel has launchers linked to a terminal, a text editor, Thunar (the Xfce file manager), and Firefox.  I was surprised to see a PCLinuxOS wallpaper used by default;  I expected some sort of green swirly SAM Linux based wallpaper by default.

  One of the things I found irritating about SAM two years ago was the organization of the menus, and I was disappointed to discover that the menus STILL seem poorly organized.  I still felt that finding the applications I wanted to run was still kind of hit-or-miss.   

  wbar is still installed, but unlike 2007, wbar is not enabled by default; but it is easily started from the menu (once you find it!).  I found it a bit odd that there were a number of applications in the default wbar setup that weren't even installed, like GoogleEarth, Skype, OpenOffice, Picasa, etc.  A user new to Linux might be a bit confused by icons that don't launch anything when you click them.

  Compiz is also included on the Live CD, and ran perfectly on my test machine, a AMD Athlon 2400+ with 512MB and a 4X AGP 128MB ATI Radeon 9200.  After enabling the 3D graphics and restarting X, Compiz ran faultlessly, and amazingly fast, considering the hardware limitations of the test machine.

Installed Applications
  The number of installed applications included with SAM Linux 2009 seems pared *way* back from all the applications included in SAM Linux 2007.  Perhaps that is a good thing; its easy to overwhelm a user with too many choices.  I don't have a nice complete list to provide like I did with 2007; there doesn't seem to be an available list of installed applications like there was when I wrote the previous review.

  All the applications a user would need are included, but a few applications I personally use regularly were not, for example htop and GnomeBaker.  However, Synaptic (the package manager used in SAM) makes installing most any application you might want pretty painless. 

  Support for NFS (Linux files shares) isn't installed by default, and I struggled for ten or fifteen minutes before I figured out that I needed to use the PCLinuxOS Control Center to install support for NFS.  After that, mounting my NFS shares was a snap.  Support for SMB shares IS installed, but after spending a good half an hour trying to get my Samba shares to mount properly I gave up.

Running the Live CD
  The Live CD booted extremely quickly;  about three minutes from recognition of the boot CD to GDM login prompt.  All of the hardware was properly recognized, including an ancient Bt878 based TV Tuner card.  SAM automatically made use of the Linux swap file on the hard drive in the test system as well.

  There is some lag before applications open after they are chosen because it's a LiveCD, but it isn't too bad and certainly doesn't make the system unusable.  Firefox 3.5 and Opera are included as installed applications, and support for Flash is already installed.  YouTube videos play smoothly without any jerking or pausing, even on the somewhat outdated hardware of the test machine.

Installation to the hard drive
  SAM Linux 2009 is intended to be used as a LiveCD, and doesn't really seem to translate well to a HDD based installation.  Tools are provided for a "poorman's installation", which basically consists of copying the live CD to either a USB
thumb drive or a HDD.  

  The install is supposed to set up GRUB as well, allowing the distro to be booted directly from the device it was installed on without the need for the CD.  My attempts to install the distro to a HDD failed miserably.  I was unable to get GRUB completely installed;  The install froze partway thru the GRUB install, at the point where it was "Probing devices".  I made at least five attempts to install to the HDD, with the install freezing at the same point each time.

  The "poorman's install" DID successfully copy the LiveCD, but it copies the files necessary to build the filesystem, and not the filesystem itself, making reading any of the files you might add to the filesystem at a later date impossible to read from another Linux install.  I may be wrong about all the nitty-gritty details of the HD install, considering I was not able to successfully complete an installation to the hard drive. Overall, I was not at all impressed with the ease of installation to the HDD.


  I like PCLOS's GUI approach to configuration, although sometimes all the layered configuration menus and eye-candy can be a little irritating when all you want to do is something simple.

  The large number of installed packages is well rounded, with something there to satisfy most any users need.

  The live CD boots amazingly fast, while still providing an easily recognizable desktop environment (Xfce) that even someone unfamiliar with Linux would easily be able to use.  

  Simple package management via Synaptic, with the entire PCLinuxOS repository available.

  Easy GUI based approach to system management and configuration.

Compiz is already installed and preconfigured, with lots of nifty desktop effects.
Runs well on older, slower hardware. The live CD ran quite well on my test system, a 2GHz AMD Athlon with 512MB of RAM.

  I struggled with the hard disk installation. I would think that a lot of people would be installing SAM Linux in a dual-boot configuration, and would certainly struggle if they experienced difficulties similar to mine with GRUB, especially if they were unfamiliar with manually editing GRUB's menu.lst file. Perhaps installing it onto an empty hard drive would have gone more smoothly.

  Because SAM Linux is based on PCLOS and utilizes PCLOS's GUI approach to system management and configuration, more experienced Linux users might be a bit put off.  I struggled for a good 15 minutes trying to figure out why my NFS shares wouldn't mount before I realized that I needed to either use the GUI network shares configuration GUI or install nfs-utils-clients.

  SAM Linux's user base is pretty small. When I reviewed SAM Linux 2007 two years ago, there were roughly 1300 registered members on the SAM Linux forum.  A quick check today only showed 275 registered members on the forum.  That's not a lot of people to help provide answers if you are trying to find a quick answer to an installation or technical issue. 

  If you are looking for a quick, stable, easily portable LiveCD based Linux to carry around for basic websurfing and email applications, SAM Linus 2009 is a fine solution.  

  If you want something you might eventually consider installing permanently to the hard drive to use on a day-to-day basis, SAM isn't the right distro for you.

  I had serious problems with the HDD install that I was unable to overcome.

I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

For more information about SAM Linux 2009, or to download the ISO, visit the official SAM Linux website at


Sunday, September 13, 2009

TrueType fonts on a network share

My daughter complained yesterday about not having access to all the fonts she has installed on her computer available to her when she is using GIMP on a different computer on the network.

That got me to thinking, and after a little investigation, I discovered that GIMP can be set up to load the fonts from a specific location.
I copied all of the fonts from her computer to a network share on my server, and voilĂ !   All of her fonts are now available to her (or anyone else in the network who uses GIMP) on any computer on the network!

Here's how to change the path to the fonts when loading GIMP:

Open GIMP (Duh!)
From the menu, choose Edit-->Preferences
In the Preferences dialog, expand the Folders option in the left pane, and choose Fonts.  (Screenshot 1, circled in green)

Click the new folder button (Screenshot 2, circled in red), then click the browse button (Screenshot 2, circled in blue)

Navigate to the network share that contains your shared fonts, and click Ok! (Screenshot 3)

It's that easy!  
Please note that my screenshots are of Xfce Dialogs, but the dialog boxes will be almost the same regardless of the windows manager you are using.