Wednesday, March 10, 2010

aLinux 12.9 Review

A couple of days ago I have read a post by Clint Canada, in which he described a Linux distribution with a history that spans over a decade, yet I have never heard of it. It is called aLinux, but it was previously known as Peanut. Version 12.9 was released on the 22nd of February, after almost three years and a half of development. Read on for a review of this hobbyist distro created by Jay Klepacs.

According to Distrowatch, Peanut Linux version 1.1 was released on the 19th of August, 1999. This makes it almost as old as Mandriva, but it's not even half as popular. The causes behind this state of things will become apparent as we take a deeper look into this Linux distribution. So, let's leave the past behind and see what aLinux 12.9 is made of.

The install process:
aLinux 12.9 comes as a ISO image, with a hitch: it's only 1.1GB. That's too large to fit on a CD, yet it will leave plenty of free space on a DVD. There is a reason for that, which will become apparent when we will take a look at the included applications.
You download the ISO, burn it to a DVD, pop it in the drive and you will be greeted by a typical isolinux menu, and then a pretty good-looking splash screen. You barely get the chance to glance at it, and before you know it you're dropped into a shell and instructed to type setup.
The installer is ncurses-based (text mode), and it will definitely remember you of the old Debian setup program. The first prompt gives you the option to create partitions or to proceed with the installation. As I am more accustomed to using fdisk, at this step I already had the disk layout sorted out, so I went on with the installation. Then, a pretty strange dialogue will pop up. It suggests the ext2 file system for the operating system partition, and it lists a couple of sized for both ext2 and 3. While it isn't clear at first, those values represent the space requirements for the aLinux system. Anyhow, you'll need about 4GB of free space. When you're done with the formatting, you will have to enter the path to the desired root partition. One thing to notice is that aLinux's kernel doesn't use SCSI device emulation, so your hard drives will be accessible through /dev/hdXX devices instead of /dev/sdXX. Just put the corresponding device path in the text box, hit OK and watch as the installer goes to work.
On my system, it took about 5 minutes for the progress bar to fill up. Unpleasant enough, after getting to 100%, the installer just remained in that state for another 10 minutes, with frantic drive activity and even the screensaver kicking in. After all the hard work, you will be prompted that a short pause is coming and you will be required to press enter. Even though you're warned to be patient, this pause is definitely a short one.
The next step will deal with the boot options and the user setup. While LILO is a nice and reliable bootloader, it doesn't support newer filesystems like ext4. Also, the options are presented from the ones that are most safe to any other operating systems that you have installed, to the ones that might leave you with a computer that doesn't boot if you don't have any other operating systems, or if you aren't very skilled with the way Linux systems and computers in general work. Since I installed aLinux as the only operating system on the computer, I placed LILO on the Master Boot Record and I encountered no problems.
Setting up the users is a snap too, even if it's done at the terminal prompt. Note that you aren't required to set up the root user.
Once you have completed the configuration and you've selected EXIT, a nice ASCII art screen will be displayed with instructions on how to boot your freshly installed system.
Overall, this installation process is a little more hands-on than the ones in use by most contemporary Linux distributions. It leaves a lot more room for the (novice) user to go wrong, but it is more friendly than, let's say, Slackware's. Also, an option to select the types of programs that will be installed would be useful. Even so, it's safe to say that the installer is pretty much a blast from the past.

The Desktop:
The first boot gives a mixed bag of feelings. You pass through ye olde LILO to start up the system, and then your greeted by a spiffy-looking splash screen, pictured on the left here. Its layout and the copyright line clearly show a resemblance to the loading screen that is used in some of Microsoft's products. Even so, I find it to be quite good looking, even if there is no aLinux Corporation.
The time required for aLinux to load is average, don't expect any 5-second boot here. However, it does give the impression that a little startup script tuning could make it a little more snappy.
When X starts up, it delivers a custom-themed login manager with a user list on the left and a Windows Vista-like wallpaper with blue accents. The geometric font that lists the users is a nice accent.
Pick your user account, fill in the password and you're on your way to the desktop. While you wait for it to load, you will probably be touched by a feeling of deja-vu, and you won't be mistaken. You're be looking at a themed KDE 3.5 loader. When it finishes its run, you'll be granted an unobstructed view to aLinux's desktop:
One of the first things that will catch your eye are the wallpaper that is a black-themed version of the one used in the login screen and the window decorations. Somewhere on the screen you'll see a bunch of meters and docklets that are provided by GKrellm, and that form something of a sidebar. These elements further strengthen the visual resemblance to Windows Vista, which, I must admit, doesn't exactly comply to my tastes.
Delving on deeper, you'll see that the desktop is powered by KDE 3.5.10, the last version of the 3 series. Coupled with the structure of the applications menu, it reminds me of Knoppix in the older days.
Talking about the applications menu... there's more stuff in there then you can shake a stick at. It would be rather pointless to talk about what programs are installed, it's enough to say that most, if not all the established open source programs are installed and ready to use. Let's talk about the exceptions to that rule instead. One said exception is that you will also find things like Skype, Google Earth or the Win32 codecs bolted on to the system, and you don't see that in the default install of most distros. A notable lack is, so you'll have to rely on KOffice for your document editing tasks.
Media support is great, with both mplayer and XINE as backends. Support for many restricted formats is present, either through enabling that functionality at compile time or through the bundled win32 codecs. Also, the sound worked beautifully after raising the PCM volume, and that the sound system is plain ALSA, at most aided here and there by some of KDE's backends.
Adobe Flash works, along with Java applets, but the IE-styled Firefox is atrocious. There is no direct way of removing that theme, it appears to be hacked right onto the default profile. If you can't swallow it, you can also pick up and use Konqueror as a Firefox alternative.
All this application talk leads to one subject: package management. I must admit, in aLinux the package manager is a strange beast with a friendly face. APT and Synaptic are there and ready to be used, but they won't be managing any DEB packages. Instead, aLinux uses the RPM format. However, don't expect to use these tools for anything else but updates. Basically, aLinux's repositories hold the same software packages that are delivered on the install disk, with the sole exception that some of them might have received updates in the mean time. If a few more developers would gather around and started to package programs, the repo would get a lot more valuable.
Unfortunately, this means that, if you need some other program that isn't included in the default install, you're in for some trouble. You can try to grab a Fedora RPM, but your mileage may vary. I wasn't able to install Gwibber or AbiWord that way because of dependency problems or package name mismatches. However, I could install Opera with a little shoehorning (ticking the checkbox that enables files to be overwritten). Even so, picking up RPM packages and installing them in this manner seems like a bad idea, and it may lead to dependency hell in a very short period of time.
Another route would be to build from sources, since a complete toolchain is installed, along with all the needed devel packages. These take up about 1GB of space, and if you feel that you don't need them, they can be ripped out easily.
Back during the install, I noted that you aren't required to set up the root user's password. Again, aLinux takes a different route compared to most other distros when it comes to the super-user. Sudo isn't set up for the regular users, and all you need to do is type su in a terminal and you'll receive the necessary rights. However, the super-user can be enabled by using one of the distro's tools - aLinux Setup. This same tool can aid you in setting up the network, users, keyboard layout and the X Server.

Even if aLinux isn't the most up to date, easy to use or best looking Linux distribution, I must say that I have developed a special kind of sympathy for it. It is a unique blend of applications that are trimmed to work together, and they do, which only solicits your respect for its maker. But the (slightly) outdated packages and the lack of alternative programs for a certain task are a huge negative. Also, the whole Vista visual style doesn't really fit a 10+ year old Linux distribution, nor does it identify with the target user of aLinux. What would that target user be? I feel that other Linux hobbyists and enthusiasts would want to try this distribution, even if they will do it just to get the feel of an independently developed Linux OS, and not one of the many Debian or Fedora re-spins.


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