Distro Review: Foresight Linux 1.4.2

After some delay and threatening over the last couple of weeks I’ve finally gotten around to typing up my review of Foresight Linux, if you don’t believe me you should do because you’re reading it right now hehe 🙂 Foresight is a distro I’ve been interested in for quite some time, I knew it had a lot of cutting edge features but I was a little worried about the stability issues that might cause. Would my concerns prove to be unfounded? Read on to find out…

Vital Stats:

Distro base – rPath Linux (itself based on Red Hat)
Packaging – Conary Package Manager
Linux Kernel – 2.6.23
Default Desktop – Gnome 2.20.1

Background:
The philosophy of Foresight is to deliver the absolute newest versions of all software possible, this often means beta or even alpha releases and so it’s definitely a distro on the edge in my opinion. It tracks Gnome development very closely which interests me particularly, as regular readers will know I love Gnome. It also features the Conary package manager from rPath Linux which has been getting quite a bit of hype lately. I didn’t know much about Conary going into this, certainly not the workings of it anyway, so I was eager to find out more.

Installation:
I downloaded the install DVD for Foresight 1.4.2 and fired it up to be greeted by a variation of the well known Anaconda installer from Red Hat. I know a few people who have problems with Anaconda but it’s always worked flawlessly for me on my systems, it’s usually very efficient and it’s certainly well developed with the might of Red Hat behind it. I was then shown a splash screen of the Foresight logo along with the words “because your desktop should be freaking cool” which made me chuckle a little. A refreshingly non-corporate tag line I thought in these days of nauseating management speak. I went through all the usual steps to install the system, selecting locale, time zone, partitioning and root password. I partitioned my 200gb disk as I normally would using Disk Druid, setting a root partition of 12gb, swap of 3.5gb and the rest as /home. This worked fine and I was able to do it pretty quickly. I was then left twiddling my thumbs while the system installed.

I expected the install to take about 10-20mins, as most distros do but I found this took a lot longer, a hell of a lot longer. I waited half an hour and it was still nowhere near finished, I got to a stage where the screen read “running post installation scripts” which I watched patiently for 15 – 20 mins before deciding the installer must have crashed and aborting. I started the whole process again with the same results but this time I decided to just leave it and see what happened. Eventually after over 1hr 20mins I reached a screen which said “installation complete”, horray I was begining to lose the will to live. I’m not sure why the install was so slow and I tried it a couple more times (yes really) to confirm this wasn’t just a fluke. I can only assume the system was downloading a lot of updated software packages from a particularly slow mirror and that caused the delay. Either way it certainly wasn’t a quick install.

VIEW FULL INSTALLATION SLIDE SHOW

Configuring the system:
I booted up the system to find a pretty standard Gnome desktop, the screen resolution was set at 1280×1024 and I assumed I’d have to install the Nvidia drivers for my graphics card to fix this. I found an Add/Remove Software tool under the System / Administration menu of Gnome so I decided to fire it up and see what I could find. This is a GUI front end to the Conary packaging system and it feels a little like a very cut down version of Synaptic, I hear it’s still in development. I searched for Nvidia but didn’t really find anything of use so it was quickly onto Google to search for help. This led me to a guide on the Foresight Wiki for installing Nvidia/ATi drivers with Conary. I copied the commands pretty blindly into a terminal which is not something I normally like to do but I could see from the commands they were similar to the kind of thing you’d use with Apt-Get under Debian.

Using this guide I added the appropriate repository to Conary and installed the Nvidia binary drivers. I then ran the “nvidia-settings” command as root to fix the screen resolution to 1440×900, I’ve done this in many of my previous reviews so if you’d like full details take a look at my Vector Linux article. I found after restarting the X server that desktop effects were automatically turned on and the GLdesktop applet appeared in my system tray. I had wobbly windows, 3D cube and all the usual stuff working fine.

I then realized that the keyboard layout and input language was set to US English even though I’d selected UK at install and I had to fix this in the admin settings. I also had to set Firefox as the default web browser, the default as standard is Epiphany in Foresight and it’s not a favourite of mine but it wasn’t hard to change.


I then moved on to look at the software installed by default and see what I needed to add. I found all the usual stuff you would expect from a modern Linux distro: Firefox, OpenOffice, Pidgin, GIMP etc etc. I was also pleased to see Brasero installed as the default disc burning tool, I find it the best Gnome tool for this by far. K3B is great under KDE but Brasero rocks on Gnome for me. I then moved on to installing some of my favorite apps with the GUI to Conary again, I found that there was no browse feature and you had to search for everything manually. Not a major problem but it did seem a little strange coming from a Synaptic background. The repos seemed pretty deep and I was impressed by the amount of software on offer but the download servers seemed painfully slow, again shedding some light on the slow distro install I think. Foresight is a small distro without a wealth of server farms and so on, so this can be understood but retrieving packages took a long time. I installed Bluefish, Rhythmbox, VLC, Inkscape and a few other things very easily. It’s just a case of searching for and then selecting the packages you want, very simple… provided what you want is in the repo obviously.

I found that there were a few extra things I still couldn’t find and this is where the rBuilder website came in, it’s an online repo for rPath packages which you can search and install from pretty easily by copying the details into a terminal and using Conary like you would Apt-Get. It wasn’t immediately obvious how to use it but I worked things out by reading some of the documentation, which I must say is very clear and well written. I couldn’t seem to get Skype installed even though I found a package on rBuilder. I kept getting install errors with all the versions I tried and dependancy problems. Not a great experience, I then found installing pretty much anything with Conary became impossible. It seems my local database had become corupted or unwritable. I tried to install Skype using the static builds from the Skype website but these wouldn’t run due to unsatisfied dependancies. I spent a few hours trying different things and wrestlling with it but in the end I gave up and decided not to bother. I’m sure it could be done of course and my level of ineptitude does not necesserily reflect the experence you will have but prepare to be patient.

Multimedia seemed to be very well suported out of the box in Foresight, it uses Gstreamer as the main processing engine and it was happy to play Divx, Xvid and WMV videos for me without any trouble. Along with mp3 and other audio formats, this all worked with Totem, the default player. Banshee is the default music manager included and it’s not a favourite of mine, I found the Last.fm scrobbling was erratic and I just don’t like the general layout of your music so I switched to Rhytmbox and all was well. All the Firefox plugins you could need were also installed out of the box, Flash, Java and my favorite browser video handler Mplayer-plugin. All in all using Foresight as an everyday desktop was pretty simple and not too daunting but there were a lot of stability issues on my system which I will come to next.

The Name’s Conary…
So we come to the Conary package manager, a major feature of Foresight. The idea behind Conary according to the guys at rPath is to marry version control and package management into one. To achieve this Conary uses a relational database to keep track of installed packages on the local system, it then compares that to a remote database to manage updates and so on. It allows you to roll back your installs multiple times and can be very flexible in this regard. This seems like a great idea and it’s very innovative but I found some major stability issues with it. After the initial install I found that updates no longer worked, I kept getting a message on the desktop each time I logged in, you can see it to the right.

I searched around on the net and found this is a pretty common problem with Foresight, I couldn’t see any obvious fix sadly. It seems my local database had become corrupted and I couldn’t work out how to rebuild or repair it. This left me with a locked package manager it seemed, it reminded me a little of my experiences with Yum (shudder). I found when trying to run an update command in the terminal with Conary I got this message:

“Write permission denied on Conary database”

I’m not sure how much this reflects on Conary itself or just this Foresight implementation of it but it seemed a little flaky to me. I also found that the system would just hang when I tried to shut it down and I had to kill the power, far from ideal. Applications would often hang or just close with no warning. It’s fair to say that on my system at least Foresight turned out to be about as stable as Britany Spears on a bad day. It’s a shame and I will be interested to try version 2.0 of the distro when it’s released soon to see how these issues are fixed. Conary has a huge amont of potential and I’d like to see it do well in the future. If you’d like to read more about Conary and a far better explanation that I can offer please check out this article by Bruce Byfield on Linux.com

Conclusions:
Ease Of Installation & Use: 3/5
Stability: 1/5
Community & Documentation: 3/5
Features: 5/5

So after spending a good week or so with Foresight I felt that it was very much on the experimental end of the distro spectrum. It is consciously cutting edge and that’s an aim of the project so don’t be surprised. It succeeds well in delivering the latest software and if you are happy to brave some of the stability problems there’s a lot to be had from this distro. I’ve enjoyed using it but I don’t think I could run this day to day as my main desktop, I’m not afraid of living on the edge but when I need to get something done urgently I need to know my desktop isn’t going to crash and burn on me at an inconvenient moment.

I think Conary has a lot of potential as a package manager but I found it a little confusing to use at first. It can build software from source, manage multiple development branches and merge changes, all at a very granular level. That’s why it’s described as version control mixed with package management. For developers I can see how much of a major benefit this would be but on the average home desktop I’m not sure how relevant it is. I suspect it’s probably aimed at the business user or someone who manages a large number of projects and desktops. I have heard that some of the problems I experienced are to do with the particular implementation of Conary in this version of Foresight. I noticed that Foresight 2.0 is in beta now so it will be interesting to come back and give that a try once it’s out.

One major thing I can say for Foresight is at least it’s doing something different, pushing the boundries a little and that is a major plus in my eyes. While most of us probably dont want spend time debugging things while just trying to use our desktop, we should all be thankful that some people are prepared to do this for our benefit. What you see in Foresight today you will probably see in your own distro of choice tomorrow, that should be remembered. I guess that’s why they called it Foresight duh!! 🙂 If you’re a Gnome fan like me then Foresight is definitely worth a look to get the latest and greatest Gnome version, it also has many other unique features that make it interesting but I wouldn’t advise putting it on a production desktop personally, it’s up to you of course. Check it out and see what you think, you can tell me how wrong I am in comments if you like, I’m always up for an informed discussion 🙂

If you would like to try Foresight Linux you can it here

Up next…
So what’s up next? Well, I’ve just got my Dell XPS m1330 laptop with Ubuntu pre-installed which you may have read about, so I’ll be doing a review of that. I’m typing this on the machine right now actually, I thought people might want to see how Dell have setup Ubuntu and what you get for your money if you’re thinking of buying a new laptop. After that I think I’ll plunge (maybe literally) into Arch Linux which is something people have been asking about for a while. Then… who knows? We’ll see 🙂

Posted in Review
15 comments on “Distro Review: Foresight Linux 1.4.2
  1. Leon says:

    good review, it seems that everything you said you like in foresight is done in arch.

    i dont need to advertise it since you will check it out anyway but still i will 😛

    arch, is a distro not based on others with a package manager that is also unique and build for it (altough now its also used in frugalware and on some other distros)

    it is a rolling distro, meaning that there is no system wide upgrade you are always on the edge BUT it damn stable (at least for me), of course comparing to debian its not, but next to ubuntu
    (especially the last) definatly

    arch is KISS (keep it simple stupid)
    in every aspect of it.

    yes you will have to edit text files at start and yet it does not install anything but the most basic bash shell (its up to you to instal xorg and choose your WM or DE)
    but the files are amazingly well orgainzed very well commented.

    its just need to be seen to be understood.

    anyway arch is not a distro you would want to install without reading its guide, the arch wiki is very well build
    so feel free to use it.

    also with adding the archlinux.fr repository and with installing yaourt arch is unstopable 🙂

  2. Matt says:

    Wow, that’s a GREEN theme… Great review. I’ll have to check into that package manager.

  3. HeavensRevenge says:

    Well if you going to use arch, Ive got 1 URL for you its simple, and its arch’s official wiki start that has 2 guides listed, please take a look before you make another slackware mess:)
    http://wiki.archlinux.org/index.php/Main_Page
    Either The Beginners Guide may be appropriate, or try The Official Install Guide(best) if you feel like you have some experience in general Linux by now. Enjoy Arch 😀

  4. Justin Moss says:

    Great review, Dan. I look forward to the review of the XPS m1330 – that is one beautiful laptop, and (if I had any money to spare) I’d be very interested in getting one if it works well.

  5. Dan says:

    Thanks for the comments guys, I’ve been warned you have to use the install guide to get anywhere with Arch if you haven’t used it before. I’ll be sure to read up on it before starting anything 🙂

    It’ll probably be next week now before I do anything with Arch though as I have to rearrange all my systems and reinstall/rebuild a few things, not that the laptop is my main system I can upgrade my music studio with the old desktop which is the one I’ve been testing these distros on and then build myself a dedicated test machine out of the parts I hope. That’s the plan anyway. It’ll take a few weeks to sort it all out.

    Looking forward to seeing what Arch is like, I’ve heard a lot about Pacman

  6. HeavensRevenge says:

    Oh yea, if you happen to read the install guide, you’ll do fine, just follow/understand why it’s giving you those instructions and you’ll be an arch convert 😉 Arch was my 1st distro actually lol, and since then I use Debian sid and FreeBSD as it has given me the knowledge base for all other Linux based enjoyment.
    No need to really fear the installation as a gruesome task as slack, but there are reasons to following the guide, once you go through it 1ce or twice you won’t need it anymore anyway. Not like the Gentoo install manual….

    And what you’ve herd about pacman has earned its right to fame, its as simple as apt-get and less typing too “pacman -Syu” instead of “apt-get dist-upgrade” which both the commands are similar and recommendable to do often in arch.

    One LAST crucial bit, watch as you upgrade, I haven’t used arch for maybe 1/2 a year now but its what set out the successful archers to the unsuccessful ones. That advise is to watch the upgrade as it happens, and to follow any upgrade instructions that come with the package and are displayed as pacman is updating.

    That is pretty much that, and you’ll do fine,…, Fab on Debian, and you on Arch, a duo to take over the world for sure 😉

  7. Dan says:

    Thanks for the tips, much appreciated 🙂 I’m intrigued to try Arch but it will have to go some to replace Debian in my heart. I’ll be sure to give it a proper chance though I promise 😉

    Yes I badgered Fab into Debian and then promptly left, I’m gonna get back there soon though 😀

  8. mark says:

    this review seems like a perfectly good reason for me to not jump off the pc linux boat

  9. davemc says:

    Great review again Dan. I too have had Foresight on my “to do” list for some time now. You just put that one to bed for me, so thanks!

    Its funny, but having tried the distro jump dance for the last 1+ year myself, I always end up back on Ubuntu. I am really looking forward to seeing what is going to happen with the future of Sabayon Linux, now that Mr. Robbins seems to have possibly joined that team, and conversely, Gentoo, now that they have pushed him away.

  10. Dan says:

    Thanks, I think Sabayon is a distro with a bright future as well. It’ll be interesting to see if they can reach their full potential. There’s quite a small team behind the distro I think, so competing with the might of a Canonical or Red Hat will be tough. They have a good chance though and I wish them well 🙂

    I’ll be watching

  11. James Laver says:

    I’m sorry to hear you had a bad experience with foresight, but I suggest you wait for 2.0 to stabilise, it really is leapyears ahead.

    Small things
    -New installer is lightning fast
    -PackageKit (including the icon in the tray) is rough around the edges. Don’t expect it to work perfectly all the time. Personally I don’t bother using it at all and just drop into the command line
    -You can’t install software with conary as a regular use. Try with ‘sudo’.
    -Crashing on shutdown is a compiz issue
    -Installing software from other rPath repos has a few caveats (eg. don’t pick the ones built for 64 bits if you’re running 32 bits, don’t pull from rpl:2-devel if you’re running foresight 1.x etc. These should probably be made clearer in the wiki

    I really can’t agree with your scoring. Your bad experience does not to justice to what is otherwise a rather brilliant distribution. To say that I’m still using the alpha version at work and having no issues must say something about the stability surely?

    On top of that, I don’t feel you give the community credit. If something isn’t covered in the documentation, pop onto irc, ask a question and I’m sure someone will help you out.

    Regarding arch, well it’s not aimed at the same type of person as foresight. It’s a good distro for the sort of person it suits, but it really isn’t comparable to foresight.

    I’m really not going to go into the bitter rant that sabayon (or indeed drobbins) deserves.

    Anyway, give Foresight another shot when the alpha stabilises.

  12. Anonymous says:

    James Laver said:
    To say that I’m still using the alpha version at work and having no issues must say something about the stability surely?

    Breaking a vital component of the system (the package manager) simply through routine use surely says something about the stability of the system…

  13. Dan says:

    @James Laver – Thank you for you comments and I take your points on board. I can’t agree that Foresight is stable I’m afraid, not this release on my hardware, no way. I tried to make the point that I was only referring to this release on my particular hardware and not the distro as a whole, I said that numerous times, I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear enough for you.

    I also said I would like to see what happens with Foresight 2.0 and I always take each release on it’s own merit. I also avoid comparing distributions directly unless they specifically compete for the same user or market, base such as DSL and Puppy. Therefore I will not be comparing Arch to Foresight, I know they’re different.

    I said a lot of positive things about Foresight and it’s not supposed to be a negative view, it’s supposed to be objective. I won’t overlook what I believe to be flaws in a system but at the same time I won’t blow them out of proportion. I just try to give an honest impression of my time on a distro and that’s all. I’m prepared to hold my hands up to mistakes I make and I think people appreciate that. I did use SUDO with the conary update command and I also made sure no other instances were open, it said the database was locked. Even after a reboot it was still locked. Maybe I did something wrong, as I said that in the article

    “you can tell me how wrong I am in comments if you like, I’m always up for an informed discussion :)”

    I haven’t given any distro a 100% bad or good review because I don’t think any distro is either perfect or pathetic. It wouldn’t be realistic, there’s good and bad points in all. That’s what I try to reflect 🙂

    I will be back to look at 2.0 when it’s released don’t worry.

  14. Lee says:

    FYI – There is one acknowledged bug in the Arch installer. Sometimes, the permissions on the /tmp directory don’t get set properly. If you find that you can’t log into your desktop manager, ‘chmod 1777 /tmp’ should fix the problem.

    Don’t let that scare you off, though. Arch is a wonderful distro that deserves more exposure.

  15. Dan says:

    Thanks for the warning Lee, I’ll take note of that. Haven’t started with Arch yet as most of my PC hardware is still in piles on the floor. I’m waiting for the drive trays to be delivered.

    I am planning to release my review of the new XPS m1330 with Ubuntu though in the next day or so, stay tuned for that 🙂

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