After some delay it’s finally time for me to write up my thoughts about SAM Linux 2009, a distro I must confess I hadn’t really heard of until someone asked me to review it. It’s a German distribution based on the very popular PCLinuxOS. So how would I get on with this unknown quantity (to me at least), read on to find out…
I downloaded the standard install CD from the SAM website and got to work straight away. Upon booting it immediately became apparent just how much this is based off PCLinuxOS. You don’t exactly need to be Columbo to work it out, with big clues like a splash screen proclaiming “Powered by PCLinuxOS”. You then choose your keyboard layout. This is all to boot into a live session from the CD, before you begin the install. You eventually reach a GDM login screen which looks oddly similar to the Linux Mint 7 one, I guess they used the same theme. There’s no indication on the screen of what username or password to log in with, so I took a wild guess and put “guest” for both fields. This worked, much to my relief. Some kind of indicator on the screen would be really useful, it seems a bit of a oversight. Eventually you reach the live CD desktop, which is XFCE 4.6.1, an environment I haven’t used a lot in the past, but one that I’ve always enjoyed on my brief stays. In this configuration they’ve put the main toolbar along the bottom of the screen and a Wbar animated dock at the top. There’s no installer icon on the desktop and I was wondering where to begin. There is however a folder marked “toolbox”, looking in there I found an installer and some other applets. You’re prompted to enter the root account details and once again there’s no indication what these might be. Maybe I could have used Columbo after all, his wife’s probably a big fan of SAM Linux. I took a wild stab at “root” for both fields again, and it worked. Maybe I’m smarter than I thought.
The install process begins with the DrakX partitioning tool, a remnant of PCLinuxOS legacy to Mandrake (or Mandriva as it’s now called). There’s a stern warning to back up any vital information before messing with your partitions, sound advice. The tool has some quirks and it works a little differently to other partitioners I’ve used. For instance, it will format each partition as you go, rather than waiting until you’ve entered the details and doing them all at once. You also have to enable “expert mode” to select the file system type and get at the other settings you’d normally expect. I found this a little strange, but nevertheless it worked. The install just began after that and I was surprised there weren’t any more steps. After a few minutes I was asked where I wanted to put the GRUB boot loader and it was time for a reboot. Upon rebooting the system it seemed to hang for ages which was more than a little worrying. I gave it 5mins and then decided to switch to verbose mode so I could see what was going on. My fears were allayed as it was just performing a disk check on the large /home partition, that can take 15mins. It might have been bad luck that this happened to me when it did, the disc check runs every 30 reboots or so, but some indication of what was happening would have been nice. Most distros put a message on the screen when running disk checks. After the reboot I continued to enter details about the new system: root password, user accounts and so on. These 2 stage installs always seem odd to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve became so used to the Debian-style installers that take all the details up front and then just do the full installation. Many systems choose to install the core first, reboot and then ask you to configure. Anaconda (the Red Hat installer) springs to mind. It’s not a problem, it just wouldn’t be my preference. I also noticed after logging into my new system I hadn’t been asked what network hostname to set. It was just set to SAMtest. I usually name my machines after Red Dwarf characters (cliche I know), but I decided not to bother trying to change it now the install was done. Maybe I just missed the option somewhere, but I really didn’t see any prompt to choose a hostname. This could be a problem if you were deploying a large number of SAM Linux machines, you wouldn’t want them all to have the same name on the network. I also hadn’t been asked for the date and time during install, the clock was 2 hours out. I discovered it was set to Berlin time, and I presume this is the home of the developers.
The install was a pretty quick and on the whole painless affair, even if it did miss some vital information and misconfigure a few things. I had a working desktop which I could begin settling into and personalising.
One of the first things I wanted to do was install the closed source drivers for my Nvidia graphics card (sorry RMS), and I discovered the Synaptic package management GUI in the menu. I know Synaptic well from Debian of course, and I’ve seen it used to manage RPM packages before on PCLinuxOS. It’s no surprise to find it here. After a quick search for “nvidia”, I was given a few options. I chose the most recent one I could see and installed it. After logging out and restarting the X server I was pleased to see an Nvidia splash screen, it was all working. I was able to switch on the compositing effects in XFCE, they aren’t as fancy as Compiz Fusion but they do the job. I tweaked a few things in the XFCE 4 Settings Manager, which is helpfully located in the root menu. Setting up wireless was easy, just a matter of entering my encryption details into the wizard. It looks very much like the one I remember from Mandriva, again betraying those French roots a little.
The default selection of software isn’t bad but didn’t quite suit my particular tastes, these things are personal. No OpenOffice, presumably left out to save space. Abiword is used instead, an application I like and have a lot of time for but it seems to be the only GUI text editor installed. Every time you open a simple “.txt” file it fires up Abiword, that seemed a bit over the top. Gedit is great for that. Firefox 3.5 is installed by default, a good choice I’d say. Things like gPodder are also present and very welcome, but I’m not a fan of Transmission for managing torrents. Most distros use it these days but it seriously pales in comparison to Deluge. Xmms is used for most media playback and VLC isn’t even installed by default, I rectified that. No Rhythmbox, Amarok, Banshee or other serious music player/manager is installed either. I was able to find and install most of what I needed through Synaptic though. There were a few notable exceptions I couldn’t find: Gwibber or Choqok for microblogging, neither were available. Tasque (the Gnome task management tool) was also missing in action. I probably could have built them from source but decided to move on. There were a few nice surprises in the repos such as Skype, so they are fairly deep and I suspect it’s just the PCLinuxOS repositories underneath the hood. Flash and multimedia codecs appear to be installed by default, which is handy. After an hour or two I had things largely configured as I normally would, and I was able to accomplish most tasks I needed to.
A Few Quirks:
While the experience had been mostly good thus far, a couple of minor gripes surfaced over the next week with SAM. It fails to suspend and resume which is annoying. It goes to sleep ok but the display doesn’t wake up again, that’s a bit of problem for me. Many people tell me they don’t use suspend and resume, but I do. I also found that when out and about with the laptop I couldn’t connect to open wireless networks in a cafe. I tried everything I could think of, but the machine just refused to get an IP address. My first thought was that this must be a problem with the access point, perhaps using up their whole DHCP pool. I went to two other places though and couldn’t connect there either. Perhaps my network card is on the fritz but it seems odd that it works perfectly at home and on other encrypted networks. It seems to be only open networks it won’t connect to. I couldn’t seem to browse network shares on any of my other machines in the house and this feature is missing from Thunar. It may be my lack of knowledge but grabbing files off my network drive proved to be a challenge and in my impatience I reached for a USB stick instead. Updating the system proved problematic too. There isn’t any automatic update mechanism that I can see, and when I tried to mark all the upgradable packages in Synaptic I got errors. It would list a load of packages that needed upgrading fine but when I tried to commit the changes, bang! Just an error message and I had to force Synaptic to close. That’s a bit of a shame. I think automatic updates are important to a lot of users, for security and bug fixes if nothing else.
In contrast to my gripes I would also like to highlight one area of SAM I really enjoyed. I needed to print something out and I have a printer attached to another machine on the network. The fact that I couldn’t find a way to browse the network shares on my other machines didn’t fill me with confidence when adding the printer. I was wrong though, it was easy as pie. The wizard for this is really nice and I found the PCLinuxOS Control Center in general very simple and effective. I chose to add a printer and told it to look on the network, it then came back saying “I’ve found this HP printer on another machine, this driver would work well with it. Should I add it?”. A couple of clicks and it was done. I was printing happily. This may all be inherited from PCLinuxOS I don’t know, but setting up a printer was much easier here than I’ve found it in Ubuntu and quite a few other big name distros. They could take note of some of the helpful wizards in the Control Center.
Ease Of Installation & Setup: 3/5
Stability & Speed: 4/5
Community & Online Support: 2/5
Overall I got on ok with SAM but I never quite felt comfortable or confident in it. There are definitely some rough edges that need smoothing. I get the impression that it’s developed by a very small group of people. Perhaps only one or two even. I may be wrong but that’s how it feels looking at information on the site. So I don’t want to sound too negative about the distro and I’m not bashing it. I’m prepared to cut them some slack as I’m sure bigger distros have a lot more resources, other people may not be so forgiving though. Distributions like Crunchbang have shown us what heights you can reach with limited resources. I hope the SAM team get some of the bugs ironed out, and I’m sure they will in time. There’s only a small amount of documentation on the SAM site. You can use the PCLinuxOS docs of course and that’s great, but I’d like to see SAM build a better support network if it wants to be a serious contender. It feels a bit too much like someones weekend project at the moment. I don’t like saying that and I hope they prove me wrong. I know it takes a lot of work to put together a distro and there are some good points to this. I’m not quite sure who it’s aimed at though and it’s not something I would recommend to new users. If you’re an XFCE fan with a bit of experience you might enjoy it more, particularly if you also like PCLinuxOS. It could the perfect fit for someone, sadly that’s not me. I haven’t had a bad time on SAM in the last couple of weeks and I’ve been able to get my work done. It has potential, but also a way to go.
Try out SAM for yourself and tell me how wrong I am if you like. You might find that it’s prefect for you. I certainly hope this is the case and I wish the developers all the best for the future.
I’m going to be pretty busy traveling in the next 10 days so I don’t think I’ll be distro hopping on the road. I’ve installed Linux Mint 7 last night because I like it and I need something I know. I shall be back to distro hopping in earnest in a week or two though don’t worry. Feel free to give me suggestions and in the meantime you can keep up with my audio diary from LinuxCon 2009 right here at danlynch.org/blog
Thanks for reading