Distro Review: Vector Linux 5.9
Another fresh distro for me this time in the shape of the Canadian offering Vector Linux. It’s another lightweight Slackware based distro and often gets compared to Zenwalk and Wolvix. With Zenwalk fresh in my mind and Wolvix fresh on my hit list I spent a few days with Vector. Here’s how I got on…
Distro base – Slackware
Packaging – tar.gz (managed by Slapt-Get)
Linux Kernel – 188.8.131.52
Default Desktop – XFCE 4.4.2
At first I downloaded Vector 5.8 as it was the latest version according to the distribution website, I ran it for a day or so and got quite far into setting it up. Then I looked on Distrowatch and realized that 5.9 had already been released on 21st December, so it was back to the drawing board. I find it strange that Distrowatch could be more up to date than the actual distributions own website but there we go. I suppose the moral is always look on Distrowatch first.
At the second attempt I booted up the install CD to be greeted by the text based installer. It was obviously a modified version of the Slackware installer which I’ve come to know pretty well of late. I did notice a few differences, notably the funny messages in the dialog boxes which I quite enjoyed: “what’s this about then?”, “don’t worry if you don’t understand this just use the default” and so on. Not a technical thing I know and not a reason in itself to use a distro but I found the friendly tone quite appealing 🙂 Anyway, onto more serious matters. I proceeded through the screens choosing mount points for my partitions, selecting keyboard language, choosing packages and so on, which took a few minutes. The install itself took 15mins including the reformatting of my 200gb drive which is pretty respectable if not the fastest I’ve done.
After installation I was prompted that the system had detected my Nvidia graphics card and asked if I wanted to use the proprietary Nvidia driver or the generic open source one. I chose the Nvidia option and went through the installer with ease, I had to choose 1280×1024 as my screen resolution though because the 1440×900 option I require was not listed. I decided to fix this later. I was then taken to the ALSA sound server configurator which setup my sound card, you have to run this manually after install in Slackware and it’s nice to have it run automatically. I setup networking a few other things before reaching the graphical login screen. All was well it seemed and the install was pretty painless. It was pretty much the same experience as Zenwalk but I had a lot less trouble with setting up the display.
Configuring The System:
After logging into the system for the first time I was greeted by a nice looking XFCE desktop. It seems the developers have modified the XFCE layout to look a bit more like KDE and it’s very effective. My first task was to fix the screen resolution to suit my monitor, I knew I could do this with the NVidia settings tool which is usually installed with the driver. The only problem with this method is that you have to run the tool as the root user to get write access to your xorg.conf file. What I normally do is open a terminal and use the “su” command to switch to the root user and then type “nvidia-settings”, this launches the GUI. You simply change the resolution setting in the select box under “Display Settings”, it has 1440×900 as one of the options, so I selected that and the screen switched to the correct res immediately, I accepted and then clicked the “save to xorg.conf file” button. That’s the bit that fails if you’re not running this tool as root. Once that’s saved you can close the tool and forget about it, the correct resolution will automatically come up whenever you log into the system from now on. Job’s a good’un 🙂
I had a quick look through the applications menu and noticed that there were a few things missing that I would normally use such as OpenOffice, Amarok and most notably The GIMP image editor which I use a lot. I fired up Gslapt from the settings menu and found it pretty intuitive. Vector uses Slapt-Get to manage software packages and as you might suspect it’s an implementation of the Debian Apt-Get package manager under Slackware. Gslapt is just the front end and if you’ve ever used Synaptic you’ll feel right at home. I searched for GIMP and marked it for installation, I also searched for Amarok and discovered that there were dependancies missing. That’s frustrating as you never get that with Apt, well I don’t anyway. I had a look at the sources to see what was enabled and noticed that neither “testing” or “packages” were enabled from the default server for some reason. I enabled them and to my relief it fixed Amarok’s dependency problems. The software installed fine so I copied some music and video over from my external backup drive to test. The Thunar file manager is used in XFCE and as I’ve said in the past I like it, I’m still a big fan of Nautilus under Gnome but Thunar is a close second for me. I was able to play all my media in both Amarok and Mplayer so all the restricted codecs must have been included by the developers. A nice touch I think.
Moving on I clicked the web browser icon on the toolbar and was offered a choice of browser to make my default. “Firefox”, “Mozilla”, “Opera” and so on. I chose Firefox as always. I browsed to some pages with Flash content and found the Adobe Flash plugin was present and correct, I even tried loading some video files which played fine in the browser through Mplayer-plugin, something I often install myself anyway. All was well and I don’t think anyone would have trouble settling in.
Extra Software Packages & Compiz:
As I’ve said the default compliment of software that comes with Vector is pretty good and adding things with Gslapt got me almost everything I needed but not quite. I still wanted Skype, Gpodder and Compiz Fusion 3D effects. So it was onto the Internet in search of answers. I headed to www.linuxpackages.net which I’ve used before to find Slackware packages. It’s usually pretty good and the packages work most of the time although occasionally they have more dependencies than Keith Richards. I found the Skype 184.108.40.206 Beta packaged for Slackware 12 and downloaded it. It’s was a Tar archive and I had to install it from the command line. On Slackware systems you can use tools like installpkg, removepkg and so on to manage these packages you download. I opened up a terminal and did the following:
“su” – to switch to root user, enter password
“cd /home/dan/Desktop” – I needed to switch directory as the file was on my desktop
“installpkg skype-220.127.116.11-i686-1gds.tgz” – This performs the install
After that I was able to find Skype under Network on my applications menu and to my relief it worked. The next challenge was Gpodder which is the tool I like to use for managing my podcasts. I couldn’t find a package for this after searching the net so I decided to build it myself. A quick visit to the website and I had the code in a Tar archive. I checked the dependencies listed on the site and tried to locate them with Gslapt, this didn’t really get me anywhere as it couldn’t find any of them. In the end I just decided to try and build the software anyway, the pragmatic approach I suppose. I unpacked the archive, opened a terminal, switched to root and navigated to the directory I’d extracted. I then ran the following command: “python setup.py install”. This command is pretty simple but let me explain it a little, experienced users may want to skip the next paragraph 😉
So, there is a file called setup.py in the directory where I extracting the contents of the archive file I downloaded earlier. This is just a Python script as we can tell by the “.py” extension. To run this code we need to use the Python interpreter to convert it from human readable code into something the computer can understand. This is why I used the command “python” and specified the file as an argument. The last bit, “install” is just a command I’m passing to the python script that tells it to build and install the software. If you were to just put “python setup.py” it would print out a list of possible commands as it needs to be told what to do.
The script ran fine and installed the software into my system folders. I could then see a Gpodder icon on my Multimedia applications menu, it did’t work when I clicked it though. Nothing appeared to happen so I decided to run the command “gpodder” in a terminal to see if there were any errors. It was missing the dependency “python-feedparser” which is a Python module and wouldn’t run without it. I just headed over to www.feedparser.org and downloaded another Tar file. I followed the same install process as I had before with Gpodder and once finished I could run the application fine. Woo hoo a minor victory I thought 🙂
So after some setup work everything was going fine and only one main problem remained, Compiz Fusion 3D effects. After some more Internet searching I found a guide in the Vector Linux Wiki, which I have to say is pretty useful, well worth a look if you get stuck.
I was able to follow this guide to install Compiz Fusion and the supporting tools I needed from the repositories in Vpackager. It built the software from CRUX Linux ports which was very impressive and worked well. It reminded me a lot of using Portato under Sabayon to build stuff in the Gentoo way. I installed all the packages in the guide and then tried to start Compiz with the following command:
“compiz –replace ccp & emerald –replace xfwm4 &”
This basically tells compiz to replace your current window manager and Emerald to replace the current window decorator. Compiz worked and fired up fine but I got no window decorators and Emerald was obviously stuggling. I searched the Internet for the error message but didn’t have much luck at first, then I found some information on a forum where someone had the same problem. I was advised that running this command might help:
I then re-entered my first Compiz command and thankfully the window decorators appeared, Emerald was working. Get in!!! Sorry, it was quite a rush fixing it though I must admit. As I’ve said before in previous reviews I can see why people like this, I really can. Tinkering with things and overcoming a problem is a great feeling I just doubt there are that many people out there who really consider this “fun” that’s all. All I needed to do now was make a little shell script to perform these commands for me and set it to run automatically at log in. I wrote the following few lines in a text file and saved it as compiz-start.sh:
compiz –replace ccp & emerald –replace xfwm4 &
I changed the permissions of the file to make it executable and then tried it out. It worked. All I had to do then was go to “Settings / Autostarted Applications” on the XFCE menu and add the script to the list. After that I logged out and back in to test it. Hey presto the script ran automatically and I had Compiz at start up. Phew!!! It took a while but I got there in the end. Not so long ago you would have expected this kind of workload to setup pretty much any Linux desktop but now thankfully for most novice users it really is optional. I could have done all of this in about 2 minutes with something like Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS or the like. That’s worth remembering if Linux seems scary to you. Check out my earlier review of Mandriva One 2008 or Linux Mint 4.0 if you want an gentler introduction to Linux.
Ease Of Installation & Setup: 3/5
Community & Documentation: 3/5
Vector Linux was a very similar experience for me to Zenwalk I would say, which isn’t surprising. They’re both based on Slackware and so they’re very comparable. I did find Vector a bit easier to set up than Zenwalk, I liked the fact that it detected my Nvidia card and installed the drivers for me. I had to do that manually on Zenwalk. I also much prefer Slapt-Get as a package manager to NetPkg but you could install any package manager you like on either system if you wanted. Both distros are a hell of a lot easier to setup than Slackware that has to be said but that’s not saying a lot.
I wouldn’t recommend this to a new user who wants an easy experience out of the box but the system is very fast and stable even with low resources, if you have some older hardware you want to revitalise it may be useful there. It’s also very useful if you want to learn about the workings of Linux and challenge yourself a bit. That’s one of the reasons people like Slackware and I can understand that need to know how things really work at the lowest level, if you’re the sort of person who likes to take things apart and see their workings you’ll enjoy this. Also once you’ve invested the initial time and effort in setting up the system it will run for years and you do gain benefits in that sense. One thing I’ve learned since my first bad experience with Slackware is you need to read up a little bit and find out what you’re getting into before you start. You’ll thank me later if you do that. Don’t be impatient like me.
Overall, Vector is the better of the two Slackware derivatives I’ve used so far I would say, it just shades it over Zenwalk for me but that’s just a personal choice. There is a decent amount of help available online for both distros and at times you will certainly need it, linuxpackages.net is very handy and once you learn the install process it’s pretty easy too. That’s the key though you do have to learn stuff to use these distros and some people are averse to that, I don’t understand that philosophy but if you’re one of those people with an aversion to adventure you probably want to look somewhere else. If however you like to get your hands dirty then there’s a lot to be gained from this experience. It is still something of a project I think though, like Slackware or Gentoo. If you’ve got 20mins to setup a working computer and you’re not that experienced go for a more user-friendly distro. If you’re not pushed for time and you want to learn some cool stuff, this is more for you.
So my next stop will be the third and final Slackware-based distro I wanted to look at, Wolvix. I’ve downloaded and burnt a copy and I’m almost ready to go. I hope to review that in the next week so stay tuned to see how it compares to these two. Once into the breach dear friends…