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…
Distro base – rPath Linux (itself based on Red Hat)
Packaging – Conary Package Manager
Linux Kernel – 2.6.23
Default Desktop – Gnome 2.20.1
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.
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
Ease Of Installation & Use: 3/5
Community & Documentation: 3/5
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
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 🙂