Just when you thought it was safe to come out from behind that rock I’m back with a long awaited review. It’s true to say the pace here has slowed in the last month or two but I’m getting back at it now and I’m even contemplating another distro tour, this time on my Dell m1330 laptop. Today’s victim… sorry guest is the Brazilian distribution Dream Linux 3.0, a Debian-based distro I’d heard quite a bit about but never actually used. After a while out of the game would I still remember how to do this? Well, I’ll leave that up to you to judge but here’s how I got on…
Distro base – Debian (the testing branch)
Packaging – .deb (managed by Apt)
Linux Kernel – 126.96.36.199-dream
Default Desktop – Gnome 2.22.0 (Debian build)
I downloaded the Dream Linux install live CD and fired it up to be greeted by a splash screen and then a menu asking me to choose whether I wanted to load the Gnome or XFCE desktop version. I chose Gnome as it’s my favourite window manager but I’ve also found XFCE very usable and capable in the past, it’s just not my preference. Interestingly Dream Linux makes a big song and dance about something they’re calling Flexiboost. This offers a way for different window managers to share applications, I wasn’t really sure how to use it but more on that later. I saw an error on the screen as the distro was booting, it was the old familar “IO-APIC sync error” I seem to get with all Debian-based distros on this hardware, sharper minds than mine tell me it’s the motherboard. It doesn’t seem to cause any problems in operation but some distros, notably Ubuntu require me to boot the live CD with the “noapic” option. Thankfully Dream Linux just carried on booting and I didn’t have to do anything which is always my prefered course of action.
After a minute or two I was ready to start using the desktop and I have to say on first impressions I thought it had been designed to look like Mac OS X. Dream Linux comes with the Avant Window Navigator enabled by default which reminds me heavily of the Mac dock with it’s animated roll over icons. The toolbars and icons also looked like they’d been through the Apple finishing school. I really don’t know OS X well at all as I’ve only ever used it once or twice on other people’s computers and then only for a short period but I definitely get the feeling this interface would appeal to Mac fans. There were two install icons on the desktop labelled “DL Install” and “Pen Drive Installer” so I chose “DL Install” and entered some details into the subsequent dialog box. The installer seems to be a custom development for DL and it’s certainly not inherited from Debian. It seems to try and give you everything you need on one page, hostname, user accounts, disk partitioning and grub setup. It’s a laudable goal but I’m not sure it’s quite as intuitive as the installers I’ve seen in other distros. I also found a little quirk with the form fields which bugged me, I entered the partitioning details and then the user account information above that but I found after I’d touched the user account fields the “apply” button was grayed out and I couldn’t continue. I had opted to use the full disk instead of partitioning with the radio buttons and I couldn’t see anything wrong with the setup I’d chosen. I found I had to switch the selector back to “partitioned disk” which enabled the “apply” button again. I scratched my head a little at this and then selected “use entire disk” for a 2nd time, thankfully the button remained active and I could continue. As a test I changed data in the user details fields again and sure enough it disabled the button. It seems that unless you fill in the fields in the order they appear from top to bottom you can fall foul of this little quirk, I’m sure it’s designed to prevent people from accidentally messing up their disks or prevent them from continuing without entering user details but the implementation needs to be looked at.
Having successfully navigated that mine field I clicked the “apply” button and waited for a minute but the screen didn’t change so I wondered if anything was happening. The fact that the hard drive indicator light was flashing away like mad and the disk was obviously in use suggested something was happening and eventually the progress bar came up but it took a while. The progress bar doesn’t really tell you anything and it often freezes for long periods as if nothing is happening. It stopped at 56% for a good few minutes and left me wondering if the installer had crashed but I decided it was best to just leave it for a while and cross my fingers. All that finger crossing had the desired effect and the install eventually completed in 15mins which is not bad but also not lightning quick on a 30gb disk. The installer just tells you to close the window and then reboot the system with a small line of text at the bottom, I think it could be made a lot more obvious with a pop up box or even better a button to eject the disc and reboot like a lot of distros do. I had to rush to eject the CD manually between power cycles before the system came back up and booted from the Live CD again. Not a major problem and it may sound like I’m just moaning about nothing here but I’m a perfectionist and I think this could be polished up a lot, the whole installer feels like it could use a little work really. It did do it’s job in a reasonable time though and that’s all that matters I suppose.
After 20mins or so I had the new system installed and running, that’s not bad but the work was only just beginning really. If you want to check out the installation slideshow please use the link below.
FULL INSTALLATION SLIDESHOW
Configuring the system – Needles in haystacks:
I looked through the Dream Linux control panel for options to setup my video drivers as I could tell they weren’t installed by default. There were options to configure AWN and Compiz 3D effects among the icons but they didn’t work and I assumed the remedy would be to get the Nvidia driver installed. I searched in Synaptic for the term “nvidia” but didn’t find anything of use. I was hoping to find the package “nvidia-glx-new” which I normally use on Debian-based system but it didn’t appear to be in the repos despite having the “contrib” and “non-free” options enabled. After this I went onto the Dream Linux forum and searched for information on installing Nvidia drivers without finding any real answers to my problems. After some Google searching and a bit of beard stroking, I decided I’d have to do this the Debian way and install the Nvidia driver manually. The last time I did this was months ago and I honestly didn’t expect it from this distro. I downloaded the “.bin” file from the Nvidia website and switched to terminal mode with the “CTRL+ALT+F2” key combination. I then used the terminal to navigate to the location where I’d downloaded the driver, disable the X server and execute the installer. You don’t need to be a Linux guru to accomplish this task but I’m not sure it’s for the inexperienced Linux user and a certain degree of Bash terminal fu is required. I won’t go into the commands I used and get technical because I found out after going through all this rigmarole that there was a much easier way to do it, more on that in a minute. I got the driver installed through the terminal, allowed the nvidia tool to modify my xorg.conf and then rebooted. It worked and I saw the Nvidia splash screen which gave me a fuzzy feeling inside, a cheap geek thrill.
So here comes the moment when I wanted to kick myself. On rebooting the system I was looking under the “system tools” menu in Gnome for the “nvidia-settings” tool when I noticed something in there called “Easy-install”, opened it up and saw Nvidia drivers listed amongst it’s options. “Damn!!!” I thought to myself, in fact it was probably something far more profane than that but we’ll leave that where it is. I was sure I’d looked through all of these menus before going through with the manual install but now I was beginning to doubt myself. I wondered if the item had just appeared after I’d installed the driver, paranoia or what? The only way to be sure was to reinstall the system from scratch and see if it was there or not. To cut a long story short I did this and discovered I need an eye test or something, the menu item was right there, doh!! So this time I clicked on icon to install Nvidia drivers and it simply gave me a box instructing me to switch to terminal mode “CTRL+ALT+F1” and login with my username and password, then type “nvidia-install”. I did this and the system downloaded the driver for me, installed it and then rebooted. Pretty painless and a nicer process than my previous method but I think this could be improved a lot, when you’ve used something like the Restricted Driver Manager in Ubuntu and it’s offspring, this doesn’t seem that impressive. It could automatically detect you have an Nvidia card and prompt you to install the driver or even better just cut out the middle man and install the driver right away like Mandriva 2008. I may sound like I’m whining again here and maybe I am but I think this could be improved. Why isn’t the “easy-install tool at least in the DL control panel where you would expect to find it? It’s not very obvious, I accept responsibility for being incompetent and not finding it but a prompt might have been nice.
The Easy-Install tool does work pretty well (after you’ve found it) and simplifies things like codec installation, enabling DVD playback and adding software such as last.fm, picasa, Google Earth and so on. I installed quite a few additional things through it and it all worked fine apart from Skype which it kept failing on. I think possibly the installation files were moved on the Skype website and that’s why it doesn’t work, it seems to have trouble locating them and crash out. I installed Skype easily enough though with the “.deb” file I located on their website, I just chose the Debian option when it came to downloading. I then had to install it through the terminal with “dpkg” as I couldn’t seem to find Gdebi Installer or something similar which I’d normally use. I added some other software through the Synaptic tool, DL is based on Debian of course and the repositories are pretty deep as you’d expect. I installed Deluge, Bluefish, Audacity and Gpodder without any trouble. I also decided to update the system in Synaptic by clicking “mark all updates”, this selected 528mb worth of packages to update but the downloads were very fast and it completed in less than 30mins.
At this point I had the system set up pretty much as I needed it and bar a few quirks it wasn’t a hard process, I’m not sure how a Linux novice would find it but for an experienced user it’s not difficult. I found a couple of minor problems, firstly the icons on my desktop and all through the system in fact were suddenly massive after the update. I’m not sure why this should be and it’s not a major thing but it did mess up my desktop a lot and cause some usability problems. The second hitch was depsite having my video drivers and Compiz installed I still wasn’t getting any 3D effects. I opened up the control panel and found an applet to enable 3D effects, once I’d done this it was fine and I soon had a spinning cube.
So at this point I wanted to install the binary Nvidia drivers (insert freedom hater joke here) and get the system set up with any software I needed to use it as an everyday desktop. I hit something of a brick wall though which I later found out I could have avoided, I’m not quite sure whether to say it was my fault or a design fault in the software, possibly both. I’ll just tell you what happened and you can make your own mind up.
Using the system:I only really used the system intensively for a couple of days but I found to all intents and purposes it was just like using Debian, all be it with a slightly Macish feel. All the usual applications you would expect to find were present and correct. Being Debian based DL comes with IceWeasel instead of Firefox, this is a repackaged version of Firefox minus some copyrighted elements that don’t fit in with the Debian philosophy. I’ve used IceWeasel on a few different distros and it’s always worked exactly like Firefox for me, all my extensions and everything else work perfectly. The desktop is Gnome 2.22.0 which ships with Brasero as the default disc burning utility and I think it’s a great improvement over Gnomebaker the previous default. I usually install it first thing on new Gnome systems anyway. My favourite music player and manager Rhythmbox is there, the default video player is Mplayer which is not a favourite of mine but does it’s job well enough. Dream Linux has something of a reputation as a graphic designers distro and is popular with creative types apparently so it ships with GimpShop rather than the GIMP and also includes Inkscape for vector drawing out of the box. I’ve not used GimpShop too much but it’s essentially a version of GIMP with a modified GUI to make it more intuitive for users of Adobe’s Photoshop. Basically the distro comes with everything the average desktop user could want and adding programs through Synaptic is easy enough thanks to the depth of the Debian testing repositories.
I tested out media support and it was very good, I’d installed the codec packs through the Easy-Install utility so I expected it all to work. I was able to play my mp3 music files, Xvid, WMV and DivX videos along with DVD discs. I also tried navigating to a movie trailers website with IceWeasel to test out browser plugins and everything worked like a dream, no pun intended 😉 Flash and Java were also supported in the browser without the need to install anything. I expect this from most modern user-friendly Linux distros these days but I still think it’s worth mentioning, it was useful to have these things working without any hassle.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 3/5
Overall I think Dream Linux is a very competent distro but I worry about where it will find an audience in an already crowded space. I’m not quite sure who it’s aimed at and it may just be that it’s not aimed at me and that’s why I don’t get it. The attempt to look and feel a bit like Mac OS X is lost on me and it seems at odds with the Debian base in some ways. Taking a distro like Debian which I love for it’s freedom and ethics and trying to make it appeal to Mac fans seems odd to me. Are there really that many Mac users out there who are in the slightest bit bothered about software freedom anyway? I’m not so sure. I’m not knocking Mac users by saying that, I just don’t think there are many who lie away at night worrying about Richard Stallman’s latest opinion. If enticing Mac users isn’t the intention then why not do something more like Linux Mint and base your distro on Ubuntu, you could inherit useful tools like the Restricted Driver Manager which seems superior to me than the current DL solution. Just a thought.
As you may have detected from my tone so far in this summation, I wasn’t that impressed with Dream Linux 3.0, maybe this is partly due to my going in with high expectations but after using so many other distros in the past year I think my expectations are justifiably high. I found little things like the lack of a workspace switcher were annoying and I quickly added that. I know that versions of OS X prior to 10.5 didn’t have multiple desktops either and maybe this is something to do with that. Maybe I’m overplaying the attempt to copy the Mac but that’s honestly how the UI felt to me. I’m not totally against that and if it helps Mac users to use Linux and get comfortable then great I’m all for it, it’s just not for me.
I was left a little underwhelmed it’s fair to say and I’m sorry to say that as I know a lot of people put a lot of hard work into this release. I commend them for that but in comparison to the other distros in the market right now I just think this needs a lot more polish, the little quirks need to be ironed out in order to give the impression of a truly finished product. I don’t think DL is too far away from being a great disto and I encourage the developers to keep working at it, maybe I’ve missed the point but I just worry a little for them when faced with the likes of Linux Mint. There are some innovative features in DL which it’s only fair I mention. Flexiboost as mentioned earlier uses modules to allow 2 different window managers to share applications but I didn’t use it much in practice. The Live Remaster is also a very cool feature, it allows you to run the Live CD, modify the desktop as you see fit and then generate a new ISO disk image which can then be distributed including your changes. That’s a very interesting tool and I think other distros could learn from it.
In short, I’m not sure who I would recommend this to. It goes back to the target audience thing again. It’s a bit too complicated for complete Linux newbs with the likes of Mint, Ubuntu and Mandriva offering a much gentler introduction. On the other hand it’s not hardcore enough in the freedom stakes to please the Debian fans I know either, they would probably just stick to plain Debian. I don’t know a lot of Mac users but maybe if I knew one who wanted to get into Linux and stay in their comfort zone with the UI changes this is who I would give a Dream Linux CD too. Sadly I don’t know anyone like that and this is what makes me worry about the distro,they seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. If there are any developers reading this then please prove me wrong, I will be back to check out the next Dream Linux release and I’ll gladly eat my words and congratulate you if it rocks, I really will. It seems to me that in the post Ubuntu Linux world simply taking Debian and offering to make it more user friendly is not enough. That’s been done very successfully and you need to do something more to distinguish yourself in this market.
Community & Documentation: 4/5
Don’t take my word for it, you might have a totally different opinion so why not try Dream Linux yourself and let me know what you think? You can download it here.
I’m not sure exactly what I’ll review next time but as I intimated earlier I’ve been contemplating another little distro tour, this time with my laptop as it will give me a chance to test out the wireless capabilites of certain distros. I’m definitely going to be trying out Arch as promised, I hope to get into installing that this week. I also intend to check out Sidux, a distro that’s been on my list for ages but with a new release just out it seems a good time to give it a whirl. Ubuntu 8.04, Fedora 9 and OpenSUSE 11 will all be released in the near future and of course I will have to look those. So there’s plenty to come on the other side of that hill and as always if you want to join me for another adventure soon you are more than welcome, you bring the picnic hamper though ok…