Distro Review: Sabayon 4.0
It may have been a while but I decided I should really get distro hopping again seriously. I like to try out new software, it’s almost a geeky form of OCD and besides, it makes for great review fodder I hope. Today’s candidate is the latest release of a distro I first looked at some time ago, Sabayon. I’ve had mixed feelings about it in the past, I found 2.2 Professional to be very bloated, capable of interesting innovations but overall slightly disappointing. It’s a Gentoo based distro from Italy and it seems there’s no love lost between the Gentoo and Sabayon camps so I’ve been told. I wanted to see how it had developed now they’d reached version 4.0, so here goes nothing…
Distro base – Gentoo
Packaging – .tbz2 (Binaries managed by Entropy) Source installations also available with Portage
Linux Kernel – 2.6.27-sabayon
Default Desktop – KDE 3.5 (edited after a comment, I thought it was KDE4, my bad), Gnome 2.24, XFCE, Openbox, Fluxbox and almost everything under the sun it seems
I downloaded the main DVD installer image and burned off a copy. My test laptop is a Dell m1330n which a lot of you will already know, I’ve talked about it before so won’t go into the details now, you can read more here. Upon booting the DVD the first thing I noticed were some rather exotic options on the boot menu. The usual install options you get with all distributions were there of course but so were more interesting things such as: Boot without music, Play Sauerbraten, Anonymous Web Browsing and eeePC boot (640×480). Despite this bewildering array of choices I stuck with the default and just booted Sabayon into a live session, I could install from there. The drivers for my freedom hating nVidia graphics card were automatically enabled and I was asked whether I wanted the 3D Compiz Desktop or not, so I switched it on. This was all very painless and similar in experience to Mandriva or some other distros I’ve tried. It was around this time the “boot without music” option began to make some sense to me. I noticed some strange sounds faintly coming from the speakers at a low volume so turned it up and instantly recognized it as Pornophonique, a band we’ve played on Linux Outlaws before. Their work is Creative Commons licensed and published on Jamendo so well worth checking out. I like the band but I’m not sure the wisdom of putting music in the background of your installer, it reminds me a little of those awful rave tracks you used to get on Warez installers years ago. Not that I would know about that of course *ahem*. I let the boot continue and was greeted before long by a KDE desktop.
The earlier versions of Sabayon I tried had a slightly garish red theme which felt about a subtle as a slap in the face with a wet trout, and while aesthetics are not usually my primary concern, I do have to say this new theme is a great improvement. It looks slick and much more toned down with grey and pastel colours. I shall move on from that before I begin to sound too much like Brian Sewell but rest assured it looks good, you can judge for yourself from the screenshots. I clicked the install icon on the desktop to get things under way. The installer itself is pretty straightforward and includes an interesting option to update from the Internet before starting. I’ve never seen this on a distro before and it’s a cool idea. I added my wireless settings to the little KDE widget and got online quickly enough but still had to close and reopen the installer to actually get past the offline error message. I got the installer updated and proceeded to manually partitioning my drive as I always do, a 12gb root partition, a 140gb (ish) /home partition and the remaining space left as swap. I stuck to the default install options most of the way through to get a feel for what most people can expect with Sabayon. The black background of the windows made it hard to read some the text and use the interface effectively at times, worth mentioning I thought. I timed the install from this point onwards and it took well over 35mins, hardly speedy by Linux standards but then I’ve been told both Vista and OS X are slower to install, I’ve never used either so can’t really say.
In the end I had to actually perform the install twice when the it crashed and failed the first time. The installer window kept greying out and freezing for periods during the process which usually indicates processor strain in Compiz or at least an operation stalling. Then a message popped up which read “Exception occurred – check crash report”. I had to reboot the system and decided to try booting from the hard disk to see if the install had taken. Sadly it hadn’t and I was left to go through the whole process again of booting from the DVD. It took just as long the second time around but at least it did complete. I ejected the disc, rebooted and I logged into the KDE desktop. The reason for the slow install would soon become apparent. Read on fellow travellers.
The Kitchen Sink and More:
This distro seems to contain almost every piece of software you could possibly think of, all installed by default! It’s nice in some ways but bad in others. Having the likes of Picasa, Google Earth and Skype installed will please a lot of users but it takes up a lot of space. My 12gb system partition was already feeling the strain with 10gb of data. People call Ubuntu bloated but even after running it for over a year and installing a hell of a lot of addition software I’d only used about 3gb on my system disk. I quickly noticed that not only had KDE been installed but also Gnome, XFCE, Openbox and Fluxbox. This is the default behaviour it seems, when in doubt install everything. I’d wrongly assumed choosing KDE from the wizard would only install this desktop. Another reason for the large footprint and slow install could be the source-based nature of the distribution. I’m not 100% sure of this as I don’t have a lot of experience with source-based distros but it seems possible.
If you want a big selection of software by default then this is the distro for you I’d say, right down to things like Ardour. I found almost everything I could want was already installed and there’s something to be said for that I suppose. There’s also a package manager called Spritz which allows you to install binary packages rather than compiling everything, it’s a lot faster but some would say not very efficient. It was very buggy for me and probably needs a bit more work. I found Spritz froze a lot and the range of packages seems paltry when you’re used to something like Debian. I installed a few things such as Rhythmbox but couldn’t find Tasque, gPodder or Gwibber. This is a minor complaint as most things are already installed or available but I did have to resort to using Portato for compiling the extra things I wanted. Portato is a front end to well known Portage package manager from Gentoo, it uses what are called ebuilds (triggers of a sort) to compile the software you want from source trees. I’ve been told by a few more knowledgeable Gentoo fans this is not a good idea on Sabayon and you should only install new software using tools like Emerge and Portage, updating your system with an “emerge world” command can break things pretty badly apparently. If you’re not an experienced Linux user of even a Gentoo user it’s probably best to be wary of this. I found Gwibber 0.7 and Tasque in Portato and installed them both. This took well over an hour to complete and it’s not a speedy process. The virtue of compiling your software is the performance benefit of having it tailored to your system proponents of the art say but I find it a bit too time consuming personally. I left the machine while I retreated to get some dinner but when I returned over an hour later it was still compiling some of the dependencies for Gwibber. Tasque worked well enough once installed but Gwibber wouldn’t display messages and after a near 2 hour wait this can be very frustrating. I’ve been advised since that this was probably down to a Web Kit library problem, either the wrong version or a fault but I didn’t manage to get it fixed. I’m sure these things could be fixed with time and expertise but it’s not an ideal situation. I should point out that there really were only a couple of things I wanted but couldn’t find in Spritz, most of the things I needed were already installed and a whole lot else besides.
I used Sabayon for about a week and at one point I was prompted by Entropy (the back end to Spritz) to install updates to 277 packages. 277?! This seemed a lot to me but without thinking I foolhardily let it start it’s business of installing 3gb of updates, only realising about half way through this was a stupid thing to do as my 12gb root partition was already over 10gb full. Unfortunately by this time it was too late to stop it and my whole drive had been filled. The system became unstable pretty quickly, just changing work spaces was taking a long time so I shut it down. On reboot I wasn’t able to log in at all and it seemed the only course of action was to reinstall the whole thing from scratch. Another 40mins of my life I’ll never get back, yay!
This time I was a little smarter during the install, I chose the Gnome desktop and went through the list of packages removing all the KDE and XFCE stuff. I figured this would slim down the install but it still took up 8.5gb of space. Not a light distro in any sense but then to be fair it doesn’t claim to be.
I don’t want to sound like I’m being negative about Sabayon, there are some really interesting things in it. Original little touches like the option to update your installer, prompts to accept licenses for restricted software like Google Earth and Picasa in the update wizard, the amount of different ways to use the live CD, the binary packaging system with Entropy, it all has potential. I was able to do all the things I needed to reasonably well and spent about a week testing it day to day, so it’s a usable distro it just has it’s quirks. All the multimedia codecs and tools I needed were installed out of the box so I didn’t have to set up any of that which saves time. Flash, Java and all the other things you could need are there right away.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 3/5
Speed & Stability: 3/5
Community Support & Documentation: 4/5
Overall I think Sabayon has the potential to be a really good distro but for me it’s incredibly bloated and though some of the ideas are ambitious, they lack a little finesse in the execution so far. It was pretty fast to run, the boot was quick and applications seemed snappy enough despite the bloat. There’s a hell of a lot of software in there but if by some chance you need something extra, installing from source is time consuming and can be risky. I’d say it’s probably not a distribution for users who are very new to Linux, it’s not scary or particularly hard to use, I don’t want to give that impression but if you run into problems it’s easy to get lost. There are a lot of good resources on the Sabayon website it has to be said, an active forum, IRC channel and pretty well stocked wiki are all at your disposal. So there is help out there, I just found it wasn’t quite for me. I’d be interested to try Gentoo some time to compare and contrast, see what I could learn from it. I expect it would be quite a project though and probably take a week to set the system up with my lack of knowledge. I like to test on my main everyday laptop to give an authentic feel for what people can expect, so it’s all on the line and I’m not sure I could get Gentoo installed quickly enough while going about my daily work on the same machine. When I get a spare test box I think Gentoo will make a nice side project.
If you want to try something different then you could do a lot worse than take a look at Sabayon but for me it’s still not quite there yet. I admire the ambition and the goals of the project, I think you have to take risks sometimes and while everyone else is racing to make the smallest distribution they can these guys have gone the other way, I like individuality. It has potential but still needs some development I feel. Take a look for yourself and see what you think, then you can let me know in the comments.
So next up for me it’s the recently released Debian Lenny, I’m actually typing this in OpenOffice on Lenny right now. I’m an unashamed Debian fan and also a Gnome fan so I’m expecting to like it but I’ll try to be fair and honest about any shortcomings I find, it won’t be getting an easy ride. You’re all welcome to join me of course, expect that review in the next week. From there I’m not sure where I’ll go. I’ve threatened a BSD for some time, still need to do that. I’d also like to take a look at Sidux and perhaps Foresight. I know all you Arch fans out there have been asking me to try that for a while and I will but I fear it’s the same situation as Gentoo, not sure I could install it and go about my daily work quickly enough on this machine. It would require a lot of reading and learning which are both good things to do, just not when you have someone on the phone asking you why their website doesn’t work. If you have any suggestions for me please feel free to post them and I’ll take a look. Till then, see you over the hill, I’ll race you…