Distro Review: Crunchbang 9.04.01
After an enforced break (in more ways than one) I’m finally back to distro hopping and reviewing with my newly fixed Dell XPS m1330n. My first stop on this journey is Crunchbang 9.04.01; a distribution I’ve used only briefly in the past, but one that many of my friends use and like. It’s a British Ubuntu-based development and largely the work of one man, Phillip Newborough AKA Corenominal. What started life as his pet project has grown to become a very popular distro in it’s own right. I even have something of an interesting personal connection with it, I inadvertently named the eeePC variant Cruncheee on the Linux Outlaws podcast. So how would I find a week with #! (that’s the abbreviation they use btw) as my main desktop. Let’s find out…
Distro base – Ubuntu (Itself based on Debian)
Packaging – .deb (Managed by the mighty Apt)
Linux Kernel – 2.6.28-13-generic
Default Desktop – Openbox Window Manager 3.4 – Tint2 Panel/Taskbar
I went to the Crunchbang website and tried to download the LiveCD from my good friend and fellow LivLugger Nik_doof’s mirror, but sadly it was down at the time and I decided to go for the torrent option instead; that downloaded at lightning quick speed. Don’t believe what the RIAA tell you kids, Torrents are a good thing, especially for distributing Free Software. That’s real Free Software by the way, not cracked copies of Photoshop as some seem to think. I booted up the live CD and was greeted by a simple text menu. It offers you the chance to enter custom options but I just pressed return to boot the default live session. This took a few minutes to load which is normal for live CDs, accessing data from a CD and loading it into memory is no match for the speed of a hard disk installation. Eventually I reached the desktop, where I saw the very minimal and lightweight Openbox window manager. There’s also a Tint2 panel and task bar, which form the default desktop in Crunchbang. It’s very snappy and the lightweight nature of Openbox makes it perfect for older hardware I would say. There’s no menu button or anything of that nature as you may expect with Gnome or KDE; instead you summon the menu by right-clicking on any blank part of the desktop, or using the “super key + space” combo. I should probably point out before we go any further that Openbox is a window manager and not a full blown desktop environment in itself like KDE or Gnome for example. It can actually be used within other desktop environments as the default window manager, replacing Metacity in Gnome for example. When combined with other tools as Phillip has done here though Openbox makes a powerful lightweight desktop. Back to the installation, I found an install option on the main Openbox menu and duly clicked it. This brings up the very familiar Ubiquity installer from Ubuntu. Under the hood Crunchbang is Ubuntu with a different user interface and some other changes I’ll get into later. I proceeded through the installer entering the usual information: time zone, language, keyboard layout and so on. Then I set up the partitions in my usual fashion with a 12gb root (/), 4gb swap and the remaining 140gb(ish) as /home. I expected the install to take about 20mins as Ubuntu normally does, but I hadn’t factored in the amount of time saved by not having to install Gnome, and many other large sets of packages. The full install completed in about 10mins, which I was very impressed with. I could now get on with customizing things to suit my taste and really kicking the tires.
Getting To Know The System:
One of the first things that struck me about Crunchbang was the simple layout and elegant design. It’s not trying to be flashy or over the top, it’s understated but it works very well. I suppose that’s because when you know you’re cool you don’t have to try too hard. Minimalists will love the way Openbox works by default. It doesn’t show a folder on the desktop so there’s no clutter of icons filling the screen. You can change that to display a specific folder which is how I normally work, I’m a messy git, but in this instance I decided to stick with the default approach. For some reason I found the system was really slow to log in the first time after the new install, it took at least 2 mins to get from the login screen to the desktop. I’m not sure if this was something I’d done to my settings, but it logged in nice and quick on subsequent attempts which was a relief. Conky is shown on the right hand side of your desktop and this really is a cool little tool. If you haven’t heard of it before then it’s well worth trying. You can install it on any system normally, but it comes set up with Crunchbang. It sits on the desktop displays useful information about your system such as disk usage, networking data, CPU and memory usage, the weather, what song you’re listening to and all kinds of things really, it’s up to you. Configuration is done via a simple text file called .conkyrc and you’ll find many people swapping their funky custom Conky configs (try saying that after a brandy) on the Crunchbang forums. I did notice pretty quickly that the new eye candy notifications from Ubuntu Jaunty have been left out here. Instead you get the old popup bubbles from Gnome. I like Notify OSD but I didn’t really miss it, and I believe it may be in future Crunchbang releases. After an initial poke around in the system it was time to get customizing.
I use a freedom hating Nvidia graphics card in this laptop, and I was pleased to see that the restricted driver manager is inherited from Ubuntu. It popped up in the system tray telling me that drivers were available if I wanted them. After a few clicks they were downloaded and installed. It’s so easy to install your graphics drivers these days on Linux compared to many other operating systems, I wonder if the traditional old cry of “Linux is too hard!” will finally die out. Time will tell. Crunchbang comes with all the multimedia codecs you would normally add with the Ubuntu Restricted Extras package, it also comes with Skype and Flash pre-installed and ready to go. This is very handy if you just want to start getting things done. I added a few programs with Apt-Get, which will be familiar to all the Debian fans out there. Apt is still my favourite package manager on any distro I have to say, Pacman is a very close second and of course there are other options available. Installing applications is pretty easy because you have access to all the Ubuntu repositories, as well as some custom Crunchbang ones. You can use the Synaptic GUI if you prefer, and considering a lot of applications have handy keyboard shortcuts in #! I think there could be a key combo for Synaptic as well. The main shortcuts are listed on the default Conky display, such as “super + t” to load Terminator.
I like to use a dock at the bottom of my desktop like Avant Window Navigator, so I decided to investigate setting this up. Installing the package from the repo is easy but because the Tint2 panel is located at the bottom of the screen I needed to move that out of the way. Bringing up the main menu with a right-click you’ll find “tint2 panel config” under the preferences menu. By editing line 31 of the config file you can set the panel position to “top center” rather than “bottom centre”. After logging out and back in again the panel should now at the top of the screen. I could now continue to set up AWN, which requires a compositing window manager in order to load. You can switch compositing on under the preferences menu but doing this every time you log in is a pain, luckily I found some help on the #! forums. It’s easy to fix, go to “Openbox Config” under the preferences menu and select “edit autostart.sh”. Uncommenting line 37 of the config file starts compositing automatically each time you log in, and AWN can also then start automatically. Job done.
One of the really great things about #! in my opinion is the choice of default apps. Terminator is set as the default terminal emulator which saves me time, I would normally install and use this anyway. VLC is the default media player and you can’t really argue with that, VLC just works. Having said that there are a couple of things I would change to completely suit my tastes, but then I’m too lazy to start my own distro and do that. I much prefer Deluge to Transmission for managing torrents. Transmission seems to be the default in almost ever distro around, but I’ve never understood that; it pales in comparison to Deluge for me. Also the default file manager here is PCmanfm which I’m not a huge fan of, it works ok, but I think Thunar would be a much better default choice. You can swap this if you want apparently. One of the first things I installed was Firefox 3.5 because #! uses 3.0 by default. This behavior is inherited from Ubuntu I suspect, where they’ve kept 3.5 as a separate package rather than upgrading everyone automatically. Concerns over stability are the reason for this, but I’ve had no problems with Firefox 3.5 since it’s release. You can install it on Ubuntu systems by doing “sudo apt-get install firefox-3.5” and then you need to modify the shortcut commands in your apps to launch it. It’s not an ideal situation but as I said I really can’t blame #! for this, it’s an Ubuntu decision. I changed the default system wide browser to 3.5 by using the script provided under the “System” menu, just hit the “Edit Default Applications” option. This takes you through a shell script asking a number of questions about different defaults.
One application I use heavily on a day to day basis is Gwibber, the microblogging client. It can be quirky at times but I still love it. Gwibber comes pre-installed with #! which is great, but it’s version 0.9.2. That’s the current version in the Ubuntu repos. I much prefer version 1.2 which is available from a PPA on Launchpad. This is classed as a development version so I can see why it’s not included by default, but in practice it turns out to be just as stable as 0.9.2, if not more so. I added the PPA details to my sources.list file as usual and then imported the key to authenticate the repository. After updating with Apt I expected the Gwibber package to just upgrade for me as it has on other Ubuntu-based systems. Absolutely nothing happened thought and I was confused. I double checked that the repository was set up properly and it all seemed fine. Jumping onto the Crunchbang forums I posted a query about the problem and was directed to this thread. It seems that Crunchbang has something called pins set up to favour it’s own custom repos over others for all packages. I was unfamiliar with the concept of Apt pins before discovering this, but you learn something new every day. I added a command to tell Apt to always get the newest version of Gwibber and related packages available, ignoring the main pin. I updated the system and still nothing happened, so after a brainwave I decided to purge the Gwibber package completely and reinstall it. This time it picked up version 1.2 from the PPA and installed as it should. It all works now but I thought I’d report my experiences in case anyone else has this problem.
After a couple of hours I had Crunchbang tuned up and working just as I like it. I’d also learned a bit more about Openbox, which I was unfamiliar with. That has to be a good thing.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 3/5
Community & Documentation: 4/5
I’ve spent just over a week on Crunchbang now and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. It’s a very solid distro and I can see why so many people rave about it. They have some really good documentation on their website and I was also given a warm welcome in the forum community, support is never too far away. The lightweight desktop with Openbox, Tint2 and other tools is something of an aquired taste I would say. I make no secret of my love for the Gnome desktop and there were a few things I missed from the likes of Nautilus. A good example being the ability to mount network or remote SSH shares easily and quickly within the file manager. I couldn’t see a way of doing that with PCmanfm, but I believe it’s possible with Thunar. I’m used to being able to just browse my home network with Nautilus and transfer files around the various machines. The system is solid and fast though which can’t be underestimated. If I’m honest I’d probably always stick with Gnome as my desktop of choice, provided the machine could handle it. I actually installed #! 9.04.01 on a very old laptop recently and it performs brilliantly there. The machine only has an 800mhz AMD processor and 212mb of RAM, some of the 256mb on board is taken as shared video memory. On booting that system it only uses 68mb of memory and I can run other applications happily, that’s pretty damn lightweight you have to admit. I would recommend #! to anyone who’s got a little bit of Linux experience under their belt and want’s to try something different. It’s not particularly hard to use at all and it does benefit from the Ubuntu base, but there are a few things complete newcomers to the platform might struggle with. An example being that in Openbox there’s no automatic menu management. If you install a new program you have to add it to your menu manually, by editing a config file. There are some very handy GUI tools included for this in #! so it’s not a chore. I just think novices might find this a challenge at first. On the other hand though having multimedia codecs, Flash and so on set up by default is very handy. Anyone with a little basic Linux experience has nothing to fear.
Phillip has worked very hard on this distribution and it’s a great credit to him. It’s been nothing short of a phenomenon really how Crunchbang has transformed from one man’s part time project, into a very popular and well known Linux distribution. All in a very short space of time too. It just shows the opportunities that Free Software development can provide for those willing to look for them. Crunchbang and Cruncheee are both very good distributions and I would encourage anyone to take a look at them. They’ve filled a niche in the market that I don’t think most of us even knew existed a year ago, and done it with aplomb. It’s hard to imagine the Ubuntu ecosystem without them now, and that says it all for me. Try Crunchbang for yourself and let me know how you get on.
I already have my next distro hop destination downloaded and burnt, which makes a change. It will be Pardus Linux 2009, something a lot of people have requested. I reviewed an older release of Pardus about 18 months ago for Linux Planet and found much to like in it. If you’d like to join me for that adventure, you’re more than welcome of course. Bring a flask and a good pair of shoes and let’s hit the road…