The DistRogue

Monday, August 27, 2007

Review: SabayonLinux 3.4e

It's been a while, hasn't it? School really has a way of slowing things down. But now I'm back on track.
Personal problems aside, it's well-known that Gentoo is one of the hardest distributions to install. So well-known, in fact, that there have been a lot of attempts to cut down on the install time by either automating the process or using binary packages. Sabayon Linux is one of the more important results to come out of efforts like these. Based in Italy, and named after a local dessert, you can tell it's going to be good almost immediately- guess who won the World Cup last year?
The basic idea behind Sabayon back when it was still young and was called RR4 (read: late 2005) was to take a Gentoo system, compile it for an i686 architecture, and install it as a series of binaries instead of compiling the whole thing from scratch. But later, Sabayon began taking turns in different directions, eventually moving from XFCE to KDE as the default desktop and even including demo versions of Quake 4 and Cold War, along with other proprietary software that Gentoo would never dream of adding. The system was synced into Gentoo's Unstable repository, and the project took on a bleeding-edge philosophy. By version 3.4e, Sabayon had grown into a monster of engineering, and on the surface, seems like nothing more than a jumble of useless software.
But that's not all.
Sabayon is an entire distribution, not just a remastering of a parent distro. For once thing, Gentoo is notoriously hard to base a distribution off of, but Fabio Erluciani and company managed to get away with it by using a custom system of catalysts and overlays for Portage. It also has its own artwork, including one of the best color schemes I've seen. It has some "glue" for holding the diverse range of software together, such as a custom autodetection program for NVIDIA and ATI graphics cards to select (closed-source) drivers. Finally, in the works (and available as of version 3.4e) is an alternate package-management system called Entropy, featuring the Equo package manager, which works the way apt-get would, installing packages the way the main system is- using binaries instead of compiling everything.
I got a copy of the 4.3-gig x86-32 DVD. It booted into a nice wizard for setting up 3D effects, complete with some music- a nice touch that can be disabled at boot time. After that, it went into a full KDE desktop with shortcuts to an obscene selection of games. Danger from the Deep? Torcs? FlightGear? God only knows how they got in there in the first place, but Nexuiz makes a good substitute to Quake, and Sauerbraten is still a great game.
The install, with everything checked except KDE and 2D arcade games (package selection is new in 3.4, and a welcome improvement), took an hour and a half and took up 9GB of space. Wow. And they say Gentoo is slow... On the plus side, the miniEdition, a CD-sized version of Sabayon 3.3, installed in about 20 minutes, owing to its smaller (but still complete) software selection. For people who still like to build their own desktop, try the Core Install option in the install wizard. It installs a minimal text-mode system, from which you can emerge [insert desktop here] just the way you'd want it (except for the artwork- but that's not a bad thing).
Performance was disappointing. Sabayon is supposed to be fast, but it took almost 2 minutes to boot on the first try, and only improved to 80 seconds on subsequent boots. Even with the "geeky" minimal Fluxbox environment, I could only get 1100 FPS in GLXGears, and Sauerbraten was nothing special- 20FPS. (Note: The map I use to test FPS is metl4, and I measure FPS by crouching behind the yellow armor with a grenade launcher. It's not great, but it's standardized. If you *really* want to give [insert distro here] a workout, try skycastle. It's an awesome map, but it's insanely laggy.) Tremulous was too laggy to play- but it felt cool to be able to tack "@Sabayon" onto my screenname. :)
Entropy is still under construction, making it completely useless at the moment. Binmerge (an older package manager) is still there, but it doesn't work. Equo works perfectly, but so far, nothing can be installed. I had to stick with good ol' Emerge for package management. Sabayon includes a GUI to Portage called Portato, and a KDE version called Kuroo. I tested Portato, and it worked perfectly- just take my advice and don't do a world update until you have a LOT of free time. Update Portage immediately- version has a nasty bug that slows it down.
3D desktop effects are pretty standard by now, but Sabayon, being the bleeding-edge project is, includes Compiz Fusion and Metisse instead of the standard Compiz Vanilla and Beryl. It also comes with the SabayonLinux Acceleration Manager (aka SLAM), an open-source wizard for setting up acceleration through the two desktops.
Overall, Sabayon is a good desktop for beginners who want to live on the bleeding edge. It's a great way to ease newbies into Linux and show them what makes a distro work without the multiple-day installs of Gentoo.
-Fast-ish installs (sort of)
-Considerably easy to use
-Customizable system via Core Install (for advanced users)
-Non-Core-Install systems are slow
Friendliness: 4.5/5-
In marked contrast to Gentoo.
Performance: between 2.5 and 4.5/5- It really depends on how the system is installed. MiniEdition installs are pretty fast.
Features: 5/5- Every conceivable program for Linux is on that DVD.
Packaging: 4.5/5- Portage + GUI = l33t.
Artwork: 2/2.5- Still needs work, but the general red-on-black color scheme is awesome.
Community: 1.5/2.5- The forums are comfortably large, and the Freenode IRC channel is always welcoming.
Overall: 4-4.4/5- Keep an eye on it as it matures.
From Debian 4.0r1 (wink wink nudge nudge),
The DistRogue.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Jumping ship: PCLinuxOS 2007 vs. Mint 3.0 "Cassandra"

I'm sure I've said it several times before, somewhere: Ubuntu isn't the universal answer. It also has its fair share of things that could definitely be improved if it wants to be a serious competitor to Windows. Basically, it isn't perfect.
Of course, Windows and OS X aren't perfect either (or BSD or Haiku or whatever), but there are distributions that would be better suited to a complete Linux newbie than Ubuntu. Arguably two of the best are PCLinuxOS and Mint. I reviewed PCLinuxOS a while back, but it has matured incredibly in only a single release. Among other things, its rank on DistroWatch soared from just barely being in the Top 10 to clinching the #1 spot- and not letting go. Mint isn't so well-known. It's a fork of Ubuntu with a few added programs (such as a custom control center), new artwork, and a redesigned app selection.
PCLinuxOS is a fork from Mandriva, giving it a solid, easy-to-use base. Although Mandriva is fast out of the box, PCLinuxOS is even faster. It includes some non-free software, such as MP3 codecs, that other distributions lack. It also advertises a "PCLinuxOS Control Center"- although some quick inspection shows that it's nothing more than a rebranded version of the Mandriva Control Center. Finally, PCLinuxOS includes fresh artwork (which makes it look like Windows XP) and uses Debian's Synaptic package manager- slightly redone to accommodate Mandriva's RPM packaging system.
Mint was created from Ubuntu with the original goal of adding non-free software for a more complete out-of-the-box experience. However, as Ubuntu began adding more support for said add-ons, Mint began adding some extras of its own. It includes its own, completely original (and customizable) control center, along with wizards for setting up WiFi, disk partitioning, and desktop settings. It also has its own Kickoff-styled menu called mintMenu, which is useful, stylish, and compact. Of course, it also has its own artwork, along with GNOME, KDE, and Xfce editions, each with its own "Light" edition (with only free software). Finally, in keeping with Ubuntu's tradition of unique names, the developers give each version a female name, with the first letter matching up to the major release number- version 3.0 is named "Cassandra", for instance.
Live system/install:
I installed both systems (using Mint's GNOME edition) from my trusty 1-gig USB key. PCLinuxOS booted into infinitely cooler artwork, but Mint detected my native screen resolution out of the box, thanks to onboard 915resolution hacks. The installs were both unusually fast- only a couple of minutes- thanks to the miracle of USB 2.0.
Mint booted (from the GRUB menu to the login screen) in an astounding 35 seconds. PCLinuxOS followed with a respectable 43 seconds. I edited both systems to set aside 128MB of physical RAM for graphics acceleration and ran GLXGears from a fresh restart. Mint managed to crank out around 1120 FPS, did well in Tremulous, and reported 34 FPS in my Sauerbraten benchmark- about twice as much as Ubuntu. PCLinuxOS, on the other hand, raised that number to 44FPS, and scored in the 1400s in GLXGears.
Useful stuff:
PCLinuxOS's control center is somewhat like the Windows Control Panel: it contains an endless number of options that you can click on to launch wizards to do various things. A lot of these wizards are incomplete, and you have to dive into configuration files in order to do less coarse tweaking. Nontheless, the PCLinuxOS/Mandriva Control Center is an extremely useful and extensive tool for system administration (basic user preferences can be adjusted with the KDE Control Center, also included).

Mint has its own control center, but its main strength lies in its software selection. Among other things, it includes Java, Envy for installing closed-source NVidia and ATI drivers, amaroK for improved music management, and MPlayer for media playback. I was disappointed not to see Wine anywhere... :'( As with PCLinuxOS, it has its own control center, mintConfig. Although most of the programs in mintConfig are redundant with the also-included GNOME control center, the ones that aren't are good. mintDesktop is a simple, handy tool for setting up your desktop, and mintDisk can be helpful when working with a lot of partitions or removable media. It also has a tool for configuring X11 (relatively) safely, a feature planned for Ubuntu 7.10. mintConfig is also customizable, making it a good replacement for the GNOME control center- but not much else.

Overall, the choice between Mint and PCLinuxOS depends on your desktop preference. If you don't like KDE because it's slow, give PCLinuxOS a shot because of how blindingly fast it is. If you like Ubuntu's ease of use, Mint is worth a look. I'd go with Mint, but only because of a quirk in PCLinuxOS that makes my screen shut off (permanently) if I close it.
-Based on Ubuntu
-Runs fast
-Complete out-of-the-box experience
-Control center is immature
Friendliness: 4.5/5-
The control center helps slightly.
Performance: 4/5- Not gaming-quality, but fast enough.
Features: 5/5- Boxed app selection is great.
Packaging: 4.5/5- Synaptic can't be improved upon very much, although DPKG is pretty slow...
Artwork: 2/2.5- Soothing and professional-looking.
Community: 2.5/2.5- Almost 100% Ubuntu-compatible means lots of support.
Overall: 4.5/5- A great up-and-coming distribution, only expect it to improve as the control center matures.

-Runs obscenely fast
-Useful, if unoriginal control center
-May need some extra programs installed
-Inspiron E1505N users beware!
Friendliness: 5/5-
The PCLOSCC is the killer touch here.
Performance: 4.5/5- Beyond PCLinuxOS, you get into ArchSlackToo speeds.
Features: 4/5- Could use a little work here...
Packaging: 5/5- See above- but RPM is faster than DPKG.
Artwork: 2.5/2.5- The 2007 release is famous for its artwork.
Community: 2/2.5- The community is new, but growing.
Overall: 4.6/5- If you're a newbie that needs a really fast system that helps you with everything you need, then look into PCLinuxOS.
I'm waiting for my Sabayon 3.4e DVD to get here. Then, it's time for another long-overdue review.
From Mint 3.0,
The DistRogue.

It is possible to make PCLinuxOS recognize your native screen resolution. In PCC, go to the Hardware tab, then click "Change Screen Resolution" to install 915resolution. Then, go to "Change Monitor" and select the appropriate resolution. Finally, change the resolution under "Configure Graphical Server". I'm still working on the fix for the screen suddenly shutting off.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

How to turn your USB key into a bootable PCLinuxOS system

If you're a hardcore Linux geek, you'll want to take Tux with you wherever you go. Even if you're a normal user, you probably wouldn't mind having a penguin in your pocket. These are 100%-tested instructions on installing PCLinuxOS 2007 or later (2007, at the time of writing, is the latest version) to a gigabyte-or-larger USB key.
1. Download the PCLinuxOS CD image and open it in an archive manager.
2. Mount your USB key. It has to have one partition on it with more than 700MB of free space left, but any type of filesystem works. I used FAT32 for my key. Also, make absolutely sure that the partition is bootable (you can use a partition manager like fdisk or GParted for this). That means that its boot flag should be on.
3. Extract the contents of the CD image to your USB key. Don't make a folder on your USB key and extract them into the folder; otherwise, it won't boot.
4. Run these commands from the terminal:

sudo grub-install --no-floppy --root-directory=. /dev/sdX

!CAUTION! Be careful with that command; if you do it wrong (for instance, use /dev/sda on a newer system), you might screw up your MBR, in which case, you'd better have a live CD ready. If you did it wrong, just run "grub-install /dev/sda" from a live CD. You do have one, right?
5. Make a file under the boot/grub folder in your USB key called menu.lst, with this in it:

title PCLinuxOS 2007
root (hd0,0)
kernel /isolinux/vmlinuz bootfrom=/dev/sda1 root=/dev/rd/3 acpi=on vga=788 keyb=us splash=silent fstab=rw,noauto
initrd /isolinux/initrd.gz

6. Reboot and enable USB-HDD or USB-ZIP booting in your computer's BIOS if it isn't already enabled.
7. Enjoy.
I used PCLinuxOS for this, but it probably works with other distros, with some minor tweaking in menu.lst. The original tutorial can be found here, written for Damn Small Linux.
From PCLinuxOS 2007,
The DistRogue.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Life on the bleeding edge: Linux Kernel 2.6.23-rc2

By now, everyone's heard that the next release of the Linux kernel, 2.6.23, will feature the CFS (Completely Fair Scheduler), which will, in theory, make everything run faster. Phoronix already did some research into how fast the CFS will be, but to really appreciate it, you have to try the kernel for yourself.
If you're using Ubuntu or Debian (or any other Debian-based distro with apt), you can install previews of the kernel without having to compile anything. For starters, add this line to your /etc/apt/sources.list file:
deb trunk main
Then, use the following commands to install a copy of the Linux 2.6.23-rc2 kernel, optimized for a 686 processor:
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install linux-image-2.6.23-rc2-686
Then, reboot and try it out yourself.
I did this, using my Ubuntu 7.10-testing partition. I took 12 FPS reports from GLXGears and averaged them, excluding the highest and lowest numbers.
Here are the results (again, with the highest and lowest numbers removed):

Kernel 2.6.22, with generic optimizations (equivalent to 686-optimized) and SMP:

5201 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1040.198 FPS
5229 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1045.667 FPS
5236 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1047.181 FPS
5196 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1039.119 FPS
5235 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1046.802 FPS
5069 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1013.631 FPS
5122 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1024.397 FPS
5231 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1046.159 FPS
5201 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1039.999 FPS
5237 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1047.369 FPS

***Average is 1039.0522***

Kernel 2.6.23-rc2, with 686 optimizations and SMP:

6185 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1236.758 FPS
6213 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1242.434 FPS
6227 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1245.223 FPS
6248 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1249.584 FPS
6306 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1261.119 FPS
6204 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1240.687 FPS
6238 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1247.495 FPS
6304 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1260.742 FPS
6334 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1266.636 FPS
6267 frames in 5.0 seconds = 1253.311 FPS

***Average is 1250.3989***

That's roughly a 20% increase.
I then ran Sauerbraten with -a0 and -f0 options on each kernel, after a fresh restart. In the exact same scene, kernel 2.6.23-rc2 gave roughly 25% more FPS.
Overall, I was impressed with the results of adding the Completely Fair Scheduler. It will certainly help gaming on Linux, an area that desperately needs some enormous attention, and it's still being improved- this is only the second release candidate. The only bad thing about the CFS that I can see is that it won't be included with Ubuntu until the release after Gutsy, which is staying with 2.6.22.
From Ubuntu 7.10,
The DistRogue.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Life on the bleeding edge: Ubuntu 7.10 Tribe 4

Ubuntu's next release is planned for mid-October, as usual, with the codename "Gutsy Gibbon". In case you have no idea what a gibbon is (get used to it- Ubuntu 11.04 might be named "Naughty Nightjar"), Wikipedia can help. Gutsy is going to be another cutting-edge release, with AppArmor installed and parts of KDE 4 in Kubuntu- not to mention a full Compiz Fusion desktop by default. A rumor suggests Firefox 3 will be included. Don't worry, though, KDE 4 will be optional, GNOME will be at the stable version 2.20, and the planned kernel version is already stable- they're using 2.6.22.
Just for the sake of it, I tried out one of the "Tribe" CDs for Xubuntu. (Ubuntu devs give their alpha releases wacky names like "Tribe" all the time.) The install CD crashed before the kernel was done loading, so I made a separate Xubuntu 7.04 install and upgraded it to- cue music- the bleeding edge.
The software selection was noticeably up-to-date. It included Firefox 2, Gimp 2.3.18, Rhythmbox 0.11.1, and all the other good stuff. The desktop looked exactly the same as it did in 7.04, which means that they haven't made it to artwork yet.
That is, until I turned on Compiz.
Compiz still isn't included in Xubuntu, so I had to install "ubuntu-desktop" to get it. Gutsy comes with the GNOME Control Center, and a new tab in the Appearance window can be used to configure (to an extent) Compiz.

Power users will want more control than that (wobbly windows and the cube aren't even enabled!), so launch Synaptic and install "compizconfig-settings-manager". This gives you the CompizConfig control center that comes with normal compiz-fusion installs. It even shows up in the GNOME Control Center! :D If you turn on the cube, it's really just a flat sheet, so go to General Options > Desktop Size, and bump up the horizontal desktop size.

Note that I didn't say "bump up the desktop size to 4."

As usual, the Ubuntu devs also focus on the little things that make Ubuntu the great distribution it is. For instance, one of my pet peeves with 7.04 was that you needed the root password to access other HD partitions. In 7.10, that restriction was lifted- any user can read from or write to any partition out of the box. On the topic of the Appearance window (formerly gnome-theme-manager), in the "Customize" window, previews of each window border, control set, and icon set are now offered, and cursors and colors (for some themes) can also be configured- although this is probably because of the GNOME developers.
So far, Ubuntu 7.10 isn't very bleeding-edge. The software certainly seems stable enough, and some welcome improvements have been added. If you really want to live on the cutting edge, I suggest installing Trevino's repositories for Feisty, which includes all sorts of untested goodies like Audacity 1.3, Gimp 2.3, KDE 4, and Compiz Fusion.
-Stable enough yet?
-GNOME 2.20 adds welcome improvements
-Compiz Fusion included by default
-Compiz controls are limited out of the box
-Xubuntu doesn't include Compiz
Friendliness: 5/5-
It only got better with GNOME 2.20.
Performance: 3.5/5- No major changes- yet..
Features: 4/5- Finally, it's starting to look like a complete desktop.
Packaging: 4.5/5- Synaptic as usual.
Artwork: 1.5/2.5- No major changes.
Community: 2.5/2.5- Still some support, but most people won't be using Tribes.
Overall: 4.2/5- If this is the pre-release, bring on the final!
My next review won't be a distribution, but rather, a dip into Trevino's repos for one of the most anticipated free software releases of the year.
From Ubuntu 7.10,
The DistRogue.
Saturday, August 04, 2007

Report from the bleeding edge: openSUSE 10.3 Alpha 7

The latest development snapshot on openSUSE 10.3 is supposed to be a great release. KDE 4 components (games and PIM, among others) starting to get integrated, a new single-CD install architecture, new packaging options... It's going to kick Ubuntu's behind! Right?
Always the skeptic, I decided to try it. I downloaded the images (KDE desktop and non-OSS addons) and burned not the advertised one, but two, disks (and if you want GNOME *and* KDE desktops, it'll be 3). I then started the install.
The first attempt was a disaster. Restructuring the packages for one CD had seriously screwed stuff up. I tried it a second time with only the KDE CD, and at least got past the install.
Then, I hit trouble in X. 0.o... A few well-placed # signs later, I was on my way to KDE. Alpha 7 brings with it a new color scheme, a nice industrial green that would look a lot better with the traditional blue. ;) Oh well...

I'm learning to appreciate the Kickoff menu, and the idea of being able to access most of my programs with just one click. For non-SUSE-ers, here's the idea: The menu opens when it's moused over, rather than only when it's clicked on. There are different tabs for commonly used programs, all other programs, administration, and other tasks. These tabs can be switched by mousing over them, rather than clicking them. It's also pretty amazing how they managed to keep with this philosophy while giving it a Windows-ish feel for incoming users. The amazing thing is that even though the standard KDE menu we know and love is in a different tab than the one that comes up, programs still can be launched with one click less than it would take on Kubuntu.
Still, the Kickoff I used had some problems. Sometimes, it refused to launch when I moused over it, other times, the tabs wouldn't switch without being clicked. Geeko the openSUSE gecko still changes colors, though, and looks cute as ever.
Wireless didn't work without the second disk, so I "upgraded" the system to do nothing more than install ipw-firmware- a feature that openSUSE has that most other distributions still lack. It now shows up under YaST2, but not ifconfig, and I'm fixing that as I type.
So, let's see what the developers still need to fix:
-X mouse configuration (Synaptics touchpads, to be specific)
-Package breakage and "RPM hell"
-Kickoff menu
Not much to do in 2 months, is there? These are basic problems that you get from living on the bleeding edge. I bet Ubuntu's "Tribe" CDs for version 7.10 are pretty unstable, too. In fact, this is only the third alpha to use the single-CD architecture- which caused some major breakage.
When openSUSE 10.3 comes out in early October, it'll be a force to be reckoned with. Until then, keep an eye on the development.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Who's with me?

With improvements on the way in terms of NVidia and (hopefully) ATI driver support for Linux, gaming will improve drastically on Linux. But there's one little problem: Intel's Linux drivers still suck, and haven't been recognized as a problem yet.
Windows gets good Intel drivers, with support for everything that an Intel GMA supports (which isn't much). Someone ran a benchmark in Sauerbraten, using the metl3 map, and the results were astonishing: While Windows ran a solid 40FPS, Linux was stuck at 14. Intel's drivers did, in fact, receive a major upgrade (with version 2 released, which will soon be integrated into X 7.3), but they only gave me a few extra FPS in Tremulous, so it's obviously not enough.
We need someone to work on these drivers! They're open-source as is, so improving them should be easy. This affects a lot of Linux users- most people that use a laptop. And Intel needs to learn that giving us crippleware to make people switch back doesn't cut it.

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