The DistRogue

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Zenwalk 5.0: Slackware Made Somewhat Easier

I tried Zenwalk back at v3.0 and liked it. It was a fast, sleek, minimalist OS based on Slackware, but supposedly only aimed at more technically advanced users. With the release of v5.0, I decided to try it again and see how far it's come in the past year or so.
For those who aren't familiar with Zenwalk, here's a brief explanation: Zenwalk is a one-CD installation of Slackware which has a philosophy of only including one program for each task. It was originally called MiniSlack in the pre-1.0 days when it shipped with WindowMaker as the desktop. Now, it's based on XFCE, supposedly has much better hardware detection, and is a more complete desktop overall. It's still based loosely on Slackware, using Slackware's packaging system and using LILO instead of GRUB as the boot loader, but it's a more complete OS out of the box, despite being smaller.

Of all the distributions to use a live/install hybrid CD, Zenwalk isn't one of them. The live CD is usually released a month or so after the main release, and so I found myself jumping straight to the install. It wasn't like I didn't know what to expect: I'd asked around on #zenwalk about a few things, in addition to doing some research on DistroWatch. Zenwalk ships with some of the latest software (GIMP, Iceweasel, X.Org, Pidgin, and XFCE are all in their latest versions at the time of writing) and includes iwl3945 drivers.
The install is text-based, but thanks to some nice framebufferwork, it seems graphical. You'll notice it's text-based once you try to use your mouse, but it's not that bad. It guides you through the usual steps, leaving user setup for after the reboot. The first phase only took 10 minutes from a CD- not bad.

Zenwalk has meh-ish artwork. The window border is pretty much the exact same as the Tyrex style for XFWM. Thanks to XFWM's built-in compositing, you can have windows turn transparent when dragged or resized, all without Compiz- but you have to turn it on yourself.
Controls are handled by Clearlooks. Except it's not Clearlooks- it's "Zen". Whatever. It looks like Clearlooks to me. In fact, it *is* Clearlooks rebranded so it shows up as "Zen" in the XFCE settings. But a rose by any other name...
As a (relatively) old-time Zenwalker, I switched to the legacy themes because I still think they look cooler.

Installed Software
Zenwalk has a meticulously-trimmed software selection, but that doesn't mean it's incomplete. No way. Wolvix 1.1 "Hunter Edition", for example, is far from incomplete, and it only takes up 480MB on the CD. Zenwalk uses a simple philosophy: "You only need one program for each task." That means there's only one web browser (IceWeasel), only one image editor (GIMP), only one IM-ing client (Pidgin)... But there are a lot of categories. Zenwalk comes with an FTP client (gFTP), CD burner (Brasero), CD ripper (Asunder, which I'd never even heard of before)... On the codec side, MP3 playback is flawless (assuming your sound works), but Flash needs to be installed manually since it isn't open-source (and won't be until Gnash is stable). Suffice it to say that Zenwalk is a complete desktop and a half.

Hardware Support
Hardware support in Zenwalk is good considering its KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) philosophy. I only had to do a little tinkering in xorg.conf to make X recognize my screen resolution and stop it from annoyingly switching it off. My wireless card was detected, but I had to mess around with iwconfig (only one command) and wicd (a GUI for wireless connections, like NetworkManager) to get it set up. Sound worked without a hitch.

Imagine my surprise when I noticed how slow Zenwalk was. Slackware-based distros typically run very fast (Wolvix is the fastest distro I've used, for instance), and Zenwalk ran with little-to-no bloat over time, but I credit that to the lightweight desktop environment. GLXGears ran at a dismal pace (950FPS), and Tremulous only cranked out an average number of FPS. It was okay for online gaming, but something is definitely wrong with this picture.

Slackware uses an ancient, much-outdated packaging system that doesn't have any form of dependency tracking, which is another reason to use Zenwalk. It has a useful GUI called Netpkg that downloads and installs packages automatically. Dependency tracking still needs a little work (Exaile took 3 separate tries to install), but it works pretty well most of the time. In addition, the package repository is much larger than I remember it. Ah, the good old days when GNOME installed in only 6 packages and there were only about 100 or so packages available...

-Small, lightweight, but complete system
-Good hardware support
-Still needs some minor tweaking after setup
-No dependency tracking in Netpkg
Friendliness: 3.5/5
- Some things need a lot of tweaking, some work out of the box.
Performance: 3.5/5- I'm seriously disappointed.
Features: 4.5/5- A great package selection for such a small distro.
Packaging: 4/5- The dependency tracking needs improvement, but it's definitely an improvement over Slackware.
Artwork: 1.5/2.5- Meh. It works, but it's not very original.
Community: 2.5/2.5- Zenwalk is mostly compatible with Slackware, which has an enormous, knowledgeable support base.

Overall: 3.9/5- A well-rounded distribution, but newbies beware!
From Zenwalk 5.0,
The DistRogue.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's good to see you changed your mind. Keep on reviewing - you're a skilled writer. But be careful to always test on a clean system to get a proper impression of the distro.


6:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for having a second look at ZenWalk. Keep it up and dont wait too long between you Zen-reviews ;-)

Kind Regards,

6:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great to see your modified review is back online, and it's well written :)

Did you try to install the proprietary drivers for your graphic card? They aren't included with Zenwalk, and will usually give you a lot better performance than the free drivers.

Keep your Zenwalk reviews coming! ;)

8:59 PM  
Blogger DJ Gentoo said...

Since I have an Intel GMA950, there aren't any proprietary drivers. But if I had an NVidia card (ATI drivers aren't proprietary anymore! :-), I definitely would have tried to.

9:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dependency management? we don't need to steenking dependency manager.

3:54 PM  

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