Since 1995, when Patrick Volkerding announced that he would no longer include GNOME in Slackware, people had to rely on projects like GWARE, GNOME Slackbuild or Dropline to enjoy their favourite desktop environment on the oldest Linux distribution around. Or, of course, build GNOME yourself. This has been the case for three years, and despite the popularity of GNOME-based distributions like Ubuntu or Fedora, not one of the many Slackware derivates jumped at the opportunity to combine the simplicity and stability of Slackware with a good looking GNOME desktop. Until now.
Zenwalk, formerly known as MiniSlack, has been around for quite a while now, and is something of a fan-favourite. It focuses on stability, speed, and rationality, meaning one application per task. It’s latest offering, Zenwalk 5.2, has been getting positive reviews. By default, the Standard Edition comes with XFCE. Now, there’s the GNOME Edition, and while it’s still a beta, I’m very impressed.
Unlike the Standard Edition, Zenwalk Gnome is not a Live CD. I’ve said before in my Pardus 2008 review that to me, that’s not a big deal, but it may be to others. The install isn’t very pretty, but it’s easy enough for someone who has used Linux before. Mind you, it’s not Mandriva or Ubuntu easy. You do have to know something about your hardware, like the partitioning of your hard drive, and what kind of graphic card you have (the installation of restricted drivers doesn’t happen automatically).
At first boot, you can configure your system further, and this is why installing Zenwalk is easier than installing Slackware. Here, you’ll have to add a user, set up sound, locale and numlock, and agree to some licences. Afterwards, you end up with a very familiar looking desktop, because it looks exactly the same as Zenwalk’s standard XFCE layout. According to the Zenwalk devs, “[t]he looks are not xfce-like, they are Zenwalk-like. The way XFCE looks in Zenwalk is far from the default xfce looks in the first place.[…]We have chosen that layout for XFCE and gnome because we believe that it’s the best layout for a desktop PC.” I guess that makes sense.
Configuration and documentation
Zenwalk doesn’t provide the standard Applications – Locations – System panel layout that a Gnome distribution traditionally has, but the Gnome Configuration Center, with all the familiar modules, is available from the menu and the bottom panel. There’s also the Zenwalk System Tools manager. I’ll provide a screenshot, because listing all the options would take too long.
To be honest, Zenwalk didn’t need much configuration. Most of the stuff that can be changed in the Tools manager was already taken care of during first boot, and working well. I added my favourite key shortcuts in the Gnome Configuration Center, and that was it.
Package management is taken care of by Netpkg, which is simple and works well. Of course, if you base your distribution on Slackware, there will always be the problem that there aren’t as many packages available as for, say, Debian. Normally, Slackware is perfectly suited for users who want to compile their own software, but Zenwalk is aimed at another kind of computer user. That means the bigger the repositories are, the better. And the Zenwalk repositories, while extensive, show at least one curious hole. For a Gnome edition, the omission of Rhythmbox is at least curious. It’s not even available as an alternative. Banshee is, but the version in the repositories isn’t the new 1.2. Instead, we get gMusicbrowser. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but in my opinion it suffers from an overabundance of (unneeded?) options, and some strange playlist handling…in short, it’s not my favourite choice. I understand their one-application-per-task policy, and gMusicbrowser is indeed a lighter application than Rhythmbox and Banshee, so it makes sense that it’s the Zenwalk default. Still, I’d have liked an alternative to be in the repositories.
Any distribution that has a Wiki and an active user forum gets brownie points from me, and Zenwalk has both. In the Wiki the HOWTO section is particularly useful, but the newsletters aren’t very current. I guess you can’t really expect it to be when the latest one introduces itself as “your hopefully monthly update on the Zenwalk GNU/Linux OS and the community around it.” 🙂 The fora are very active, which to me is a sign of a distribution’s health.
Zenwalk was a joy to use. It must be one of the most beautiful distributions I ever installed, but don’t ask me why. The default theme is Clearlooks, which is nothing special, but the icons are a modified Discovery set, which look very nice. At first sight, the desktop background is the typical blue swirl, with the Zenwalk logo, but even that looks great in my opinion. After I installed the nvidia drivers and switched on the Metacity compositor things looked even better.
I expected the unusual panel layout to be irritating, since the bottom panel is twice the hight of a normal Gnome panel, and it leaves a lot of room unused at the left and the right of the screen. Immediately after that thought, I forgot all about it, so I guess I was wrong.
As I mentioned before, the choice of applications is a bit different than what’s “normal”. It’s a mix of standard Gnome software like Brasero, Gimp, Totem, Pidgin and Evince with light-weight software like Asunder (for CD ripping), Leafpad, the aforementioned gMusicbrowser, Galculator, htop, Gnumeric and Abiword. Browsing and email are handled by Iceweasel and Icedove (the rebranded versions of Firefox and Thunderbird). OpenOffice isn’t installed by default, but available from the repositories.
Multimedia support is fairly good out of the box. I could play all my audio and video files, but to play DVDs you have to jump through a few hoops. Firefox Iceweasel handles embedded media with the Totem plugin, but flash has to be installed seperately.
I never, ever felt like I was using a beta release. Literally everything worked as it should have, and the only app that crashed was xscreensaver, and then only the first time. It didn’t cause a lock-up, and it didn’t happen again. I guess that one of the many screensavers that xscreensaver provides just didn’t work.
It wasn’t just stable, it was speedy too. Even with the Metacity compositor turned on, it didn’t slow down. It felt only a little slower than my Arch installation, but that one uses Openbox instead of Gnome, and no compositor. I was very impressed.
I didn’t expect to like Zenwalk this much, but I do. It’s stable while being a beta release, it’s speedy, it just works and it does all of this while looking good. Without the installer, which requires a bit of knowledge, it would a be perfect for a Linux newbie. But as soon as it’s installed, it’s a pleasure to use. Since I installed Arch, thee’s not a single distribution that has tempted me so much. I never knew Gnome could be this fast, or look this good. In my opinion, the only thing that’s needed to make it perfect is to expand the repositories a bit.
The best thing about this distribution, is that it finally brings Gnome to Slackware fans. It has taken some time, but it has been worth the wait. Zenwalk 5.2 GNOME Edition is one of the best Linux distributions I’ve ever installed. Try it out.