As I become more knowledgable about Linux, the thought has crossed my mind to create my own distribution. However, I’ll readily admit I’m not the most technical user, but at least I’m getting to a point where I could give it a try. Using Ubuntu as the base would probably be easiest, starting from a minimal install, and using my favoruite window manager: Openbox. It wouldn’t be a minimalist or leightweight distribution, just one that provided almost all of the functionality and none of the bloat.
Well, someone beat me to it, and that someone is Philip Newborough. Not only did he steal my idea by thinking of it first, he also did a much better job than I could ever have done. The distribution is called CrunchBang Linux, and inbetween the endless muddy rocks of Ubuntu derivates, CrunchBang is a rare gem.
The LiveCD does not offer the familiar IsoLinux menu of Ubuntu, but keeps it text based. That means you can’t immediately choose your language and keyboard layout at boot, which becomes a bit of an issue later. Otherwise, the progress meter is very familiar, and throws you into a sparse, dark looking desktop. There’s no background to speak of, just a sign that reads (you guessed it) “#! CrunchBang Linux”, some information about your system and a list of keyboard shortcuts (nice touch) on the right, and a completely dark panel at the bottom. That’s all, but don’t get thrown by the minimalist looks.
The first thing I did was right-clicking the desktop, which opens the Openbox menu. Now, in a default Openbox installation, the menu is next to useless, providing a list of applications which may or may not be installed on your system. That’s why I’m very careful to always have a backup of my menu.xml, which is the configuration file: I simply don’t want to go through all that work again.
Well, if I thought my menu configuration was a lot of work, I was dead wrong. Crunchbang’s menu is a doorway to your entire system, but with a well thought-out layout which keeps it from being overlarge and eating a lot of screen estate. It provides easy, direct links to some default applications, like “Web browser” or “Terminal”, but also provides the usual categories of “Internet”, “Office”, “Graphics”, and so on. It’s worth pointing out that CrunchBang comes with a bigger list of applications than a default Ubuntu install, but we’ll look into that later. The most interesting part of the menu is at the bottom: since Crunchbang doesn’t come with GNOME, it doesn’t have the GNOME configuration tools. Instead, there’s an interesting selection of configuration utilities which nearly provide the same functionality. Nearly, but not quite, and this is probably the area where a GNOME or KDE user would need a little adjustment time. In the end, all the important functions are there, save one: choosing the keyboard layout. Again, as you can’t pick your layout at boot, this can be a bit of a bother, as the default choice is the UK layout. I changed it by using the
setxkbmap command, but I wonder why it isn’t somewhere in the menu. It couldn’t have been that hard to include it? In any case, that was the only tiny hiccup after an otherwise very impressive first experience. The only thing left was taking a screenshot (already mapped to PrintScrn!), and install it on my hard disk.
CrunchBang has an entry for the installation in its menu, and this is where the distribution shows it’s heritage: the installer is Ubuntu’s all-familiar Ubiquity. It also shows its age, since (as he name suggests) CrunchBang 8.10.02 is not based on Ubuntu’s latest release (Jaunty), but on the one before that (Intrepid). Among other things, that means you can’t install CrunchBang on an ext4 partition. A bit of a shame, since that would have boosted the performance even more. As mentioned in CrunchBang’s last newsletter, a new version is in the works, and there’s even a little sneak peek of the new theme there. For now, however, it’s a bit behind the curve. The install itself didn’t take much time, ten to fifteen minutes.
After first boot, another familiar sight. The Restricted Device Manager pops up and asks me if I want to install the proprietary driver. I always thought this feature was one of the best things of Ubuntu, one of the easiest ways to deal with this (necessary) free software hurdle, and it’s good that CrunchBang has it too.
In other words, the whole install was uneventful, and that’s the way it should be.
Pleasant surprise: the codec installer doesn’t pop-up, because they’re already installed. However, not everything is perfect here. Videos are opened in VLC, which is fine, but mp3s in Audacity, which is an audio editor, not an audio player. I installed Audacious, a GTK xmms clone, which is much better suited to that particular task. Another oddity is that Firefox comes equipped with plugins for Flash and Java, but not for video files. A VLC plugin is avaiblable, but not installed by default…and it isn’t that good anyway, because it doesn’t play QuickTime files. I feel a combination of mplayer and the gecko-mediaplayer plugin would have been the better choice here.
When I started adjusting the software selection a a bit, removing some applications here, installing some others there, Openbox showed one of it’s few limitations. The menu doesn’t get updated by default, you have to do that by hand. It’s not very difficult using OBMenu (Preferences > Openbox Config > GUI Menu Editor), but it’s an extra task you don’t have to bother with in a DE. To perform all that software shuffling, I used aptitude, but Synaptic is available from the menu.
As is customary in an Ubuntu based distribution, I didn’t have to do much post-install configuration. Aside from the details I mentioned, everything worked as intended.
Look and Feel
Ah, this is an interesting part. According to the website, one of the best things about CrunchBang is that it isn’t brown. I’m sure that many would agree, but instead CrunchBang is pitch black. Now, black is popular among Openbox users, but I’ve never been a fan of it. As far as black themes go, these is one of the better ones, with a nice balance between grey, dark grey and black, and the dev has gone through the trouble of creating his own Openbox and GTK theme, which fit together beautifully. Still, when checkboxes consist of a black tick on a dark grey square, I can confidently say that sometimes you can have too much darkness on your desktop. The icon theme is Tango, which is okay, but not isn’t very inspired.
In other words, it looks good but I have trouble using it. No harm done, as looks are easily changed. I experimented with orange and blue desktops before, so this time I decided to go over the top and go red. I used Shiki-Wine as the GTK theme, gnome-wine for the icons and arc-wine as the background. Openbox didn’t have a theme that went with that so I created my own. This is the result:
Of course you could argue that I sissy-fied a perfectly manly desktop, but this is more to my tastes :) I still have to get a conky bar up there, and add the calendar I’m fond of, but that’s easily done.
When it comes to software selection, CrunchBang is a mix of lightweight and traditional applications. Part of LXDE is installed, most notably the file manager PCManFM, LXpanel and LXappearance, the theme and icon chooser. It also comes with a healthy dose of terminal applications, like rtorrent, irssi and naim, and uses Terminator for the terminal. OpenOffice isn’t installed, but Abiword and Gnumeric are. Claws is also an unusual choice for the email-client. The rest is pretty standard fare: Firefox, Rhythmbox, Deluge, The Gimp, Skype… The full application list can be found on the website, and it’s pretty obvious that omitting GNOME and OpenOffice left a lot of room for other great software.
As a result though, CrunchBang really can’t be called a “lightweight” distribution. It’ll run faster and use less resources than standard Ubuntu because it doesn’t have to run GNOME, but we’re not talking huge margins here.
Despite the use of Openbox and some lightweight alternatives to popular applications, CrunchBang isn’t a competitor for distributions like Puppy, DamnSmall or Slitaz. It’s not designed to be as small or run as fast as possible. I think that what Philip Newborough was trying to do here was simply create an Ubuntu that was more to his liking, sacrificing a bit of the ease of GNOME for the speed and versatility of Openbox, and including more of his favourite applications. When I look at the positive comments about CrunchBang I’ve been seeing everywhere, I can only conclude that he filled a real niche in the distribution list.
In my opinion, CrunchBang comes very close to my beloved Arch. It’s a very easy way to end up with a nice Openbox system, while retaining the easy install and hardware configuration of Ubuntu. The only major drawback I can see is that the current release is still based on Intrepid, which makes the software selection a bit outdated. Other than that, it’s simply one of the best distributions out there.