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Vector Linux 5.9: Light, fast Slackware-based distro

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Introduction

Vector Linux 5.9, released in late December of last year, is a Slackware 12.0-based distribution that uses Xfce 4.4.2 as its default user interface ("UI"). Generally speaking, Xfce requires less horsepower than other UIs, like GNOME and KDE, and so Vector Linux ("VL" for short) bills itself as an excellent operating system to install on older, lower-powered computers. I've been using it for the past two weeks, and like what I see.

VL comes in several free (i.e. "download the ISO and burn it yourself") and non-free flavors. If you want to try VL before installing it, there's also a live CD available. VL also produces a KDE-based "SOHO" edition, currently at version 5.8; and they're working on a 64-bit version of VL 5.9 Standard, which is in beta as of this writing. Both the Standard and SOHO versions come in for-purchase "Deluxe" versions, which include extra software and email support. They're available at the VL CD store.


"Built-in" Xfce utilities

Installation

After trying out the live CD, I downloaded VL 5.9 Standard, a roughly 676 MB ISO, burned it to CD, and booted from it, using its default kernel. VL's installation procedure uses a guided, ncurses-based UI, just like Slackware. But that's about where the similarity ends.

Roughly, VL installation follows these steps:

  • Create/resize partitions with cfdisk, if this hasn't already been done prior to installation. You're required to have at least a swap and a root partition, but can add others (e.g. /home);
  • Choose the partition(s) on which you'll install VL;
  • Select the software packages you wish to install (I chose to install everything, except for the Opera web browser — pretty much all of the software is optional, except for the base system);
  • Format the partitions and install the software;
  • Install the bootloader, LILO (this is also optional, in case you've already got another bootloader installed);
  • Choose the method of mounting removable media — HAL or Vector Linux's own pre-HAL "VL-Hot" method (from my experience, HAL seems to work more reliably, especially with KDE, if you're going to install it later);
  • Set up hardware;
  • Set up the root and user accounts; and, finally,
  • Reboot into Vector Linux.

Someone's taken the time and effort to put up screenshots of the entire VL installation process on Flickr, for your viewing pleasure.

Among other things, VL 5.9's installer offered to install the proprietary NVIDIA video drivers for my video card (and added the necessary entries to /etc/X11/xorg.conf to allow compositing effects). If you've got an Ethernet card connected to a router or cable modem that uses DHCP, your basic network setup will be "automagically" configured.

I already use GRUB as a bootloader, controlled by another distribution, so I chose not to install LILO. It was easy to add the requisite stanza to boot up VL. Putting "vga=791" and "splash=verbose" parameters in GRUB's "kernel" line allowed VL to boot using its nice bootsplash theme. Overall, installation is very quick — it took approximately 20 minutes both times I tried it. On my box, a full installation consumed just over 4 GB of hard disk space.

Since I have "plain vanilla" hardware, the only thing I needed to configure after installation (other than my printers) was /etc/fstab. (The file is well-commented with examples.) None of my existing Linux partitions were automatically written into /etc/fstab, so I added them manually after creating mount points for them in /mnt.

VL also installs NTFS-3g for read-write access to Windows NTFS partitions. During the installation process, you're asked if you have an existing partition to share between Windows and Linux. I have two NTFS partitions and one FAT32 partition. One quirk I found was that, the first time I installed VL, I didn't specify a partition to share, and it automatically wrote both NTFS partitions and the FAT32 partition into /etc/fstab, using the NTFS-3g driver for read/write access to the NTFS partitions. The second time I installed VL, I told it to use /dev/hda1 as my shared "/mnt/win" partition. The installer put a mountpoint for it into /etc/fstab using the read-only ntfs driver, and missed the other two partitions. YMMV.

Instead of doing it manually, I could have used Vector's own system configuration tool, "VASM," to set up mount points. (A bit more about VASM below.)

Software and software management

VL offers a large selection of software from which to choose. As noted above, most of the software, other than the base system, is optional. (If you intend to run a server, you don't have to install X Windows or a window manager if you don't want to.) Out of the box, it comes with:

  • Kernel 2.6.22.14; gcc 4.1.2; X.org 1.4.0;
  • Networking applications, among which are Firefox 2.0.0.11; Seamonkey 1.1.7; the Transmission bittorrent client; the XChat IRC client; pyNeighborhood (for LAN browsing); NMap and NMapFE (the latter is a GUI for NMap); the Chestnut modem dialer; and some tools written by the VL team for WiFi connections (I didn't test these);
  • Office applications, including ABIWord; Adobe Reader 8; Gnumeric (spreadsheet); JPilot (for Palm device connectivity); and Scribus (for desktop publishing);
  • Editors, including the Bluefish HTML editor; and medit, a programmer's text editor;
  • Multimedia applications, including K3b for CD/DVD burning; ripperX, for ripping tracks from music CDs to MP3; MPlayer; XMMS; and Xine (commercial DVDs played just fine in Xine, complete with menus); and
  • Several games, including Chromium; PlanetPenguin Racer; and Pysol.

     

VL also comes with fairly comprehensive end-user documentation. You can peruse it from the CD before you install VL, or afterwards, from your hard disk, via the desktop icon. (It's also available online). They have a forum as well as a knowledge base (from which paid help is available).

Vector uses Slackware's package management tools — "pkgtool," "installpkg," and friends. It also comes with slapt-get and its Synaptic-like GUI front-end, Gslapt, preconfigured with the Vector and Slackware repositories. Vectorite volunteers frequently add new packages to the Vector repositories, but if you simply can't find a piece of software you need, other than making a request for it in the Vector forums, you can always try SlackBuilds.org (which is where I went to get the SpliX CUPS drivers for my Samsung laser printer).

 
Gslapt and vpackager (Vector's "build-your-own-package" utility); compiling a program

Vector comes with several of its own repositories ("packages" and "extra" are enabled in Gslapt by default; you may wish to enable "patches" and "testing"). You can install everything from OpenOffice.org 2.3.1 to KDE 3.5.8 in its entirety. Installation is simply a matter of selecting the packages in Gslapt and pressing the "Execute" button. If you want GNOME, it looks like you'll need to download and run the Dropline GNOME installer.

Vector comes with its own system configuration tool (similar to openSUSE's YaST), named "VASM" (for "Vector Administrative and Services Menu"). (What an impressive acronym. I set my hostname to "vector.org.vasm" as a tribute to their creativity.) Vector's installer was so good at setting up the system that I really haven't needed to use it, other than as an easy way to access CUPS, the printing system. VASM includes tools for such things as administering your network access; your hardware; partitions and mountpoints; system services; and so on. (VASM seems to come in three interfaces: an ncurses-based one, accessible from a regular console window; an older, less-graphical version, called by the command "vasm"; and a newer, prettier version accessed by the "vasmcc" command. The functionality seems to be the same.)


VASMCC and VASM

More features

Some nice touches specific to Vector Linux include a button on the toolbar that asks you to select your favorite browser the first time you press it; access to Gslapt and other system utilities from the VASM button on the toolbar; and wbar ("Warlock's Bar"), a Mac-like application launcher (it's available in the "Accessories" submenu).

It should also be mentioned that VL comes with a plethora of browser plug-ins pre-installed, so that you can watch Flash-based movies, view scalable vector graphics (SVG) files, listen to Real Audio streams, and view Java applets and Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) files in Firefox, out of the box.

For those who use audio, video, and DVD applications, there's also a freely-downloadable Vector Linux Multimedia Bonus Disk with a huge selection of multimedia software.

Finally...

One thing I personally don't like about "stock" Xfce is its sort of bland-looking interface. As it turns out (and as long-time Xfce users already know), that can be changed. Since Xfce 4.4.2's built using GTK+ 2.0, it's very easy to download and install GTK2 theme engines like Murrine and Aurora from xfce-look.org. Add a new wallpaper and a new set of icons, and you can radically alter Xfce's look and feel.

   
 
Screenshots of Vector Linux using the Aurora theme engine

I like Vector Linux a lot, mainly for its speed and its ease of set-up and use. (It's also been interesting for this die-hard KDE fan to get to know Xfce.) Congratulations to the VL team for a job well done.

— Andrew Heil

(For an interesting comparison to another Slackware-based distro using Xfce, see Susan's recent review of Zenwalk Linux 5.0.)

Edit, 2/13/08: Vector Linux released a new "Light" version on 2/11/08, meant for installation on really low-powered PCs. Please don't confuse that release with the term "light" in this review's title.




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Great review, but I'd have...

...a few questions.

1. In VasmCC, when you click on "Hardware Config", do you get the same error like with the LiveCD? http://beranger.org/blogo8/vasmcc2.png

2. Isn't it strange to have xine-ui but to lack gxine, when even Slackware has gxine?

3. Have you tried the module supposed to patch the new kernel vulnerability? (novmsplice-1.0_2.6.22.14-i586-1vl59)

4. Why should I be using a Slackware-like distro, being it nicer, if it can't hibernate, just like Slack can't? (Other XFCE-based distros have Suspend and Hibernate out-of-the-box in the xfce logout screen -- e.g. xubuntu :-J)

Otherwise, kudos for the theming notes!

Here are some guesses...

Béranger wrote:
1. In VasmCC, when you click on "Hardware Config", do you get the same error like with the LiveCD? http://beranger.org/blogo8/vasmcc2.png

Now that's a loaded question. Smile It doesn't look like an "error;" it looks like the way the utility's meant to be run. In other words, they want you to log out of Xfce, switch to a console, go to runlevel 3, and then run VASM > HARDWARE > HWCONF.

Béranger wrote:
2. Isn't it strange to have xine-ui but to lack gxine, when even Slackware has gxine?

I've never seen the need to use another Xine "front end." You can certainly install it from the Slackware repos, if you want to.

Béranger wrote:
3. Have you tried the module supposed to patch the new kernel vulnerability? (novmsplice-1.0_2.6.22.14-i586-1vl59)

Yes, "novmsplice" installed fine using slapt-get. Haven't run the "proof of concept" code to test it, though.

Béranger wrote:
4. Why should I be using a Slackware-like distro, being it nicer, if it can't hibernate, just like Slack can't? (Other XFCE-based distros have Suspend and Hibernate out-of-the-box in the xfce logout screen -- e.g. xubuntu :-J)

Another loaded question. No one's saying you "should be" using any particular distro.

I've never used suspend or hibernate on this desktop computer; I simply turn it off if I'm going to be away from it for a while. Wish I had enough space on my laptop to play with other distros; then suspend and hibernation would matter more.

That said, if you have the kernel source installed, and do a "locate tuxonice", you'll see it's there. So is the /usr/sbin/hibernate script. After adding "resume=swap:/dev/hdb3" to GRUB and running /usr/sbin/hibernate, it seems to work OK -- but not from within X windows. The proprietary nvidia driver's blacklisted. There's probably a way around that.

Béranger wrote:
Otherwise, kudos for the theming notes!

That was the fun part!

Forgot to mention: If you want to add Vector's "unstable" repo, you have to put it into Gslapt by hand.

Self-answering...

...to the hibernation issue: the GOLD edition has TuxOnIce.

But then:
(1) Does it mean that the GOLD (paid) edition hibernates from XFCE too?!
(2) Can't TuxOnIce be added to the standard edition? (What packages to install/replace?)

Corrections and answers (mainly Béranger's concerns)

"Gold" simply means release code in Vector Linux. So... Vector Linux 5.9 Standard Gold is the free edition. It doesn't cost anything and DOES include TuxOnIce. Hibernation works fine in the free (Standard) edition. The paid edition is called "Deluxe", BTW.

When I tried gxine recently I found it buggy. I also found that it consumed more memory than plain old xine. That may explain the choices as Vector Linux is meant to be lightweight and fast.

novmsplice works. I've tested it. If you're security conscious you should probably also grab the Seamonkey 1.1.18 and Firefox 2.0.0.12 packages plus any language packs you need out of "testing". (It's not called "unstable" in Vector Linux.)

There is a bug in the Standard edition -- the "patches" repository is not enabled by default. You'll want to enable that one too.

I hope this helps.

Thanks + a few replies

-- Mea culpa, it was indeed DELUXE I was thinking of.

-- If "Hardware Config" was NOT supposed to be run from X, then WHY IS THAT BUTTON SHOWING UP? It should have been disabled and only shown in the CLI version.

-- A hibernation that doesn't work from within X is useless. As long as I can close ALL the X apps I was using, I can very well shutdown the system! Or maybe it works from an xterm, but it doesn't add any button in the XFCE logout dialog.

-- gxine was always buggy, but it seems that Patrick likes it, and so do I Smile I simply CAN'T use xine, the same way I can't use mplayer with the default theme: their GUIs are designed with ANTI-USABILITY in mind, no standard menus, etc. This is why I prefer gxine to xine, and a different mplayer skin, no matter what distro I am using.

Is Vector *officially* compatible with Slackware 12.0 repos? I couldn't see such an official assertion.

Respones

AFAIK Tux on Ice DOES work within Xfce. You are correct that the Hibernate button on the shutdown menu included in Ubuntu is missing in VL. I have no idea why but I agree with you that VL would be more user friendly if it was there. Right now you do have to invoke it from a terminal session.

I also agree that there are some missing desktop files to create menu entries and one or two (including hardware config) that shouldn't be there. It's a minor point but I can see why you'd find it annoying.

gxine vs. xine is a matter or preference. I'm comfortable with xine and the bugs in gxine (including freeze ups) really got in the way for me.

VL is Slackware compatible. Enabling the repos in gslapt or slapt-get is NOT recommended as it tends to create dependency hell and duplicate entries for the same app. slapt-get and gslapt are only guaranteed to automagically handle dependencies with VL repositories, not with third party sources. Having said that, there is nothing at all wrong with grabbing the occasional Slackware package and installing it.

vpackager also allows repackaging anything in Cruxports4Slack in a nice, easy to use GUI. That makes a ton of additional software available.

I should also point out that there is a huge backlog of packages in the testing repository and the repositories in general seem to grow on a daily basis. New, previously missing apps show up all the time. It's still nowhere near what is offered for Ubuntu or Fedora but it's been getting closer and closer for over a year now.

I have yet to find the perfect distro. I can find flaws in every one of them. I know you've read my reviews on O'Reillynet and I consider them all mixed reviews. Some are just more positive than others. All in all I do thing VL is one of the best choices out there for the desktop for a reasonably experienced Linux user. I know you have more than a little experience from my time at Red Hat Smile

Great distro

Nice and compact review, which covers the basics. I also use Vector linux (but mostly, about 90 percent of the time, i use puppy linux), and i think it's a great distro. It has almost anything you might need out-of-the-box. (Openoffice is in the repositories)

The best media players are included, plus you can download a special media disk with lots of video/audio apps and libs.

As this distro is aimed at the littlebit more experienced user (but also for the newbie) they should have included some more graphical programming tools (like geany, graphical diff checkers and stuff like that), or even an ide. But ofcourse you can install them yourself.

I like their vpackager tool to create packages from source (i know there are more cli apps like that, but i just like the fact they included a gui version)

Ending this with the remark that i like their choice of apps. Their selection consist mostly of apps that are small and startup quickly, Just like i'm used to with puppy linux. which makes it one of the fastest distro's around.

edit: extra remark: Due to the lack of harddisk encryptiontools this Vector 5.9 version is not really suited for a laptop installation (if your laptop get's stolen, the thief has all your personal data). Even for a desktop install it's a real issue not having harddisk encryption available.

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