2010-03-18

Review: CrunchBang ("#!") Linux 9.04.01






A friend of mine (you know who you are) mentioned that his computer has been slowing down. I've recommended trying out Linux; after hearing the specs (less than 256 MB RAM), I searched for a suitable light distribution and settled on CrunchBang (hereafter called "#!") version 9.04.01.
The version may give a hint as to its origins: #! is Ubuntu under the hood but has an elegant Openbox (as opposed to GNOME) front-end (and compatibility with all the GTK+-based applications). #! thus also has access to Ubuntu's excellent repositories, and anything applicable to Ubuntu is applicable to #! (unless the issue pertains to the desktop environment/window manager).

(UPDATE: Follow the jump to see the full review and pictures.)


When I booted up, I went with the default live session. The problem is that after the boot screen, the monitor was no longer detected. This is a problem that I have also experienced when using my Linux Mint live CDs (pre-installation), so I rebooted and went for the "safe graphics mode". This worked, just as it has with the Mint live CDs.
I was aware of the relative sparseness of the #! desktop (upon first appearance). The theme itself is pretty nice - functional yet stylish (but not overdone). However, the wallpaper is rather drab. The first thing I did was change that (UPDATE: see to the left).













The nice thing is that the bottom panel is automatically transparent - not a lot of other panels can make that claim. I also enabled compositing, which allows specific windows to have their own transparency levels. It looks marvelous. (UPDATE: see to the left - I have opened 4 instances of the terminal (command line), each with its own level of transparency. The top left has 10% transparency, the top right 30%, the bottom left 50%, and the bottom right 70%. Pretty neat, huh?)
The bottom panel itself is divided based on the number of virtual desktops; I increased the number of virtual desktops from 2 to 4, so the panel split accordingly. Also, the window switchers are simple icons, à la Windows 7 taskbar (which it preceded) or the Mac OS X dock. It's nice in that it conserves space, though one has to mouse over if multiple instances of the application are running.





One of the features of Openbox is that there is no main "Start" menu button; instead, one only has to right-click on the desktop background to bring up the main menu (UPDATE: see to the left - this shows the menu (right-click) to the left of the file manager window PCManFM). But what if a window is maximized? Thankfully, the bottom panel leaves a little space on either side for this very purpose, so one only has to right-click on either of the bottom corners to bring up the main menu.
Related to this is the fact that there are no icons on the desktop. All file management is done either in the terminal (Terminator is the terminal program used here) or in the file manager (PCManFM is the file manager used here).
In #!, most changes to the OS are done by manually editing configuration files; there are few GUI configuration utilities. This should not be an issue, however, as almost everything worked out of the box for me.
Another nice feature of the desktop is the presence of Conky on the right side; this allowed me to gauge RAM usage at idle and when applications are used; this confirmed my choice of #! for computers with limited RAM.





Firefox and Pidgin are both present, as is VLC. Facebook, Youtube (UPDATE: see to the left), and Gmail all work out of the box, while VLC seems to be able to handle most types of audio and video formats. Pidgin works as expected.
To keep bloat down, the #! developers have put Abiword and Gnumeric as the default word processing and spreadsheet programs. The features I found in these (that are lacking in OpenOffice.org, found in Microsoft Word and Excel) are a grammar checker (Abiword) and the ability (Gnumeric) to make 3D contour graphs (though not actual 3D plots). These were both pleasant surprises and give me a higher opinion of these 2 applications. However, if presentation software is necessary, download OpenOffice.org from Synaptic Package Manager (the lovely package manager carried over from Debian and Ubuntu).
Due to Openbox itself being the window manager, Compiz cannot be used. This means no 3D effects; however, the compositing works as described.
Cheese Webcam Booth was present, and although it did not recognize my webcam at first, that was changed with 2 clicks of the mouse.
There were a few minor quirks. Being a British distribution, the English used is British English. More importantly, however, the keyboard layout is the British layout, which is a little different from the American layout. Both of these, however, can be easily changed to the US equivalents.
#! is an extraordinarily solid, light, and feature-packed distribution. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants something simpler to use or who has an older computer. I may even switch to it if Linux Mint 9 uses the dreaded GNOME 3.0 with GNOME Shell (which will make Compiz unable to run due to the tight binding of GNOME and Metacity in the future). I have not installed it on my computer, but as far as I know, the installer is the standard Ubuntu installer (Ubiquity).

(UPDATE: I also found Skype in the LiveCD, which was a pleasant surprise. Even more (pleasantly) surprising was that while #! recognized my mic in Skype, unlike Linux Mint, it also recognized my webcam. I was thus able to chat with a cousin (all names and faces are blurred, blacked out, or deleted for privacy). The screenshot utility worked fine, though it was annoying that I couldn't access my hard drive from the LiveCD when trying to save a screenshot even though the hard drive was already mounted! A final quirk is that although there is an image viewing utility, images open by default in...Firefox. That's strange.)

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