2010-12-21

Review: Slackware 13.1

KDE Main Screen
I never envisioned myself trying out any of the more advanced distributions like Slackware, Arch, or Gentoo, but having tried derivatives like GNU/Linux Utopia, Chakra, and Sabayon, I think I'm ready to try Slackware and Arch, and I am writing about the former today. Hopefully, the latter can also happen soon. (I'm still not going to try Gentoo.)
Note: this review will be heavy on images, so don't be surprised if the page takes a little time to load.
LILO
Slackware is the oldest surviving Linux distribution, and it brings with it, alongside its famous rock-solid stability, a couple of quirks and anachronisms. For example, it is one of the few distributions that provides no form of dependency management; users need to install all dependent packages manually. Another example is how its ncurses-based installation interface dates back from the 1990s/early 2000s. Furthermore, it still uses the old Linux Loader (LILO) instead of GRUB; LILO is quite limited in terms of configuration and the number of operating systems and types of file systems it can handle, and making it play well with other non-Linux-based OSs (like Microsoft Windows) as far as I know is still a herculean task. Finally, unlike most distributions, Slackware provides no official route to installing GNOME, though it provides a plethora of other WM options alternative to KDE and Xfce.
With all these things in mind, follow the jump to see how my experience with the grandfather of distributions (well, not quite) turned out. I tested this in a VirtualBox environment with 1 GB of RAM and an available 10 GB virtual hard drive.
Ncurses Installer

Slackware doesn't have any official live media; it needs to be installed. However, these installation media go way back; in fact, on their website, there are still references to installation floppy disks. Wow, that's old-school! Anyway, I downloaded the full installation DVD (a hefty 4 GB download) and started looking through the website for installation help.
Dolphin in KDE
The hardest part was probably partitioning, and even that wasn't bad, as it was just the fdisk CLI program; I haven't used that in a while, so I was a bit out-of-touch with CLI partitioning. After that, I saw the standard ncurses installer that I got to work with in GNU/Linux Utopia. The installation went well, and I selected a "full" installation. Interestingly enough, the installer offered to create a live USB (UPDATE: it's not a live USB, it's just a bootable installation USB) of Slackware on-the-fly as well; as I didn't want to do that, I just selected "no" and moved on.
Xfce Main Screen
After the installation was done, I rebooted the machine from the hard drive. Contrary to my expectations, LILO was themed to look quite nice and not at all primitive. Afterwards, I was thrown into a command prompt and made to log in. As I was just testing this distribution and wasn't planning on using this regularly, I did what most Linux users shouldn't do: I logged in as root. Oh well, nothing bad happened. I started the X session and was put into a KDE 4 environment.
Mozilla SeaMonkey in Blackbox
There was nothing spectacular about this. Unfortunately, a couple bad things happened (some KDE-related, some not) here. The biggest issue was that Slackware didn't automatically recognize my wired ethernet connection. I fixed that this morning by running "netconfig", but it was still a pain. Also, Akonadi crashed a couple times every time I started KDE, and Plasma crashed when I started the KDE System Settings program. Not good. Otherwise, the KDE session was pretty unremarkable. I had the usual assortment of programs, like Mozilla Firefox, Konqueror, Pidgin, Kopete, KDE Games, and other stuff. All of these seemed to work well (though the non-Qt applications like Mozilla Firefox and Pidgin stuck out like sore thumbs).
Calculator in FVWM
Because I just fixed the Internet connection issue this morning, when I was testing Slackware yesterday, I got a bit bored and decided to see what other DEs and WMs were present. I was in for a bit of a surprise when I saw just how many different WMs were included. The full list is KDE, Xfce, Blackbox, FVWM, Fluxbox, MWM, TWM, and WindowMaker. I decided to go next into Xfce. It was a vanilla Xfce session, and as all programs are present across all WMs, there's really no reason to pick one over another except for differences in fundamental WM functionality or preferences. In any case, Xfce was nothing to write home about.
XSnow in FVWM
I next tried Blackbox. Blackbox is the WM that gave rise to Openbox, my favorite lightweight WM. It honestly didn't look that remarkable; again, nothing here to write home about.
After that, I tried FVWM. Boy, was I in for a shock. FVWM is quite an old WM, and it certainly looks the part. Although it has 6 virtual desktops, it has no panel of any kind, and the menu is brought up by left-clicking (as opposed to right-clicking) on the desktop. Furthermore, the window buttons are really weird; the minimize button is on the leftmost side of the title bar, while on the rightmost side are the close and maximize buttons, in that order (going right). That one confused me for a while. After a little time, I got used to it. I looked around in the menu to see what else I could find and found...XSnow! Yes, folks, before Compiz and KWin existed, FVWM had a desktop effect allowing for snow falling on the desktop background (and allowing for other applications to run at the same time)! Wow!
KWord in Fluxbox
After that came Fluxbox. It worked much the same as Blackbox (as it, like Openbox, originates from Blackbox), so there really isn't much to say here.
After that came MWM. It seemed to operate much the same as FVWM, so after a quick glance I exited the session.
After that came TWM. TWM is the oldest surviving graphical WM for Linux, and it has its share of quirks. For example, its terminology (e.g. "iconify") dates back to the Microsoft Windows 1.0 days. Also, it has a window button layout similar to that of FVWM. I again didn't spend too much time here.
Mozilla Firefox and XTerm in TWM
Finally came WindowMaker. This is slightly closer to the modern WM, as it has icons on the desktop representing application launchers and open applications. It's also highly themeable. Once again, I didn't really spend too much time here, given that all applications are present across all WMs.
So what's the deal? Slackware is certainly best for the intermediate to advanced Linux user with a good deal of patience. This applies to issues like the ethernet issue as well as quirks like LILO and the lack of dependency management (though there are third-party tools like Slapt-get and Gslapt). I had fun working with Slackware and its myriad included DEs and WMs, but I could honestly never see myself using Slackware on a regular basis and being patient enough to deal with its numerous foibles.
Mozilla Firefox (working) in WindowMaker

43 comments:

  1. The installer doesn't offer an option to create "liveusb". It offers the option to create a bootable usb stick which you can use to boot directly into slackware. Previously, it offered the option to create a boot floppy, but the 2.6.x series of kernel no longer fits on 1.44mb. It is really archaic, and it dates back to the days when advanced bootloaders like GRUB and LILO were not present.

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  2. @Rohan Dhruva: Oops. It's been fixed. Thanks for the tip!

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  3. BTW, when you described your FVWM experience, what you really described was your experience with FVWM configured in a particular fashion, and about the same goes for TWM. Those particular window managers are almost ridiculously flexible and can look and behave in almost any fashion. That's especially true of FVWM. Configuring either window manager, though, is not trivial, and basically amounts to editing a configuration file with lots of options.

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  4. @J. J. Ramsey: I'm sure that's true. In any case, back in the day, almost all software could be modified to ridiculous extents just by modifying a couple configuration files. It's just that I'm not familiar with WMs that date back so far and am marveling at their abilities and inabilities, and I'm certainly not capable of doing configuration at that level. Thanks for the comment!

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  5. Quoting you: "LILO is quite limited in terms of configuration and the number of operating systems and types of file systems it can handle, and making it play well with other non-Linux-based OSs (like Microsoft Windows) as far as I know is still a herculean task."
    Would you mind telling us specifically what would these file systems be?
    As far as the herculean task, I would say it is actually a no-brainer. If Windows is present on your system, Slackware installer does offer an option to set dual boot automatically which usually works flawlessly.
    Now it is true that multiple boot (three or more) could be a bit more challenging but really not that difficult once we grasp the logic of lilo.conf.

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  6. I personally think slackware is starting to come in from the cold. I was really surprised with lilo as I run multiple OS on multiple HDs and it gave me f1 Slackware f2 Arch Mint f3 windows7 options at boot that is in one way better than grub as it directs to the boot loaders on each drive. I just used the advanced mode. it asked if i wanted to add other OS clicked OK done.

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  7. @Akuna: From Wikipedia, it can't boot Microsoft Windows Vista/7, and its age disallows it from recognizing (as far as I know) ZFS, Btrfs, etc. Also, it only allows for 16 entries total.
    @kelvin: Interesting. That said, my GRUB on my old computer did show entries for OSs on both my hard drives (and didn't chainload to their bootloaders).
    Thanks for the comments!

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  8. pv@
    http://www.linuxquestions.org/questions/slackware-14/win7-and-lilo-847134/
    I installed Slackware 14 days ago i'm no lilo geek just followed the lilo setup.
    yes its not only my that has win7 booting from lilo
    in my case its a bit more simple as they are on different Hd so lilo just sees the drive the same as booting from bios f1 boots sdc lilo, f5 boots sda grub Mint arch. f3 boots the windows drive as the drive all have boot flags in bios. also I only use the jfs system for Linux its the fastest and most stable in my opinion based on 4 years with linux

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  9. @kelvin: Then all that means is that the Wikipedia article on this information is out of date. Thanks for the information!

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  10. Foibles? Did you mean features?

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  11. @Anonymous: For me, they're foibles. For you, they may well be features. I know I've read in quite a few places of Slackware users who love the lack of automatic dependency management in that they don't have to clog their systems needlessly. Personally, hardware isn't the limiting factor, so I can't imagine living without automatic dependency management. Thanks for the comment!

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  12. Wikipedia is big, any link to the article you quote?
    I don't know if it is out of date, but it is definitely not well informed.
    Btrfs? Did you personally tried it out with GRUB?

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  13. @Akuna: I haven't personally tried this out (because I generally stick to Ext), but check out the "Comparison of bootloaders" (or something like that) article. Thanks for the comment!

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  14. I checked it out and indeed, this table is terribly sketchy when it comes to LILO. What I found interesting is that the 2 file systems you quoted to prove LILO inadequacies aren't in the GRUB section of that table either.

    Anyways, I do not have much experience with GRUB (nor Btrfs) but it is my impression that it did not handle Btrfs that easily either, at least not until quite recently.

    Having said that, I do think that GRUB2 is very promising, especially its multilingual functionality.

    I cannot speak for Slackware, but it seems obvious that its team attach more value to time proven stability than new trinkets. If something has proven itself and is not broken, they probably see no reason to 'fix' it, which is quite smart really and probably accounts for "its famous rock-solid stability" you even quoted at the beginning of your article.

    And at the moment LILO is really not as limited as some would have you believe. The day it truly becomes obsolete and irrelevant would probably be the time that Slackware may switch to another solution, which by then may be ready to qualify for rock-solid stability.

    We shall see.

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  15. @Akuna: That's very true. I guess it works on the same principle that running an old car for as long as possible (as opposed to replacing it with a newer one) does. Thanks for the comment!

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  16. Slackware will install on a "VIA C7 800MHz". Which 'modern' distros can claim that?

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  17. @anonymous,
    "Slackware will install on a "VIA C7 800MHz"
    who cares?? buy and a new computer and get with the times

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  18. Slackware is da shiznit.

    Post install;
    Log in as root and edit /etc/inittab changing default run level from 3 to 4. Run the graphics card setup, the sound card set up, then log out and back in as user and type startx.
    Personally I prefer KDE to the older, minimalistic window managers (but the hardware I'm on is more than capable of handling KDE with all the bells and whistles running).
    Install of NVIDIA driver is manual (ie, drop to runlevel 3 and install from the command line - if you chose "Install everything" at the outset, the NVIDIA driver will compile and install straight off).
    For packages - get your head round slackbuilds, a brilliantly simple way to install software (does mean you sometimes have to add dependencies via the same method - but it does mean that what you install was built locally).

    I've got slackware running on a dual core 64bit AMD Athlon with 4 gig of RAM and an Nvidia 9500 - it is sweet.
    Lilo is a doddle to use, unlike the new monstrosity that is Grub2. It was Grub2 and the forthcoming Unity UI that got me to drop Ubuntu. Every change they make seems to makes the system more complicated and less intuitive.

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  19. Unfortunately this article mostly focuses on some DE's and doesn't really deal much with Slackware as a distro. Nothing was mentioned about init system, packages, 3rd party repositories, etc. Lilo is as straight forward as they come - really nothing difficult about it. Would be nice if there was some more substance in this review.

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  20. Grub needs to know about the underlying filesystem.
    This gives it the benefit of not installing it once,
    and then when the kernel changes it will
    automatically load it.

    LILO, on the other hand, just needs to know the
    blocks/sectors where the kernel resides (That is
    why you need to rerun it with every kernel upgrade).
    Because of this, LILO doesn't care about the fs at
    all and can boot any filesystem and use any
    partinioning scheme. I use GPT for a long time
    and because GPT provides a protective MBR, i have
    installed LILO on it and works fine. All this, long
    before Grub2 got GPT support.

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  21. Not in-depth, or well informed, but I've seen worse reviews of Slackware.

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  22. Your problems with Akonadi almost certainly stem from the root login; try creating a regular user and see what happens. That could also account for the plasma crashes; KDE 4.x does not like root logins. As for the rest of it... I saw very little about Slackware and a lot obout the WMs. This says very little about the OS, because the WMs/DEs ship from Slackware in their vanilla configurations; no customization of any kind.

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  23. You never even talked about this distro whatsoever. You just complained about what stuff you were used to that slackware didnt have. if every distro was the same then there would be one distro. Slackware is one of the most stable distros still surviving. You want a extremely stable distro here it is. While i agree that there is no dependacy checking, if you are going to slackware you are usually semi good at the command line and usually know how to install a program anyhow. so its "your" job to do it.

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  24. I think it's an ultimately unfair review. It only states the preferences of the writer and nothing about Slackware. It's like someone allergic to fruit writes a review about apples. From the first sentence on prejudice is shown. When you aren't capable of exploring and researching Slackware, don't write a review about it.

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  25. to all those who commented after my most recent comment in this thread: Yes, I understand that this comes off as superficial, biased, and otherwise prejudiced. That's mostly attributed to my lack of skill/experience as a Linux user. I am not faulting Slackware as a distribution; I am merely confirming what I had already suspected, and that is that Slackware is not something that I would be able to use on a daily basis. As I say, Slackware is for an experienced and patient hand, of which I am not one. Thanks for the comments!

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  26. jesss they're a precious lot! Duck next time you have the audacity to have an opinion on Slackware. ;-)

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  27. "Slackware is for an experienced and patient hand, of which I am not one."

    Then why the hell would you write a review about it when you knew you wouldn't be able to use it ? (Rhetorical question, you'd be wrong regardless of your answer)

    This review was so bad, I couldn't help but read it again and that's when I noticed that almost every single point you tried to make was wrong and in some cases, the opposite of the truth.

    Terrible.

    You're welcome for my comments.

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  28. @Anonymous 1: I'm not entirely sure what you meant by that.
    @Anonymous 2: Why would I use it when I knew I couldn't? Because I enjoy testing such hypotheses. I don't especially like letting assumptions stand untested. This is also why I welcome comments that correct my guaranteed multitude of mistakes. Is there anything particularly wrong with that? And yes, thanks for your comment.

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  29. Please, remember: any (yes, ANY) feature in any established distro is there because the users want it to be that way.

    For example, if you complain about the lack of dependency tracking and do not explain why there is none, you fail your readers. This very issue is so widely explained in the NET and it is so easy to find it out that I cannot praise your review higher than "homework not done".

    The above is the most annoying flaw of Linux related reviews, be it Slackware or not, so you are not alone there.

    Please notice how I avoid the use of the "i" word.

    Thia is very hard, especially with pearls like "The biggest issue was that Slackware didn't automatically recognize my wired ethernet connection" when speaking about an OS inside VirtualBox.

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  30. Most reviews about Slackware I came across were quite negative. Reading this review I the question came to mind: why is there still such an active and rather large Slackware community? I decided to write about my own experience with Slackware. You can find it at http://linux-beginner.blogspot.com/. So Prashanth Slackware is not for you. Maybe the more interesting matter is: What kind of people are using Slackware?

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  31. What kind of people are using Slackware?
    an interesting question.
    I think that slacker like slackware
    they only want learn one time and do every time

    slackware solves all of my problem smoothly
    when other distros cannot

    I hate "form of dependency management"
    it takes our freedom
    you said " users need to install all dependent packages manually"
    that is incorrect
    in slackware, installing a new package is very simple
    you do not need to use any stupid management or internet connection
    you need that package
    and installpkg
    that all

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  32. What kind of people are using Slackware? That's a funny question. To put the answer short, those smart :^)

    If you want to know details, check, e.g., here:
    http://www.foogazi.com/2006/11/02/7-reasons-i-use-slackware/
    http://www.linuxquestions.org/linux/articles/Opinion/WHY_SLACKWARE_WILL_ALWAYS_MATTER
    http://www.slackstuff.com/2010/01/ode-to-slackware/
    http://www.itpro.co.uk/619540/slackware-linux-less-is-more

    A few of the `Slack hearts' can be found here:
    http://slackworld.berlios.de/hearts.html

    Be smart, be slack! ;-)

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  33. @Anonymous 1: Yes, I agree that I should have read about and explained the ongoing decision not to include automatic dependency management. However, with regard to the lack of automatic network detection, I have never suffered that problem before (in VirtualBox), so I'm not entirely sure why you find it so unreasonable that I mention that.
    @[others]: I think the people who use Slackware have either been using it for over a decade and stick to it or are attracted by the no-frills/DIY approach (but aren't yet ready to install every single package needed as in Arch). And yes, these people definitely know what they are doing (and could probably be classified as Linux gurus, on the whole).
    Thanks for the comments!

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  34. Anonymous, thank you for the internetlinks about Slackware. They are very insightfull. With your permission I'll also include them in my blog. Every time I learn absolutely new stuff about Slackware

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  35. I have been using slackware at university since 1996, it is outstanding. The memory management is great, a lot of free space availabel. I don't worry with swap one.

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  36. One of the first things you do when installing an Operating System is to create a user account and then use that user account to log in. You only use root to do file level configuration and install applications. So, if after the install you logged into KDE, you should have done so as user, not root. The next step was to configure kde according the your whims and desires.

    So it seems that the review came before the configuration was completed. You cheated yourself of truly testing Skackware. You need to install it, configure it, and then use it for a while.

    Obviously if you are used to other Distro, you need to give yourself time to learn Slackware before passing judgment upon it. When I first used UBUNTU I found it too limiting and the use of sudo, instead of just login into a root terminal, a waste of time. Furthermore, while based on Debian Testing, UBUNTU is not 100 % compatible with Debian, which is a problem.

    I still have Ubuntu somewhere, but I have gone back to Debian, and lately I am testing LinuxMint Debian Edition that claims to be a 100% Debian Compatible rollover edition (you only need to install it once)....

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  37. @Hannes Worst: I should look at them some time as well.
    @Anonymous: That's good to know.
    @Ezequiel Gonzalez: I guess that may be true for a lot of reviewers, but I prefer reviewing what the base system is like. In general, I don't plan on replacing Linux Mint as my primary OS, just because I don't see any point in doing so. Therefore, I typically don't find any need to configure the systems I test just because I only use them for a relatively short while anyway. My assumption was that logging into root would give me a good enough idea about the distribution anyway. (Or, yes, I got lazy.) Also, with regard to Ubuntu, I believe only the LTS releases are based on Debian Testing. The other releases are based on Debian Unstable "Sid". Finally, I have reviewed LMDE here before (so please do check it out). It's ridiculously lightweight for a fully-featured GNOME distribution, and I like the idea of getting away from the hubbub over Ubuntu's lately controversial decisions regarding future releases as well as never having to do a full reinstallation of the OS (unless something goes horribly wrong).
    Thanks for the comments!

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  38. Re: "I have never suffered that problem before (in VirtualBox), so I'm not entirely sure why you find it so unreasonable that I mention that." Look at the machine data on VirtualBox. By default, you have PCnet-FAST III for network adapter. This does not change if you have a wired Ethernet connection, or wireless connection, or whatever. If an OS within VirtualBox "does not recognize" the network, it has nothing to do with your adapter because all it sees is the one of the VirtualBox.

    It would be absolutely correct to say that "inside VirtualBox Slackware installer did not configure the network automatically", without adding misleading and irrelevant details in a manner that emphasizes the lack of understanding of what is going on.

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  39. @Anonymous: Thanks for the tip!

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  40. LXDE is worthy of mention as a WM. I like Slackware for several reasons: established user community always available to help, can be installed with over a dial-up connection, its KISS qualities. I've been using Slackware for some 12 yrs now and have always been able to solve problems by myself or with the help of others. I've often needed to download over a dial-up when ADSL/etc was not available; hence the value of KISS.

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  41. @fourcs: That's certainly true: one of the advantages Slackware holds over other distributions is the numerous methods one can install Slackware when a modern Internet connection isn't available. Also, I didn't notice this when doing the review, but neither LXDE nor Openbox are present in Slackware by default. I've taken a look at both Openbox and LXDE and like them very much; browse around to see my reviews of CrunchBang, wattOS, and the like. Thanks for the comment!

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  42. I installed Slackware on a Toshiba sattelite laptop. Its very easy to install and straightforward. I made it run XFCE4, but was not interested in trying out other WMs. I figured out the slack builds website and installed WICD, but try as I might, I cannot make it connect to the internet! I even installed the right driver and remade my kernal config, which took 45 minutes. I also had to write a file to make it automount USB flash drives, which I did succeessfully with UDEV rules. However, lack of internet is a flaw. Also, the fact that headphones didnt mute the main speakers was problematic.

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  43. @o: Yeah, those are certainly big problems. Thanks for the comment!

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