2011-05-21

Review: Zenwalk 7.0

Main Screen + Right-Click Main Xfce Menu
A few months ago, Zenwalk 7.0 was released for the world to see. However, I usually do these reviews with live media, so I waited for Zenwalk 7.0 "Live" to be released. That happened a few weeks ago, and when that happened, I immediately downloaded it, hoping to review it soon after. However, I got busy soon after that, so I haven't been able to really look at it until recently.

So what is Zenwalk? It's a distribution based on Slackware that uses Xfce as its primary DE, though other WMs such as Openbox are also available. A long time ago, it used to be called Minislack; though it has changed its name since then, it hasn't become significantly less dependent on Slackware since then. While it isn't meant for newbies per se, it is meant to be more user-friendly and certainly more so than Slackware, fast, and somewhat more minimalistic in terms of not including redundant applications. I wanted to see how well it stacked up to such claims, so I downloaded both the live and installation ISO files (both Xfce). I tested the live ISO through a live USB made with MultiSystem, and I tested the installation ISO in VirtualBox in a Lubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal" live USB with 1024 MB of RAM allocated to the guest OS. Follow the jump to see what it's like.


After getting past the BIOS and boot menu, Zenwalk took a while to boot. Truthfully, I was afraid that it would never make it, but just over a minute later, I was greeted by the desktop; that boot time was somewhat longer than I'm used to, but it was still within reason. I was initially greeted by the login screen, and I didn't know the username and password, but that point became moot as I was eventually logged in automatically.

GNU IceCat + Main Xfce Menu
The default desktop is standard Xfce. On the top of the screen is a panel with, from left to right, a main Xfce menu, a task switcher, a virtual desktop switcher, a clock, and an exit button. On the bottom of the screen is a standard Xfce launcher dock with a main menu button, some application launchers, and a system tray. For some weird reason, a second floating dock was present on the right (but it was horizontally oriented and floating near but not at the bottom-right corner of the screen), and it seemed to have some buttons relating to changing the language to Japanese. The wallpaper, with its bright blue background and a generic Tux logo, looked a bit garish and didn't seem to represent Zenwalk as a distribution all that well. The Metacity and icon themes seemed to be more rounded and modernized versions of Clearlooks and Tango, respectively. Overall, the desktop looked consistent and well put together, though it could have been a bit nicer; maybe I've been spoiled by things like Elementary OS. Also, for some reason, everything was in French by default, and I wasn't really sure how to change it, so I decided to just deal with it and try to figure stuff out based on context.

The default browser is GNU IceCat, which is another rebranding of Mozilla Firefox, at version 3.6. Codecs were included, and my computer's sound hardware was recognized; these were both confirmed by going to YouTube and similar sites, so that was a pleasant treat.
LibreOffice is the included productivity suite, which is great because although AbiWord and Gnumeric are the usual choices for many Xfce distributions for their good desktop integration and resource usage, they simply don't measure up to LibreOffice in terms of features and compatibility with Microsoft Office. Plus, it's a good thing that more and more distributions are shipping LibreOffice instead of OpenOffice.org.
Other than some odd programs like Streamtuner, which streams music and videos from various sites, the rest of the programs were fairly standard; there was nothing special, but the Zenwalk developers kept their word in terms of keeping redundancy to a minimum.

Thunar + LibreOffice Writer
The package manager included is called Netpkg and it is, as far as I know, unique to Zenwalk. I tried getting it to work, but I didn't know the root password in the live session. A search on the Zenwalk wiki showed that there is no root password in the live session by default for security reasons, but that I could set a root password with a GRUB line modification. I also found out how to change the language from French to American English in GRUB as well. I did both of those things, but while the latter worked, the former did not. I decided to not try Netpkg again until after installing Zenwalk. Also, interestingly, though the language did successfully change to American English, pressing keys with certain modifiers like 'SHIFT' caused random Japanese characters to appear, which wasn't really good for consistency in language packs and made writing the key points for this review a pain.

One of the other benefits the Zenwalk developers claim is speed. I didn't get to check out memory usage, but I did find Zenwalk to be pretty slow overall. I already mentioned that the boot time was slow, but even in the desktop, I found a momentary lag between clicking on an application icon and it opening. It didn't really hinder anything, but it was annoying, and it certainly didn't live up to the promised speed.

At this point, I installed Zenwalk in a virtual machine. After getting it all set up and started, I was greeted by the same Ncurses installer present in Slackware. I first set the keymap, which was easy enough. Then, I set up the partition layout. That took me a few tries to get right, and it took me a little more time to realize that partitioning and setting an installation target were not the same thing. After that, the rest was fairly straightforward. After the installation of packages, I just ran through the defaults for installing the LILO bootloader, and then restarted once all of that was done. Interestingly enough, I didn't see anything in the installer to add users or set a root password, but more on that later.

After restarting, guess what? This was where I got to set the root password and add users. Though it was again a text-based affair, it was easy enough to do. After that, I logged in, and was greeted by the desktop, which was identical to that of the live session save the wallpaper; interestingly, the wallpaper in the installed session actually had Zenwalk branding, though the background was still that garish blue.

At this point, I tried using Netpkg, and this time, because I had a root password, it worked fine. I had to refresh the package list a few times and click the filter for packages "not installed" to actually see installable packages. Then, to install a package, I had to right-click it and select the correct menu item; for some reason, the "Install Package" button didn't work. Otherwise, however, it all worked fine; it reminded me of Synaptic Package Manager a bit. In fact, Netpkg even has dependency management where Slackware's package manager does not. I have read that Slackware's package manager doesn't have dependency management so that users can install only the required packages; that said, I am still a relative newbie at this, so forgive me for asking, but isn't the point of a dependency that it's required for another package to work? What's the point of installing dependencies manually when they are required anyway? In any case, I'm glad Netpkg has dependency management.

The package that I installed was Skype, present thankfully at version 2.1.0.87, though I was in VirtualBox. Surprisingly, I was able to hear the test sound correctly, and even better, I was able to record and hear my own voice! That said, the webcam wasn't recognized in VirtualBox, but I wasn't expecting that anyway. And with that, my time with Zenwalk ended.

So what's the verdict? It certainly is relatively user-friendly, and much more so than Slackware. It's stable, and it definitely minimizes package redundancy. That said, it isn't as fast as advertised, and the French and Japanese issues were annoying, considering that I thought I was downloading an English live medium (and I thought there would be different live media for different languages). Those are minor issues, though, and while I wouldn't recommend it for a newbie, I would recommend it for anyone who wants the stability of Slackware without the hassle. Zenwalk isn't the only kid in town, though; other Slackware-based user-friendly distributions with Xfce include Wolvix, Salix OS, and Vector Linux, so please do check those out too. You can the download Zenwalk install CD from here or the live CD from here.


23 comments:

  1. XFCE? Not bad. I prefer KDE though. Especially KDE 4.6 that just released. The problem with XFCE is that it's just not as slick and smooth as KDE works. Some users of GNOME feel this way too, when comparing it to KDE. With KDE, your workspace is much improved over XFCE and GNOME Kernels/Interfaces. kde.org

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  2. @Arjuhn Krishna: And what exactly is your point?

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  3. You can't talk about speed when inside virtualbox.

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  4. @Arjun Krishna: The problem I have with KDE is that with some implementations, there are still Plasma crashes. At this point, that is inexcusable. Also, the beauty of Xfce (along with GNOME 2.X) is that it can easily be made much more slick and still very stable and easy to use. In fact, many commenters online have called Xfce the true heir to KDE 3.5 (though that was before KDE 3.5 Trinity came into existence). Also, Zenwalk doesn't have a KDE version, though I believe Vector Linux and Salix OS do.
    @Anonymous 1: Right. Let's try to focus on the article at hand.
    @Anonymous 2: I didn't. I talked about speed in the live session (live USB), which has usually been a pretty good indicator of installed performance in my experience.
    Thanks for the comments!

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  5. Another good and useful review, Prashanth!

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  6. @DarkDuck: Thanks for the support!

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  7. virtual try = fail

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  8. @Anonymous: Could you please elaborate on what you mean by that and why? If you noticed, most of the testing was done through a live USB on real hardware.

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  9. Actually, the review is worthless to anyone who is thinking about actually installing this (or any) distro because it was reviewed as a LiveCD and VM.

    Waste of time and webspace.

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  10. @Anonymous: (1) At least with a live CD, I can test whether a distribution will work with my computer's hardware before installing it. That's what it's for, no? (2) If it was such a waste of your time, why did you bother coming here? Seeing people say that amuses me.

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  11. @PV: I tend to agree with the sentiments on testing Live and VB only. So re. (2) He couldn't know before, could he?
    There is no real indication of speed or issues encountered when installed properly. Basically, all you did was review the live cd.

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  12. "I have read that Slackware's package manager doesn't have dependency management so that users can install only the required packages"

    Is this a confused analogy on your part? Slackware is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but for that matter (and in reality) neither is perhaps any Distro. The idea of downloading a package and it's required dependencies is more for Win and Mac users where you usually have to tolerate what is given to you, and you like it or lump it. With a Linux based distro, you have access to the source package of the application you wish to install, where you build it with the features that have been disabled in the standard package, or disable features that you don't want- a classic example is with codec support. The dependencies might now be different. Slackware is not a newbie distro, and though Zenwalk makes the learning curve for using it less steep, the advantages of learning the strengths of Slackware are still there.

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  13. @Anonymous 1: I don't deny that, but what I meant to ask was why that commenter commented (as opposed to just coming) here if it was such a waste of his/her time.
    @Anonymous 2: I'm a little confused; are we talking about the same things?
    Thanks for the comments!

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  14. I think this was a fairly objective review. The reviewer doesn't deserve the bashing.

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  15. @Barista Uno: Thanks for the support!

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  16. hi, PV....
    I respect your opinion on the matter, please keep reviewing distros, and don't bother with negative comments, as long as they are not objective nor constructive.

    If i could just cast my say in this,
    i would tell you that zenwalk is freakishly fast when installed on the actual machine(dell 2GBram core2due 2Ghz). it takes about 110MBs after boot.
    I ran zenwalk 7 a few months ago, now i'm going back.

    and i'm going back to zenwalk after trying numerous distros, i didn't like what i saw, stability issues all over, especially with ubuntu (random reboots, logouts) and its derivatives, except for the amazing linux mint.

    Back to zenwalk, the distro is stable, fast, picks up the dreadful wireless broadcom 4312 out of the box.

    A general well known thing about slackware and its family, is that if you want cutting edge software and libraries, you'll want to stay away.
    trade off is maximum stability and software that's been tested till it can be tested no more.

    one thing though, i'm confused about your setup because of the comments, i can't tell if you ran it on the actual hardware, or vm or maybe both.

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  17. @Anonymous: It's great that you've found such success with Zenwalk. To clarify, I tested the live session on my computer's hardware (live USB), and the installation/post-installation in a virtual machine. Thanks for the comment!

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  18. Zenwalk 7 can be misunderstood but by far is a great creation. I feel that if you use it for speed you get speed, if you use it for other things its equily impressive. Zenwalk is a good job well done and I have used many Linux disros over the years and this is a fine example.

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  19. @Anonymous: Well, it's good that you've found success in using it. Thanks for the comment!

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  20. A word from the Zenlive developer:

    Thank you for the review but I'd like to comment:

    The bootloader useed for the Live cd is isolinux _NOT_ grub!

    Also language settings can be selected during the bootmenu, rootpassword must be set as a rootpw=yourpassword commandline parameter on the bootmenu (read the included "About" in the root of the live ISO for a detailed description.

    The Japanese characters appared because you must have accidently pressed the SHIFT+SPACE shortcut to activate japanese languge input (featuring a working CJK input method is a feature of Zenlive)

    Further before blaming on performance speed you should test on a real machine rather than in a virtual machine to get the best experience

    And you should pai attentien to the fact that of course a live-system is slower than a installed system as CD/DVD media cannot be read so quickly as a harddisk drive and the live-content is highly compressed and must be unpacked in realtime for the live session.
    longer Boot in ZenLive is due to the fact that the live environment setup must be done before starting the live session, that steps are delaying the boot but that delay will not happen when installing zenwalk.

    Thanks for your understanding


    Zenwalkuser (ZenLive developer)

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    1. @Anonymous: Regarding the boot menu, I realize that most live CDs use ISOLINUX; however, MultiSystem, the tool that I used here for making the live USB system, uses GRUB. Also, I used a live USB rather than a live CD/DVD, and I have seen that the former is usually notably faster that the latter; furthermore, in most of my other reviews where I have done both a live USB review and a real installation, the live USB system speed is about the same as the speed of the system as installed on a hard drive, which explains my disappointment in this case. Thanks for the comment!

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  21. I've just reinstalled Zenwalk 7.0 OpenBox to an EeePC 701, for the 4th time, and it is impossible to startx: 'no screens found', even though it has an ncurses on-screen installer!!!

    As neither xorgconfig nor xorgsetup are included in this pathetic spin-off, I have to rate it at 0/5, which puts it on par with all of the Slackware, ArchLinux, etc. spin-offs I've tried, including other versions of Zenwalk. None of them work, although the 'parent' distros do.

    It would seem that only Debian or Ubuntu based spin-offs are worth using, because they do actually work, like the real thing.

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    1. @Atheologian: There have been a few exceptions, but I generally agree that Ubuntu and Debian along with their derivatives work for me the most consistently. Thanks for the comment!

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