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, 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.