Review: VectorLinux 7.0 Standard Gold

One of the distributions I've been wanting to check out for a while now has been VectorLinux. Recently, version 7.0 of VectorLinux was released, so I'm reviewing it.

Main Screen
What is VectorLinux? It's a Slackware-based distribution that ships customized versions of Xfce and KDE that aim to be a lot more user-friendly, while retaining the benefits of using Slackware. The version I'm reviewing today is the Xfce edition ("Standard"), because the KDE edition ("SOHO") of version 7.0 hasn't been released, and as far as I understand it is not free of charge.

I tested the live session using a live USB made with MultiSystem. I tested the installation in VirtualBox on a MultiSystem-made Xubuntu 11.10 "Oneiric Ocelot" live USB, with 1024 MB of RAM allocated to the guest OS. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

After the boot menu, I was greeted by a scrolling wall of text. The boot process took a little longer than usual, but it was definitely bearable. After that came the desktop.

The desktop looks like Xfce made to look like Apple's Mac OS X. On top, there is a shrunken panel containing an Xfce menu, shortcuts to common applications, a window switcher, a system tray, and a workspace switcher. On the bottom, there is an instance of Cairo Dock to use shortcuts and manage open windows. I find it interesting that Cairo Dock has been included given that most other distributions that use pretty docks use Docky, but then Cairo Dock is still way more fully-featured, and here it has been customized a bit. The GTK+ theme is FnColor, the XFWM theme is AlphaCube, the icon theme is Faenza Cupertino, and the cursor theme is the standard X/11 theme. One nice thing is that contrary to the default in Xfce, the desktop icon labels have transparent backgrounds and borders. It's good to see that kind of attention to detail, because even Xubuntu (which is otherwise about the slickest and easiest-to-use Xfce distribution you can find) has those ugly backgrounds on the desktop icon labels. There are just two things I would change. The first is the cursor theme, because it looks really dated, and it doesn't fit in with the slick look of the rest of the desktop. The second is the icon theme used by Cairo Dock: for some reason, Cairo Dock uses a weird mishmash of icons from the Humanity theme (used by Ubuntu) and the Faenza Cupertino theme, and it breaks the nice blue consistency from the desktop using the Faenza Cupertino theme everywhere else. Otherwise, the desktop looks quite nice and inviting.

Mozilla Firefox + Thunar
The default browser is Mozilla Firefox, present at version 8 (the latest one). One pleasant surprise was the inclusion of proprietary multimedia codecs out-of-the-box, as YouTube and Hulu worked fine. Though my laptop's volume keyboard shortcuts were not recognized, its wireless capabilities were recognized, which is good.
Other applications include AbiWord, Gnumeric, and other standard Xfce applications. One interesting thing was the inclusion of VL-QwikPicks, which is a program like FedoraPlus (formerly AutoTen) which provides a nice GUI for installing commonly used programs, such as Cheese Webcam Booth. It seemed to do the job well, though it was a little slow to start up the first time.

The GUI package manager is GSlapt, which is a front-end to VectorLinux's core package manager made to look like Synaptic Package Manager (hence the name). True to its name, it looked and felt almost exactly like Synaptic Package Manager, though it ran a little slower. Of course, it manages dependencies automatically; while this may seem like a trivial point, it's worth remembering that Slackware doesn't support dependency management out-of-the-box.

Surprisingly, Skype was available in the repositories, and it installed fine in GSlapt (I'm having a hard time not writing "GSplat"). Unfortunately, the first two times I tried opening Skype and logging in, it crashed about 2 seconds after the successful login. After the third attempt, it cooperated, and it recognized my laptop's webcam and mic correctly.
Unfortunately, I couldn't get Google Talk to install and work in any way. In truth, this means that I can't use it as my primary distribution, but don't worry, because this review doesn't end here.

VectorLinux used about 225 MB of RAM at idle, which is decent considering the shiny nature of the desktop. Unfortunately, everything from using menus and the dock to opening applications and documents felt slow. Sure, you may say it's an issue with running it from a live USB, but then why do so few other distributions I've tried have this issue? Cairo Dock seems to be the primary contributor to this slowness, because Cairo Dock itself rendered animations and did what it was supposed to do a bit slowly. (On another note, its auto-hide feature is quite jumpy, which is annoying.) Thankfully, this slowness did not imply instability; aside from the Skype crashes, true to its Slackware roots, VectorLinux was quite stable.
One other issue I had was that from time to time, when doing stuff like installing packages from the package manager, VectorLinux would flash cryptic warning dialog boxes on the screen. While nothing was wrong with the system, such unhelpful, uninformative windows didn't particularly instill confidence in me.

It was at this point that I started the installation. The installation was quite bare. For example, partitioning had to be done in GParted, though thankfully the installer was nice enough to open GParted on command rather than waiting for me to do it myself. Also, I had to do stuff like configure programs running in different runlevels. While these were generally well-explained, I'm not sure such configuration is really necessary. I mean, I've seen it before in Slackware and other distributions, so I guess I should have expected it, and I basically stuck with the defaults throughout the installation process, so it wasn't a huge deal, but I'd still like to see stuff like this relegated to maybe an "Advanced" section of the installation process. The installation itself took a little more than 5 minutes, which is pretty good. After that was done, I restarted the VM, and VectorLinux seemed to run post-installation just as it did on the live USB. That's where my time with it ended.

So what's the deal? The fact that Google Talk doesn't work is a deal-breaker for me, but that won't affect my recommendation for others too much. It's stable, and it generally works well, but it's slow, and it throws some rather weird warnings at times. I'd say this is best left for people with at least intermediate skill in working with Linux, but considering that the VectorLinux website says this is for people who want their OS to be exactly as they want (i.e. for power users), I guess it has achieved its goal quite well.
You can get it here.