posted by Uri Sharf on Mon 2nd May 2005 20:23 UTC
IconPC-BSD is a new FreeBSD 5.3 distribution, with a graphical installer and KDE 3.4 as its desktop. A new beta version was just released, and though I can't say I have much experience with FreeBSD, or any *BSD for that matter, I was curious enough to try it. And I'm glad I did. From a desktop user's point of view, completely oblivious to the many virtues and sound foundation of all things BSD, all I really ever wanted was an OS that is solid, easy to install and, well ... fun to work with.

Actually, the last time I tried to install FreeBSD 4.x I used a CD that came with a magazine. It looked too painful to go past the install stage, and not having much time to give it the attention it deserved, I never really returned to it.

PC-BSD on the other hand, is much more interesting for those of us looking for a Desktop OS, and this is where it is aimed. The developers' claim that "One of the problems facing the multitude of Linux distributions is the sheer bloat of their installation ..." - This may be true, but I guess Linux's growing popularity on the desktop, with novices as well, suggests Linux is not that bad after all. Still, can PC-BSD live up to what it promises?

Installation

Installing PC-BSD is very much as described in the developers' mission statement

I decided to install it on my Dell Inspiron 8200. There it managed to boot and switch to graphical mode in a couple of minutes, first displaying FluxBox, and then launching the installer itself.

It seems it is actually a LiveCD with FluxBox and a couple of tools installed. My NVidia GeForce and Orinoco PCMCIA WiFi were properly detected, and the network card was configured automatically using DHCP. You don't really need the network to finish the installation, though.

I first needed to decide where to install it. PC-BSD does not support installing to a logical partition. I had some 5 GB available as a logical partition (inside 25 GB extended partition) for it, but then instead, I had to install it to the first primary partition, where I had Windows XP installed. Not a big loss I guess ... Ubuntu and my home partition were left untouched.

BSD uses a slightly different naming convention than is common in Linux. First hard disk is /dev/ad0, for an IDE disk, or /dev/da0 for SCSI. First partition on the IDE drive is /dev/ad0s0 etc ... but as I said before, I could only choose one of the primary/extended partitions as targets for the root file system. I was also not presented with an option to mount any other partitions (e.g. /home).

This is it. The installer then started copying the files to the hard disk, not requiring any other input. PC-BSD uses KDE 3.4, though one could always install whatever is preferred later on (either using ports, or the available binaries). Mind you, ports itself, *BSD's software management and repository, is not installed either, and you'll have to cvsup it manually.

When copying was done, 15 minutes on my notebook, I was asked to provide a password for root, and create a new user account. After rebooting the computer, I was faced with the most minimalist boot menu one can imagine, which had two options: one was "????" and the other was "PC-BSD".

Starting PC-BSD was quick and I was soon staring at KDE's login screen. After logging in I was welcomed by KDE's own KPersonalizer, and I was done. I had a fully functional desktop, with a generic NVidia driver and a working WiFi. The developers didn't change much it seems, and you do get most of the software that may be left out of most Linux distros, such as the accessibility tools.

Pros and Cons

First thing I noticed was the performance. It could have been just my excitement about getting this far, but it does feel like the OS is keeping out of your way. What struck me was how nice it is to be able to switch to a brand new platform, yet still use my favorite desktop and applications. Come to think of it, it is quite mind-blowing!

Some other things noticeable were KDE's slightly modified (or original, I'm not sure) behavior. Alt+TAB pages the virtual desktops, rather than acting as a task switcher. You'll also see that KPackage can only display installed packages, and there's no way to install new ones. I also found new tools like KNetAttach, for mounting remote storage, which I don't think I've seen in Kubuntu (Hoary) for example.

Like I said earlier, I'm new to *BSD. I do seem to have a working OS, but I'm not too knowledgeable about what to do next ... :) I guess I will first recover my GRUB, and add PC-BSD and Ubuntu. I will also need to find out how to mount my original home partition (ReiserFS) under PC- BSD, if it's possible at all.

From searching in Google for a while, I know there are binary drivers available from NVidia, though it involves some manual work and the kernel sources - which are not available on the CD BTW. I could also do with a better selection of fonts (Culmus Hebrew fonts, and Lucida Unicode are my favorites.)

Conclusion

Is it worth downloading? It sure is. There are at least two things that make PC-BSD look sort of not ready, though. Not yet at least, as it is still in beta. After installing, if you opt for a dual boot, you will be faced with a rather minimalist boot menu, which might either send you screaming to the restart button, or at least make you wonder if something has gone wrong during the installation. The other thing is the complete lack of any original graphical management and administration tools (other then KDE/FreeBSD's own). If it sounds sort of "half cooked", it is really not that bad...

Other than that, PC-BSD is easy and pleasant to install and use. I guess it is one of the first, if not the only graphical installer for FreeBSD, and it is still in beta as well. Seems like the developers did their homework, and went for simple and effective. Can't wait to see what the final "product" will look like. If they were only slightly less militant in respect to Linux's faults (see mission statement), and focus on actually out-doing it, it'll be a serious challenger for Linux mind-share with hobbyists (at least).

About the author:
Uri Sharf is the editor and founder of Linmagazine, an Israeli News, Reviews and Guides portal, serving the OSS community. See also a translation of this article to Hebrew.


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