posted by Joseph Ferrare on Thu 29th Dec 2005 16:31 UTC
IconI was interested to see how Zenwalk differs from Slackware, and after reading on their web site that version 2.01 is 'the biggest jump in Zenwalk evolution since the beginning of the project', I wanted to see how far Zenwalk has come since it was reviewed here as MiniSlack.

Zenwalk Linux is single-CD distribution that promises to deliver a lightweight 'rational' desktop with the legendary simplicity and stability of its parent distribution, Slackware.

That single 470 megabyte download gets you one desktop environment and one application of each type. The developers chose to go with what probably has to be called the distant-third open source desktop environment, XFCE, but for applications they stuck with the heavyweights: Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, Xine, GIMP, etc.

All this runs atop kernel 2.6.14.2, with the Reiser File System 4 as the default. They have also added their own Gnome libraries, start-up scripts and netpkg, an online addition to the venerable Slackware suite of package tools.

Before we begin the review proper, the formalities: I'm a confirmed Slacker with about three years experience using Linux. I'm also something of a distribution junkie. I was interested to see how Zenwalk differs from Slackware, and after reading on their web site that version 2.01 is 'the biggest jump in Zenwalk evolution since the beginning of the project', I wanted to see how far Zenwalk has come since it was reviewed here as MiniSlack.

I installed Zenwalk on my desktop machine, a home-built Biostar small form factor featuring a motherboard based on the VIA KM400 & VT8237 chipset, an Athlon XP 2800, a gigabyte of RAM, an nVidia FX 5200 video card and my distribution-junkie-enabling spare 80 gigabyte SATA hard drive.

Anyone who has installed Slackware will find Zenwalk's installation program familiar, if more brightly colored. It uses ncurses and is essentially a series of questions and opportunities to make choices. It expects you to know your hardware and what you want to do with it, but it also has very good defaults that might not give you an optimal installation, but will almost certainly result in a working system for most people running standard x86 hardware. The entire Zenwalk procedure is well documented with screenshots here.

You can measure the distance the developers have gone from straight Slackware by looking at the choices they've made. Right from the beginning it's obvious they're serious about zeroing in on desktop users. This begins with the number of kernels Zenwalk offers. Instead of the many you find on a Slackware CD, Zenwalk offers two. This seems logical, because most desktop users are going to be using fairly standard x86 desktop machines, and are unlikely to be screaming for exotic file systems or support for some high-end server hardware.

The next sign is that the package selection process has been dropped from the installation process. According to the Zenwalk web site their users asked for this change. Essentially, the developers have done the package selection for you. Aside from that, the first part of the installer is pretty much 100 percent Slackware.

When that process ends and you reboot, however, we see the developers have added a few steps clearly designed to help desktop users. These include screens devoted to choosing a video driver, preferred login mode, a step to set up your sound card and another to walk you through adding a non-root user to your system. These are tasks virtually all desktop Slackware users (which is, of course, only a subset of all Slackware users) have to accomplish, so including them in the installation routine of a desktop-focused distribution seems a good choice.

A word of warning to those not familiar with the Slackware installer: there's no neat graphical way to shrink a Windows partition, and the installer requires users without a prepared disk to partition their disks using fdisk or cfdisk. This is relatively easy for those with a little Linux experience, but it might be a show-stopper for newbies.

After a second reboot you're presented with your login of choice. I stuck with text and started XFCE using the startx command. XFCE may be less well-known than KDE or Gnome, but it dovetails nicely with Zenwalk's stated aims by offering all the basic desktop niceties without unnecessary bloat.

KDE is available via netpkg download, however, and plenty of other desktop environments are available using Zenwalk's netpkg utility, the Slackware web site or from linuxpackages.net. I chose not to burn up Zenwalk's bandwidth just to test out its version of KDE, but I did want to try adding something not already installed from the CD. I chose to add on Fluxbox, the window manager I spend at least half my time using.

Table of contents
  1. "Zenwalk review, 1/2"
  2. "Zenwalk review, 2/2"
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