posted by Joseph Ferrare on Thu 29th Dec 2005 16:31 UTC

"Zenwalk review, 2/2"

I wanted to see how Zenwalk handled packages from other repositories, so I downloaded Fluxbox from the Slackware site. The package installed without incident, and the system added Fluxbox as a choice alongside XFCE. When I tried to log in to Fluxbox, however, the system complained of a missing library. This was cured by another visit to Slackware. Upon further investigation, I found both packages were available from Zenwalk, and sticking to netpkg may have saved me some trouble and Slackware some bandwidth.

Still, I was at first a bit put off that Zenwalk's base install didn't support something as simple as Fluxbox. After some thought, however, I found it to be not a bug, as they say, but a feature. It shows Zenwalk doesn't include anything that isn't needed. So, while it may send you searching for a library to run something you want, it probably doesn't have dozens or scores of other libraries lying about waiting to support some window manager or program you didn't install and don't need.

I did use netpkg to install a few programs, including the indispensable Rox-Filer. Everything went smoothly. Netpkg is a nice addition to the simple Slackware package management offerings. I started it from the command line and it brought up a graphical front end reminiscent of Vector Linux's VASM. It's not as all-encompassing as Synaptic or YAST2, but it is a simple and functional way to download and install packages, which is in keeping with the distribution's stated goal.

I used Zenwalk for a couple of days, and its most prominent feature in day-to-day use is speed. Subjectively speaking, it's noticeably faster than a stock Slackware installation, which I've found to be the fastest major binary distribution. This is probably owing to not only its choice of lightweight programs, but using the latest 2.6 kernel and version 4 of the Reiser file system, which is said to be much faster than previous versions.

Another nice feature is the work the developers have done to configure the system. It's nice looking without reminding you of wet Christmas candy, and logical configuration choices have been made without setting the system up to reflect any one person's idiosyncracies.

Beyond that, Zenwalk operates like any good Linux installation. I saw no evidence of instability, and things such as Firefox extensions all worked as well as on Slackware or Ubuntu. It does only offer one option for each type of program (except text editors), but they've chosen well. You could argue that lighter weight programs might have been more appropriate in a few cases, especially if you're hoping to use that extra speed to eke another year of use out of older hardware. Zenwalk does make programs such as Abiword available via netpkg, so those options are still there.

Which brings up the other Zenwalk offering, which I didn't test but feel I must mention. Zenwalk Core is a 230 megabyte iso with no graphical (X) programs. The idea is to use it as a base for building your own dream system; everything you want and nothing more. It would be easy to come up with a killer lightweight system using packages from the variety of sources out there.

My final verdict is that Zenwalk is tight: tighty optimized, tightly controlled and tightly targeted. If you've got a little Linux experience and you're ready to move from a more fully featured, and thus slower, distribution, or if you're tired of having 10 window managers and the whole LAMP (Linux, Apache, mySQL and Perl, PHP or Python) stack eating up space on your hard drive, Zenwalk is an excellent choice.

One question springs to mind however: whither Zenwalk? The distribution seems to be heading straight to where Vector already is: Slackware with just enough add-ons to make life easier. Zenwalk is more focused at this point, but will it remain so, or will it succumb to feature creep and balloon up from a 470 megabyte .iso to something you can just squeeze onto a 700 gigabyte disk? Or two?

The final question I guess I should answer is this: would I replace my Slackware installation with Zenwalk? Not today. I've got Dropline GNOME on top of Slackware-current, and it's running smooth and pretty. When Slackware 11 (or 10.3) comes out, however, it's a decision I will have to review. Desktop Linux changes every day, and I think it pays to review your choice of distribution regularly. As for Zenwalk, it offers too many enhancements - 2.6 kernel standard, Reiser FS 4, netpkg - for desktop Slackers to ignore.

--Joseph Ferrare

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  1. "Zenwalk review, 1/2"
  2. "Zenwalk review, 2/2"
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