posted by Howard Fosdick on Fri 13th Apr 2012 02:48 UTC
IconVectorLinux is one of those useful but lesser-known Linux distros. It's been around since 1999 and I've used it since 2006, off and on, in the role of a secondary OS. Now, with the disruptive changes Ubuntu forces on its user base with each new release, I've found myself increasingly attracted to Vector's stability and convenience. This article introduces "VL" to those who may not be familiar with it.

Vector is one of about two dozen Slackware-based Linux distros. Its motto is "Keep it simple, keep it small and let the end user decide what their operating system is going to be." The distro is small, fast and light. It challenges the trend towards OS bloat. It's a single CD download that performs well even on aging equipment. Many find it a good base distro to build to their own preference. I'll focus on what distinguishes Vector from other distros in this review.

Editions

Vector comes in several editions. I've listed them all in the chart below. They boil down to four basic choices--
  • Standard -- a full featured Xfce-based desktop environment for multimedia, web browsing, or home office work
  • Standard Kde-Classic -- Standard Edition with KDE instead of Xfce
  • Light -- Standard Edition paired down and optimized for low-end computers
  • SOHO -- Small Office / Home Office, a KDE-based version with OpenOffice and productivity tools for office professionals
If you want a Live CD, you need to specifically download the "Live" versions of these editions.

If you want 64-bit VectorLinux, a release candidate is downloadable here. All VL editions in general release are still 32-bit. Download them here.

If you want to support the VectorLinux project, Deluxe and SOHO Deluxe editions are very nicely-packaged systems for under $30US. VL does not withhold any tools or goodies from you if you don't buy these editions. Everything is available in the free VL software repositories.


                                      --VectorLinux Editions --

Edition:
Description:
Free:



Deluxe
Standard Edition packaged with extras like KDE, OpenOffice, more No
Standard,
Standard Live
Full featured Xfce-based desktop environment for multimedia, web browsing, or home work Yes
Standard Kde-Classic,
Kde-Classic Live

Standard Edition with KDE instead of Xfce
Yes
Light,
Light Live
For low-end hardware. Configurable with JWM, IceWM, Openbox, or LXDE in Version 7.
Yes
SOHO Deluxe
SOHO Edition packaged with extras No
SOHO,
SOHO Live
Small Office/Home Office, a KDE-based version with OpenOffice and tools for office professionals Yes
64-bit Standard
Similar to Standard Edition but 64-bit. Available as a release candidate here at the time of writing.
Yes
VirtualBox
Images
VirtualBox images for the Standard and Light Editions Yes

Vector's editions allow you to stay with the distro if you have varied needs or if your needs change over time. My opinion is that the project should concentrate its developer resources on fewer editions, so as to produce more timely upgrades and 64-bit versions.

System Requirements

VectorLinux requires minimal hardware, so little that I often use it in evaluating Pentium IV's for refurbishing. (Also, Vector is very good at hardware recognition.) The Standard Edition even ran adequately for me on a P-III with 128M memory, so I've never had cause to try the Light Edition. SOHO Edition requires at least 512M of memory since it runs KDE with OpenOffice. 

With these low system requirements, you would expect -- and you get -- excellent performance from Vector. It really snaps on current machines. And if you have an old XP or Windows 98 computer lying around, VL is an ideal vehicle for turning it into a secure, up-to-date system. But I don't want to give the impression that Vector is only for older machines, because that's not the case. Let's see what it offers.

Standard Edition 7.0

I'll review the 32-bit Standard Edition 7.0 and its Live CD. The two are almost identical. The Live CD lacks just a couple packages that are stripped out of the regular Standard Edition (notably the Opera web browser), to gain space for the Live tools. You can install Vector to disk from either system. The Live CD additionally allows you to install to a bootable USB thumb drive.

Standard Edition and its Live CD are currently at version 7.0, released in November 2011. The Light Edition is also now at version 7.0, released on March 21, 2012. Other Vector editions are upgrading from release 6.0 as I write. Version 7.0 uses the 3.0.8 Linux kernel, while earlier releases use the 2.6 kernel.


Applications--
VL Standard Edition comes with the full set of apps you need for typical home or office use. Most are GTK+ based. Xfce is the default GUI, with FluxBox installed as a secondary desktop option.

For web browsing, VL gives you Firefox (and Opera, too, if you're not using the Live CD). You get Pidgin and XChat for instant messaging and a gFTP client. For office work there is Abiword work processor, Gnumeric spreadsheet, J-Pilot for appointments, the Orage calendar, ePDFviewer, a thesaurus, a calculator, and the Geany and Leafpad text editors. For email, many download Thunderbird from VL's free software repositories.

Developers get Perl, Python, GTK+ and Qt, the GCC GNU compiler collection, the Glade IDE, and a graphical front-end for CMake. Graphics round it out, with the Dia Diagram Editor, GIMP the GNU Image Manipulation Program, Inkscape for drawing, the Geegie image viewer, and Shotwell for managing photos.

VL's multimedia works right out of the box. This includes Youtube, Hulu, and DVD and audio playback. The product ships with Java, Adobe Flash, and all popular codecs, so you don't have to run around figuring out and installing things to get multimedia going. (Distro-hoppers, I'm sure you've played that game before.) Vector includes MPlayer, UMPlayer, Xine, and Exaile for playing almost all media formats (even libdvdcss for playback of encrypted DVD's), and Grip for audio CD ripping. I really like that this light distro comes with such robust multimedia from the get-go.


Look and feel-- If you haven't used Xfce before, you'll find it simple but full-featured. It's an easy-to-use menu-driven GUI. Take the Version 7 screenshot tour to get a look-see or review screenshots at the VL website here.

Vector's Xfce-4.8 GUI comes with a custom theme and artwork. By default the screen includes both a top panel bar and the Cairo dock at the bottom, the Mac-like panel that enlarges icons as you sweep your cursor over them. It's odd that nearly all of the icons on these two panel bars are redundant. But just a couple clicks of the mouse removes either.

That's what nice about the interface. You control the theme, the appearance, windows decorations, and fonts, and it's easy to change anything you don't like. For example, after installing I always update the panel's cute little weather app to reflect my own location and to report in fahrenheit instead of celsius. A few clicks does the job. Xfce is quick and practical.


Administration-- VL is easy to manage because it centralizes configuration into a single a GUI tool called Vasm. With Vasm, newbies can manage Vector more easily than distros that offer powerful -- but disparate -- tools. Vasm configures hardware, printers, services, Samba file and printer sharing, networking (Wi-Fi, line-connected, and dial-up), the X-Windows GUI, user accounts, and the filesystem.

Some of the utilities that come with VL include the Ufw firewall and its GUI, Wicd for Internet connections, Gparted and Red Hat's Disk Utility for disk management, the Thunar file manager, the Grsync backup tool, and the Htop and GKrellM resource monitors. I like to place GKrellM on the desktop to graphically display resource use in real time. It fits unobtrusively in the corner of the screen. Read more about the utilities here.


Repository and Packages-- Vector's package manager makes it easy to download any apps you want that are not in the initial install. One reason many folks like VL is that it's a slender distro that doesn't try to cram everything into the base install. You can tailor it by adding only the apps you need. This keeps your system lean and mean and eliminates the bloat common to some operating systems.

Vector's package manager is called Gslapt. It's a GUI front-end to Slapt-get, the backwards-compatible dependency tracking extension to Slackware's package tools. Gslapt looks a lot like the Synaptic Package Manager used by Ubuntu. By default, Gslapt points to Vector's own free software repository. Though previously criticized as being rather small, in version 7.0 the repository claims one thousand packages. (Check and refresh the repository sources after installing Vector to see them all.) This should satisfy most users.

Of course, you can also download and install any Slackware package, or you can compile from source code. The downside is that you assume responsibility for dependency-checking and maintenance can become complicated.

Being based on Slackware, Vector uses .tgz packages. (This is as opposed to distros like Red Hat that use .rpm packages and those like Ubuntu and Debian that use .deb packages.) Vector also uses .tlz packages, which are LZMA-compressed, and .tbz files, which are squished archives made by first using TAR and then compressing the result with BZIP2. The benefit to compressed formats like .tlz is that downloads are faster because files are smaller. Also more files fit on the distribution CD.


Installation-- VL disk installation is straightforward and easy for anyone familiar with installing Linux. As with any distro, first-timers may need help. This product review leads you through how to install VL with screenshots. (It covers Standard Edition 6.0; the installer is simplified but otherwise similar in 7.0).

I like some of the thoughtful touches in the VL installer. For example, Vector makes it easy to mount other partitions. So you don't end up trying to figure out how to mount your Windows partition after you've booted Linux for the first time and found it missing. (If you're a distro-hopper I know you've run into that one.)

The 7.0 installer does not by default let you resize NTFS partitions. Windows users who have to shrink their sole Windows partition to create space for installing a second OS may want to use another tool for this task.

In addition to the installer, a handy little tool called vl-QwikPicks makes it easy to locate and download apps by category. This front-end humanizes the package names that otherwise confuse many of us.


Annoyances-- As I write this review, I gaze over at two books on my shelf whose titles are Linux Annoyances for Geeks and Windows 7 Annoyances. VL has its share of annoyances, too. The big questions with annoyances are always: how serious are they, and how many are there?

I've never run into an issue with Vector that I couldn't solve with either the help materials or through the top-notch online forum. However, I have run into many minor annoyances and inconsistencies, often more than I'd like. My sense of it is that VL -- like most Linux distros -- could be a little more polished. I feel the project should focus on eliminating minor defects rather than supporting so many different editions.

VL lacks the "Update Manager" found in many other Linuxes, such as Ubuntu or openSUSE. Presently users update individual packages that may have security or other issues. The Vector team recommends against "full system upgrades." They are working on this feature and intend to provide a GUI solution.

Two reviews (here and here) knock Vector's GUI for seeming old-fashioned in places. I feel this criticism is misplaced. VL's GUIs are functional and easy to use. That's what counts. By this measure VectorLinux is as good as most distros and better than many.

Support

VectorLinux distinguishes itself from many other distros by its strong support. Right off the bat you'll notice the VL website is visually appealing and makes it easy to find help.

Vector offers the help systems you expect: an active forum with 4,600 registered members and 20 to 30 online at any time; IRC support, typically with someone online; and Twitter broadcasts. There's also a Knowledge Center, a Solutions Bank with many How-To's for specific tasks, extensive FAQs, and a Cheat Sheet.

You'll also find some two hundred free videos featuring VectorLinux in all kinds of Linux How-To's.

VL offers clear, well-organized release-specific documentation. There are seven online manuals covering all aspects of Version 6, for example (Version 7 doc is just coming out.) What I especially like is that Vector always notes to which version any doc applies. This is critical because in many mid-size Linux projects there's lots of documentation, but it's disorganized, or worse, it doesn't specify to which release it applies. The result is that you diligently follow instructions you've found for some task only to discover that the doc you're using doesn't apply to your version. VL spares you that headache.
 
VL is one of the few Linux distros that offers a paid support option. Such professionalism is probably one reason VectorLinux has survived and thrived for 13 years, even as many competing distros have fallen by the wayside.

Is VectorLinux for You?

Vector is a good choice for those who want:

  • A speedy, easy-to-use distro with a full set of apps
  • A slender distro they can build into exactly what they want
  • A bloat-free OS
  • Stability and reliability across new releases
  • Multimedia that runs right out of the box
  • Great performance
  • A distro for older hardware
  • A Slackware-based distro
  • A range of editions
  • Excellent help and support materials
  • Paid support

If you are an end user, you'll find VectorLinux easy to use and productive. As with most Linux products, you'll want an experienced friend to install and configure it for you first.

Who is Vector not for? If you want the greatest number of applications in your distro's base install, you should choose a DVD-sized distro instead of Vector -- like Mint, openSUSE, or Fedora. If you want the flashiest GUI with "wow-me" visual effects, some other distro may be a better choice. And if you like to live on the edge and continually change your system to conform to the latest features -- and fads -- look elsewhere.

I've found VectorLinux flexible, functional, and fun for six years. If its strengths match your needs, I highly recommend you try it.


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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports databases and operating systems. Also see his OS News reviews of Puppy Linux, Lubuntu, Damn Small Linux, and The Sins of Ubuntu.

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