At the moment of writing Slackware Linux 9.0RC3 is just released. This might be a good moment to moment to look what Slackware Linux 9.0 has to offer. But any good article starts off with an introduction ;). Slackware is one of the oldest distributions around and is well-known for adhering to (well, at least unofficially) the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. That's right, no graphical installer, no GUI configuration tools and no advanced package manager. But in turn you get a very transparent, stable and fast system.
So, What's New?
Let's start with the standard stuff (note that this is based on Slackware 9.0RC3, only Patrick Volkerding knows what will be in the final 9.0 version). The newest XFree86, version 4.3.0, is included. Besides better hardware support, XFree86 now has alpha blended and animated cursors. On the GUI side Slackware 9.0 also has KDE 3.1 and Gnome 2.2.
Developers might already have noticed that Slackware has finally switched to gcc 3.2 (Slackware 9.0 has gcc 3.2.2). Gcc 3.2 has been introduced in Slackware-Current in august 2002 and has been tested thoroughly afterwards. Gcc 3.2 generates much more efficient code compared to older gcc versions, this is especially the case for C++ applications. The gcc 3.2.2-compiled KDE 3.1 in Slackware 9.0 is really fast on my Athlon XP. Slackware 9 with KDE 3.1 seems to be somewhat faster then Slackware 8.1 with KDE 3.0. This may be caused by the transition to gcc 3.2 as well as improvements in the KDE code base. There is one catch, though: browser plug-ins compiled with older gcc versions often do not work with gcc 3.2-compiled browsers.
Another great addition is hotplugging support for PCI, Cardbus and USB devices. The hotplug package is a collection of scripts which automatically initialize these classes of devices and probe the required modules. Hotplugging caused some problems with Slackware-Current some time ago because sometimes framebuffer drivers were modprobed. If the framebuffer device does not work well with the graphic adapter you get a flickering screen. Now most "dangerous" drivers are blacklisted, meaning they will not be loaded. After this blacklisting a notebook which started flickering after booting Slackware-Current now works perfectly. I also experienced some problems with the old PCMCIA support which did not correctly initialize an old Boca card, the new hotplugging support also fixed this mysteriously.
Lastly, I would like to mention some of the applications included. First of all, Mozilla 1.3 appeared a short time ago in Slackware-Current. My guess is that it will be included in 9.0. The office applications included are KOffice, AbiWord and Gnumeric. For professional typesetting TeTeX 2.02 is included. I also have to mention that Patrick Volkerding has added checkinstall to the extra/ FTP directory. Checkinstall is a really handy tool which you invoke after compiling a program. Checkinstall invokes "make install" and registers which files are installed. After that it creates a Slackware package of the software that you just "make install"-ed and installs it. This provides excellent package management for programs you manually install.
The first problem many people encounter with Slackware is the lack of a tool to upgrade the system. Slackware Inc. provides security patches and important fixes in the patches/packages directory on FTP mirrors, but the standard Slackware distribution has no means to automatically look for which updates are available and to apply them. Fortunately, this is where Swaret comes to the rescue. Swaret is a package tool for Slackware Linux, comparable to Debian's apt-get. Of course, it does not provide dependency checking (Slackware packages do not have the means for that), but it can install and update packages. A "swaret --update && swaret --upgrade" is enough in the most cases to interactively update your system. Swaret currently supports Slackware Linux 8.1 and Slackware-Current, but it should probably work with 9.0 too. It is actively maintained, so if it does not work with 9.0 an updated version will probably be released soon after Slackware Linux 9.0 is released.
Another problem, which is not really Slackware-specific, but reported on USENET repeatedly is the inability of some BIOSes to boot the Slackware Install CD. Starting with Slackware Linux 8.1, Slackware switched from floppy emulation for booting from CD-ROM to ISOLinux. The problem is that not all BIOSes are able to boot ISOLinux. However, in most cases this can be solved by using Smart Bootmanager, which is a boot manager that can be installed on a floppy disk. It can also boot El-Torito bootable CD's, including Slackware Linux 8.1 and newer versions.
The disadvantage of doing a Slackware review is that you cannot review a brand-new installer or stuff like that. The installer only differs slightly from the 8.1 installer or the 7.0, or 4.0, or... you get the point;). I would rather call Slackware development evolutionary than revolutionary. The distribution in terms of installation and configuration is very nearly unchanged the last 9 years or so. That is the advantage of Slackware Linux, during the years we have seen many versions of XFree come by, we have seen the development of window managers and desktop enviroments, everything from primitive browsers to the latest tabbed Konqueror and Mozilla, but someone who has learned to install and use Slackware five years ago can easily install it right now without having to learn anything new. And the same story will probably be told in 2008. Slackware is simply consistent, flexible and transparent and that won't change.
Did nothing change? No, a lot changed. Right now Slackware has the latest desktop environments, server software, utilities and libraries. Hardware support got better with hotplugging and with the latest gcc performance has increased. For existing Slackware users Slackware Linux 9.0 is definitely worth buying (at least if you want to support development). To other people I would like to say: if you do like an adventure, if you truly want to learn Linux to the bones, Slackware is really worth looking at.