Review: Zenwalk Linux 2.0.1

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.

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.

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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50 Comments

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