Linux Desktop Distro Shootout Part II: Libranet Review

This is the second in my series of reviews for debian-based commercial distros that might be appropriate for SOHO use. The first article covered my exploration of Lindows, and this one is focused on Libranet. Before I get started with Libranet I want to clarify a couple of points.

Some of the feedback from my first article took me to task for being biased and subjective. Well, this true. I am both biased and subjective. I am NOT exploring these distros in order to make a recommendation to my boss. I am not grading them on any industrial rating scale. I simply decided that I am going to settle on a debian-based commercial distro for my own SOHO use, and these articles document my misadventures along that quest.

Sometimes an expert opinion is not worth much. Remember that experts are: a) human, therefore fallible, and b) each equipped with their own personal set of blinders. So except in cases involving medical or legal advice I tend to follow my gut. I have had better results that way. But that is just my opinion, and I am not an expert.

Read these for entertainment value if you can find any. Or perhaps read them for the insight that they might provide into the mindset of a mid-range consumer. I am trying to dig past the hype and come to a supportable conclusion on the best commercial product for my personal use. I don’t mean to present any distro as being better or worse. I am only looking for the one particular distro that fits me, my hardware, work style and personal preferences the best. So yes, these articles are entirely biased and unfair, if you judge them by the standards of your typical software review. But to me, the subjective points are the ones that really matter. I am not just looking for something that I can make do with. I am hoping to find something that I can actively enjoy using for the forseeable future.

I am not trying to be fair to the companies. I am trying to be fair to myself. I want to avoid knocking myself out of a possible benefit because I failed to check something out thoroughly enough. So I am digging and poking, and then reporting what I find, warts and all. These companies are each openly competing in the marketplace where fairness doesn’t enter into it. Ruthless, backstabbing treachery is more likely to be the order of the day. If anyone’s feelings get hurt from simply reading my honest opinion, then their competition will find them easy meat. I don’t mean to be harsh, but I am not worried about being nice. Honest, yes. Careful, yes. Nice, no.

Next Victim…Libranet

(Hardware note: Main system = P3 1 gig, 384 meg RAM, 56K USR internal faxmodem, onboard i810 video disabled in BIOS, 32 meg Radeon 7200 PCI video card, noisy cooling fan and assorted dust bunnies. Secondary system = P3 450, 128 meg RAM, 4 meg ATI Rage agp, Lucent winmodem.)

Those Canadians are making us look bad again. I don’t know if they do it on purpose or not, but they surely do it. Wasn’t it embarrassing enough that we had to go north of the border just to get a robot arm for our own space shuttle? Now there’s Libranet. At least we still have the edge on fried chicken. Maybe it all evens out.

I sent an email to Libranet explaining what I was doing and asking them for an evaluation copy. Within two days they responded with an invitation to download their current release, which is 2.8.1. I made haste to locate someone with a broadband connection and, after some truly shameless groveling, I got my two CDs.

When I get a new distro my first objective is to find something wrong with it. For is it not written that, “If nothing’s wrong, you obviously missed something”? I nailed Libranet off the bat because it suffered the same difficulty that Lindows had with my main desktop. Namely, failure to recognize my video card. Unlike Lindows however, Libranet offered me the option of installing the vesa driver instead, which let me complete the installation. Once installed, I was able to cut and paste my standard one-size-fits-all version of the /etc/X11/XF86Config-4 file.

Let me inject an explanation about this, because this is the kind of workaround that we non-programmer types have to come up with when our techie cohorts get tired of messing with us. I have a standard configuration file (originally auto-generated by Knoppix) that fits my hardware perfectly. So rather than mess around with tinkering on each new distro I keep a copy of my stock file at hand. Whenever any distro has trouble with my video, wheelmouse, monitor or whatever I drag out old faithful and everything falls into place. Please note that Knoppix, a free distro, had no difficulty finding and setting up my hardware automatically on first booting. If Knoppix can do it, then I am not going to let the commercial distros off the hook.

This is how it works in the open market folks. As soon as your competition offers something, you better be prepared to offer it too, if you want to keep your market share; even if you are competing with free. Just ask Microsoft if you don’t believe me.

So Libranet gets a -1 for failure to recognize my main desktop’s video. (I am not trying to weight these points, I merely use them as markers. Maybe I should have used “pro” and “con” instead, but I am already started off with this approach.)

On my secondary system, Libranet refused to install at all. This was disconcerting. I had previously installed Libranet’s free download edition (2.7) on this system with no problems of any kind. So I did what any reasonable, non-programmer, end user/consumer would do. I screamed bloody murder. More specifically, I emailed Libranet’s technical support. This was on a Saturday evening. After sending the email I went looking on the Libranet web site for answers. I ran a brief search of the forums and found a description of my specific problem, tried it out and got the thing working. So I give Libranet a +1 for maintaining a useful database of solutions that actually fixed my problem. They get another +1 for having an excellent user forum. Just as I said about Lindows, I also say about Libranet. Any company that can inspire this kind of loyal following deserves credit for doing something right. However, the fact remains that this was a known issue that was still in place on their latest release. Give them -1 for that.

Score so far is -1 -1 +1 +1 = 0. And then the following Monday, the first business day after my Saturday email, I received a reply from a Libranet tech describing the very solution I had already found. Their reply also encouraged me to let them know if it did not work so they could come up with something else. That is about as responsive as technical support can get. Big +1 for that speedy turnaround.

Score now 0 +1 = +1.

Regarding my infamous modems, Libranet was the mirror image of Lindows. Whereas Lindows missed my USR modem but setup my Lucent winmodem, Libranet spotted my USR modem but missed my winmodem. It was enough to make me sigh. Libranet does provide a convenient link on their website for downloading the Lucent drivers and step by step instruction for installing them, which worked flawlessly. But still…..all right. They did make it a no brainer to fix, and I did let Lindows slide on the modem issue. I guess I just have atypical and difficult modems.

After all, how many people out there on the net are using such weird hardware as a USR internal faxmodem and a Lucent winmodem? Rare and peculiar items no doubt, given the trouble I have had with finding a distro that can recognize both of them. Give Libranet a +1 for recognizing one of my modems, just the same as I gave Lindows. Score is now +1 +1 = +2.

Lets talk about using this thing now. In practical terms Libranet = debian + adminmenu. That’s about it. Except…first of all the software that comes with Libranet actually works as soon as you install it. I also love the way they integrated Xscreensaver into the KDE screensaver utility. Little touches like that make the difference between sloppy and professional. Give them a +1 for thorough integration of the bundled packages.

Score now at +2 +1 = +3.

The adminmenu is a problem for me. How do I rate this thing? Do I give them a single plus point for having it? Or should I break it out into the individual utilities that are included with it? Decisions, decisions.

I am not a geek. Let this be known to all. But to give a clear picture of just how much joy this adminmenu can bring, let me tell you something. One of the first things I (the non-geek technical writer) did after installing Libranet was to jump onto the adminmenu and recompile my kernel. Not because I needed to. Because it was fun. Libranet has taken one of the most hair ripping experiences that an end user can possibly endure and turned it into a playful pass-time. I would have needed to recompile the kernel on my secondary system anyway in order to install the Lucent drivers. But I did it just for the fun of it. On both systems. Because I enjoyed it.

No doubt because of licensing issues, Libranet does not come equipped with RealPlayer, Flash, True-Type fonts, etc. The adminmenu takes care of that. One click, go get some coffee, and they are installed. No pain.

Networking wizard? Flawless. Internet dialer? Flawless. Mozilla? Office software? Games? All flawless. I could not get wine to work right, but I never have been able to get wine to work right anyway.

I will split the difference. Give them a +1 for the kernel utility, a -1 for not including some standard plugins and packages, but then a +1 for making it easy for me to do that part myself.

Confused? Don’t worry, I got used to it, so can you. Current score now is +3 +1 -1 +1 = +4. Not half bad so far.

Speaking of games, I noticed something else. Although Libranet did not initially recognize my video on the main system, once I got it configured using my stock configuration file I was blown away. Glxgears reported an approximate 20% increase in fps over any other distro I have tried on that system. This includes non-debian systems I have tried in the past. I have no idea why Libranet is 20% faster. I really don’t care why, to tell the truth. I just smile, give them another +1, and go on with my life. Score now +4 +1 = +5.

If I don’t find something else wrong pretty soon, people are going to accuse me of being a stealth employee of Libranet. And I really ain’t. But I have to mention the window managers. Libranet, as all know, defaults to IceWM. I had never tried this one before and was pleasantly surprised. Since the GDM login presents you with a selection to choose from, I started going down the list and trying them all, one at a time. I eventually defaulted back to KDE as my favorite, but I feel compelled to give Libranet a +1 for expanding my horizons. If they had not made the default something other than KDE or Gnome, I probably would never have bothered to check them out.

Fact is, from my point of view as an end user it looks to me like each new incarnation of KDE or Gnome results in a 0.05% increase in usability at the price of a 50% increase in RAM requirements. That’s an exageration, but not a huge one. I have encountered many Linux advocates who sneer at the legendary Microsoft “upgrade treadmill” but the truth is that Linux is not far behind. In terms of practical benefit I could get my real work done on my 7 year old’s PII-266. But then I couldn’t play Tuxracer, or Q3. I like the way Libranet defaults to a less RAM hungy desktop. I use KDE, but I know that I *could* use Libranet with IceWM on that PII-266 if I had to.

Score now +5 +1 = +6. Obviously, I am missing something. This is too high.

Fortunately my secondary system was kind enough to rescue me from potential accusations of favoritism. Somehow, for no particular reason, I stopped being able to boot up. I used it as normal for several days, and then catastrophe and mayhem struck. Everything began booting as normal until it started to load Grub. At this point it just sat there grinding my hard drive with no further progess. Not good at all. It had never done this before and I feared for my hard drive. I shut down and tried again, and again. Same thing every time. So why didn’t I yell for Libranet Technical Support this time? Because I am an idiot. Because it did not occur to me at first. The installation issues on the secondary box were no big deal, so that did not upset me. However THIS problem with my secondary system got me rattled, and I acted by reflex. For so many years I have gotten used to fixing things myself that I am conditioned not to ask for help until all other options are exhausted. By the time it came to me that Libranet might have a solution, I had already taken direct action. Besides, my ignorance of the nuts and bolts of boot managers is profound. Even if someone had tried to walk me through a cure, odds are that I would have done more damage than good.

I am not biased against Libranet. Quite the contrary, up until this point I was absolutely delighted. To make my disappointment even worse, I had previously used the free download edition of Libranet (2.7) on this system with no problems of any kind. For Libranet 2.8.1 to do this made me feel betrayed, however illogical that sounds. I felt rather like a puppy whose favorite chew toy had been snatched away. I was woefully chagrined. The only changes I had made to the stock installation was using adminmenu to recompile my kernel optimized for a P3, and then installing the Lucent winmodem drivers in strict accordance with instructions. I had been a good little user and did what they told me to do. Everything had appeared to be working fine for several days. Then WHAM!

I checked out the system using Knoppix as a rescue disk, then checked it out again using LindowsCD as a rescue disk. I was nervous about digging too deeply into the guts of the Master Boot Record, and too ignorant to really adjust Grub manually anyway. I could find nothing else wrong. My files were still intact and no data was lost. Plainly Grub had somehow become corrupted, but I had never seen it happen before on any of the other distros I had installed on this machine. I could have tried booting with a floppy, but I no longer trusted that installation and I wiped it off. Sorry folks, but I am an ignorant non-geek. What else could I do?

I shrugged and reinstalled Lindows 4.0 on my secondary system, where it is now happily chugging along like a brand new computer. I have no idea what happened. It has never occurred before with any distro. Clueless. Give Libranet a -1 for trying to eat my hard drive. IF I were weighting these points, which I am not, this would be one heavy duty demerit. I DON’T LIKE it when operating systems try to eat my hard drive. It upsets me. It threatens to disturb my usually saintly disposition.

But I am not weighting the points, so the score is +6 -1 = +5.

Meanwhile, back at the main box, I was engaged in an ongoing struggle to find something else to complain about. Wasn’t having much luck either. Once I had gotten it installed, and the video setup straightened out, nothing else had caused any problem of any kind on my main system. So I thought I would try something dangerous. Libranet claims that it is 100%, no holds barred, smack dab on target compatible with debian. I decided to test that, so I opened a console and did the apt-get update, apt-get install, apt-get upgrade thing. Left it on all night and went to bed.

Next morning I rebooted into my up to date Sarge system. Adminmenu still worked. Everything still worked. No dependency conflicts of any kind. (sigh) Another +1 for doing what they claimed to do. I gave Lindows credit for keeping their word, I have to give Libranet credit for it. If software companies get into the habit of following through on their advertising claims, there is no telling what might happen. We consumers might even start expecting such things, which could be catastrophic for the industry.

Score now +5 +1 = +6 again. And I am going to take off another point for forcing me to install a different operating system on my secondary computer. The first negative point was for trying to eat my hard drive, and this one is for making me go to the trouble of wiping and starting over. I am still unhappy about that one. Score +6 -1 = +5. Maybe a geek would have been able to salvage it. I could not. And I reiterate, the feisty horde of commercial Linux advocates are swearing a blue streak that commercial Linux is ready for the non-geek. So if it takes a geek to fix it…..well. Libranet gave this copy to me for evaluation and I deeply appreciate it. But if I had paid for it and this happened, the result would not have been pretty. Or polite either.

Music CDs played as expected, but Libranet did not read the playlist on my ancient oddball test CD. That means a -1, because Lindows DID read it. Remember, if one distro can do it then all distros are required to do it to maintain market share. This is the reality of capitalism. Like it or lump it. To compete, you have to be better than the competition. And the little details matter very much folks. In fact, the little details can make or break you. They are important. Just as good is not good enough. Score is now +5 -1 = +4.

Libranet recognized that cheap little IBM webcam instantly. Within a few minutes I was snapping still photos and burning my own little film production. That was all I wanted to know. No points either way for doing what they were supposed to do. Or rather, this is covered under the point that I already gave them earlier. It also recognized my 4 port usb hub without difficulty.

I have never tried a debian box yet that wasn’t smooth, powerful and fast. Libranet is no exception. Everything worked as far as usability, but with a slight increase in speed. I am sure this is not a fluke or my imagination, Libranet is faster than Lindows on the same box. Programs load a hair faster, the mouse is a touch more responsive. Probably due to the fact that Libranet 2.8.1 uses XFree86 4.3. So now what do I do? I took a point away from Lindows for still using 4.2. Should I give one to Libranet? No, because 4.3 is the current version and therefore the de facto standard that every other distro must meet. Sorry folks. Remember what I said earlier about ruthless competition? No score.

I have been asked by readers to go into more depth about applications, but there really isn’t much to say. OpenOffice performs the same on Libranet as it did on Lindows. Same for Mozilla. I am using essentially the very same applications from one distro to another, and all of them are ultimately based on debian. So far, I am not detecting any noticeable differences in application performance, other than the speed increase I mentioned. If I see any down the road, I will certainly mention it.

At this point, I am trying to nail down the best overall OS. Applications come later. By using debian I always can be sure that my standard apps will work, so I am not overly worried about it right now. Once I get settled into a single OS, I will probably start ranting about individual apps. Truth is, a technical writer/illustrator doesn’t need much in the way of apps. OpenOffice, QCad, Mozilla, Gaim, a few games, any of several different music/video programs, and that is about it. I am still learning how to use Scribus and GIMP, but so far so good. Text, illustrations, figures, even charts and graphs, don’t put a lot of strain on a modern computer no matter what OS you run. Lately when I am doing straight text work, where I don’t need to worry about page layout or graphics, I have gotten attached to Gedit. Dunno why, I just like it.

Final score for Libranet = +4. Don’t fret, I will tabulate the results at the end of this series for folks that like charts, including a listing of how many +/- for each distro as well as the final total. I just don’t feel like dealing with it right now.

Ultimately Libranet either worked superlatively well, or it did not work at all. Last time I mentioned that Lindows was solid but boring. Actually, there is something to be said for boring, when your data depends on it. I am well aware that are any competent geek could probably have taken care of my Grub problems on the secondary computer without needing to reinstall. However, I could not. In addition to everything else, I am also my own IT department. I need to use tools and systems that I can cope with unassisted if need be. So just because someone else could probably have fixed doesn’t help me. I need to use things that *I* know how to fix.

Libranet is a superb system in many ways. I am just wondering if I am smart enough to handle it.

Next Victim…..Either Xandros or Mepis, whichever gets delivered first. Stay tuned.


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