I considered reviewing Debian for this article. I downloaded a copy of Debian 3.0r2, making sure to get the disk with the 2.4 kernel. Everything you’ve heard about Debian being difficult to install? It’s not totally true, but it’s pretty close. I really wanted to try Debian, though, if only to use the vaunted apt-get system. I’d tried apt-rpm on a previous Red Hat installation, and it was great. Since Debian was turning out to be too difficult to put together, I decided to look for a debian-based distro.
Test System 1 (Primary system):
Dell Inspiron 5150 laptop
3.06GHz Mobile P4 w/ HyperThreading
256MB DDR SDRAM
30GB hard drive
64MB NVidia GeForce Go FX5200 graphics card
15″ SXGA screen
Broadcom 440x Ethernet card
Test System 2 (Secondary system):
HP Pavilion N3478 laptop
550MHz AMD K6-2 w/ 3dNow!
6GB hard drive
4MB Trident CyberBlade chipset (shared memory)
12″ SVGA screen
I didn’t test exclusively on these systems, I also tested (or had friends test) on friends’ laptops and desktops, as well as a desktop of my own.
I just want to say this before I start: One of the most useful tools you can get is PartitionMagic 8. It lets you resize and play with partitions, non-destructively, from Windows or a pair of floppy disks. Most people will be coming from Windows, and it’s nice to be able to work with partitions without losing data.
There are things you need to do before you start. Of course, make an accurate list of your hardware. “I have a (insert manufacturer here) graphics card” isn’t going to cut it. You don’t have to go overboard; you probably don’t need to know your RAMDAC speed, but don’t go too light on the details. You have to determine whether your laptop supports APM or ACPI power management. Finally, you *must* know what your monitor’s native resolution is. Before you start, disconnect all external mice and keyboards. If you’re going to use a network, modem, or anything else PC card, stick it in. On to the first review.
I poked around and found Libranet. Libranet currently offers two options: download the free former version, 2.7 Classic, or ante up and pay for Libranet 2.8. I downloaded 2.7 and gave it a try. I was impressed. So I contacted Libranet, and they let me have a copy of 2.8 to review.
Libranet is based on Debian. This comes with both good and bad. Being based on Debian means that you have apt-get, one of the coolest things since Armand Bombardier sat down and hammered out the snowmobile. Bad? Debian means the Debian installer. That is, if Libranet used the default installer. Instead, you get something that looks like the Debian installer at a glance, but isn’t if you look a bit closer.
If you download and burn Libranet, 2.7 Classic fits on 1 CD. If you buy 2.8, it’s 2. Boot from the CD, and you get a welcome screen much like Debian’s. Pretty much the whole installation is text-based. If you’re like me, and you don’t really care, good. If you’re a child of the GUI, fear not, cause it’s hard to get lost. Hit enter when you get to the “boot:” prompt, and you’re off.
The first thing you get asked is for information about your keyboard. If you need help figuring out if you should pick the qwerty option, stop now. Next you partition your hard drive. Libranet offers you the option to automatically partition using unused space, wipe out all Linux partitions, or manually partition. It also gives you the option to run GNU/Parted. I can see beginners running into a bit of a problem here, as there’s no option to let the installer automatically resize existing partitions for you. With a bit of work, you can use Parted, but beginners will have no joy in the process. Libranet says you can do a base install in 600MB, but what fun is that? They recommend a 3GB partition for a more comprehensive install. As my drive is already partitioned, I let Libranet format my Linux partitions, which went very smoothly.
The installer now takes about 5 minutes to install a base system. You then get to choose other OSes to boot, and a bootloader. You only have the choice of GRUB and none at all here. No LILO. If you prefer LILO, you’re out of luck, but it makes it easier for a beginner to figure out what to pick. You now get told to remove your installation disk and reboot. If everything went well, you’re now seeing the GRUB screen. Pick Libranet, and you’re on to stage two of setup.
You now have to set your root password. Simple enough. I’d like to step aside for a second and say something. During setup, whenever you have to set a password, the prompt is “Enter new UNIX password:”. Just a quirk, but one that made me blink for a second. After that, you can create users. Just punch in login names, actual names, and passwords. For every new user you create, you get asked if you want to allow the said user to access mounted Windows partitions. A nice touch, most distros make you change that after installation. Enter a hostname, and then core packages will be installed.
X configuration is next. You have the option of doing it automatically or manually. I hit auto, just to give it a spin. It detected an “unknown nVidia” graphics card, got my video RAM right, (64MB), and assigned the nv driver. The nv driver has never worked for me before, and that situation hasn’t changed. I used the vesa driver and planned to install the nvidia driver later. It detected the touchpads on both of my systems as PS/2 mice. Again, if you have a problem here, try the serial and USB options. Now you can select your monitor. It guessed fine for my secondary system, but couldn’t get anything for my Inspiron. I had to pick a generic laptop panel. You can then test your configuration. And here we hit something weird. My Inspiron’s screen is natively 1400×1050. In configuration, I picked a generic laptop display panel For some reason, that resolution is not offered. Even Libranet’s manual, when talking about X configuration, skips from 1280×1024 to 1600×1200. Really weird. Anyway, X ran fine on my secondary system. After configuring X, the installer goes to a graphical package installation screen.
Libranet comes with a lot of software. Pretty much everything you’ll need. A nice surprise came in the form of window managers. Not only were KDE and Gnome included, but also a bunch of other, smaller window managers. IceWM, Xfce, Fluxbox, and a few others I forgot. I’ve really started to enjoy using Fluxbox. It loads incredibly, blindingly fast. I mean one second fast. That`s nice. I digress. There`s an option to install PCMCIA support, and also a category labeled “Laptop Software”. I went in to look at the individual packages, and they include things such as support for those external multimedia buttons almost everyone has, support for APM and ACPI, wireless tools, and packages for Toshiba and Sony laptops. Lots of stuff here. Pick other software, and make sure to take the extra window managers, because they`re neat to play with. I do have one gripe. Nowhere is there a way to see how much space your chosen packages will take up. This is a serious pain. Libranet needs to correct that in their next release. Start the installation process when you`re done selecting packages. It`ll probably take in between 20 and 40 minutes.
After your packages are installed, you can set up sound. There was no problem detecting either of my built-in sound chipsets. However, one`s an Intel i810, which is very common, and the other`s a generic one. Your milage may vary for sound. Network setup is fairly uncomplicated. I started setting up my network connection when I realized that my ethernet card was not supported. I groaned and plopped in my Intel PRO/100 ethernet PCMCIA ethernet card. No support there, either! I continued on, despite the fact that I was starting to have some serious misgivings. After you set up networking, the X server starts. You go to a Libranet splash screen with a login box, as well as options on the side to select things like language and pick a window manager.
I logged in and tried setting up network support (again). Nope. I restarted, booted into another OS, and went to Libranet’s web site, to find out that they have an extensive support database. Lo and behold, they had an entry for installing the driver for a BCM4400. It’s at http://libranet.com/support/2.8/0316. They provide an installer for the driver. Download the file, untar it, go to a terminal, and a simple “./install.sh” will have you up and running.
The distro has something known as the Adminmenu. It’s a masterwork. You can do anything from there. Configure X, play with printer and network settings, and upgrade your system from the Libranet archive. It even helps you recompile your kernel. It’s really a great piece of software, for both power and beginning users.
Next up I wanted to see if power management was there. It wasn’t. Another trip to the support page of Libranet’s site yielded two options. (the relevant page is at http://libranet.com/support/2.8/0325) The faster method is to edit /etc/modules, and delete the line that reads “apm”. Then go to /etc/default/acpid and add ‘MODULES=”all”‘. If it works, great. It didn’t work for me. I tried the second, more time consuming method. Download the offered file from the page mentioned above and untar it. Switch into the “acpi” directory, and run the following commands in a terminal. “script acpi.log”, followed by “./install.sh”. Wait a while your kernel is recompiled. It took my machine about 20 minutes or so. I rebooted and had working ACPI support.
PCMCIA support was fine. It automatically detected a generic CompactFlash reader I have, and although I never got the Intel network card working, I did get a 3Com card up and running.
After it’s all said and done, I’m happy. It took work, but I now have an extremely stable Debian-based system. I got the nvidia drivers installed, and set my resolution to 1400×1050. I’m suprised at the speed of Libranet. A lot of distros feel a bit slower, or as slow as WinXP on the same system. Libranet feels much more responsive than Windows, or SuSE 9. Not quite as blistering as Slackware, but it’s fast. Libranet as a whole is an excellent experience. The distribution is well structured and enjoyable to use, and has the added benefit of a large support database and a forum with 2000 members and growing. Libranet is solid and enjoyable, and worth a try if you want a distro to do just about anything.
UPDATE: I’ve been informed that I made a mistake in the review. You can install the NVidia drivers during installation. I said that you were not able to do so. I’m extremely sorry for any problems this has caused.
Ease of installation: 8.0/10
It’s text-based, but there’s plenty of help along the way. There are a few quirks here and there, but all in all it’s acceptable. One problem of note is the inability to see how big your package selection is. I’d like to know whether I’m installing 800MB of software or 4GB.
I’d like to see an option to automatically reduce the size of Windows partitions, but it’ll be okay for someone with experience. If you’re a beginner, browse the forums and support pages, just to get an idea of what you’re doing.
Lots of software included. Apt-get means that you can install just about anything without problem. The Libranet Archive is a neat idea, giving you stable software with the click of a button.
Hardware compatibility: 9.0/10
With work, Libranet supports a lot of hardware. I tried it on an old machine (desktop) with some weird hardware, and it worked fine. If something doesn’t work, it’s probably on the support page. Still, things like my network card should be supported out of box.
Power management: 9.0/10
After I recompiled my kernel, ACPI worked fine. Marks deducted for having to recompile my kernel, but not many because it was so simple.
Personal feel: 9.5/10
I like Libranet. A lot. It’s a distribution I enjoy using. It’s stable, fast, and actually fun at times. Neat features like the Adminmenu and the Libranet Archive are worth trying this distro.
Overall rating: 8.6/10
In the end, it’s a distro that takes a bit of work and patience to get up and running, but is extremely stable, fast and well supported. Easily a distribution that can be used by both power-users and beginners alike. Definitely appropriate for use on a laptop.