Cobind Desktop: Linux Done Right

Linux is all about choice. Endless debates carry on each day, but a new company with a new distribution, Cobind, has a classic, but novel, approach: Do one thing, and do it well.

Click for a larger version I’ve been reviewing Linux distributions for a few years now, and each time I load something new, I’m struck by the fact that it’s almost always a close variant to everything else. It takes a while to get things running – to customize everything and get the desktop looking just right for me. I have to spend a while organzing the taskbar and optimizing the system. I’ve gotten very used to manuevering around default settings, even though they aren’t always what I want. This is generally a given when installing a new Linux distribution.

This would all change last week when I installed Cobind Desktop version 0.1 on my machine. For the first time in a long time, I saw what I felt was Linux done right. I sat in front of a machine that promised to deliver something very exciting in the near future. Cobind desktop is based heavily on Fedora Core 1, but unlike other desktops has a novel approach to OS delivery. Whereas many Linux distributions offer a variety of programs to give the user choice, Cobind does not. Cobind offers a simple and sleek set of packages, focusing on delivering a single product well rather than a slew of options with mixed results.

Cobind installation will almost definitely get a graphical facelift before 1.0. Currently, it uses a curses-like interface much like the Slackware or Red Hat text-based installation. It’s relatively simple, and very quick. The install is not ready for the general public, but shouldn’t confuse anyone who has ever installed Linux, even if they’ve only done so via Anaconda or YAST (the install actually does run Anaconda, albeit without the graphical portion). After running through the uneventful install, which runs under a half hour using only one disc, you are greeted by the Cobind boot screen.

Click for a larger version Cobind delivers a nice graphical boot sequence, and that is followed by a first time wizard reminiscent of Fedora’s. So similar is the wizard that your time configuration still offers to sync up to Red Hat’s NTP servers. Unlike some newer desktop varieties, Cobind, thankfully, does encourage the creation of a user account before the first login. Then you a greeted with a nice looking login screen, which is based on GDM.

This would be the first major problem I had with Cobind. The login process was tough to decipher, as the first box asks for a username, and upon entering your name, the same space for the password is only labeled “Welcome.” While it is confusing, it is certainly the effect of an alpha release and will be fixed by the next release. I tried a number of times to login unsuccessfully, and I realized I would be unable to login as a regular user. I tried logging in as “root,” and it logged right in.

The Cobind desktop is the most refreshing thing I’ve seen in a long time. First of all, you don’t get a choice of desktop envinronments. This distribution has made its choice as to what it offers – it’s running XFce4, a lean, mean, fast desktop. Unlike a vanilla install of XFce, it has some icons on the desktop, ones that are not only useful, but expected by most users – Start Here, Home, and Trash. Best of all, it has well thought out icons on the taskbar. It has Mozilla Firebird for browsing and Mozilla Thunderbird for e-mail, Gaim, Gedit, Abiword, Gnumeric, Gnucash, and XMMS. “For once,” I think as I log in, “a truly useful default kicker.” These are typical desktop apps, and while they may not be your first choice – AbiWord, Gnumeric, Gedit, and Gaim, at least, all have signficant competition – Cobind has done a good job at providing you a single solution to prevent confusion. There are a number of other applications installed by default, but how to access them is not immediately obvious. Any advanced user can add new programs, while a novice has virtually everything they need out of the box. There’s no overlap, you have one tool for the job.

Click for a larger version It should be noted that Cobind using GDM, Nautilus, and the above applications is no coincidence. All of the above – with the exception of the Mozilla apps – even the desktop environment, are based on GTK+ (note that Mozilla does play nice with Gnome, which is based on GTK+, so it fits nicely). There are no KDE/Qt applications included in Cobind Desktop, nor are these libraries installed, as a cursory glance of the application list confirms.

Cobind is fast and simple. XFce4 is extremely customizable, and although not my first time using it, it was the first time I’d seen it preconfigured. One issue Cobind will have to work out is use of file manager. Cobind appears to use Nautilus, the Gnome file manager. Clicking a desktop icon will bring up a window using Nautilus. But clicking on the folder in the XFce taskbar brings up your home directory using Velocity, another Gnome file manager. You can actually access XFFM, the XFce file manager, directly from the taskbar as well. There is an additional link on the taskbar to bring up Konqueror, but the link doesn’t work, as Konqueror is not actually installed. This is mere clutter. There is no need for a distribution aimed at simplifying things to offer three or four file managers, much worse, for them to make them all easily and inconsistently accessible from different buttons and locations. This will prove confusing for most users – even those familiar with Linux GUIs – attempting to customize the file manager. Since Nautilus appeared most easily, I was fairly comfortable. I have not found Nautilus to be slow, and I felt Cobind was very responsive overall using any of the FMs.

Click for a larger version One of the big plusses of Cobind was the crispness and polished look and feel. With anti-aliased fonts (via XFce), the OS is clean and beautiful. With a bunch of icon sets and more window themes than you could fathom (again, via the massive XFce library), a system can be super customized in a few clicks without a single download. I found the default appearance of Cobind to be very attractive.

My first action was to launch the browser – Mozilla Firefox 0.8, the perfect choice for a home desktop user. I changed the default fonts to the included Bitstream Vera fonts, and everything became instantly gorgeous. It launched quickly and easily and included the anti-aliasing that standard Linux Firefox packages don’t always have by default. I followed it up by launched Thunderbird. Later, I closed Firefox and tried to launch it while Thunderbird was open. Met with an error, I found this nasty bug on the Cobind website. I had to create a custom launcher to get around it. Worse, the launcher instructions on the website didn’t even work until I chmodded the new script file to be executable. I can chock this one up to be a 0.1 release also, but still, this one is particularly annoying. How did this one not get caught in testing?

The one thing missing from Cobind that make sit unuseable as a primary desktop for me was the lack of a video player. There is no totem or mplayer to watch any sort of video file or DVD. Without this core application, a desktop system is severely lacking. Other apps like gftp are present but unlabelled. I would highly recommend a new item is added to the launcher – some sort of “Additional Applications” drawer to contain links to other applications.

Cobind also appears to be developing new tools to manage their distribution. A glance of their website shows that they are developing “Yummy,” a graphical front end to the popular yum (Yellowdog Updater), which is most comparable to apt-get. A software installation scheme seems to be another important step to Cobind, as they are not shipping 0.1 with a compiler, and Fedora RPMs, strangely perhaps, do not appear to always be 100% compatible with it. In fact, having downloaded RPMs of lynx and nmap, neither would install, even with a –force argument. As of now, there is no real way to manage your software without using YUM.

Click for a larger version The good news is that yum does appear to work most of the time. The first time you type “yum” followed by any arguments into the terminal, it will retrieve updated headers. This process took over 20 minutes on my machine. After that, I was able to install with the simple “yum install” Yum is a nice tool, but really needs a synaptic like interface that allows you to browse apps more easily than with yum search.

Samba 3 is installed as well, however, I was unable to mount Samba shares on my network. I had gone to the command line and typed mount -t smbfs -o username=ascheinberg,password=password //SERVER/share /mnt/data. This failed everytime. There is no Samba browser readily available, so I opened up the file manager and typed smb:///. It didn’t work – I was using Velocity. So I double clicked the Home icon on the desktop and tried it with Nautilus. This brought up my domain. I was able to finally browse to a server, and log in through the GUI. As I’ve seen on other distributions, with each folder click, I was forced to authenticate again. While I can connect, I won’t.

I was happy to see that sshd starts by default. One of the huge advantages of Linux for me is that from any machine on my network, I can always connect via SSH either via puTTY, WinSCP, or the terminal. Since Cobind is essentially serverless – there’s no Apache, MySQL, FTP – I worried that SSH would be unuseable. Luckily, it appears that sshd does start up by default, allowing secure connections.

Click for a larger version Today, Cobind is not fully useable. It is missing some important apps, it has a number of bugs, and it is still suffering from “distribution definition syndrome,” where the developers, it seems, haven’t decided with certainty what Cobind Desktop will be. However, it is accurately labelled 0.1, and in that sense, it is an unwavering success. I have rarely seen a distribution that has excited me so much for its subsequent releases, and I’ve rarely seen a release so focused on true default useability for the desktop. In time, we’ll want to see advanced video applications, a flawlessly integrated Samba interface, and perhaps some new tools like a mature Yummy to help administer the local system. For now, I will not be able to commit to Cobind full time. But I can promise you that I am more excited about Cobind than any other distribution out there. Although in its infancy, I believe Cobind Desktop has potential to take the Linux desktop world by storm.

Installation: 8/10 (dead simple, but text based)
Hardware Support: 9/10 (got everything on my system)
Ease of use: 8/10 (optimized by default, not much bloat to cause confusion)
Features: 9/10 (boasts the first real XFce4 desktop distro and useable apps)
Credibility: 8/10 (still alpha, but professional looking)
Speed: 9/10 (speed demon compared to larger, more robust Red Hat and SuSE offerings)

Overall: 8/10, based largely on promise of what’s to come

Adam Scheinberg is an IT Manager in Orlando, FL. He is a regular contributor to OSNews.

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