Many companies tried to create a truly easy-to-use Linux distribution, but as they say in Greece “they reached the well, but weren’t able to drink water“. Corel, Mandrake, Lindows, Xandros, Stormix and many other distros tried or are still trying to bring Linux closer to Windows’ ease of use and the millions of the desktop-oriented users. One of the new distributions that has many people impressed so far, is Lycoris (formerly known as ‘Redmond Linux’). OSNews tested the latest Lycoris Desktop/LX and here is what we experienced.
Lycoris employs a custom version of Caldera’s Lizard application as the installation program. The version the Lycoris folks sent me for the review is the Desktop/LX version, which includes a single bootable CD in a DVD case with a 28-pages manual. Installation was easy and speedy. Installation on our dual PIII 450 Mhz seemed to go well and I could play a Solitaire game while waiting for the installation to complete in the background. Except for the usernames, geographic location and partitioning, there was not much more that I had to do for the installation, which was fairly quick and automatic. Lycoris currently uses ext3 as the file system of choice. However, I hope that future versions of Lycoris will use a file automatically for their swap space instead of a real partition – in addition to the / partition. This will greatly simplify the installation process for many users and won’t fragment their hard drives.
After the installation is over, Lycoris does not reset (cold boot) the PC, but loads the distribution from the hard drive. Speaking from my experience on many OSes, this is not generally the right way of doing things, as a lot of devices failed to initialize correctly. My second CPU was not working and the audio baffled out completely after opening a second application that required access to the audio device. Rebooting “for real” fixed these issues for me. All my hardware (CD, CD-R, sound, video, TVCard, network card, peripherals) was correctly recognized and configured by the Lycoris installation routine.
Lycoris Experience, Part I
Booting could have been faster for Lycoris as there are no services loading with the system. No Apache, no mySQL or any other server software that you find on many distributions. Some traditional Unix commands, such as ‘locate’, are not present either. Lycoris is promoted as a desktop environment and no such software is is to be found either on the CD or on the booting sequence. While booting is pretty fast, for some reason the FAT32 mounting is very slow (the OS mounts every supported partition on boot by default). It took 2 minutes to mount two FAT32 partitions (9 and 18 GB respectively), while the rest of the OS loading did not take more than 40 seconds. A shame really – I hope this (inconvenience mostly) will be fixed or altered to a faster algorithm.
Lycoris, being a desktop-centric distribution, loads into graphical mode automatically. The KDE login manager will present you with a dialog asking you to insert your login and password as created previously in the installation phase. There is also a handy drop-down menu option to restart the X Server and another option to reboot or shutdown the computer.
Seconds later, KDE 2.2.2 is loaded and you are presented with a nice WindowsXP-like nature background image and some good looking XP-like desktop icons, as the screenshots show. This is basically a KDE installation with a bunch of good-looking icons and a lightly tweaked Konqueror to show the local and remote drives and networks in a friendly manner. Having everything mounted by default really helps the desktop user make immediate use of the machine, instead of battling with the ‘mount’ command on a Terminal (no, there is no ‘linuxconf’ included). The KDE menu is loaded with useful applications, but it is not as “bloated” as with many other distros which try to include everything under the sun. Everything has sensible software category names on the Kmenu and it is easy to navigate around it. Lycoris includes only one application for each type of application a desktop user needs. One spreadsheet application, one word processor (only some of the KOffice packages are included), one text editor (kedit), one mp3 player (XMMS), one scanner app (Kooka), one graphics app (GIMP), one graphics viewer etc. Among others, there is Java 1.3 included, KFax, Real Player 8, Flash, CD burning software, KMail etc. For DVD and mpeg, XINE is included. I found XINE to have problems though and be very unstable on my dual PC. Also, the other media player included, NotATun, did not work for me at all. GTK+ libraries are installed, so you can run GTK+ applications, but there is no GNOME or other window managers. There is only one of each kind, because a desktop OS should be easy to understand and administer. Simplicity is important, at all levels, so the inclusion only of KDE is a logical step and a well thought out decision.
For system configuration, Lycoris includes both the standard KDE Control Center (with additional modules to
add/edit/remove users and the ability to load device drivers directly from the GUI and configure networking) and another panel called “kXconfig” where you can change your video card information, monitor, keyboard, mouse, screen res etc. On my PC, the only device that it did not have a visual way of configuring (/etc/modules.conf text editing was the last resort) was my TV Card. In fact, my PCI WinTV Hauppauge Bt878 was the way to go if I wanted to… lock my system. While the system detected and configured the TV Card correcly, if I loaded XawTV, the system would lock up. From what I understood of the kind of artifacts I got just before the crash, I think the tv card requested some kind of hardware acceleration or overlay and my Voodoo3 did not react well on that request (Lycoris ships with the fairly old XFree 4.01, which may be the culprit). It seems that I am not the only one with the exact same problems with a Bt8x8/Voodoo3 combination. Editing the /etc/modules.conf and taking out some Bt8x8 configuration listed there, I could launch the app, and it would still crash X, but at least it would not freeze the whole machine.
Lycoris uses Mozilla 0.9.7 as its main browser. I installed the latest Mozilla 0.9.9 binary and it worked fine too. Other Internet software included with Lycoris are ICQ and AIM clients, a (GTK+) FTP client, an IRC client etc. This setup seemed to work well for the every day needs of a desktop user.
Lycoris Experience, Part II
I think the biggest problem in the whole experience was the installation of new software. As I said, there are no developer tools to be found on the $29 Desktop/LX. You need to purchase the $39 version in order to get 3 more CDs, which include the dev tools, the source and one more CD with applications. So, while there is Perl and Python installed, there is no gcc, make or php. That would not normally be a problem for a desktop system, but in this Linux case, things are a bit different. Downloading RPMs from the web did not work well as almost all serious applications needed a version of the libstdc++ library, which was not installed by default, or they needed Freetype 2.x etc. So, on one hand you can only install via RPMs, but on the other hand these RPMs need libraries that are normally installed with the developer tools or libraries that are way too common and used everywhere, but surprisingly they were not pre-installed with Lycoris. I managed to install only a handfull of applications that were statically linked, because the dependancy problems for the rest of the apps was already a headache (Lycoris seemed to have more dependency problems than the ones you find in the other “bloated” distros). There is a web link to the main launch menu to download Lycoris RPM compiled software (which seemed like the right step), but that link was… dead (it was linking to the old Redmond Linux web site), so no joy.
Lycoris includes an “Update” application where it fetches data from a web location and downloads critical updates for the system. The idea is similar to “Windows Update” or the MacOSX Update utilities. At the time I tried the utility, there were no available downloads to be done, so I do not know of its capabilities. I hope that it can replace a stock kernel (Lycoris comes with 2.4.12) with a newer one without needing any extra configuration from the user, or to be able to update libraries.
What is a desktop system without games, right? There are about 6-7 2D games installed by default with Lycoris. These are some of the “brain” or board games that come by default with KDE. But there was time to test the OpenGL 3D implementation. I (naturally) downloaded some RPMs of some well known OpenGL open source games. Again, I had dependancy problems mostly with SDL_* (no SDL libraries installed whatsoever) or specific versions of libqt.so or other things like OpenAL etc. While downloading all the dependancies was this time more feasible than try to install C++ applications, I did not spend my whole afternoon with it hunting down these dependancies. A desktop user, the kind of user who expects things to just work, would not have done so either.
After some searching on the Lycoris.org forum site, I saw mentions of a “GamePack” CD offered by Lycoris. Installing this pack, quite possibly would fix some of the issues I mentioned above (nVidia users are still advised to upgrade their drivers, I hear), however I did not find any place where I can download it (it could not be found on the download or update utility, so, quite possibly is part of the third Lycoris CD). If this gamepack comes indeed with the £40 package (called “Desktop/LX Deluxe”), I suggest that consumers go for the £40 Lycoris product and forget altogether the problematic £30 Desktop/LX one.
A good point of the distro is the inclusion of a WINE release. While I could only run correctly simple applications like notepad.exe and the Windows calculator, it is a nice addition. All the .exe programs are marked with the WINE icon and if you doubleclick them, WINE will try to load them.
One thing that I found unprofessional is the inclusion of the Redmond Linux logos and mentions of it everywhere in the distro. The version I was sent was not updated with the new logos and name (while the actual CD media and DVD cover had been updated). I hope the new version has this issue addressed, mostly because I love the flowery new logo better than the old one and because I like consistency in general. And speaking about consistency in a desktop environment, I would also welcome the addition of a GTK+ theme that looks identical to the main Qt/KDE theme, so at least Gnome and KDE applications would look the same. This will allow apps like Gnumeric or Abiword or even Evolution to look “Lycoris native”.
The CD has almost 150 MB of free space. I believe that there are some utilities or applications missing, like a Font Installer (desktop users mostly browse the web, therefore having the standardised Web Fonts is a must – Update:There is a font installer under /rl/extra/RPMS/ directory on the CD), maybe a personal database program, maybe some nicely designed applications from TheKompany, or even the inclusion of Star Office as standard. Other users may prefer to fill this space with the nessesary developer tools (which can prove a life saver on a Unix environment) or the must-have libraries that are missing. In any case, I believe that Lycoris should offer more software to solve some of the problems discussed in this review, and there is quite some space left in the CD, so there is no excuse not to do so.
I started with a Greek saying and I will finish with another one: “The old sins of the parents, can still trouble the children.” What do I mean by this? Well, trying to make a desktop/clean/easy to use distribution out of the dependency and instability chaos of many of the graphic applications in today’s open source world, is not an easy feat. I would hate to give a negative review to Lycoris for bugs or design decisions that were not theirs, but on the other hand, they sell this desktop-oriented product to customers. The (very kind and helpful) Lycoris folks are on a noble and honest effort. Too bad that the all-around Linux development is not quite ready for the desktop. While Lycoris is a good effort, you still can’t “squeeze milk out of a bird“.
In order to understand that my above paragraph is not a kind of a harsh statement, you have to understand who the real competitors of Lycoris are. It is not Red Hat or even Mandrake or SuSE. It is not FreeBSD or Solaris. It may not even be Windows XP yet (10% of the market according to Google’s January stats). The real competitors for Lycoris is Windows98 (49% of the desktop market). This is the desktop that has the biggest market share today. So, Lycoris has to compete with it and create a product that it can be understood and administered by users who have only used some form of Windows. These users, all they know, is to download an executable, double click it, and follow the installation wizard. They have no clue about dependancies, compilations or even permissions. Lycoris has failed in this regard so far, while it got the point on other respects (targetted applications, no bloat, no ‘make’ riddles).
My advice for the problem sounds quite extreme, but I firmly believe that the right way to drive Linux to the desktop is to do what Apple did with BSD. For Lycoris, that would mean that they would only allow installation of applications from pre-built packages specially for Lycoris from a specific web location easily accessible from the KMenu (an action that can help ‘hide’ the dependancy problems), and also to somehow “fork” some applications. Example: Let’s say that XINE 0.9.x is unstable. Decide which version you want for Lycoris, debug it in your labs, and include it on your distro, knowing that you have hammered out most of the bugs. Now, even if XINE 1.0 is released by the original project members, do not include it in your next version of your distro if you do not make the same tests and debugging first as you did for version 0.9.x. In essense, become a meta-maintainer of the applications you want to support. While it will cost more at first to the company, it will pay off later, as it will require less support effort and it will help build a solid product and a good name in the industry. I would like to see the company take more active role on the overall development of all aspects of the product (e.g. tweaking KDE itself and free it from its unnecessary bloated desktop context menu), instead of just bundling lots of free software with nice XP-like icons.
I wish Lycoris good luck. They still have a long way to go, but I recognize and I would like to state that this is indeed by far the most user friendly Linux distro to date. Even if I sounded a bit harsh, my overall satisfaction of the product and the potential it has is shown on the rating below (however my job is to review the product, which means that I have to state any weakness I might find, along with mentioning its feature set). The folks at Lycoris are definitely on the right track though. There is no question about it, so try the product today, help it grow.
Hardware Support: 9/10
Ease of use: 7.5/10
Speed: 7.5/10 (UI responsiveness, latency, throughput)
Overall: 8.4 / 10