Review: FreeSBIE 1.1 – Free System Burned In Economy

Version 1.1 of FreeSBIE, a FreeBSD Live CD, was released last week, and here’s a first look. Update: Screenshots via
I’ve never even thought about writing a review of an OS before but I felt pretty compelled to do so after trying the FreeSBIE 1.1 Live CD. I’ve just started using live-cd based distros after reading so much about Knoppix 3.6 and finally trying it. I was amazed at its performance and wealth of applications available for development, networking, security, etc. I began to wonder if the same could be said of a FreeBSD-based live cd. After a little googling, I came across FreeSBIE 1.1 and downloaded the iso. You can download the iso via Bittorrent here.

My test system is not the fastest by any means, but it has served me well for over 4 years. It’s a system I built with the following components:

  • 1.2 GHz Athlon Thunderbird
  • FIC AZ11EA Motherboard VIA Chipset
  • 384 MB PC133 SDRAM
  • Realtec NIC
  • GeForce2 MX400 Video Card 64MB
  • Soundblaster Live! 5.1 (EMU10K1)
  • PS2 Keyboard and Mouse

My Background

My *NIX background is essentially Solaris and HP-UX for my job as an engineer at a phone company, but at home, I’m a pretty devoted Slackware user. Other distributions that I’ve tried include Xandros 2.0, Debian, SuSe 7.3 and of course many versions of Slackware. If I can get my hands on some spare hardware, I will install a new distribution on it just to satisfy my curiosity for tinkering and fixing things. The last PC I saved from an early grave is running Fedora Core 2, and I think that distribution may be replaced by FreeSBIE. As for any of the *BSDs, I’ve only tried FreeBSD 4.4, of which I own a boxed set that has been installed on a couple of systems at home and at my job. Unfortunately, I never get the chance to tinker with BSD as much as I’d like. That said, I don’t claim to be a *NIX guru but more of a power user.

The Installation

Since this is a live CD distro, partitioning your drive(s) and traditional install routines are not an issue. All that is needed is to set your BIOS to boot from CDROM. Once that was done, I rebooted the machine and waited for the FreeSBIE CD to take over and I was pleasantly surprised with a nice splash screen from “The Brothers BSD”. Unfortunately I had issues grabbing screenshots, so I must direct you to the FreeSBIE screenshot gallery to see the eye candy. I’ll touch on that issue later in the review. The installation procedure only involves a couple of clicks to choose keyboard language, layout etc, so you should be OK accepting any defaults chosen by the installer. The installer appearance did not differ from what I’m used to due to the many Slackware installs I’ve done in the past. The ncurses-based installation program looks a lot like a stock FreeBSD installation , only with a lot fewer questions/prompts to go through. The FreeSBIE installer is written and maintained by another off-shoot of FreeBSD called DragonFlyBSD.
After selecting the keyboard layout and keyboard type I was asked to pick my default desktop environment. The choices are tcsh (non-graphical), Fluxbox or XFCE 4.2. There is a fourth option listed if you want to install the distro to your hard drive. That’s the option I’ll be using to install FreeSBIE on my spare box. For this review I’ll only discuss my experience using Fluxbox. I’ve used Fluxbox on Linux in the past and cannot say enough about its efficient use of resources on my system. Using Fluxbox in a FreeBSD-based distribution did not disappoint either. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw Fluxbox listed as a “light environment” and XFCE4.2RC1 listed as a “heavy environment”. Anyone who’s used KDE or Gnome on a machine with older hardware will understand what I mean. This was the first time I’ve used Fluxbox on any BSD and I found everything very logically layed out. All of my hardware was detected and everything worked without any “tweaking” on my part.

First Impressions

System performance was phenomenal and the environment was customized by the FreeSBIE team to provide easy access to my most used applications such as Thunderbird, Firefox, Gaim and XChat. This was the most customized version of Fluxbox that I’ve ever seen including the drop down menus. Each sub-menu included a large choice of apps, rather than just including the most capable app in each category (which I find problematic, because only having what’s capable can be very subjective). The submenus are loaded with GUI and console-based apps to give you a very functional desktop/workstation right out of the box. You can check out the screenshots page to see some of the applications open on the desktop (and also the screenshot of XFCE4.2 in action). I would be hard-pressed to say that this distro didn’t have anything I would need to get my computing chores done the way I do now using Slackware. It should also be noted that once this distro is installed to your hard drive, it can be upgraded to a complete FreeBSD 5.3-STABLE installation using cvsup. That is a huge benefit for those people thinking of checking out FreeBSD but might be intimidated by a regular FreeBSD install and manually configuring everything to get the level of customization achieved in FreeSBIE. Once you have configured your settings for desktop/hardware that are specific to your system, you can save any settings so they can be loaded at your next boot. Scripts are provided for this purpose as described in the manual. (Sidenote: I strongly suggest printing out a copy of the manual before installing FreeSBIE so you are completely aware of the scripts available to you for loading/saving settings, mounting drives/usb devices etc. Overall, I would have no problem recommending this CD to someone who wants to explore a FreeBSD desktop. Some problems I had are going to require some more investigation to make sure that they’re not errors on my part.

Some Issues

I had two problems using this distro but I was able to resolve one of them (partially) without too much trouble. I was not able to get my printer (HP DeskJet 3820 – connected via parallel cable) working under CUPS, the default printing environment on FreeSBIE. I was able to start the CUPS service on the console as indicated in the manual and navigate to the CUPS administration WUI using FireFox (http://localhost:631). I was prompted for root login and password but I didn’t remember entering a root password at any point during the install. Most Live CD distros run “root” without a password or the password being the same as the login. I opened a terminal and used the ®passwd® command to set a password for “root” so I could add my printer. I only mention this because I didn’t see it mentioned anywhere on the FreeSBIE website or in their docs. It appears that there was no driver for the HP 3800 series printer I had connected to my machine. That also is going to require further investigation to see if there is another driver listed that will work for my 3820 printer.
The second issue I had was getting my Linux partition and Win98SE partitions mounted read/write so I could save some screenshots to my hard drive. FreeSBIE provides a script (/scripts/ under /scripts so you can remount partitions read/write. All partitions are mounted read-only by default. No matter what I tried I could not get my partitions mounted read/write. This issue also happened with my 128MB Flash drive. I could see everything mounted read-only when I issued the “mount” command:

  • /dev/ad0s1 on /mnt/dos.1 (msdosfs, local, read-only)
  • /dev/ads03 on /mnt/ext2fs.1 (ext2fs, local, read-only)
  • /dev/da0s1 on /mnt/dos.2 (msdosfs, local, read-only)

As a result, I could not save any screenshots or documents I created to the hard drive. I was able to write this review on FreeSBIE using vim and emailing the file to myself. When executing the script for mounting disks read/write (®/scripts/ rw®), I didn’t see any output that would indicate that there was problem, so I could not understand why this wasn’t working. I tried to work around this by using the script to save my settings (®/scripts/®), which will save any changes you made to a hard drive partition. This script also gave no indication that there was a problem writing to the hard drive. I saved my changes to my Linux partition which is ext3 for my root filesystem. Still, when I issued the ®mount® command mentioned above, all partitions were listed as read-only. It appears that something was written to my Linux partition because a subsequent boot uncovered a “bad/duplicate inode” under fsck. It’s not really a big deal because a manual run of “fsck” on the filesystem corrected the problem automagically and placed the offending data under /lost+found. I’m currently researching how to deal with the contents of the three files under /lost+found.


Aside from the two issues I mentioned earlier, I have grown very fond of this distribution in the short amount of time that I’ve used it and I look forward to version 1.2! Performance of this distro was excellent although not as quick as the other live CD (Knoppix) I’ve used in the past (Note: I know this may not be a fair comparison as Knoppix has been around a little longer from what I can tell). There were a few seconds of lag time when I clicked on icons to open apps and when they finally opened. I wasn’t sure if my mouse clicks were having any effect. I’ll have to check the Fluxbox settings menu to see if it can be corrected. Other than that, I am very pleased with my first experience using a FreeBSD-based Live-CD. I want to apologize in advance if the issues I encountered above are just ultimately proven to be pilot error on my part. I will keep recommending this distribution to others and I may even make it a stocking stuffer for some people on my Christmas list.

About Myself

I’m a Switch Maintenance Engineer for a cable monopoly in NY and have been using GNU/Linux since 1996. My first experience with FLOSS software was with the publisher’s edition (Learning Red Hat Linux by O’Reilly) of Red Hat 6.0. I have a wonderful wife and two children that occupy most of my time nowadays. Feel free to contact me at this address.


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