Reviews of Various Distributions on my Notebook: Foresight Linux 0.9.4-mr1

The recent thread on the general mailing list about which distribution to use prompted me to try a number of different distributions on my everyday notebook looking for something better than what I had (Debian Sarge).

To start off, let me tell you about my prejudices, my system specs, and my goals.

My goal for this exercise is to find a descent distribution which I would recommend to folks who want to try out Linux. Most of the people who have been coming to ALG with help on this matter of late have been trying to install and use Linux on a notebook. I've been thinking about changing distributions on my notebook anyway, so this was as good a reason as any.

Before starting this adventure, I was using Debian Sarge. It was good for a hacker like me, but it requires a lot of tweaking out of the box. Sarge is really designed for 2.4 series kernels, and my notebook really wants a 2.6 series kernel. Because of this, most of the "advanced" features like CPU frequency scaling, power management, and cardbus don't work as well as they should (or at all) due to incompatibilities between the kernel and the user space tools.

Being a hacker type, another of my goals is not too use the command line for common tasks. I know what iwconfig is and how to use it to configure the wireless network card, but most new users do not. Basically, the more I have to do at the command line, the worse the review. At this point, anything you need to do day in and day out should have a nice GUI.

Now, about my system. It's a Sony VAIO PCG-FXA36, it's over five years old and it's a workhorse. Internally it has a 1.1GHz Athlon 4 Mobile Processor (between the original Athlon and the Athlon XP series) on a VIA KM133 chipset. The chipset provides two IDE channels: one for the internal HDD and the other for the optical drive. The chipset also provides USB 1.1 host ports, and AC97 audio codec for sound and a modem and an AGP 1x/2x controller. The AGP port coonects to an ATI Rage Mobility M1 (Mach64 based) with 8MB of VRAM. There is also a Texas Instruments IEEE 1394 controller (Firewire/iLink), and a Texas Instruments CardBus controller with two ports. The AC97 Modem connects to a Conexiant WinModem, which I have no prayer of using in Linux and even gave up on in Windows. The onboard Ethernet controller is a RealTek 8139. The HDD is a Toshiba 60GB PATA drive, and the optical drive is a Pioneer DVR-K05 Slot Loading Dual-Layer DVD burner. The video card is connected to the notebook's 1024x768 14" LCD display, and a standard DB15 VGA connector on the back. The system is Dual Boot, with Windows XP Home on /dev/hda1, a VFAT disk called BETWEEN on /dev/hda5 for moving files between Linux and Windows, the Linux /boot partition on /dev/hda6 (usually ext2), Linux swap on /dev/hda7, the Linux Root partition on /dev/hda8 (usually XFS), and the Linux /home partition on /dev/hda9. I would not format the /home partition between installs to preserve my user data, however I did obliterate all home directories between installs so each user was given a clean slate for a home directory.

My wireless card is a D-Link DWL-G650 CardBus card, which is based on the Atheros chipset and supports 802.11b/g. I also have a Compact Flash PCMCIA adapter, and a USB 2.0 CardBus card for talking to my MP3 players at reasonable speeds.

On some personal notes: I have chosen a side on the KDE/GNOME holy war, and it's GNOME. My reasons are too long to post here, but I'll be happy to follow up in a comment if someone is interested :) Because of this, I'm not going to review any of the KDE only Distribution, or the KDE desktop on distributions that ship both.

I'm going to review the distributions in a bureau42 style: high point, low point, scores, and thoughts. The scores will be in eight categories, each rated from 0-8 "bits". Thus, the best distribution would be 64bits, and the worst would be 0bits. The categories are; Ease of Download, Ease of Install, Networking, Removable Media, Day to Day Operation, Application Support, Security, and Overall Experiece.

On to the reviews!

Foresight Linux 0.9.4-mr1
Foresight's claim to fame is that it has the latest and greatest version of GNOME installed. It's a new kid on the block, so I'm not expecting much.

High Point: Wow, the lastest GNOME with all the eye candy is very pretty.

Low Point: It's only GNOME. Abi Word and GNUmeric are nice, but where is Open Office? or GIMP?

Ease of Download: Getting the lastest version of Foresight was tricky. They used to host ISOs and torrents, but the latest release was only available from rPath, which was painfully slow. However, props for shipping not only CD ISOs, but a DVD ISO, a HDD image for Zen (or the like), and a VMWare Player image. 5 of 8 bits.
Ease of Install: This distribution is RPM based, thus it's installer is Anaconda. Normally Anacoda gets the job done, but this was a disaster. There were three dialog boxes that stand out in my mind: "Finding packages", "Computing Dependancies", and "Running post-install scripts" as each of these took no less than 15min to complete. Yuck. The partition manager also doesn't create mount points besides the defaults, so mounting my shared VFAT "BETWEEN" drive caused the installer to throw up an error and quit; but that was a bit of a hacker thing so no loss there. My only other grip was that their GRUB configuration labeled my Windows XP boot option as "DOS". DOS?!? This is 2006, at least call it Windows. 3 of 8 bits.
Networking: It ships with the normal RedHat based firewall, and detected my wired network card without issue. It was even nice enough to pop up a message when I plugged in the cable after logging in saying that the network was not available, and another when I pulled the cable saying the network was off-line. Slick. It also ships with Atheros and ndiswrapper drivers, which is HUGE. The downside is when you try to use wireless. It shows you a list of available networks, and which are encrypted, which knocked my socks off. However, binding to the wireless networks never worked right and when it did, /etc/resolv.conf was erased two minutes later making the network connection useless. 6 of 8 bits.
Removeable Media: Automounts, adds a desktop icon, and has cool applications for managing the contents (especically photos). 8 of 8 bits.
Day to Day Operation: Just about everything has a GUI. In fact, finding a terminal to debug the network problems was hard. This is where the Linux should be, more OS X and less Windows. My only complaint is adding software with the conary tool is non-intuitive at best and does require the command line. 7 of 8 bits.
Application Support: If it's not a GNOME component, then it doesn't ship. This includes GNOME, OpenOffice, etc. The other problem which made my time with Foresight short was that their build of Evolution was very broken: the INBOX never appeared on my IMAP account, and the On-Line/Off-Line buttons were reveresed. 3 of 8 bits.
Security: It's got a descent firewall, and used gtksudo so user's don't need to know the root password. 8 of 8 bits.
Overall Experience: It's got potential, and may be a great distribution in the next year or two. 4 of 8 bits.

Total: 44 of 64 bits.

Final Thoughts: An interesting first start, good for the experienced users looking for a whole lot of pretty. Not so good for their target audience of newbies. I'm going to watch this with interest.

Up Next: Fedora Core 5

Do you have a list of what distro's you are going to look at.

Just curious. I am a Linux user but defitely not a hacker. You mentioned that you were looking for relatively newbie friendly distros, I have been having great success with Ubuntu. There is a good amount of documentation out there, although I have not needed to use any of the mailing lists.

Anyways, I am new to Austin and I should be able to get out to a meeting here pretty soon.

-Stephen

More aspects

Hi,

I think you left out a very important aspect of a distro; the user based support. I’ve been a Red Hat zealot since version 7 ish but because with Fedora being pushed at “newbies” a lot of the support is pretty crappy. The IRC channels and forums that I’ve found that cater to Red Hat were really horrible in my opinion. If someone doesn’t feel like helping someone they should keep their mouth shut or in this case, hands off the keyboard.

Anyhow, sorry to go into a rant but I just thought there were a few other attributes to consider when choosing a distribution. I personally have been going with Gentoo for a while now. I like the distro and the support is phenomenal. Both the IRC channels and the forums are great and their extensive use of the wiki has made the transition from Fedora to Gentoo a breeze like when I wasn’t sure what the Gentoo equivalent of the rc.local was.

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