Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Slackware 12.1 First Impressions

Late last week I downloaded and installed Slackware 12.1 on my aging (OK, old) Toshiba laptop side by side with Vector Linux Light. I'll post a full review to my O'Reilly Linux Dev Center blog once I've had more opportunity to use the latest version of Slack.

My first impression: Slackware is still Slackware. The installer assumes you know what you are doing (think Expert install if you're an Ubuntu user) and that you want the ability to control every aspect of the installation. A newcomer to Linux would be utterly, totally lost. I've actually done two installations: a fully functional one with an Xfce desktop and all the dev tools that currently occupies about 2.7GB of disk space, and a truly minimal but usable installation with a minimalist window manager (PekWM) and a handful of apps and tools. That takes up only 600MB of disk space. Slackware always was flexible and that hasn't changed.

You can tell you're dealing with a distro for serious Linux geeks when booting into the GUI isn't even offered as an option by the installer. Heck, the installer doesn't even deal with X configuration. You start at the command line. GUI system administration tools? You can get them from third parties but Slackware itself is devoid of such things. Edit your config files or use command line tools.

Is this a bad thing? If you know what you're doing and don't mind taking some time to get your configuration right and your favorite apps from various third party sources it really isn't. OK, it's time consuming but the end result is a fast, rock solid system. That's what Slackware is known for. It remains seriously user unfriendly, hence all the derivative distributions like Zenwalk, Vector Linux, Wolvix, etc... that try and fix that. They all succeed to a large degree, giving users a friendly environment with all of the speed and stability.

Most of the usual third party packages sources like LinuxPackages.net and Slacky.eu don't have a full selection of apps built for 12.1 yet but that is rapidly changing. The project I'm working on is going to force me to do a lot of compiling from source in any case.

Could I live with Slackware as my main distro? Yes, easily. Would I recommend it? Only to those who know what they are getting into.

In a way I've come full circle. In late 1995 I was introduced to Linux by a coworker. When I asked which distribution to choose she suggested two: Red Hat Linux and Slackware. I chose Red Hat because she said it was easier to learn. It's also what she ran on her workstation in the office. Slackware was the second distro I looked at all those years ago.

What's changed since then? First off, I was very skeptical about Linux at the time and probably for about three or four years after that. I didn't think it would ever be a serious OS or that it was anywhere near ready for prime time. That sounds silly now but 13 years ago the state of Linux was still pretty primitive. Second, I don't think any of us would have dreamed of downloading a 3.8GB DVD iso image in an hour and a half and burning it ourselves. Thankfully time and technology really do march on.

What hasn't changed? In a fundamental way Slackware is the same as it ever was. It isn't any easier to get going now than it was all those years ago. You really do have to either know how Linux works under the hood or else you have to be willing to learn.

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ewlabonte said...

There's another source for slackware 12.1 packages. Slackbuilds.org. If you've installed all the development apps (if you've done the full installation, they are there). This site (http://www.slackbuilds.org/) allows you to download a build script which you run with the source code of the package and it creates a slack package for you. It's a great resource.

joe f. said...

I came to the same conclusion about Slackware 12.1 you did, but for me discovering that Slackware was still Slackware gave me a nice warm feeling. I've only booted into my Arch installation once since (I distro hop quite a bit on a second partition), to change the boot order in GRUB. Next time I fire up my laptop it will probably be to replace AntiX (itself an excellent distribution) with Slackware.

However, while I agree with virtually everything you said, I'd add "unprepared" in front of "new user." Slackware (8.1?) was my very first Linux distro. I had read about Linux here and there, then spent a couple of hours researching Slackware specifically then printed out a tips & tricks page. The only thing that took more than one try was getting the mouse to work. And I was coming from Mac OS X, so even some of the usual PC-equivalent help didn't make a ton of sense to me.

So a completely unprepared user would have trouble, but anybody who does a bit of research -- and especially anyone who has access to Google during the install -- shouldn't run into too much trouble. That's because the other phrase I'd disagree with is "unfriendly." I don't think Slackware is unfriendly at all. In fact, I'd say it does you the courtesy of giving you just what you need without saddling you with more, while also making no assumptions about what you ought to do to or with your computer. The problem is, people have gotten used to thinking that the companies should make getting the OS on the computer transparent to them, but at the same time they're used to the companies telling them what they can do to and with their own property. So I would say Slackware is friendlier to the user (and even to projects such as KDE) than just about anybody. I realize I'm fighting a losing battle on this, but as somebody who lived through the No Themes For You! era on a Mac -- to say nothing of trying to get Vista to behave -- calling Slackware unfriendly sounds a bit crazy.

Caitlyn Martin said...

@ewlabonte: I know about Slackbuilds.org and Crux Ports for Slack and I agree that they are wonderful tools to simplify and standardize package building. The advances user who is comfortable with scripting and compilation will love both. It's still daunting for the newcomer to Linux or for anyone uncomfortable with the command line.

@joseph: Your success with Slackware 8.1 as a first distro says a lot about you and your intelligence and capabilities more than it says something about Slackware. The average non-technical user who is used to living entirely in the GUI will find Slackware extremely difficult at best. Yes, you can Google search and find out all about how hard drive partitioning works or what goes into an xorg.conf file. Most users wouldn't understand much of what they found. Again, the fact that you are brighter and more computer literate than most doesn't change the fact that most people would find the lack of GUI tools and the need to get under the hood more than a bit daunting. Most people wouldn't call a distro with command line only package management and no dependency checking "friendly". To have to go to third party sources for something that basic that's provided in every other major distro doesn't garner "friendly" points.

Slackware is a wonderful distro, probably one of the best, for an advanced user, a systems administrator, a Linux developer. For the typical user it would be utterly bewildering, even users with a moderate amount of experience with Linux. You are anything but a typical user.