|An introduction to Zenwalk 1.2
by Claus Futtrup (Sep. 19, 2005)
Zenwalk 1.2, a successor to Minislack 1.1, was released on August 12th. It's the same distribution, but with a new name. The change reflects Minislack's desire to distance itself from its Slackware roots and make it appear to be a distribution of its own.
This article is a followup to my previous Minislack article published on DesktopLinux.com, which was essentially a case study about my experiences both as a Linux newbie and as a new user of Minislack. Although this article is more of a typical distribution review, the considerations described in my previous article are still valid.
A close look at the Zenwalk desktop.
(Click to enlarge)
What are the main objectives of Zenwalk?
In addition to these main objectives, I consider Zenwalk to be a secure and reliable distro. Hopefully, it'll make you feel good, too.
- Provide a sensible, efficient operating system for the end user -- everything in Zenwalk is designed for the user to do things in the simplest/fastest possible way, within a complete working environment that has a professional look and feel. For this reason, the Zenwalk ISO image provides just one application for each task, which decreases clutter in the system. I don't see any reason to change this philosophy, since users can always substitute one application for another. A great selection of optional software exists at the Zenwalk repository, readily available to download and install.
- Be a complete desktop and development environment -- the target user group includes professional and semi-professional users. Zenwalk has also proven to be a reasonably good starter package, as described in my previous article on this site.
- Be compact -- the ISO is currently just 400 MB in size. However, there is no firm reason for it to stay at 400 MB. The ISO may grow or be reduced in the future. It all depends on what is currently possible.
Furthermore, Zenwalk is entirely free and open source software (FOSS) -- it includes nothing that requires licensing.
Slackplanet.org is the parent organization of ZenWalk Linux.
(Click to enlarge)
Changes to my system since previous article
What personal changes have I made since my previous DesktopLinux.com article? I needed more disk space. The 1.5 GB machine I started out with is fine for testing the distro, but there is not much room for big packages like OpenOffice (about 270 MB + 101 MB tgz file), since the Zenwalk ISO puts about 1.1 GB on the drive itself.
I'm now running Zenwalk on a 2.3 GB hard drive that has around 20 percent free space. I'm comfortable with that. My recommendation is that if you want to use Zenwalk for everyday use, keep open at least 2.5 GB (including swap space), and 3 GB is even better. I have my swap (400 MB) located on a second hard drive. If you need a lot of space for user data (movies, CDs, DVDs, etc.), then be sure to add that to your computation of required hard drive space.
I implemented these changes using Qtparted, which obviously requires the Qt library.
Zenwalk is great for coding, multimedia, and everyday desktop usage. I mainly use the browser (Firefox), the graphics applications (GIMP, and now also Inkscape, which is currently available for download with netpkg), and the word processor and spreadsheet that come with OpenOffice (which I added, using netpkg).
In addition to these, Zenwalk includes applications for:
Based on all these applications, it's clear that Zenwalk is a very complete desktop operating system.
- Chatting (gaim)
- Listening to music and watching videos in various formats (Gxine)
- Programming tools (compilers for C, Perl, Python, and Ruby; full set of libraries and interpreters; Bluefish editor). Scanning (with Sane, Xsane). Burning CD's and DVD's (Gnomebaker)
- Connecting your digital camera and editing your photographs (all done with GIMP)
- Email client (Thunderbird -- reviewed later in this article)
You can select your application packages through the netpkg link on the Zenwalk website
(Click to enlarge)
New features in Zenwalk 1.2
New features in Zenwalk 1.2 are the hardware Discover service for extended hardware support, Gnome cups manager for easy printer setup, and Gnome System Tools which provide a more user-friendly way to setup network, users, and time.
The Discover service is one of the features that makes little Zenwalk big and strong. Discover's role is to answer questions like: "What Linux kernel module do I need to load for this device to work?" In other words, it doesn't read your hardware, but rather helps configure your system as a whole. Only a few of the most popular distros have this feature. Zenwalk is the first -- and only -- Slackware-based distro to bundle Discover.
Another strong feature, also included in the previous release (Minislack 1.1), is support for the Reiser4 file system. When I tested Zenwalk (i.e. Minislack 1.1) on a 1.5 GB disk, I fiddled around and among other things ran out of disk space when installing additional KDE packages. The Reiser4 file system seems rock-solid to me. Reiser4 is currently the most advanced file system available to any OS on PCs.
A number of packages have been updated since the last ISO release -- more than 100. As a result, if you download and install Zenwalk, be sure to go online and run "netpkg upgrade-all" as one of your first actions. That will update Zenwalk to the latest version.
Incidentally, if you're already running Minislack, upgrading with netpkg will get you all the new Zenwalk packages, and your system will be converted. Structural changes (packages removed from the system) will not be removed this way, however, so if you want a fresh start (as I did), you need to download the ISO and perform a fresh install.
Other Zenwalk impressions and observations
I decided to install KDE on my system, which also requires the Qt library. The KDE packages included with Zenwalk are nice ones. You'll need to obtain the packages from the repository -- fetch them with netpkg. They contain the basics only -- for example, Konqueror is included, but not Koffice. The maintainer has done a really great job!
Although the netpkg utility is a great package installation tool, the online package search engine is also worth mentioning. It is a relatively simple string search facility, which, like netpkg, can search for the latest releases. It searches the slackplanet.org webserver for user-contributed packages. One restriction, however, is that you need to know the exact name of the package to find it.
One thing is important to realize: The package versions found on the ISO are considered "stable." On the other hand, the packages on the repository, which you can fetch with netpkg, are "current" releases -- or, more accurately, they are release-candidates for the next version of the Zenwalk ISO. This implies that they are not fully tested, and that you may encounter problems when upgrading. This is a change from early netpkg usage. Consequently, netpkg has evolved into somewhat of a beta-tester tool. I therefore recommend that you you check the changelog prior to upgrading to the latest packages with netpkg. Perhaps the future will bring a "stable" and "testing" netpkg option, allowing users to choose between two different repositories.
I recently changed my setup from utilizing Loadlin to LILO (see "How to Boot Zenwalk with Loadlin -- for Newbies"). Using LILO is more Linux-like, and you don't get that MS-Windows screen on every startup. I was comfortable with Loadlin, but I am not sure whether Loadlin will work for newer systems (XP and up).
All my concerns regarding LILO were unnecessary. I ran the "liloconfig" script that comes with the Zenwalk installation script and chose to put LILO in the MBR of my hard drive with Windows 98 on the first partition (hda1). No problems or glitches at all.
Though I'm not much of a programmer, I have been told that Zenwalk is ideal as a coding environment. When something doesn't compile on most popular distros, you can be quite sure that you will succeed on Zenwalk, because it's a "pure" Linux system using standard libs, install locations, and tools. This is something that Zenwalk has inherited from Slackware. Of course, this assumes that the package in itself is not broken.
Migrating to Thunderbird
The most important change for me was switching to the Thunderbird email client from Windows 98. I hate Windows 98 -- I have no other word for it. I had been thinking about trying Thunderbird for a long time. Other Zenwalkers gave me an appreciable push.
My tactics were as follows:
- The first step was to install Thunderbird under Windows 98, and import everything from Outlook Express. In my case, 3,306 emails (none of them to be deleted) and an large (more like enormous) address book all made it without a glitch. The import process took roughly five to ten minutes, but it was worth the wait. I had to redo the email-filters, though; the email groups defined were shown in the Thunderbird address book, but the definitions were empty and had to be reconfigured. Then, I ran Thunderbird for about a week under Windows 98.
- The second step was to export the Thunderbird files (anything important) to the Linux distro. To do this, I had to locate the user profile directories in Windows -- on Windows 98, this would be: c:\Windows\Application Data\Thunderbird\whatever-here -- and copy the information from the Windows Thunderbird profile directory to the Linux profile directory (about 80 MB), which was here: /home/claus/.thunderbird/whatever-here
The file "profiles.ini" from the Windows 98 profile had to be modified to reflect the newly modified structure. This did not preserve the Message Filters, however. I'll have to reconfigure these again, but the Address book (abook.mab) and the mail located in the Local Folders was preserved. I also had to configure Thunderbird on Linux with the POP3 server and SMTP server information, to enable it to upload and download mail.
The idea was to copy files back and forth, so that it really wouldn't matter whether I was using Windows 98 or Zenwalk Linux. This is probably possible, but I stopped fiddling with it as soon as it worked in Linux. Copying some 80 MB of data back and forth sounds slow and dangerous to me. In any case, I have now deleted Outlook Express from my system.
The most noticeable disadvantage of Thunderbird is that it is not a "light" application. On my PII 400 MHz machine it truly takes its time to load, and when it runs you can see that the system has to "think" for a while. For example, each time I change folders -- I first get a picture of the content unsorted and then it is sorted afterwards (the folder window is visibly changing). People at the Thunderbird forum advised me to "compact" my folders, which helped.
I had to reconfigure Thunderbird to make it work in a pleasant way; but at least it can be configured. I keep discovering new features -- it looks great to me. The most important advice I can give is to refer to a page on Mozilla.org regarding customizing Mozilla's user interface, since not everything can be configured via menus and buttons.
One complaint I had, was the way Thunderbird pops up the "sending mail" infobox in the foreground when it is sending an email. It disrupts my next steps, and I tend to wait for the sendmail procedure to finish. Why is it in the foreground? You can't press "cancel" or perform any other actions with it, anyway. The solution for this was to follow a "recipe" on this Thunderbird tip page. I had to modify the "user.js file" (create it in the "profile" folder, if it doesn't already exist).
I had an incident in which one email was marked in the selector window, and another email was shown in the message window. Thunderbird seemingly didn't fully understanding what I was doing; opening the email in a separate mail window helped. Apparently, Thunderbird likes newer PCs than my 6-year-old -- almost antique -- PC. Another problem I have found, is that when I click the delete button 3 to 6 times quickly to delete emails, Thunderbird tends to get confused. The bar disappears, and the mails do not get deleted. It is as though Thunderbird goes into shock mode.
I like the way you can configure each Thunderbird folder to display messages for only the last five days.
When writing (or replying to) an email, I like to decide whether my email will be sent as plain text or as HTML. Normally I prefer plain text. Here's how to do that with Thunderbird: preconfigure to whichever format you normally prefer -- in my case plain text -- and when you need the alternate format, press Shift (on your keyboard) while clicking either the Write or Reply button. This will "shift" Thunderbird to the opposite of your normal choice. For example, when I send email to my father-in-law, who is legally blind, I must use large print, such as font size 36, so he can read it. In this case, if I use Shift + Reply (or Write) to send my message in HTML format, I gain access to many HTML formatting tools, such as boldface, italics, underline, list options, and various text sizes.
As you can imagine, until I found the tips -- which I have chosen to pass on in this article -- I was on the edge of desperation and quite irritated with this application. I asked in a user forum, and the help I received was complete and professional.
At this point, I will definitely give Thunderbird some time before I attempt to switch to another email client.
Kudos to the Zenwalk Team
Evaluating a Linux distribution takes more than simply reviewing the software packages. It also involves gaining an understanding of the deeper qualities of the folks who ensure the quality of a distro.
The Zenwalk team consists of a group of nine people, who are listed here, plus a handful of testers (including myself).
The captain of Zenwalk is "JP." He understands the operation of an open source project like Zenwalk, and he has the knowledge to maintain a quality distribution. He is always in good spirits, and understands how to encourage people to help with the Zenwalk project.
The maintainer of the website and KDE package, Andreas Schipplock, is obviously a highly qualified person. There are always things to do to improve the looks of the website, and he carries this load with a high quality touch.
I have noticed that Sebastian Jauch seems to know an enormous amount of detail regarding all kinds of Linux issues. I believe it is appropriate to classify him as a Linux guru, as he is described on the "Contacts" page.
Fred Broders should also be mentioned here. Besides handling application packages, he takes care of visual appearances with great graphics, which follow the overall blue color theme of Zenwalk, giving it a personal touch. Check it out here.
I should name all the members of the core team, but will stop here. Suffice it to say, all team members seem dedicated to their tasks, and the group as a whole has vast knowledge about Linux.
Given Zenwalk's goal to be a "small, fast" distro, I don't think Thunderbird -- which is a bit clunky -- fits so well. However, Thunderbird does fit mainstream distro expectations. Perhaps the inclusion of Thunderbird is an indication that Zenwalk is not the best distro to run on old hardware.
However, Zenwalk is also about completeness. It includes good email-clients and news-readers, a complete Firefox browser, and a full set of programming tools. And, all these core user-programs and tools are not limited versions -- they are complete.
Why do I continue to use Zenwalk? Because there is simply nothing else that beats it -- for me, that is. It has a small footprint, all the applications I need, easy maintenance and upgrades -- and with the "netpkg" feature, I can keep Zenwalk up to the "Zen level" at all times.
The Zenwalk forum is more active than ever, features are improved all the time, and the number of registered users of the forum keeps climbing. Zenwalk is now higher on the DistroWatch "Hits Per Day" statistics than just a few months ago. It is easy for me to understand why the popularity is increasing.
Zenwalk is about a special touch (a perfectionist touch, I would say) to a mini-distro, not microscopic and amputated, but miniature and completely useful -- and actually, surprisingly powerful. It is not possible for me to put a finger on just one or a few sides that makes this package what it is. It is simply the combination found in the whole package, and it has taken a while for me to realize this. A two hour "test-drive" will show you the looks of the system, but it takes quite a bit longer to realize the power and elegance of the entire package.
I am still taking "baby steps" in this area, but even as I continue to keep my eyes open for other distributions, I feel confident in saying that, at the moment, Zenwalk hits the nail on the head -- it is a perfect match to my needs! I hope you will try Zenwalk to see if it matches your requirements, too. Be sure to give it at least a couple of weeks to settle.
Learn more about Zenwalk, and download it, at Zenwalk.org.
Also of interest, are:
- Official Zenwalk screenshots
- User Zenwalk screenshots
- "Zenwalk user-contributed documentation"
Do you have comments or questions on this article? Let us know what you think in the talkback thread for this article:
Join the discussion
About the Author
Claus Futtrup has been working for Dynaudio, the loudspeaker manufacturer, since 1997 in the Research and Development department. He has a Masters Degree in mechanical engineering, specialized in material science (rubber, polymers in general, ceramics, metals -- "you name it"). He has worked with various computer networks over the years, but is primarily interested in using the computer and its applications for productive tasks. Coding software is a spare time hobby, programming (free) software for the loudspeaker hobbyist and industry.
(Click here for further information)