BSD Revisited: PC-BSD 1.4 RC
Eric’s response to my PCLinuxOS review was enough encouragement to take another step in getting reacquainted with BSD. The following remark promised me a whole new BSD experience:
So far this *BSD distro has done an unbelievable job in delivering a product that both the newbie and casual computer users can immediately use. It needs to come bundled with a Ports Manager but it works very well for many in the Windows2Linux/BSD crowd. (to the author of this article? if you review this distro – pay attention to what happens when you drag a file, right-click on files, menu organization – ie, normal PC operations).
PC-BSD is based on FreeBSD 6.2 but promises a more enduser-friendly experience. It was bought by iXsystems in October 2006. If you want to know more about the how and why of this acquisition I can encourage to read the interview of Dru Lavigne with Kris Moore and Matt Olander about it. One of the key selling points is the PBI system, that should make it easier for Windows and Mac users to install new software, not a small hurdle for many novice users to Linux or *BSD.
The PBI system
What is the PBI system? FreeBSD has it’s own ports and packages system to install, manage and remove software, but it takes some getting used to. Linux users will find a similar system in Gentoo and it’s derivatives. PBI’s are self-extracting and self-installing packages that install the software you want. They contain all the dependencies that are needed to run the program and in this way they reduce some serious headaches.
We have similar initiatives in the realm of Linux. There is Klik, Autopackage and the soon to be CNR warehouse. The PBI website is the place to be to download your package. There are various categories and a limited range of software. But, it’s a good start. I do hope it will fare better than Klik and Autopackage, which remained fringe tools at best.
First things first: Installing PC-BSD
I downloaded the 1.4 RC iso files from the website. This is a test candidate, so it could be that some of the problems I encountered resulted from it. The first problem I ran into is that it wouldn’t install on a spare 15 Gb harddrive I had lying around. I used it to install Ubuntu Ultimate Gamer 1.4 recently, but the installer wouldn’t format the drive and/or create a new filesystem. No problem, VMware is always close by and a fresh install on a newly created virtual box went without a glitch. This in itself is a great achievement, since I had my share of problems of trying that with FreeBSD 5.x.
While installing PC-BSD you won’t have to rely on a text-based wizard, but you will see a very nice graphical frontend.
FreeBSD is working on achieving the same and only recently came up with a technology preview. Sorry guys, but PC-BSD is way ahead of you here. First you select the proper language and keyboard layout, then you agree with the license. In the third step you choose whether to go for a fresh install or an upgrade. Step number four involves setting up the root and first user accounts. The fifth step is usually the most challenging: setting up the partitions (and slices under FreeBSD). The text-based mode under FreeBSD has the ‘automatic’ option and that saves you the trouble of trying to find out what to do. PC-BSD simplified this even further.
I didn’t go for a dual-boot install, so I can’t comment on how easy or difficult this is. I can imagine however that the designations of drives and partitions, which are way different than under Windows and/or Linux, would provide a hurdle. But, it’s something you have to learn anyway when trying out *BSD and not complicated once you get the hang of it.
In step number six you can select some optional components like Firefox, extra KDE packages and the FreeBSD ports package. From then on it is go. It took me about 45 minutes to reboot into the new system. This is slow compared to for instance Ubuntu, but not extremely slow.
Rebooting into PC-BSD is a pleasure in itself. The desktop has a solid and business-like impression. Yes, it’s completely graphical from the beginning, so no commandline to begin with. It’s completely KDE and it is one of less cluttered setups of the KDE desktop. There is a Konquerer shortcut to the PBI website, but there is enough to get started with. Amarok for your music experience, K3b to burn some disks, KOffice and OpenOffice.org as your workspace. Konquerer and Firefox to surf the net etc. etc. The packages are not bleeding edge (2.1 for OpenOffice.org for instance), but sufficiently up to date.
Going for the new stuff: experiencing PBI
The second order of business was to try out the new PBI system. I went to the website and got some packages I wanted. For one, I always want Abiword on my systems. It’s a small, lean and fast wordprocessor and by having it on all my boxes I won’t have to worry about document portability. I also wanted Thunderbird, Wine, GIMP and Acrobat Reader. There is one drawback to the PBI system: it makes for rather large packages. The PBI for Thunderbird is 38 MiB, while the Linux package is 11 Mb. Abiword needs 12,1 MiB, against 5 Mb for the Windows version and 3.6 Mb for the Autopackage version.
Once you finished downloading the PBI package it extracts automatically and gives you a graphical wizard with some basic questions. The packages then have their own place in the menutree. For now it is too bad that the location of the new software in the menutree is not consistent. Abiword and GIMP could be found under a new entry for PBI packages, Wine had it’s own entry and Acrobat Reader found it’s way in the Office section. But… Abiword and GIMP wouldn’t start up. I guess there are still unsolved dependencies, but since there are no warnings or error messages it is hard to tell.
The next step is to use PC-BSD for a while and see whether it indeed makes for a more Windows-like experience. Which is what I will do in the coming weeks. As far as first impressions go, this one was good. When you use FreeBSD (or the other BSD’s) as point of reference, PC-BSD is an enormous step forward in terms of ease of install and software management. Personally I would not like to see an increase in PBI packages, but to see the development of an easy to use graphical front-end for the ports system. It can be done. Gentoo did for portage and Ports Authority did it for the Mac OSX. In my opinion that will unlock the more than 13.000 packages in the ports system for casual users in a better way than the PBI system ever can.
Update: I decided to give PC-BSD a real try as the default desktop at home. Feel free to follow along in PC-BSD: the first 30 days.